An October Film Review: Ed Wood (dir by Tim Burton)


From start to end, the 1994 film Ed Wood is a nearly perfect film.

Consider the opening sequence.  In glorious black-and-white, we are presented with a house sitting in the middle of a storm.  As Howard Shore’s melodramatic and spooky score plays in the background, the camera zooms towards the house.  A window flies open to reveal a coffin sitting in the middle of a dark room.  A man dressed in a tuxedo (played to snarky and eccentric perfection by Jeffrey Jones) sits up in the coffin.  Later, we learn that the man is an infamously inaccurate psychic named Criswell.  Criswell greets us and says that we are interested in the unknown.  “Can your heart handle the shocking facts of the true story of Edward D. Wood, Jr!?”

As streaks of lightning flash across the sky, the opening credits appear and disappear on the screen.  The camera zooms by tombstones featuring the names of the cast.  Cheap-looking flying saucers, dangling on string, fly through the night sky.  The camera even goes underwater, revealing a giant octopus…

It’s a brilliant opening, especially if you’re already a fan of Ed Wood’s.  If you’re familiar with Wood’sfilms, you know that Criswell’s appearance in the coffin is a reference to Orgy of the Dead and that his opening monologue was a tribute to his opening lines from Plan 9 From Outer Space.  If you’re already a fan of Ed Wood then you’ll immediately recognize the flying saucers.  You’ll look at that octopus and you’ll say, “Bride of the Monster!”

And if you’re not an Ed Wood fan, fear not.  The opening credits will pull you in, even if you don’t know the difference between Plan 9 and Plan 10.  Between the music and the gorgeous black-and-white, Ed Wood is irresistible from the start.

Those opening credits also announce that we’re about to see an extremely stylized biopic.  In the real world, Ed Wood was a screenwriter and director who spent most of his life on the fringes of Hollywood, occasionally working with reputable or, at the very least, well-known actors like Lyle Talbot and Bela Lugosi.  He directed a few TV shows.  He wrote several scripts and directed a handful of low-budget exploitation films.  He also wrote a lot of paperbacks, some of which were semi-pornographic.  Most famously, he was a cross-dresser, who served in the army in World War II and was wearing a bra under his uniform when he charged the beaches of Normandy.  Apparently, the stories of his love for angora were not exaggerated.  Sadly, Wood was also an alcoholic who drank himself to death at the age of 54.

Every fan of Ed Wood has seen this picture of him, taken when he first arrived in Hollywood and looked like he had the potential to be a dashing leading man:

What people are less familiar with is how Ed looked after spending two decades on the fringes of the film business:

My point is that the true story of Ed Wood was not necessarily a happy one.  However, one wouldn’t know that from watching the film based on his life.  As directed by Tim Burton, Johnny Depp plays Ed Wood as being endlessly positive and enthusiastic.  When it comes to determination, nothing can stop the film’s Ed Wood.  It doesn’t matter what problems may arise during the shooting of any of his films, Wood finds a way to make it work.

A major star dies and leaves behind only a few minutes of usable footage?  Just bring in a stand-in.  The stand-in looks nothing like the star?  Just hide the guy’s face.

Wrestler Tor Johnson (played by wrestler George “The Animal” Steele), accidentally walks into a wall while trying to squeeze through a door?  Shrug it off by saying that it adds to the scene.  Point out that the character that Tor is playing would probably run into that wall on a regular basis.

Your fake octopus doesn’t work?  Just have the actors roll around in the water.

The establishment won’t take you seriously?  Then work outside the establishment, with a cast and crew of fellow outcasts.

You’re struggling to raise money for your film?  Ask the local Baptist church.  Ask a rich poultry rancher.  Promise a big star.  Promise to include a nuclear explosion.  Promise anything just to get the film made.

You’re struggling to maintain your artistic vision?  Just go down to a nearby bar and wait for Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio) to show up.

Personally, I’m of the opinion that Ed Wood is Tim Burton’s best film.  It’s certainly one of the few Burton films that actually holds up after repeat viewings.  Watching the film, it’s obvious that Wood and Burton shared a passionate love for the movies and that Burton related to Wood and his crew of misfits.  It’s an unabashedly affectionate film, with none of the condescension that can sometimes be found in Burton’s other film.  Burton celebrates not just the hopes and dreams of Ed Wood, Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson and Criswell but also of all the other members of the Wood stock company, from Vampira (Lisa Marie) to Bunny Breckenridge (Bill Murray), all the way down to Paul Marco (Max Casella) and Loretta King (Juliet Landau).  Though Ed Wood may center around the character of Wood and the actor who plays him, it’s a true ensemble piece.  Landau won the Oscar but really, the entire cast is brilliant.  Along with those already mentioned, Ed Wood features memorable performances from Sarah Jessica Parker and Patricia Arquette (one playing Wood’s girlfriend and the other playing his future wife), G. D. Spradlin (as a minister who ends up producing one of Wood’s films), and Mike Starr (playing a producer who is definitely not a minister).

For me, Ed Wood is defined by a moment very early on in the film.  Wood watches some stock footage and talks about how he could make an entire movie out of it.  It would start with aliens arriving and “upsetting the buffaloes.”  The army is called in.  Deep delivers the line with such enthusiasm and with so much positive energy that it’s impossible not get caught up in Wood’s vision.  For a few seconds, you think to yourself, “Maybe that could be a good movie…”  Of course, you know it wouldn’t be.  But you want it to be because Ed wants it to be and Ed is just do damn likable.

As I said before, Ed Wood is a highly stylized film.  It focuses on the good parts of the Ed Wood story, like his friendship with Bela Lugosi and his refusal to hide the fact that he’s a cross-dresser who loves angora.  The bad parts of his story are left out and I’m glad that they were.  Ed Wood is a film that celebrates dreamers and it gives Wood the happy ending that he deserved.   The scenes of Plan 9 From Outer Space getting a raptorous reception may not have happened but can you prove that they didn’t?

I suppose now would be the time that most reviewers would reflect on the irony of one of the worst directors of all time being the subject of one of the best films ever made about the movies.  However, I’ll save that angle for whenever I get a chance to review The Disaster Artist.  Of course, I personally don’t think that Ed Wood was the worst director of all time.  He made low-budget movies but he did what he could with what he had available.  If anything, Ed Wood the film is quite correct to celebrate Ed Wood the director’s determination.  Glen or Glenda has moments of audacious surrealism.  Lugosi is surprisingly good in Bride of the Monster.  As for Plan 9 From Outer Space, what other film has a plot as unapologetically bizarre as the plot of Plan 9?  For a few thousand dollars, Wood made a sci-fi epic that it still watched today.  Does that sound like something the worst director of all time could do?

Needless to say, Ed Wood is not a horror film but it’s definitely an October film.  Much as how Christmas is the perfect time for It’s A Wonderful Life, Halloween is the perfect time for Ed Wood.

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A Movie A Day #210: Who’s Harry Crumb? (1989, directed by Pat Flaherty)


Who’s Harry Crumb?

He is a private detective, the latest in a long line of gumshoes.  While Harry’s father and his grandfather may have been great detectives, Harry is about as incompetent as can be.  He is a self-styled master of disguise but not much else.  He is employed at Crumb & Crumb Detective Agency, solely because of his family background.  When the head of the agency, Eliot Draisen (Jeffrey Jones), engineers the kidnapping of a millionaire’s daughter, he gives the case to Harry because he knows Harry will never be able to solve it.

Who’s Harry Crumb?

He is John Candy, the much beloved and much missed comedic actor from Canada.  As anyone who has ever seen an old episode of SCTV knows, John Candy could be one of the funniest men alive but Hollywood rarely knew what to do with him.  Other than the movies that he made with John Hughes, Candy was always stuck in either supporting roles or in bad comedies.  In Art Linson’s A Pound of Flesh, veteran film producer Linson writes that, because of Candy’s size, some Paramount executives wanted to cast him as Al Capone in The Untouchables.  That is something that I would have enjoyed seeing.  Instead, some actor named Robert De Niro got that role and Candy ended up making movies like Who’s Harry Crumb?

Who’s Harry Crumb? tries to be a mix of comedy and mystery but, due to a weak script and uncertain direction, it does not really succeed as either.  John Candy delivers a few laughs because he was a naturally funny actor but, as a character, Harry Crumb is not that interesting.  Instead, the film is stolen by Annie Potts, playing a duplicitous femme fatale.  Potts and Candy previously came close to working together in the original Ghostbusters.  (Candy pulled out of the role of Louis Tully so that he could play Tom Hanks’s brother in Splash.  He was replaced by his SCTV co-star, Rick Moranis.)  The rest of the cast seems bored and uninterested in what they are doing.  Even Jeffrey Jones, usually so reliable in smarmy bad guy roles, seems bored.

John Candy died just 5 years after the release of Who’s Harry Crumb?, leaving behind two intriguing dream projects, one a biopic of Fatty Arbuckle and another an adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces.  Sadly, Hollywood never really figured out what to do with this talented comedian.

 

A Movie A Day #151: Easy Money (1983, directed by James Signorelli)


Rodney Dangerfield.  He didn’t get no respect but he did smoke a lot of weed.

It’s true.  Rodney first lit up in 1942 when he was a 21 year-old struggling nightclub comic.  According to his widow, the moment meant so much to Rodney that, decades later, he could still remember the room number — 1411, at the Belvedere Hotel in New York City — where he and fellow comedians Bobby Byron and Joe E. Ross smoked that first joint.  That was back when Rodney was performing under the name Jack Roy.  (His was born Jacob Cohen.)  Rodney’s first comedy career went so badly that he quit and spent the next twenty-two years as an aluminum siding salesman until he found the courage to return to the stage.  However, whether he was selling or performing, Rodney never stopped smoking marijuana.  When he was working on his autobiography, he wanted to call it My Lifelong Romance With Marijuana.  His wife convinced him to go with a different title:  It’s Not Easy Bein’ Me: A Lifetime of No Respect but Plenty of Sex and Drugs.

There’s plenty of drugs in Easy Money, which is a problem for baby photographer Monty Capuletti (Rodney, of course).  Monty likes to gamble, drink, and smoke pot, much to the disapproval of his wealthy mother-in-law (Geraldine Fitzgerald).  When she dies, she stipulates in her will that if Monty goes for a year without indulging in any of his vices, he and his family will receive 10 million dollars.  Sounds easy, right?  The only problem is that Monty really likes to eat, drink, gamble, and get high.  His best friend (Joe Pesci) doesn’t think he can do it.  His mother-in-law’s former assistant, Quincy Barlow (Jeffrey Jones), is determined to catch Monty slipping back into his old ways so that he can inherit the money.  Monty’s determined, though, to win the money for his family, especially now that his daughter (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has married the bizarre Julio (Taylor Negron).

The episodic plot is really just an excuse for Rodney to be Rodney, spouting off one liners and making snobs like Quincy look foolish.  Rodney and Joe Pesci were a surprisingly effective comedy team.  The scene where they get stoned and try to drive home without damaging the huge wedding cake in the back of the van is a hundred times funnier than it has any right being.  Even though it is hard to imagine her being, in any way, related to Rodney Dangerfield, Jennifer Jason Leigh is always a welcome presence.  Like many comedies of that era, Easy Money is uneven, with as many jokes failing as succeeding but, for Rodney Dangerfield fans, it is a must see.

Horror on TV: Tales From The Crypt 5.9 “Creep Course” (dir by Jeffrey Boam)


For tonight’s excursion into televised horror, how about a little mummy-related terror!?

That’s what you get this episode of HBO’s Tales From The Crypt!  From season 5, here is the ninth episode — Creep Course!  What happens when you mix the principal from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and the brain from the Breakfast Club with a mummy?  Mayhem!

This episode originally aired on November 10th, 1993.

Back to School #42: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (dir by John Hughes)


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Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. — Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

While I was rewatching the 1986 John Hughes comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for this review, I found myself thinking about all of the days (or, to be more precise about it, half-days) that I took off back when I was in high school.  It wasn’t that I didn’t like school.  Though I certainly didn’t truly appreciate it at the time, I actually had a pretty good time in high school.  I had an interesting and diverse group of friends.  I had lots of drama and lots of comedy.  I got good grades as long as it wasn’t a Math class.  (Drama, History, and English were always my best subjects.)  My teachers liked me.  But, at the same time, I couldn’t help but resent being required to go to school.  I do not like being told that I have to do something.

So, I would skip on occasion.  For some reason, it always seemed like my favorite classes were early in the day.  So, I’d go to school, enjoy myself up until lunch, and then me and a few friends would casually walk out of the building and we would be free!  There was a Target just a few blocks down the street from our high school and sometimes we’d go down there and spend a few hours shoplifting makeup.  Eventually, we did get caught by a big scary security guy who threatened to call our parents, made us return everything that we had hidden in our purses and bras, and then told us that we were never to step foot in that Target ever again.  And you know what?  In all the years since, I have yet to step back inside of that Target.

Interestingly enough, with all of the times that we skipped school, the worst thing that ever happened to me or any of my friends is that we got banned from Target.  We all still graduated, most of us still went to college, and, as far as I know, none of us have ever been arrested for a major crime.  None of us ever regretted missing any of the classes that we skipped.  For all the talk of how skipping school was the same thing as throwing away your future, it really was not that big of a deal.

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I think that’s one reason why, despite being nearly 30 years ago, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a film that continues to speak to audiences.  It’s a film that celebrates the fact that sometimes, you just have to take a day off and embrace life.  Technically, Ferris, Cameron (Alan Ruck), and Sloane (Mia Sara) may be breaking the law by skipping school and you could even argue that they’ve stolen Cameron’s dad’s car.

But, who cares?

You know who probably had perfect attendance in high school?  Principal Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) and seriously, who wants to grow up to be like that douchebag?

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Whenever I do watch Ferris Bueller (and I’ve seen it more times than I can remember because seriously, I freaking love this movie!), I always find myself wishing that real-life could be as much fun as the movies.  As much as I may have enjoyed skipping school and shoplifting, it’s nothing compared to everything that Ferris does during his day off!  Ferris goes to a baseball game!  He takes his friends to a fancy restaurant!  He goes to an art museum!  (And, much like Sloane, my heart swoons at this point because I would have loved to have known a guy who would skip school so he could specifically go to the museum.)  Perhaps most importantly, he encourages his best friend Cameron to actually have a good time and enjoy himself.

Ferris, Sloane, and Cameron

In Susannah Gora’s book You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried, an entire chapter is devoted to the making of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and, to be honest, it’s actually makes for rather melancholy reading.  Ferris Bueller was the last teen film that John Hughes directed and the book suggests that a lot of this was due to the fact that Hughes didn’t have as good a time making the film as audiences would later have watching it.  In the book, Mia Sara speculates that Hughes never bonded with the cast of Ferris Bueller in the same way that he did with the casts of Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club.

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And indeed, it’s hard to imagine either Ferris Bueller or Matthew Broderick popping up in either one of those two films.  Ferris is far too confident to relate to the angst-driven worlds of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, or Pretty in Pink.  True, he doesn’t have a car and his sister (Jennifer Grey) resents him but otherwise, Ferris’s life is pretty much care-free.  Not only does he live in a beautiful house but he’s also already come up with a definitive philosophy for how he wants to live his life.  You look at Ferris and you know that he probably grew up to be one of those people who ended up working on Wall Street and nearly bankrupted the country but you don’t care.  He’s too likable.

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His best friend, Cameron, is far more angsty but even his overwhelming depression doesn’t seem like it would be at home in any of Hughes’s other films.  If Cameron was a member of the Breakfast Club, he’d probably just sit in the back of the library and zone out.  Regardless of how much Judd Nelson taunted him, Cameron would stay in his shell.  If Cameron was in Sixteen Candles, it’s doubtful he would have been invited to the party at Jake Ryan’s house in the first place.  His depression is too overwhelming and his angst feels too real for him to safely appear in any film other than this one.  As a character, Cameron could only appear in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off because only Ferris Bueller would be capable getting Cameron to leave his bedroom.  On the one hand, the film may seem like a well-made but standard teen comedy where a lovable rebel defeats a hateful authority figure.  But, with repeat viewings, it becomes obvious that Ferris Bueller is truly about the battle for Cameron’s damaged soul.

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There’s a prominent theory out there that the entire film is supposed to be Cameron’s daydream and that Ferris either doesn’t exist or he’s just a popular student who Cameron has fantasized to be his best friend.  I can understand the theory because Cameron really is the heart of the movie.  At the same time, I hope it’s not true because, if this is all a fantasy, then that means that Sloane never said, “He’s going to marry me,” while running back home.  And that would be heart-breaking because I love that moment!

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Ferris Bueller’s Day Off may have John Hughes final teen film as a director (he would go on to write and produce Some Kind of Wonderful) but at least he went out on a true high note.

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