“Fences” — Playing It Straight

Fences are funny inventions. They are some of the most human of human inventions. They seem indomitable simply because they exist. Be it stone or wood, brick or clay, it is the handiwork of someone who feels they can beat whatever is coming down the way by sheer will. A fence is the culmination of hard work, determination, good intentions and that most basic and fierce of all human conditions: fear.

Denzel Washington took on an interesting project for his directorial debut. He and co-star Viola Davis have worked this play inside and out during their short — but Tony-filled run — in 2010. August Wilson’s words probably ached in their marrows before they even picked up his script for this adaptation. Washington is smart enough to not have to do much with this script, with this cast, with this story. It’s a script that was built on a stage and lives on its feet. Just keep the cameras rolling and try and capture the humanity on display.

Washington, however, digs deeper. Odie Henderson’s excellent review from RogerEbert.com alludes to the deepening of the visuals in the film. Instead of trying to blow up the play to fit the screen, Washington, Director of Photography Charlotte Bruus Christensen and production designer David Gropman fill in the rest of the picture to place these characters within the context. It’s a fantastic doubling act: a play wrested from life and placed onto the stage is then played out inside a living tableau.

This is evident within the framework of the camera. Washington smartly keeps things open as we get to learn the characters. We see the warmth between Washington’s Troy and Davis’s Rose, built on what seems like pleasant but shaky foundations in two shots. Troy’s friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson)  literally opens up the frame whenever he’s around. The camera ingratiates him as a member of the household, just as it does with Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy’s eldest. 

That payday joviality isn’t doing anything other than masquerading as harmony. We have the rest of the image to thank for that.

Throughout the film, the dead center of the shot is scythed by any number of vertical objects. While Troy turns in another one of his big stories, the shot is bifurcated by any number of hard, stiff lines: the pole that hangs the laundry line, the edge of the brick house, the jamb on the old screen door, the edge of a window sill. This follows into the house, where the cut of the living room’s porthole door into the kitchen is always lingering whenever talk of money bounces around the walls, or in the shots of time passing in montage as a crack down the middle of the street. The sun can rise and it can set but that crack, as long as the block, never fades.

Most of the discussions between the principals play out in two shots. The characters share the screen, their heads splitting the difference. But notice how these hemispheres disappear whenever Troy and Rose speak about their son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), or when old friends talk about their pasts spilling out into their future, or when a brother (Mykelti Williamson’s Gabriel) appears and wrenches up sympathy and shame.

All of the characters mired in these conflicts take dead center. Here they are not just the impediments for the others but their safety. It’s the duality of a fence that is voiced in the money line by Bono: fences can be made to keep things out or to keep things in. Cory wants to start his own life away from his father but Troy refuses to let his son go, fearing the pain and rejection that he has felt. Troy feels boxed in by a life he never wanted and tries to escape, only to find himself boxed in even further. Rose thinks that the biggest road block in her life can bring her down but it only lifts her up in a way she never felt before.

Washington does a superb job visually reminding us that everyone faces these fears in their lives. And, as they do so, they have to wrestle with trying to both fortify themselves and their loved ones while trying to storm the gates to their freedom. Otherwise you might stop and see who you’ve locked yourself inside with. And that is a scary thought.

 

 

Here We Go Again

 

Okay, sorry. I’m back.

It’s been a while. How have the last six years been? Fruitful, I hope. It has been less so for me.

One of my loves is writing about stuff that I love, or challenges me, or that I love and challenges me. It was part of my life and it slowly faded away. It has not been as much fun without it.

So, I’m going to shamelessly rip off the great Matt Zoller Seitz and his 30 Minutes On: series from his MZS blog on the truly excellent RogerEbert.com. (Here is a sample on The Thing [1982].)T his blatant theft should accomplish two things: got my lazy butt back into the mode of critical thinking and take away any excuse to stop me from writing. C’mon, it’s just 30 minutes!

I just whipped the site up in about ten minutes. The font is butt. The sizing is weird. But whatever. All excuses. I’m about to watch Fences with my betrothed. I’ll let you know something about it I liked in about three hours.

Further kudos to writer and editor Danielle Villano whose head-first dive into the books she has not yet read helped to kickstart this project. I too have a jar filled with movies I need to watch. They get arty! Be warned.

The New Normal

Hey folks. Remember that time about eight months ago when I said how much I love changing blog themes? Well, here I go again….

I used to feature all my writing only in this here spot, but that will no longer be the case. In the last few months, I’ve turned into a film critic/columnist at http://www.TheFilmStage.com and will soon bring my “I’ll Never Get Tired Of…” column style over there.

On top of that, I’m excited to announce that I will also be starting and’ for lack of a better term, be the editor-in-vhief at a new writing-based web magazine called The Inclusive, which will be found at http://www.TheInclusive.net. As of now we are collecting a number of great writers for our staff and will always be on the lookout for guest contributors. The site’s nomenclature is also its mission statement: it’s a site for us, all of us, to write for. I’m terribly excited for it to begin. High, high hopes for that one.

So what, then, comes of this space?

The Inclusive will get at least two columns from me (if not more) so this space will be a catch-all for anything I write. Sometimes it will feature a link to let you know of a new review posted on The Film Stage or a new humor column on The Inclusive, but it can also be a place for writing that doesn’t fit in either box. If I rant about Charlie Sheen, for example, it might not be able to fit in The Inclusive’s box schedule, so it’ll go here. Or I have a funny li’l three paragrpah story, this will be its home.

Exciting things are happening, folks. Keep up with all my doings here, at ooooolllll’ Mike-Anton.com.

Or keep gawking at photos of Brooke Baldwin. Whatever floats your boat.

Growing Up With South Park

I distinctly remember the first time I watched South Park. Bundled up in my bed at around 10:10 on a Saturday night, I flipped on Comedy Central to see this bizarre, low-res animation show featuring a fat, angry child who wanted to be abducted by aliens. I was confused but obviously intrigued. After watching wide-eyed for a few minutes, I started screaming for my mom to come into the room and share in the fun. Odd, isn’t it? While this was the same woman who refused to let me play Mortal Kombat or watch Beavis and Butthead, she also gave me my first good taste of comedy, sitting me down for Marx Brothers movies, I Love Lucy, and her reluctant acceptance of my love for The Simpsons. I wasn’t looking for approval as a parent, but rather as a lover of comedy.

She rushed in, sat on my bed next to me, and watched. Seeing her vacillate between abject horror and gut-busting laughter made me question what was more entertaining: her reactions or the show itself. While I was dying at every joke, she was still on the fence (both as a parent and a consumer of comedy, I’m sure). Then Kyle asked Ike to do his impression of David Caruso’s career. She nearly fall off the bed. I sat there, confused. It was that moment that cemented South Park as must-see television. Sure, there were great, funny jokes, but it also had stuff that went over my head, things I had to search out to understand. Comedy Central ran the next three episodes of the first season in a mini-marathon and we both watched, enthralled. My mom kept reiterating that she should leave, but never made a move for the door. Her better judgment keeping her where she needed to be.

It is my most indelible memory of sixth grade.

Since that time, I’ve gone into and through middle school, entered high school, got my license, decided I wanted to become a filmmaker (no doubt through the influence of shows as brilliant as this one), graduated, attended Boston University, fell in love with a girl, dated her for two years, broke up, turned 21, graduated college, and am currently in New York trying to become a TV writer myself at 25, nearly the same age as when Matt Stone and Trey Parker made their animated Christmas card “The Spirit of Christmas” for producer Brian Graden, which led to this very show. Looking back, that’s a staggering amount of time for me.

Imagine what it must feel like for Matt and Trey.

Continue reading “Growing Up With South Park”

It’s Still Us Against Them…And They’re Winning

Crowds gathered last night outside of the White House and the former site of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers in jubilation, echoing other famous military-based fetes throughout our history.  I’m sure people of an older generation saw the photos in their newspaper today (cause god knows they weren’t awake or on twitter late last night to get the news as it happened) and were reminded of V-J Day, when throngs of war-weary Americans took to Times Square to celebrate victory over the Japanese and the conclusion to World War II.  Brian Williams saw all of the kids flooding college campuses across the nation as an inverted callback to the anti-war protests against involvement in Vietnam during the 60s and 70s.  To me, the footage of all those young kids in large groups reminded me of baseball.

My freshman year at Boston University coincided with the first Red Sox World Series victory in 86 years.  But before they slayed that historical demon, they first had to get past their hated rivals–my favorite team–the New York Yankees.  The Sox did so in grand, historic fashion, coming back from a 3-0 deficit to win four straight games, take the seven game series, and head to an eventual World Series win.  For many kids–a good number from the New England area–this was a huge, epic event in their lives, one their grandparents had waited their entire lives to see.  They took to Kenmore Square, a busy intersection just outside Fenway Park, to celebrate en mass.

But for a good deal of others, it was merely an excuse to go outside and riot.  And yes, the key term was “riot.”  Upon returning (I did not go out; I was in mourning) my friends, both fans of the Sox and of destruction, regaled me of stories of people breaking glass everywhere, climbing street lamps and falling onto heaps of people, and how one tear gas capsule actually hit one of them in the foot!  All of this was captured on their digital cameras, a digital replica of their involvement in the Great Riots that they could proudly show off to their grandchildren some decades after they showed off on facebook.

A similar scene occurred last night as scores of college kids emptied out of their dorms to congregate outside the White House and near Ground Zero, looking to quite literally dance on the man’s grave. It was a striking visual, all of those people out there celebrating the death of another, mirroring the footage of people from an Arab country that I cannot for the life of me remember (but, for these purposes, does not exactly matter) celebrating the attacks on 9/11 by dancing in the streets.  It was one of those indelible images that, like the second tower getting hit in profile or the stanchion for one of the towers barely left standing, that sticks in my craw to this very day.  Thinking about it right now gets me raw all over again.

In years since, the veracity of that specific piece of footage has been challenged, but someone was happy that America was attacked.  And it wasn’t because they hate our democracy or our constitution or our freedom but specifically they hate our culture; our sex-crazed, binge-drinking, Jersey Shore-loving, godless culture.  And we’re not content to leave that culture, with our Coca-Colas and sinful delights and all, on our side of the world.  No, we’re a monolithic social and political machine that batters down all other cultures through military or financial measures to push these edicts of debauchery-as-freedom on others regardless of how they feel about it.  We mistook Osama declaring war on “America” as our country.  Instead, he called for a jihad on all that America stands for culturally: a godless cesspool who hold nothing sacred.

Our reactions last night did little to eschew this idea to his followers.

Around two o’clock AM, MSNBC threw to a live remote at Ground Zero, the hallowed area that has the blood of  nearly 3,000 people, from civilians to firefighters, EMTs, and police officers who died while fulfilling their civic duty.  And on that ground had gathered a large group of people, mostly college aged, to congregate at the site of the attacks and celebrate the death of the man responsible.  Wonderfully apropos.  The reporter decided that it was a good time to interview some of the revelers (and that is a very apt term for this gaggle of girls).

The video can be found here, but I’ll describe.  The shot goes live as people behind the reporter scream.  He tries to explain the atmosphere which is shockingly ebullient considering the location.  As he tries to find the proper words to describe what’s going on, he stumbles out “it’s really a very…an unusual night that’s…that’s that’s very bizarre for Ground Zero.”  He turns to address the crowd, asking, “you’re all students, right?” and they, in unison, cheer “YEEEAAAAHHHH!” as if they were tweens waiting outside a Justin Bieber concert.  As he turns to interview one specific girl, the crowd cheers and “WHOOOOOOs” their little hearts out. He turns to one girl, adorned in a Pace University sweatshirt (they have to love that), as various others try to crowd the shot.

The girl is asked, “how do you feel about what’s happened here?” evidently making light of the actions at Ground Zero, not about Osama bin Laden’s death.  But no matter.  With her arms gesticulating up and down (a cell phone in her right hand, no doubt warning friends and family members to turn on MSNBC in 3…2…1…) she responds, “I feel GREAT right now!” sounding like many a drunken college girl I’ve encountered on any given weekend, let alone early Monday morning during finals week.  Someone bum rushes the mic and offers, “America needs this!” as the reporter asks a simple follow up of, “Why [do you feel great right now]?”  She gives a perplexed look, as she somehow did not see this obvious follow-up question coming, and with her arms all akimbo, says, “…It’s AMERICA!  It’s time to party right now!  He’s DEEEEEAD!” before lifting her arms and letting loose with yet another “WHOOOO!!!” as the crowd joins in.

The display actively disgusted me, and here I am a kid from New Jersey who is sympathetic to the American cause.  One can only imagine how clips like those, how newspaper headlines like this, how giddy, rapturous dance songs like this one, or reactions to being among the revelers like this wearing shirts like this will be digested across the world, specifically amongst those most in line with bin Laden’s perverse teachings and views.  This goes beyond fodder; it actually confirms to them that they’re right.  If we can’t treat Ground Zero like the hallowed ground it is, what the hell can we respect?

*     *     *

Last night was a celebration, and for the life of me, I can’t think what it was for.  It seemed like we were at a victory parade, as if killing one prominent member of one specific terror group that still has thousands upon thousands of active members wins the “war on terror.”  It seemed like justice had been served, but the towers are still gone and families are still torn asunder.  It seemed like vanquishing a boogieman, as Obama claims “that the world is a safer place,” even though I’m infinitely more scared now than I did 18 hours ago, hell, then in the last couple of years combined.   It seemed like a triumph, that we had somehow drawn even, the scoreboard reading US 1 – 1 TER, as if the cycle won’t start anew.

But that score does not matter compared to other numbers, like the roughly 3,000 people who perished in the attacks on September 11th.  1,500 US service men and women have been killed overseas fighting to avenge those deaths and in doing so have taken the lives of some 30,000 Afghanis, a mix of innocents, maniacs, women, and children.  After last night’s events, add four more men and one women to the count.  Oh, and the war drum to go into Pakistan was being beaten as of 2 AM last night, as their government was harboring known terrorists, much like the Taliban were in Afghanistan.  Not to mention the potential world-wide response to bin Laden’s death.

Now I know what we’re celebrating: a larger pile of bodies.

Charlie’s #winning, We’re Losing

Malcolm Gladwell’s novel Blink proposes that we don’t nearly give our gut instinct the proper amount of credit.  After seeing something over and over again our brains become conditioned to almost instantaneously figure out a conclusion.  This explains why seasoned baseball fans stay in their seats while others jump up at the sight of a fly ball; they know what a home run ball looks like right off the bat, why drivers can tell which cars are angling to cut them off, and why we watch movies and criticize computer-generated imagery as being fake, because we have a lifetime of experience of seeing things that are real.  In nanoseconds, we can suss out real versus fake, danger versus safety.

But if that’s the case, and we are a consumer base that has watched an incredible amount of “reality” television, how can we not tell what’s real or what’s fake?  Why can’t we differentiate between “Charlie Sheen,”  the wacky character and Charlie Sheen, the broken-down addict?

Continue reading “Charlie’s #winning, We’re Losing”

The Conveniences in Inception

It’s nigh blasphemous to run a TV/Film blog and not have a post about Inception.  At least it feels that way.  The cerebral blockbuster, which ended the year as the fifth-highest grossing film of 2010, made the leap from “big movie” to required viewing; you had to see it just to be in on the discussion.  And what a wide-ranging and ridiculous conversation it was (and, hopefully, continues to be, fingers crossed).  While everyone was talking, no one could quite agree on exactly what they had seen; conversations were led around corners and into dead ends like the puzzling sets and set-ups from the film.  But the fact that people were talking at all is a wondrous event on its own.

Continue reading “The Conveniences in Inception”