Thursday, August 19, 2010

Review: Ed Wood (1994)

Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker, Bill Murray, Jeffrey Jones, Lisa Marie

"I just want to tell stories. The things that interest me."
-Ed Wood

You know, I don’t get Tim Burton. It’s been a while since I’ve seen his much lauded The Nightmare Before Christmas opus, but the ones I have seen recently are all messed up, quality wise. He puts out a great movie like Batman, then the awful pile of hack that was Batman Returns. These days he puts out dreck like Sweeney Todd and then entertaining flicks like Alice in Wonderland, defying all expectations. I hate some elements of his style, but even I can’t deny the power of some of his best films. Like Ed Wood. Yup, that’s all you’re gonna get for a segueway.

Ed Wood is just masterful. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a film like this…oh wait, it was when I watched The Big Lebowski a few days ago; scratch that. But this is still a very accomplished and well done flick. It’s about the life of Edward D. Wood Jr., one of the worst film directors of all time, and it chronicles his journey to attaining that wonderful honor. It’s even shot in all black and white, just like films back in Ed’s time were! Guess who the lead actor is?

a)     Nic Cage
b)     Dennis Hopper
c)     Johnny Depp
d)    Keanu Reeves

If you guessed “c”…well, duh! It’s a Tim Burton movie! But he does a very good job as our energetic, quirky director, even cross-dressing on camera. Yes, that’s right. Johnny Depp cross dresses; you have to see it to believe it. His acting here is really good though, capturing an innocence that is usual for the characters Burton has him play, but also a certain subtlety that seems to escape both of them in their later days. I think my favorite, though, is Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi. He really does a spectacular job, channeling all the hopelessness of an old washed up celebrity and making him totally likable and amiable. Just watch the first scene where Ed is over at his house, where they watch the old re-run of one of Lugosi’s films on the Vampira show. He starts doing this thing with his hand that apparently, all vampires have to do to seduce women. And the look on his face when the trick-or-treater isn’t scared by his Dracula get up is priceless. This is the best character in the film by far, but that isn’t saying much, as the others are all still very good, too.

Jeffrey Jones as Criswell is hilarious with his stoic expression and calm tone. Bill Murray as “Bunny” is a smaller role, but every scene he’s in, you can tell he’s having fun, and you will be laughing along with him. Sarah Jessica Parker as Delores is pretty damn solid, too, and she shows a wide range of emotions and moods that are just hysterical combined with Wood’s happy-go-lucky act. And Lisa Marie as Vampira is priceless…hell, I could go on listing every member of this cast; it’s really phenomenal. What a great cast.

The story chronicles the haphazard adventures of the making of three of Wood’s much storied films, from the ‘true to life’ story of Glen or Glenda, in which he turned a contract from a porn studio to put out a sex-change movie into a rambling, incoherent mess of his own personal demons, to the making of Bride of the Monster, where he and his crew stole materials from a bigger studio but did not actually have the equipment to make them work right, and finally to Plan 9 From Outer Space, which…well, I’ll go into it later. With every quickly-filmed scene, every messy execution and every mistake, Wood just repeats the words “That was perfect!” and moves on, eager to keep filming. He just loves telling stories, and he doesn’t care how sloppy he gets. “Nobody will notice that,” he says indignantly, shooing off any criticism. What’s going on in his head? I don’t know. But that good natured smile and those wild eyes are poised to succeed no matter how bad he ends up sucking. He’s just unstoppable, even when the rest of the world hates him.

This movie is mostly pretty funny, but I have to admit it gets pretty sad at times, too, like when Bela is committed to the rehab center, and spends his first night awake, screaming his head off. And his final scene out in the yard, being filmed staggering around and smelling flowers…well, just try and watch that scene and tell me you weren’t touched.

But he passed away, as he did in real life, before the filming of Plan 9 ever started, and life went on. How does Ed deal with it? Just like in real life, he hires some guy who looks nothing like him to walk around with a cape in front of his face, obscuring the fact that it isn’t really him. Some of Ed Wood’s best scenes occur in this last segment, the filming of the infamous crown jewel of B movies, Plan 9 from Outer Space, and that’s quite a feat. I think the scene where they all get baptized is my favorite in the entire film. And Ed’s explosion in front of the Baptist sponsors is classic, his voice hitting a squealy high that is really funny.

“Do you know anything about the art of filmmaking?” asks one of the Baptists, to which Ed replies, “I would hope so!”

That pretty much sums up the entire movie right there. Ed Wood is a vivid, hilarious, witty and extremely clever look at a very strange man. I haven’t seen all of Tim Burton’s movies yet, but of the ones I have seen, this one is the best, by far and wide. And that’s saying a lot, considering how much I loved Batman. Ed Wood encapsulates a number of things that make film so great – artful, stylish directing, comedy that goes between subtle and overt, great acting and casting choices and it’s just all around entertaining as hell. What more could you want? Go see this movie; especially if you like Burton’s later, more over the top work. It’s worth a viewing by anyone.