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 #265: Hoodlum (1997, directed by Bill Duke)


1930s.  New York City.  For years, Stephanie St. Clair (Cicely Tyson) has been the benevolent queen of the Harlem underworld, running a successful numbers game and protecting her community from outsiders.  However, psychotic crime boss Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth) is determined to move into Harlem and take over the rackets for himself.  With the weary support of Lucky Luciano (Andy Garcia), Schultz thinks that he is unstoppable but he did not count on the intervention of Bumpy Johnson (Laurence Fishburne).  Just paroled from Sing Sing, Bumpy is determined to do whatever has to be done to keep Schultz out of Harlem.

When I reviewed The Cotton Club yesterday, I knew that I would have to do Hoodlum today.  Hoodlum and The Cotton Club are based on the same historic events and both of them feature Laurence Fishburne in the role of Bumpy Johnson.  Of the two, Hoodlum is the more straightforward film, without any of the operatic flourishes that Coppola brought to The Cotton Club.  Fisburne is surprisingly dull as Bumpy Johnson but Tim Roth goes all in as Dutch Schultz and Andy Garcia is memorably oily as the Machiavellian Luciano.  Hoodlum is about forty minutes too long but the gangster action scenes are staged well.  Bumpy Johnson lived a fascinating life and it is unfortunate that no film has yet to really do him justice, though Clarence Williams III came close with his brief cameo in American Gangster.  (Interestingly enough, Williams is also in Hoodlum, playing one of Shultz’s lieutenants.)

One final note: Hoodlum features William Atherton in the role of District Attorney Thomas E. Dewey.  Atherton plays Dewey as being a corrupt and sleazy politician on Luciano’s payroll.  In real life, Dewey was known for being so honest that Dutch Schultz actually put a contract out on his life after he discovered that Dewey could not be bribed.  I am not sure why Hoodlum decided to slander the subject of one of America’s most famous headlines but it seems unnecessary.

A Movie A Day #121: Frank Nitti: The Enforcer (1988, directed by Michael Switzer)


Everyone knows who Al Capone was but few people remember Frank Nitti.  Nicknamed “The Enforcer,” Nitti was Capone’s right-hand man.  When Big Al was sent to federal prison for not paying his taxes, Nitti was the one who kept things going in Chicago.  While Al was losing his mind in Florida, Nitti was the one who moved the Chicago Outfit away from prostitution and into the labor racket.  Today, if anyone remembers Frank Nitti, it is probably because of the scene in Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables where Eliot Ness tosses him off of a building.  In real life, Nitti survived the Untouchable era just to become one of the few crime bosses to die by his own hand.  In 1943, With the feds closing in on him, Nitti shot himself in a Chicago rail yard.

Frank Nitti: The Enforcer was a made-for-TV movie that told the story of Nitti’s life.  Broadcast a year after The Untouchables, Nitti is, in many ways, a direct refutation of DePalma’s film.  Eliot Ness never appears in the movie and is dismissed, by special prosecutor Hugh Kelly (Michael Moriarty), as being a publicity seeker.  Al Capone (Vincent Guastaferro) is ruthless and resents being called Scarface but he never hits anyone with a baseball bat.  In this movie, the only real villains are the Irish cops who harass Nitti (played by Anthony LaPaglia, in his American film debut) and Chicago’s ambitious mayor, Anton Cermak (Bruce Kirby).  Cermak orders a corrupt cop (Mike Starr) to shoot Nitti and the film implies that Cermak’s subsequent assassination was payback.

Though it sometimes tries too hard to portray its title character as just being a salt of the Earth family man who also happened to be the biggest mob boss in the country, Nitti is a good gangster film.  Michael Moriarty’s performance is a forerunner to his work on Law & Order and Trini Alvarado is lovely as Nitti’s wife.  Anthony LaPaglia gives a good performance in the lead role, with the film’s portrayal of Nitti as a ruthless but reluctant mob boss predating The Sopranos by a decade.

Pop Up Fly: SQUEEZE PLAY (Troma 1979)


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Welcome to the wacky, wonderful world of 70’s sexploitation comedies. Today we’ll be dealing with two Great American Obsessions: boobs and baseball! (Actually, it’s softball here, but why quibble).  SQUEEZE PLAY is brought to you by Lloyd Kaufman and his team at Troma Entertainment, the folks responsible for such cinematic gems as THE TOXIC AVENGER and CLASS OF NUKE EM HIGH. Let’s slide right into the plot of the movie, shall we?

SQUEEZE PLAY is your basic Battle of the Sexes romp. The Beavers are the champs of the Mattress Workers Softball League, and the guys on the team have been ignoring their women folk for softball. This is causing much friction between them (and not the pleasant kind!), especially our two leads, team captain Wes and his fiancée Samantha. Things change when Mary Lou, a pretty heiress on the run, comes to town and demonstrates a killer arm (seems…

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What Lisa Watched Last Night #56: Dumb and Dumber (dir by Peter and Bobby Farrelly)


Last night, I turned on Comedy Central and I watched the 1994 comedy Dumb and Dumber.

Why Was I Watching It?

Last night was my first time to ever sit down and watch Dumb and Dumber from beginning to end.  I had seen several clips on YouTube and I had been assured by many people that Dumb and Dumber was one of the funniest movies ever made.  Last night, since SyFy was not showing an original movie, I decided to find out for myself.

What Was It About?

Harry (played by Jeff Daniels) is dumb and Lloyd (Jim Carrey) is dumber.  Harry has messy hair and Lloyd has a chipped tooth.  They end up getting kicked out of their depressing apartment and this somehow leads to them going on a road trip from Rhode Island to Colorado.  They’re looking for Lloyd’s dream girl, Mary (Lauren Holly).  Along the way, they’re pursued by a gangsters and engage in a lot of disgusting adventures.  It’s a dumb movie about dumb people doing dumb things.

What Worked?

I laughed once while watching the film.  It was a weary laugh that was largely the result of being slowly worn down by the film’s insistence that what I was watching was actually funny.  It wasn’t a sincere laugh.  It was a laugh of surrender but it was a laugh nonetheless.

Jeff Daniels is currently best known for playing Will McAvoy, the smug and condescending center of HBO’s The Newsroom.  That show’s pilot famously started off with McAvoy declaring that the millenials are the “WORST.  GENERATION.  EVER.”  As a member of the WORST.  GENERATION.  EVER, I have to say that there was something oddly satisfying about seeing Jeff Daniels getting continually humiliated (and, at one point, set on fire) in Dumb and Dumber.

What Did Not Work?

Just to judge by the reaction on twitter while Dumb and Dumber was playing, a lot of people are going to disagree with me on this but Dumb and Dumber sucks.  Seriously.  The film’s constant gross-out humor felt more lazy than clever and watching it quickly became as tedious as watching a commercial featuring a celebrity talking to their iPhone.  As I watched Dumb and Dumber, I found myself constantly checking the time and wondering, “Is the film ever going to actually get funny?”

One of the keys to succesful film comedy is that you have to believe that the characters have an actual stake in the film’s plot, regardless of how ludicrous or over-the-top the plot may get.  That stake is the difference between silly and funny.  With Jeff Daniels looking extremely uncomfortable and Jim Carrey apparently acting in a separate movie from everyone else, Dumb and Dumber is silly without ever really being funny.

Maybe it was easier to make people laugh in 1994.

“Oh my God!  Just like me!” Moments

For once, I’m glad to say that a movie featured absolutely no “Oh my God!  Just like me!” moments.

Actually, I take that back.  Both me and Lauren Holly have the same hair color.  So, that was just like me.

But that is it!

Lessons Learned

Comedy, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

A Quickie With Lisa Marie: Kill The Irishman (dir. by Jonathan Hensleigh)


Jonathan Hensleigh’s fact-based gangster film Kill The Irishman had a brief (and limited) theatrical run earlier this year and received generally mixed reviews.  I myself didn’t see it in the theaters but instead, caught it OnDemand a few weeks ago and I was genuinely surprised to discover that this film, while far from being perfect, is also hardly the simple Goodfellas rip-off that I had originally been led to suspect.  Instead, Kill The Irishman is a somewhat flawed but ultimately quite rewarding David-and-Goliath story about a real-life David who was known as “the Irishman.”

Kill The Irishman tells the true story of Danny Greene (played by Ray Stevenson), an Irish-American gangster who went from being a corrupt union boss to challenging the Sicilian mafia’s dominance of the criminal underworld of Cleveland, Ohio.  In 1977, Greene became, for a brief period of time, a media celebrity when he survived several assassination attempts while fighting a war for control of the Cleveland rackets.  As the film both informs and shows us, this violent, underground war led to a total of 35 bombings, all designed to kill either Greene or one of his allies.  By surviving these attacks, Greene briefly appeared to be indestructible and seemed to be on the verge of reviving the long-dormant Irish mafia. 

As a film, it takes a while for Kill The Irishman to really click.  From the start director Hensleigh shows a real feel for capturing the feel of a once great city slowly dying but the 1st half of the movie still threatens to get bogged down in all the clichés of the modern gangster film — there’s a bit too much clunky narration from Val Kilmer (who sleepwalks through his role as a fictional police detective who grew up with Greene) and a few too many montages set to old rock tunes.  It’s all watchable enough and there’s a few memorable sequences (my favorite being the early scenes of Greene on the job, slaving away under an oppressive sun) but on the whole, it just feels like the 100th low-budget remake of Goodfellas.  The highlight of this part of the film is Christopher Walken’s typically eccentric yet genuinely sinister performance as an early Greene mentor-turned-enemy.

However, once Greene goes on his own and starts to blow up every inch of Cleveland, the film comes into its own and establishes its own rough identity.  Hensleigh proves to be very adept at orchestrating chaos and, with the entire Mafia out to kill him, Greene goes from just being a thug to being a true underdog.  It’s impossible not to root for him and, much like the film, it’s here where Ray Stevenson comes into his own.  For the 1st half of the film, Stevenson seems like an adequate but uninspired choice for the role of Danny Greene.  However, once Cleveland starts exploding around him, Stevenson comes into his own.  He not only captures Greene’s cocky defiance but, as the film reaches its inetivable conclusion, he also captures Greene’s own growing paranoia and fear.  By the end of the film, Stevenson has given a performance that has masterfully juggled pride and regret, defiance and fear.  Regardless of whether it’s an accurate statement about the real Danny Greene, Ray Stevenson makes his version into a true tragic hero.

Along with Stevenson’s anchor of a performance and Walken’s scene-stealing characterization, Kill the Irishman is filled with familiar mob movie character actors, most of whom contribute some nicely realized turns as the various members of the Cleveland underworld.  Tony Lo Bianco, Mike Starr, and Paul Sorvino are all convincingly brutish as the leaders of the local Mafia and Vincent D’Onofrio is wonderfully flamboyant as Greene’s one Italian ally.  My personal favorite supporting performance came from character actor Robert Davi who was almost a little bit too believable as a cold-blooded murderer.  Not to get too specific here but if I ever happen to hire a professional assassin, I hope he looks like Robert Davi.

I have to admit that one reason why I ultimately enjoyed this flawed but worthwhile film is because I’ve always wished that I could have been a member of the Irish mafia.  (I wanted to be like Maggie from Gangs of New York and use my fingernails to rip open throats.)  For many of us Irish-Americans, there’s just this romance to the whole idea of the Irish Mafia and we’re always looking for evidence that the organization wasn’t, more or less, wiped out by the Italians.  (Fortunately, I happen to be a fourth Italian along with being a fourth Irish so the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is a smidgen less traumatic for me).  If nothing else, the Irish mafia epitomizes two things that every true Irish-American knows to be true: 1) the Irish will never stop fighting no matter how intimidating the odds and 2) we’re all ultimately doomed regardless.  Kill the Irishman may not be a perfect film but it’s a fitting tribute to a better kind of criminal.