SCREENWASH CINEMA REVIEWS OF: FENCES, MOONLIGHT & SPLIT
Denzel Washington’s honest, down-to-earth and heart-cracking drama is a formidable character piece and acting tour-de-force. Adapted from August Wilson’s prize-winning play, the narrative bristles with authentic working class lives of 1950s Pittsburgh, and is littered with some wonderful stories and dialogue. At the heart of the drama are Denzel Washington’s complex character Troy Maxson and his long-suffering wife, Rose; portrayed with significant humility and pathos by Viola Davis. Great support comes also from Mykelti Williamson as Troy’s mentally impaired brother, Gabriel.
Troy’s character is very charismatic and he delivers some hearty yarns from his past, but he’s also bitter and a drinker and, while he has had a hard life, he bullies everyone around him. His sons and more importantly his wife Rose put up with it but eventually he grinds everyone down, pushing them away with his boorish “I-know-best” arrogance and aggression. With her quiet power Viola Davis more than matches Denzel Washington’s grandstanding and Rose’s heartfelt speech toward the end of the film is a stunning retort to her husband’s continual tirades and emotional neglect.
I’ve seen some criticisms of the film stating it is too “stagey”. Well, as it is based on a play that is understandable, yet, August Wilson’s words are a thing of beauty and therefore deserve focus. I think, while directing, Denzel Washington could quite easily have opened up the settings and had conversations on the street, but the decision was made to “fence” in the characters to create a sense of claustrophobia and intensity. By keeping the players mainly in the yard and the house we feel as trapped as they are by society, social status and their life decisions. It’s an intimate film about proper characters and real lives and overall the performances alone make the film feel cinematic. (Mark: 9 out of 11)
Barry Jenkins low-budget contemporary drama is another brilliantly acted character memoir; although when compared to Fences it benefits from a more complex structure and cinematic style. Split into a trio of linear timelines from the same characters’ lives we get three different actors representing the life and changes which occur in Chiron’s existence; with chapters named, Little, Chiron and Black.
Each section draws us into the characters’ world as Chiron searches for meaning, identity and direction as to who he really is as a person. With his father absent Little Chiron (Alex Hibbert) cannot find satisfaction via his mother, an angry and lost woman portrayed brilliantly by Naomi Harris. Small for his age he is also at the mercy of school bullies and while a random meeting with a local drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali) provides Little with a mentor to connect with it doesn’t sustain. Ali as Juan, like most of the performances, delivers a subtle realisation of a character trapped by his life choices and perhaps sees some redemption in ‘Little’. Alas, due to his lifestyle and ‘job’ he is clearly not the role model ‘Little’ needs.
In the second and third sections Chiron’s relationship with his best friend Kevin comes to the fore both in terms of some powerful drama and intimate sexual connections. Barry Jenkins framing, colour design, use of music and editing choices all commit to create a poetic and fragmented style, further drawing me into Chiron/Black’s story. Chiron’s continual search for identity and meaning in the world reflects the most essential of human needs: the search for identity and love. Overall, this is a film of harsh and beautiful moments and each segment was layered with so many emotions and so skilfully told that I wanted to see more of the characters. (Mark: 9 out of 11)
Split (2016) is an altogether different film about the search for identity. In fact the lead character portrayed devilishly well by James McAvoy has TWENTY-THREE different people battling around his mind and something is about to give. Let me say that a film like Split won’t be challenging the Oscars because in essence it is a terrifying B-movie thriller, however, McAvoy gives a performance of such quality it reminded me of Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in his cannibal pomp. McAvoy’s twisted ability to switch between the many personalities was a real guilty pleasure as he earned his acting fee over and over and over again.
The story concerns three girls, Casey, Marcia and Claire (including an excellent Anya Taylor-Joy) who are kidnapped and imprisoned by the various personalities in Kevin Crumb’s head. Some – including OCD driven Dennis – are more dominant than others and attempt to wrestle total control, which is where McAvoy’s sly switches are a real joy to watch. As a cat-and-mouse plot bleeds out we also get some intriguing back-story flashbacks into Casey traumatic past. These events really add colour to the main narrative and ramp up the tension and suspense. The scenes between Kevin, his personalities and sympathetic Doctor Fletcher (Betty Buckley) also add some dark humour to the story. By the end though all humour is gone and we get a stunning and believable supernatural turn as Kevin’s mind unleashes an altogether different personality.
Writer/Director M. Night Shyamalan’s dalliance with big-budget-franchise-Hollywood-pictures – including: After Earth (2013) and The Last Airbender (2010) – did not do his career any favours. But with Split he is back on terrific form as he takes a simple abduction plot and renders it full of horror, twists and fantastical ideas. While I did not enjoy his previous film The Visit (2015) – mainly due to the stupid kid rapping throughout a decent horror story – this one is highly recommended for psycho horror fans and for McAvoy’s performance alone. (Mark: 8.5 out of 11)