Movie reviews: Fences, Hidden Figures, The Great Wall

Thinking of the cinema this week. Declan Burke reviews  Fences, Hidden Figures and The Great Wall.

Fences

Verdicts: 

Fences 4/5

Hidden Figures 4/5

The Great Wall 3/5

***

Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Fences (12A) stars Denzel Washington as Troy Maxson, a garbage collector agitating for better working conditions.

Still bitter that a promising baseball career was destroyed by the prohibition on blacks playing professionally in the big leagues, Troy resents his son Cory’s (Jovan Adepo) talent as a football player, which offers Cory possibilities that Troy can only dream of. 

A hard-drinking braggart, Troy takes his frustrations out on his long-suffering wife Rose (Viola Davis), but Rose is not a woman to sit idly by while Troy sets about destroying their hard-won security.

Adapted by August Wilson from his own play, and directed by Denzel Washington, Fences has all the hallmarks of a stage-to-screen adaptation, even though Washington works hard to invest the stage-bound and dialogue-heavy story with a cinematic quality, at times resorting to circling his characters with the camera in a bid to create a sense of momentum.

As it happens, he needed not have worried: Fences thrives on the chemistry generated between the on-screen Washington and Viola Davis, who previously starred in a Broadway revival of the play, their combustible relationship fuelled by lacerating dialogue. 

Washington is particularly good, playing a man who, being poor and black in Jim Crow’s America, was ‘born with two strikes against him’; smart enough to appreciate that his pragmatic tough love (not to mention his womanising) is alienating him from his family, Troy is nevertheless unwilling or unable to change.

***

A gripping drama, Hidden Figures (PG) is based on the true story of the black women who played a crucial role in helping Nasa achieve its goal of sending an American astronaut into space in the early 1960s. 

Katherine (Taraji P Henson), Mary (Janelle Monáe) and Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) have different roles to play in the organisation, being a mathematician, engineer and supervisor, respectively, but all three face the same prejudice that recoils in shock at the idea that women, and particularly black women, might be equal with, and even superior to, men in their chosen field.

Written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, with Melfi directing, the story of the trio’s struggle mirrors contemporary developments in the civil rights movement, with Katherine’s boss Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) symbolic of the status quo and a belated convert to the proposition that skin colour is (or should be) irrelevant in a meritocratic world, especially when that world is one in which the Russians are beating the pants off America in the space race.

Octavia Spencer puts in a fine turn as the tenacious Dorothy, an over-qualified woman not content to accept that ‘things are just the way things are’, although Taraji P Henson takes the laurels as the brilliant mathematician who confounds her male peers to provide crucial insights into the issues bedevilling the space programme.

The various story strands may be resolved a little too neatly to be entirely persuasive as to the film’s historical accuracy, but for the most part Hidden Figures is an engrossing drama about a fascinating group of women that is infused with some badly needed feel-good optimism.

***

The Great Wall (12A) stars Matt Damon as William, a European mercenary abroad in medieval China on the hunt for the fabled ‘black powder’ that will tip the balance of power for any army that can harness its awesome power. 

Attacked by a vicious beast in China’s northern deserts, William manages to kill the creature; when he and his comrade Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are captured near the Great Wall by Lin Mae (Tian Jing), they learn the beast is one of the Tao Tei, a horde of monsters assailing China’s border and determined to kill all.

Directed by Yimou Zhang, The Great Wall is a fantasy tale on an epic scale in which Zhang pays tribute to Akira Kurosawa’s Ran in his use of vividly coloured uniforms to differentiate between the types of defenders manning the Wall. 

The plot is entirely preposterous, but Zhang has welded together a number of terrific set-pieces akin to the visually thrilling spectacles created by Peter Jackson in his Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The parts in between those sequences are more problematic however, with Matt Damon a pale shadow of his usually dynamic presence as he stands around listening to chunks of exposition dispensed in stilted dialogue, but Pedro Pascal provides deadpan comic relief, while Tian Jing injects some badly needed verve as the beleaguered commander. 

The Great Wall is an old-fashioned epic that delivers thrills, spills and popcorn-friendly fun.



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