Reviews: ‘Fences’ and ‘Lion’ are both deserving Oscar contenders

WASHINGTON — While you were away for the holidays, a couple of awesome Oscar contenders hit movie theaters that you’d better catch as soon as possible.

Denzel Washington directs himself and Viola Davis in a stunning adaptation of August Wilson’s acclaimed play “Fences,” while Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman star in the inspiring true story of “Lion.”

Both films are garnering serious Oscar buzz, with “Fences” earning two Golden Globe nominations and three SAG Award nods, and “Lion” earning four Globe nominations and two SAG Award nods.

So before we get to our usual Friday reviews of new releases (stay tuned for “Hidden Figures” and “A Monster Calls,” which open nationwide tomorrow), let’s circle back in case you missed either of these Christmas Day releases. Trust me, you’ll want to see both before the Globes air on Sunday night.

Time for a double review of “Fences” and “Lion.”


‘Fences’

August Wilson (1945-2005) is one of the most renowned playwrights in all of 20th-century theater due to his series of 10 powerful plays known as “The Pittsburgh Cycle.” Each deals with a different decade of the African-American experience in urban Pittsburgh from the 1900s through the 1990s. Six of those plays were nominated for Pulitzer Prizes; “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson” both won.

“Fences” is the sixth in the series, winning the 1987 Tony Award for Best Play. Set in the 1950s, it follows broken-down ballplayer Troy Maxon (Denzel Washington), who feels cheated by pre-Jackie Robinson segregation, having been one of the best sluggers in the Negro Leagues. It’s a heavy chip on his shoulder, and he’s angry that an unjust society kept him from making the big bucks as an athlete.

Instead, he must make ends meet as a garbage collector in urban Pittsburgh, where he lives with his wife, Rose Maxon (Viola Davis). His adult son Lyons (Russell Hornsby), from a prior relationship, is a starving-artist musician who regularly stops by to borrow money, while his younger son, Cory (Jovan Adepo), hopes to earn a football scholarship. Troy would rather him keep a steady after-school job and help build a fence in the backyard, where he routinely takes swings at a baseball on a string.

In case anyone forgot that Denzel Washington is the greatest actor of this generation, he reminds us with a tour de force in “Fences.” Right from the jump, he’s a gold mine of swagger, spitting comedic quips, flirting with his wife, singing “Old Blue” ditties and laying down the law for his sons with tough love. His “I don’t have to like you” monologue is trailer-made dynamite; his anti-football stance is ironic after “Remember the Titans” (2000) and his stormy challenge to the Grim Reaper is chilling.

It’s arguably his best performance of the past 15 years, a top-five career role to rival his soldier in Edward Zwick’s “Glory” (1989), his civil rights leader in Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” (1992), his lawyer in Jonathan Demme’s “Philadelphia” (1993) and his gangster in Antoine Fuqua’s “Training Day” (2001).

Most pundits are predicting Casey Affleck to win Best Actor for “Manchester By the Sea,” but to me, Denzel gives the best pound-for-pound performance of the year. If Denzel didn’t already have two Oscars to his name, he’d be the toast of the town, but he’s so consistently great that he’s taken for granted. Here’s hoping he’ll bag his third Oscar, like Meryl Streep did when she bested “Manchester” star Michelle Williams (“My Week with Marilyn”) to win her third Oscar in “The Iron Lady” (2011).

While a Denzel win would be a pleasant upset, Viola Davis is a lock to win an Oscar, competing in the Supporting Actress category so she doesn’t have to face Natalie Portman in “Jackie.” Davis is long overdue, after losing previous nominations for “Doubt” (2008) and “The Help” (2011) before making TV history as the first black actress to win an Emmy in “How to Get Away with Murder” (2014).

To finally win in a role as rich as Rose would be fitting. Her burden-bearing wife is the glue that not only holds the family together but also holds the film together. Washington is so in-your-face that Davis’ quiet grace is our foundation. She laughs with contagious warmth, then spits with snot during her heartache. If Beatrice Straight won for her similar scene in “Network” (1976), Davis should here.

Rounding out the cast is a talented stable that could win Best Ensemble at the SAG Awards. Hornsby (“Grimm”) and Adepo (“The Leftovers”) both hold their own as Denzel’s very different sons, the latter recalling David Oyelowo’s clashes with Forest Whitaker in “The Butler” (2013). Meanwhile, veteran character actor Stephen Henderson (“Law & Order”) brings comic relief as Troy’s best friend, Bono, while Mykelti Williamson (Bubba in “Forrest Gump”) is memorable as the brain-injured Uncle Gabriel.

Gabriel serves as the social conscience of Wilson’s play. With a metal plate in his head after fighting in the war, he rants constantly about hellhounds, and blows a rusty horn to open the pearly gates. He functions a bit like the stuttering Smiley in “Do the Right Thing” (1989), startling strangers out on the street, getting good-natured laughs from his loved ones, but proving the wisest of them all in the end.

Like “A Raisin in the Sun” (1961), starring Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier, you can tell that “Fences” is a filmed play in that it features tons of rapid-fire dialogue and very few locations. I’d say a good 90 percent of the film happens at the family row house, often in the backyard next to the titular fence.

While it’s more of a writer’s movie than a director’s movie, Denzel deserves props for understated directorial touches, filling his frame with subtle, symbolic imagery. A baseball hangs from a tree rope like a piece of “Strange Fruit” signifying society’s limitations on Troy’s social mobility. A backyard fence bonds father and son in its construction and corrals the family from intruders. Best of all, a heavenly sky recalls the redemptive final shot of Lars von Trier’s gem “Breaking the Waves” (1996).

By the time the credits roll, you’ll feel like you’ve just had a religious experience, exploring universal themes that affect every single family on this planet. It’s not a gimmicky plot we’re watching. It’s life.

July 23, 2024 | WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley reviews 'Fences' (Jason Fraley)

4-stars


‘Lion’

While “Fences” was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Lion” is a different type of adaptation, pulling its inspiring true story from the autobiography “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley.

At age 5, Young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) roams the rural countryside of India with his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), stealing coal from freight trains to sell in the market for milk to bring home to their loving mother, Kamla Munshi (Priyanka Bose). One night, during the brothers’ routine scavenging, Saroo accidentally gets stuck on a train that takes him thousands of miles from home.

After finally getting off the train in Calcutta, Saroo becomes lost on the crowded streets, unable to bridge the language barrier between Bengali and Hindi. Gradually, he learns to fend for himself, avoids a child-trafficking ring and lands in a foster home where he’s adopted by an Australian couple.

Twenty-five years later, we find adult Saroo (Dev Patel) deeply conflicted in an identity crisis. On the one hand, he’s grateful to his generous foster parents (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). On the other, he misses his birth family and takes his angst out on his college sweetheart, Lucy (Rooney Mara). In his quest for his true self, can Saroo track down his Indian hometown using Google Earth?

While the story’s power is inherent in the book, screenwriter Luke Davies (“Candy”) deserves credit for his adaptation. He divides the script into two distinct halves — the first half following the survival story of young Saroo; the second half, the angst of the adult. Both halves succeed on the strength of the two lead actors, sculpting a singular character at different ages (i.e. “Moonlight”).

Sunny Pawar gives a gutsy child performance that recalls the determination of Vinícius de Oliveira searching for his father in Walter Salles’ “Central Station” (1998). Unlike Vinicius in the Brazilian film, young Saroo has no adult figure accompanying him. He’s alone, dirt on his face, dreaming of sweet jelebis as he traverses the train tracks like the kids in Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008).

Perhaps fittingly, “Slumdog” star Dev Patel plays the adult version of Saroo. It’s a tricky performance to show both gratitude and resentment simultaneously, but Patel is up to the challenge, earning his first career Golden Globe nomination. You’ll recall in “Slumdog,” he landed a SAG Award nod, but otherwise, he and co-star Freida Pinto largely came up empty at the Golden Globes and Oscars.

In “Lion,” Patel shares several particularly great scenes with a short-haired Nicole Kidman, who’s also nominated for a Globe. Her performance is deserving for its range, bubbling with quiet excitement as she welcomes Saroo to his new home, then showing motherly intuition during his first bath, saying, “You’ve come a long way haven’t you? I’m sure it hasn’t been easy. One day you’ll tell me all about it.”

And yet, despite feeling in her gut that an identity crisis is imminent, Kidman expresses an authentic confusion over Saroo’s coming-of-age angst. Is our son ungrateful? Did we do something wrong? It’s in these soul-searching moments that Kidman delivers the film’s best scene, tapping into her own real-life adoption experience for tear-stained cheeks as she shares her surrealist dream with Patel.

We won’t give away the meaning of the title “Lion,” but its symbolism becomes clear in the final shot. It’s the culminating piece to a stirring feature-film debut by Australian TV director Garth Davis (“Top of the Lake”), who collaborates with veteran cinematographer Greig Fraser, the eye behind “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), “Foxcatcher” (2014) and “Star Wars: Rogue One” (2016). Together, they create a gritty portrait of India while filming on location in Calcutta before moving production to Australia.

It’s in Australia that Davis is really put to the test. After the rural vistas and bustling streets of India, he’s now asked to pull off the impossible: mining actual suspense from cold computer screens. Somehow, Davis pulls it off, as viewers will hold their breaths as Patel scans the Google Earth satellite images. Part of this is due to the Golden Globe-nominated score by Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann, which carries the journey until Sia’s “Never Give Up” arrives during the end credits.

While major names such as Sia and Kidman are involved, the film is financed by Davis and Kidman’s native Australia. Like “Brooklyn” last year, which featured known stars but hailed from Ireland, “Lion” proves that sometimes you have to go outside of Hollywood for the year’s most inspiring flick. As Saroo’s mom says, you’ll be “surprised with thunder” by a film with humanity “deep as the ocean.”

July 23, 2024 | WTOP Film Critic Jason Fraley reviews 'Lion' (Jason Fraley)

3-and-half-stars

See where these films rank in my Best Movies of 2016. We have more reviews in our Fraley Film Guide.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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