Fences

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, language and some suggestive references
Profanity: Some strong language, racial epithets
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family confrontations, references to wartime injuries
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 23, 2016
Date Released to DVD: March 13, 2017
Amazon.com ASIN: B01LTI0KQA

Copyright 2016 Paramount
Copyright 2016 Paramount
August Wilson’s towering play, the winner of the Tony and Pulitzer prizes, has been magnificently put on screen by director/star Denzel Washington, who won a Tony for the play’s 2012 Broadway revival, and who works with much of that show’s cast in this version.

Wilson’s own screenplay wisely avoids the usual impulse to “open up” a play by adding locations and reducing the dialogue. The best known of Wilson’s ten-play “Pittsburgh cycle,” one for each decade of the 20th century, “Fences” is a story of epic scope and mythic resonance. The gorgeous dialog makes poetry out of the kind of talk we hear around us all day: the jokes, mock insults, and bragging of co-workers and long-time friends, the intimate humor of a longtime couple, anguished confrontation, bitter recollection, back-and-forth that skims the surface while the emotions roil and explode below. To the extent that it preserves the artificiality of a theatrical performance, it emphasizes its ambitious reach. If a play has a character named Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson) who is cognitively impaired following a war injury, who carries a trumpet, and who constantly reminds his brother of a betrayal and survivor guilt, if the tile “Fences” is literal and metaphorical and the character building the fence talks about keeping out the actual angel of death, the audience must recognize these signals of serious, profound, dramatic engagement with eternal themes and be grateful for the chance to be a part of it.

Washington plays Troy, a garbageman who was once a star of a Negro Leagues baseball team but was too old to cross over into the Major Leagues the way Jackie Robinson did. He still keeps a bat and ball in the back yard. He still holds onto the bitterness and dashed dreams of his years as a player. But now, he just wants a promotion to driver, a job only held by white men where he works.

His wife is Rose (Oscar-winner Viola Davis, who also won a Tony for her performance in the revival). We first see Troy bragging to his best friend Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson) about how he laid down the law when he met Rose, telling her he was not interested in marriage. She laughs indulgently and affectionately, but makes it clear that it was quite the contrary. “I told him if he wasn’t the marrying kind, then move out the way so the marrying kind could find me.”

Troy and Rose have a son in high school, Cory (Jovan Adepo), a talented football player. Rose sees football as a chance for Cory to attend college, and Cory desperately wants to play. But Troy refuses, saying “The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway.” His mind and spirit have been so constricted by what he has faced that he cannot bring himself to believe that real opportunity exists for Cory. Or perhaps he cannot face the possibility that Cory will do what he could not.

Troy also has an older son, Lyons (Russell Hornsby), with a woman he never married. Lyons, a musician, asks Troy for a loan, mostly as a way to find a way to talk to him, to find a way to see if he means anything to him. Troy tells him he should not need to ask for money, and Lyons responds, “If you wanted to change me, you should’ve been there when I was growing up.”

And Troy worries about his brother Gabriel, who lived with Troy and and Rose in a home they bought with his disability money, but who has moved down the street because he wants more independence. Troy feels guilty for not taking care of him, and for living in a house he would not have been able to afford but for his brother’s disability.

And so, he makes a bad decision that will shatter his family’s foundation. The scene where Davis goes from disbelief to shock to fury will be used for decades in acting class, but she is just as impressive in the movie’s final moments. While Troy occupies much of the screen time and dialogue, it is really Rose who is the heart of the story. Troy can brood, but cannot change. He can hurt, but he cannot heal. He is so damaged that he cannot offer his sons love or respect. But see Rose’s strength. Her resolve is not grounded in compromise or concession. Her soul has expanded to encompass all of life’s contradictions. And it is the great gift of this film that it expands ours, too.

Parents should know that this film includes themes of racism and adultery, some strong language, sexual references, and a sad death.

Family discussion: Do you agree with Rose’s choice? Why didn’t Troy want Cory to play football? What do we learn from Troy’s relationship with Gabriel?

If you like this, try: “A Raisin in the Sun” and “Desire Under the Elms”

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Based on a play Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Race and Diversity

Moonlight

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MPAA Rating: NR (some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout)
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drugs and drug dealing, alcohol, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Bullies, beating, disturbing images, sad offscreen death
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie, homophobia
Date Released to Theaters: October 28, 2016
Date Released to DVD: February 27, 2017
Amazon.com ASIN: B01LTHZVM4
Copyright 2016 Plan B Entertainment
Copyright 2016 Plan B Entertainment

In the 2017 Oscar winner for Best Picture, a man tells a young boy a story, and, as with many stories adults tell children, especially in movies, it is a story with a purpose. Juan (Mahershala Ali) tells the boy derisively known as “Little” (Alex Hibbert) that when he was young, a woman saw him at night and told him that the silvery moonlight made his dark skin looked blue. She said he should be called Blue from then on. But, he tells Little, he wasn’t. “At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”

In “Moonlight,” a film of a delicate, shimmering beauty that measures up to the title, the boy will struggle to make that decision for himself. Three chapters, as a child, a teenager and a young man, played by three different actors, are labeled with three different names that he is called: the taunting nickname Little, his birth certificate name Chiron (played by Ashton Sanders), and the nickname given to him by someone who had a profound impact on him, Black (played by Trevante Rhodes). Who will he decide to be?

The story begins in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami. Little runs from bullies and hides out in a crack house, where he is discovered by Juan, a kind-hearted drug dealer. Little won’t talk, so Juan takes him home, where his warmhearted significant other, Teresa (singer Janelle Monae) gives little some food and lets him stay the night. The next day, Juan brings Little back to his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), a nurse who loves Little but leaves him alone much of the time. “He can take care of hisself. He good like that.”

In the second section, he is a skinny teenager all but abandoned by his mother, who has become addicted to drugs, and bullied at school. He still does not talk much, but he has one friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who calls him Black. Chiron cannot even acknowledge to himself that he wants more from Kevin, but one night on the beach, they share a piercingly sweet moment of tenderness that will indirectly lead to an act of violence.

When we see him again, he is a man, with an armor of muscle and gold teeth grillz, still almost silent, still almost isolated. But a call from Kevin inspires a journey.

The film is based on a play called “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by McArthur awardee Tarell Alvin McCraney, who worked with director Barry Jenkins (the lovely romance “Medicine for Melancholy”) on adapting it for the screen. Both McCraney and Jenkins, like Little, had mothers who struggled with addiction, and Jenkins grew up on the Liberty City setting of the film.

The small miracle of the movie is the way it subverts the expectations the audience has based on news reports and many, many other movies. Every character is authentically complex. The graceful, poetic score by composer Nicholas Britell gives the story epic scope and heartbreaking intimacy.

We see Juan’s kindness and wisdom as he holds Little gently in the ocean, teaching him to swim and, more important, giving him an idea of what a man can be. We hear his thoughtful answer when Little asks him what “faggot” means. And yet, when Paula wants drugs, Juan supplies them, even knowing what it will do to Little. The confident, capable Kevin casually mentions time in prison as though it was an inevitable rite of passage. Little/Chiron/Black is physically transformed from chapter to chapter. We are continually challenged and confounded, yet held close to the heart of the story by its romantic lyricism and, most of all, the spacious humanity of its love for its characters.

Parents should know that this film includes very mature material: bullying, brutality, drug dealing and drug abuse, very strong language including homophobic slurs, sexual references and explicit sexual situations.

Family discussion: Why does the main character have a different name in each chapter? What do you think happened to Juan?

If you like this, try: “Medicine for Melancholy”

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Based on a play Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week GLBTQ and Diversity Race and Diversity

Trailer: “Fences” with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis

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There is no movie I am looking forward to this fall more than “Fences,” with my two favorite performers, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, and based on the Tony and Pulitzer prize winning play by August Wilson. Here is the first look.

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Based on a play Race and Diversity Trailers, Previews, and Clips

Coming to Fox January 31, 2016: Grease Live!

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6utokZTAwxs

It looks like a lot of fun — but caution, parents, there is some material in the show (based on the original play as well as the film) that may not be appropriate for younger children, including references to a possible teen pregnancy, concerns about promiscuity, and (spoiler alert) a “happy” ending that has a “good girl” acting like a “bad girl” to keep a boy.

The stars include “High School Musical’s” Vanessa Hudgens, “Dance With the Stars'” Julianne Hough, and “Akeelah and the Bee’s” Keke Palmer — plus, Jeannie from the “Ellen” show.

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Based on a play Musical Remake Television

The Lady in the Van

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for brief unsettling image
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Fatal car accident, physical and mental illness, sad death
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: January 22, 2016
Date Released to DVD: April 18, 2016
Amazon.com ASIN: B01BTDOT12
Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures
Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures

What connects us to each other? What creates a sense of obligation? Why is it that we somehow find ourselves alone when we don’t want to be and with others when we don’t want to be? Are there secrets that completely change the way we think about people we thought we knew?

And is it possible to be fair to the other people in our lives when we tell stories about them?

Writer Alan Bennett (“The History Boys,” “The Madness of King George”) got an urgent appeal from a disheveled woman in a kerchief. You know the kind of person I am talking about, the ones we ignore or pretend to ignore. She is not exactly homeless. She has a dilapidated, broken-down van parked on the street near his new home. His neighbors are not unkind. One even tries to bring her food. But for some reason, Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith) likes Bennett. And for some equally inexplicable reason, he kind of doesn’t dislike her. And for another equally inexplicable reason, as frustrating and annoying and inconvenient and often infuriating as Miss Shepherd (as he always calls her) is, he finds it easier to deal with her than with his own mother, who is beset with her own cognitive challenges.

“A writer is doubled,” Bennett tells us, “the one who writes, the one who lives.” He is clearly most comfortable as the one who writes. And we get to see them both. Alex Jennings plays two slightly different variations on Bennett, the subtle variations of clothing and attitude showing us the tension as he wavers between being involved and observing. Part of him recoils from Miss Shepherd’s “multi-flavored aroma” with a thin layer of talcum powder. Part of him knows that she could lead to exactly what we are watching — a book, a radio play, a theatrical production, a movie with an Oscar-winning Dame in the title role. Yes, she asks if she can park temporarily in his driveway and stays for 15 years. But given the money he made from the story, who was sponging on who?

A writer will inevitably be drawn to the peculiar mix of sense and nonsense, sometimes called a word salad, coming from someone like Miss Shepherd. There’s something about the way she ends her mildly preposterous statements with equivocation. “I’m in an incognito position, possibly,” she tells Bennett. He will learn more about her past, but Bennett has enough respect for us and for Miss Shepherd that there is no attempt to try to explain her. It is just to help us do what he did instinctively, though perhaps reluctantly — to see the person inside the weirdness.

“A proper writer might welcome such an encounter.” Yes, he might. Yet, he thinks, “You won’t catch Harold Pinter pushing a van down the street.” Shouldn’t a writer get to pick his subject? “I don’t want to write about her,” he says. “I want to write about spies.” He knows that “you don’t put yourself into what you write; you find yourself.” And his two selves seem to come closer together as Miss Shepherd disintegrates further. If, as Arthur Miller wrote in “Death of a Salesman,” attention must be paid to people we would prefer to overlook, Bennett has done that for Miss Shepherd, with grace and humanity.

Parents should know that this film includes themes of mental and physical illness, fatal car accident, blackmail, and non-explicit sexual situations and bodily functions.

Family discussion: Why did Alan treat his mother and Miss Shepherd differently? Why does he let her stay? Why are there two Alans and what can we tell from the way they dress and speak?

If you like this, try: “The Madness of King George” by the same author and his early work in “Beyond the Fringe”

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