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Dateworthy? "Fences", "Manchester by the Sea" and "La La Land"

by Carl Kozlowski on Dec 23rd, 2016
"Fences": Intense adaptation of a classic stage play that follows an African-American man's battle against his dying dreams in 1950s Pittsburgh. Powerful drama, but a downer. Definitely Dateworthy if you're serious-minded.

"Manchester by the Sea": Casey Affleck gives the performance to beat for Best Actor Oscar in this slice-of-life movie that's a half hour too long and has an annoying score. But still Dateworthy for serious-film fans, though it has an annoyingly casual attitude towards teen sex.

"La La Land": Easily the best date movie of the year and likely the decade. Absolutely Dateworthy.

The holiday season is a time for dreaming of a better world and hoping for a better life in the upcoming new year. But dreams can be difficult to manage as well – a theme to be found throughout three new and recent films in theatres this week.

“Fences” comes out Saturday and serves up some of the most potent dialogue and powerful performances of the year, as Denzel Washington knocks it out of the park as both star and director. He plays Troy Maxson, a man living amid the limited opportunities afforded to African-Americans in mid-1950s Pittsburgh, who has spent the past 17 years working as a trash collector.

Troy was a troublemaker in his early years, and wound up with a stint in prison, during which he learned how to play baseball at a star level. Unfortunately, during those years amid segregation, his skills were limited to the low-paying Negro Leagues. Now, despite the fact that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in professional sports, Troy lives with massive resentment against the white power structure and believes that his son Cory (Jovan Adepo) will never succeed amid his own dreams of attending college on a football scholarship.

Meanwhile, Troy’s wife Rose (Viola Davis) has been putting up with his mixture of drunken braggadocio and bitter frustrations for nearly two decades herself. And when Troy has no choice to admit he’s been having a longtime affair with another woman whom he’s impregnated, tensions finally explode in several directions.

“Fences” is adapted from a classic stage play by August Wilson, which was also presented at the Pasadena Playhouse starring another powerhouse combo – Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett – in 2006. As such, most of the film is set in and around Troy’s home, and the film occasionally feels claustrophobic, although that tension of enclosed space bearing down on people dying to break free is effectively rendered.

Make no mistake, “Fences” is a sad film, nearly a tragedy, and an African-American parallel to Arthur Miller’s classic “Death of a Salesman.” It might be a film that provokes sadness, but it’s definitely a great way to see a couple of legends stepping into these iconic roles at a small fraction of the cost it would take to see them in live theatre. And Washington and Davis tear into their roles with what might be career-best and definitely Oscar-worthy performances.

“Fences” only has a couple of uses of “GD” in its language, while Denzel’s Troy is often seen getting wasted on cheap booze. The movie’s main reason for its PG-13 rating lies in its dark overall themes. But this is a movie that teens and adults can easily see.

Meanwhile, “Manchester by the Sea” has been turning into a sleeper hit over the past month, and also deals with the issues of lost dreams and people whose lives fall short of their hopes and ambitions. The film stars Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a Boston-based handyman going nowhere in life, while caught in a never-ending stream of drunken brawls that he instigates.

When his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) abruptly dies, Lee heads to his boyhood home of Manchester to help settle Joe’s affairs and figure out how to help see that Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges) has a stable way to finish high school in the wake of his tragic loss. What Lee doesn’t count on is that returning to Manchester means he also has to face up to a tragic fire he accidentally caused many years before, and the still-raw pain that lingers in himself and his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams).

There are moments of humor in “Manchester,” but the overall feeling of the movie is as bleak or bleaker than “Fences.” These characters represent the all-too-real and too-large segments of the population who seem to have no way to achieve any greater happiness beyond the fact they survived another day.

Affleck is terrific in it, and both he and Washington in “Fences” are perhaps the best male performances of the decade so far. Williams is stunning in a heartbreaking attempt at reconciliation, but too much of the film feels needlessly padded, as its 137-minute running time easily could have been shaved by at least a half hour. Add in an annoying classical score that serves as an overbearing backdrop to nearly every scenes, and “Manchester” becomes less-than-prime real estate to visit this weekend.

“Manchester” has plenty of foul language, including copious uses of the F word in all its variations. The bigger moral issue lies in its extremely casual and positive view of teen sex, as a running joke in the movie follows Patrick’s attempts to find ample time to have sex with his girlfriend without adult interference. But for adults in the mood for meaty drama, this is still a good option.

Way over on the positive end of the emotional spectrum is the lush and glorious musical “La La Land,” which hits Pasadena on Christmas Day and follows the stories of a jazz pianist named Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and an actress named Mia (Emma Stone) who meet and fall in love while struggling to attain showbiz success. That simple plot description tells you pretty much everything you need to know, as writer-director Damien Chazelle follows his stunning debut film “Whiplash” (which was nominated for Best Picture) with an even greater and far more expansive work of both art and entertainment.

“La La Land” serves not only as a paean to young love and the thousands of dreamers who strive to catch a break every day in L.A., but also as a beautiful tribute to the city at its magical best. The film opens with a rousing song-and-dance number featuring 100 performers leaping up and down on their cars amid an LA freeway traffic jam. It also serves up an exquisite dance number in and around the Griffith Observatory that will make that dating hotspot an even more legendary backdrop for romance.

Gosling and Stone do it all, mixing snappily paced banter with slick dance moves, and heartfelt longing with expertly sung musical numbers. No other movie this year has such a transcendent, feel-good kick that is guaranteed to make viewers feel great about life and its possibilities – a potent allure indeed amid tenuous times.

“La La Land” is rated PG-13 solely for one single use of the F word, which is a sad testament to movie studios’ fears that a G or PG rating would result in adult viewers assuming a movie is aimed at children. It’s also implied that the couple co-habitate, but no sexual activity is ever shown or discussed. It really is as pure and joyous a film as any released in a decade, and a must-see on the big screen.

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About the Author

Carl Kozlowski

Carl Kozlowski is a Catholic comedian, film reviewer, and journalist who is also the founder and co-owner of the podcast station www.radiotitans.com in Los Angeles. He reviews movies for the Catholic News Agency as well as the Christian site Movieguide.org, but has also worked with secular outlets including the Pasadena Weekly, Chicago Tribune and Esquire. He has also produced and hosted comedy shows for the LA Catholic Archdiocese's charities and performed at some of the nation's top clubs and with top comics including Dane Cook and Dave Chappelle. He strives to find the way to work with both Christian and secular audiences in all his career paths.

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