The Morning After: Aug. 25, 2014

Welcome to The Morning After, where I share with you what movies I’ve seen over the past week. Below, you will find short reviews of those movies along with a star rating. Full length reviews may come at a later date.

So, here is what I watched this past week:

Howards End


An examination of the shifting class dynamics of Edwardian England, Howards End sets itself against the backdrop of a modernizing London and environs where two sisters find themselves enchanted by a beautiful cottage, but unable to secure its habitation.

Starring Emma Thompson in her Oscar winner role, the film places the cottage of Howards End firmly at the symbolic center of the class struggles in England as the wealthy capitalists, embodied by the haughty Wilcoxes, slowly replace the aristocracy. Thompson’s Margaret Schlagel and her sister Helen (Helena Bonham Carter) represent the enlightened bourgeoisie while the working class Basts struggle in an environment where one’s job is all that keeps the family from teetering into poverty.

The cast, headlined by Thompson, is superb. Bonham Carter, Anthony Hopkins as Wilcox clan patriarch Henry, Samuel West as Leonard Bast and Vanessa Redgrave as Henry’s wife Ruth are all terrific. The settings are fitting, the costumes divine and the photography is crisp and gorgeous. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s adaptation is strong, though if you aren’t already familiar with the source material, picking up on the class dynamics is easy, but somewhat superficial.

Gattaca


Andrew Niccol mounts a stellar debut at the helm of futuristic thriller Gattaca. Featuring captivating performances by Ethan Hawke, Jude Law and Uma Thurman, the film touches on the potential repercussions of gene manipulation, a scientific field that continues to intrigue and threaten modern society to this day.

Where children are frequently “bred” to have the best possible genetic building blocks, Marie (Jayne Brook) and Antonio (Koteas) Freeman have had a naturally-born son Vincent (played later in life by Hawke) who has no genetic re-sequencing. With no hope for the future, the couple decide to have their next child within the confines of society’s strict genetic program. This second child exhibits all the characteristics they want without any of the limited longevity and cognitive troubles of their first child. Vincent wants nothing more than to become an astronaut and travel to the stars, but because of his genetic makeup and society’s strict adherence to genetic testing of applicants, he must resort to nefarious criminal endeavors to procure an identity that will permit him to reach his goal, selecting disabled Olympic swimmer Jerome Morrow (Law) as his simulacrum, he undergoes great physical transformations to assume his identity and successfully blends into a prominent aeronautical company where he is shortly to become one of the individuals traveling to the moon Titan.

The plot is rich in detail and complexity, requiring a great deal of attention from the audience. That attention is rewarded with small moments that build on each character and organically flow through a murder investigation that threatens to reveal Vincent’s identity. Niccol never quite matched this feat in science fiction brilliance, but it’s such a stupendous effort that he can be forgiven for not becoming more successful as a director. As a screenwriter, he followed this film up successfully with the outstanding Peter Weir-directed The Truman Show, but his subsequent screenplays were equally disheartening.

Ed Wood


Looking back at Tim Burton’s 1994 black-and-white biopic Ed Wood gives one pause to wonder if he reached his pinnacle and struggled to avoid sliding down the other side of the hill ever afterwards.

The notorious director Edward D. Wood, Jr., played with tongue firmly in cheek by Johnny Depp, went to great lengths to become an Orson Welles-styled multi-hyphenate only to find American audiences entirely unenthused with his products. Labeled failures at the time, films like Glen or Glend and Plan 9 from Outer Space have earned cult reputations in recent years in spite of their cheap production values, terrible performances, cheesy effects and screenplays that were so poorly filmed that Wood was once labelled the worst director in the history of cinema.

Following Wood’s life and his friendship with washed-up horror legend Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), we discover his affinity for wearing women’s clothing, his unquenchable self-determination and ability to do whatever it takes to succeed even when everything is stacked against him. Landau delivers the performance of his career, digging into the core of Lugosi like few actors could have, his presence becomes the capstone that keeps the arch from collapsing. Other notable performances come from Sarah Jessica Parker as Edward’s first girlfriend Dolores, Patricia Arquette as his future wife Kathy, Jeffrey Jones as sleazy psychic Criswell, Bill Murray as Wood’s close friend and makeup artist Bunny and Lisa Marie in a surprisingly fitting turn as horror program host Vampira. Of special note is Vincent D’Onofrio who has a short cameo as Wood’s idol Orson Welles. It’s difficult to tell whether D’Onofrio did his own vocal work, but that brilliant performance can be credited to the uncredited voice artist Maurice LaMarche.

The production is striking with Burton’s standard aesthetic playing in the film’s favor most notably Howard Shore’s fascinating and twisted musical score. The film delves into Wood’s life in ways that only a director like Burton could. It’s too bad that he’s never lived up to this pinnacle since, following a slow downward trajectory that has taken his frequent collaborator Depp with him.

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