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Excellent Fences Adaptation Leads Loaded Holiday Weekend

Reviews of "Fences," "La La Land," "Passengers," "Assassin's Creed," "Lion" and "Jackie."

photos © MMXVI Paramount Pictures Corporation.  All Rights Reserved.

In an unprecedented confluence of quality and the lack thereof, the slew of Christmas week releases hitting Pittsburgh-area cinemas this week includes three of the very best films of the year — as well as two of the worst. We’ve got a lot to cover, so let’s dive in — and check back next week for a ranking of my ten best films of 2016.


Undoubtedly of prime local importance: Denzel Washington’s adaptation of August Wilson’s “Fences,” filmed in and around the Hill District earlier this year. Washington directed the adaptation and stars as Wilson’s most iconic character, the former ballplayer Troy Maxson; the script is solely credited to Wilson himself, although it was adapted for the screen by Washington and playwright Tony Kushner.

Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, “Fences” is a domestic drama revolving around the Maxson backyard, where Troy spins tall tales and rules his family — for better and for worse — with an iron fist. The story, one of intergenerational ambition and the uneasy fight between expectations and reality, is unimpeachable; it did win a Pulitzer, after all. But how is the adaptation?

Obviously, Washington is excellent, and Viola Davis is perfect as Rose Maxson. (The rest of the cast is more than game, although the play revolves around those two). The direction and adaptation are minimalist, leaving Wilson’s words to stand on their own — a wise decision. And the impact of the tale is no less powerful here than it ever has been on stage. It’s only a shame that Wilson isn’t alive to see his play converted to the screen so lovingly and elegantly. If “Fences” isn’t the best film of the year, it’s awfully close; it should be enthusiastically recommended to all, but required viewing for every native of the Steel City.


Photo by Dale Robinette. © 2016 Lionsgate. All Rights Reserved.

The setting couldn’t be more different, but the overall quality is just as good in the magical “La La Land,” a contemporary musical set in a dreamily created Hollywood. From writer/director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash,”) the film is a throwback to the technicolor musicals of the mid-20th century. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone star as a pair of bright-eyed young artists — he a jazz pianist, she an actress — trying to step out from the crowd against long odds and indifferent industries.

The tale might not sell you, but trust me — “La La Land” manages to evoke an emotional response I didn’t think films were still capable of creating. Chazelle’s magical-realist direction is utterly enchanting, and Gosling and Stone make a lovely, memorable duo. The music is infectious, the setting is still the stuff dreams are made of and the climax is unforgettable. “La La Land” stands as the front-runner to claim the Best Picture Oscar, and it’s easy to see why. Don’t miss it — and see it on the big screen. This one is for experiencing, not streaming.


From feast to famine, as another pair of Hollywood heavyweights opt for a stunningly retrograde and downright foul mess of a sci-fi thriller. “Passengers” concerns a colony of settlers bound for a new homeworld light years away; after a mishap, precisely one of those pilgrims (Chris Pratt) awakes from hibernation to find that he has no way of alerting anyone to his plight or getting back to sleep, and there’s still 90 years to go.

Faced with a long, slow march to death while his compatriots slumber around him, our hero shockingly decides to wake up a companion (Jennifer Lawrence), dooming her to share his fate against her will. It’s not only that twist that makes “Passengers” unsupportable; the film marches in stunning, upsetting directions from there. To be clear, I don’t mean that the film has a dark, chilling script; I mean this is, in short, a deeply offensive movie full of bygone tropes and disgusting moral relativism.

And if, somehow, you could rise above all that — and you shouldn’t — it’s not much of a film besides, with a clunky and desperate script and visual flair borrowed exclusively from Wall-E. Lawrence handles a badly underwritten role well, but Pratt is out of his element. It’s disappointing to report on a film I was once eagerly anticipating, but “Passengers” should be avoided at all costs.


The same could be said for “Assassin’s Creed,” though the video game adaptation is less actively terrible and more dull as dishwater. Based on the ubiquitous video-game series, “Assassin’s Creed” stars Michael Fassbender as the distant descendant of a globetrotting enforcer. The ancestor was the member of a secret society dedicated to protecting the world from domination at the hands of the Knights Templar; through some glossed-over mumbo-jumbo, our protagonist must relive the memories of his great-great-grandpa to prevent further calamity in the present, or something to that general effect. Unfortunately, the adaptation is humorless, gratingly self-important and unflinchingly boring. Watching someone play one of the games for two hours would’ve probably been more interesting. With so many fine films available to you right now, there’s no reason to spend your hard-earned money on this slog.


It runs the risk of getting lost in the shadow of high-profile competition — even in this very article — but “Lion,” a drama with a shot at a Best Picture nomination and four Golden Globe nods already under its belt, also reaches local screens this weekend. “Lion” tells the incredible true story of Saroo Brierley, who was separated from his birth mother and brother at the age of five; accidentally transported from a remote Indian village to bustling Calcutta, Brierley did not know his given last name nor the name of his village. Eventually adopted by an Australian couple, he set out as an adult to locate his family. The film suffers slightly from structural problems; it’s a life story that doesn’t work out neatly into a movie narrative. But the performances are quite good — both Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel earned supporting bids from the Globes — and the complexities of Brierley’s journey are convincingly rendered. It’s nothing you’ll need to rush to the theater to see, but it’s a very fine film.


Somehow, we’re not done — and there’s still another one of my favorite films of the year to cover. Natalie Portman stars in “Jackie,” an unconventional biopic of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis focused solely on the minutes, days and months following her husband’s assassination. Written in a compelling, non-linear format by Noah Oppenheim and directed in a hypnotic daze by Pablo Larraín, it couldn’t be more different from the standard big-screen life story; dizzily jumping from moment to moment as if rattling around its protagonist’s mind, “Jackie” does more to revitalize its genre than any film I can name. Credit is due to Mica Levi’s bold score, but more is due to Portman; she received my Critics’ Choice vote for Best Actress (which she eventually won) for her broken yet headstrong interpretation. I know many viewers are weary of the biopic flood that occurs every Oscar season; this is the antidote.

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