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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Embracing the Melodrama Part II #115: Revolutionary Road (dir by Sam Mendes)


Revolutionary_roadI have such mixed feelings about the 2008 film Revolutionary Road.

As you may remember, Revolutionary Road got a lot of attention because it reunited the Titanic lovers, Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio.  In Revolutionary Road, they would be playing the type of married couple that we all know Jack and Rose would have become if the boat hadn’t hit that iceberg.

Revolutionary Road also got a lot of attention because it was directed by Sam Mendes and it was a return to the “suburbs-as-Hell” genre of filmmaking that won Mendes an undeserved Oscar for his work on American Beauty.

And finally, Revolutionary Road was based on a 1961 novel by Richard Yates that had originally been declared to be unfilmmable.  After decades of being optioned and then abandoned, Revolutionary Road was finally coming to the screen.

With all that in mind, a lot of critics expected that Revolutionary Road would be one of the best films of the year.  When the film itself was finally released, there were a few ecstatic reviews.  There were predictions of Oscar glory.  But, for the most part, both audiences and critics had a somewhat muted reaction.  The film itself simply did not live up to all of the build up.

That said, Kate Winslet gave a great performance.  In the role of aspiring actress-turned-housewife-turned-prisoner April, Winslet gives a fierce and tragic performance.  The film revolves around April’s struggle to live her own life and pursue her own ambitions in a world that continually tells her that she should simply be happy and content to have a husband, two children, and a house in the suburbs.  When April describes her life as being full of “hopeless emptiness,” we all know exactly what she’s talking about.

Leonardo DiCaprio was a bit less convincing as her husband, Frank.  Then again, that’s not really a surprise.  DiCaprio is always at his worse whenever he has to play a “normal” character.  His screen presence is too off-center for him to be believable as a suburban conformist.  It was obviously good publicity to reunite DiCaprio and Winslet but that doesn’t change the fact that Leo is totally miscast.  Whenever Frank and April fight, Kate Winslet seems to be screaming from her very soul while DiCaprio is just shrill.  Admittedly, Frank is meant to be a shallow character but that doesn’t justify a shallow performance.

Throughout the film, Frank and April are constantly nagged by their real estate agent, Helen Givings (Kathy Bates).  Whenever Helen drops by the house, she goes “Yoo hoo!” in the shrillest way possible and the audiences is reminded that Sam Mendes is not a particularly subtle director.  That willingness to go over-the-top made him the perfect director for Skyfall but, in both American Beauty and this film, it just leads to some talented actors giving very bad performances.

Helen’s son, John (Michael Shannon), has one of those cinematic mental illnesses, the type that gives him the power to explicitly state each scene’s subtext.  John is also one of those overly theatrical characters who works a lot better as a literary conceit than as an actual character.

And really, I guess that sums up why I have never liked Revolutionary Road as much as I wanted to.  The film works whenever it focuses on Kate Winslet, precisely because she gives such a heartfelt and naturalistic performance.  However, at the same time, Winslet is so good that she exposes how artificial and theatrical the rest of the film is.  If only the rest of the production had followed Winslet’s lead, Revolutionary Road could have been something great.

For all the pre-release Oscar hype, Revolutionary Road was largely ignored when it came to the Academy Awards.  Michael Shannon received a surprise nomination for best supporting actor but otherwise, the film was snubbed.  Kate Winslet, however, did finally win an Oscar that year when she picked up the Best Actress award for her performance in The Reader.

Trailer: Oldboy (Red Band)


OldboyRemake

Today saw the release of the red band trailer for the remake of Park Chan-wook’s classic neo-noir Oldboy. This remake by Spike Lee already looks to pay homage (or imitate) the look and feel of Park’s adaptation of the Japanese manga of the same name by Garon Tsuchiya and Nobuaki Mineshigi. We see quick glimpses of the hallway fight scene and a montage of the main character’s 20 years spent locked up in an unknown hotel room.

There’s a great chance for Spike Lee to make this remake his very own by using the Park film as a template but not as gospel. The Park adaptation itself took some liberties with the story told in the manga. Lee and the screenplay by Protosevich could do same to allow this Oldboy a chance to stand on its own instead of becoming another Gus Van Sant Psycho.

Though I wouldn’t mind to see what Lee has in mind as Josh Brolin’s character’s first choice of a meal once getting out.