ED WOOD - DVD review

...most of the movie is really a tragedy about how a dying movie star has to demean himself making movies directed by a hack who doesn't even know that he's terrible.


Oft-announced and oft-delayed, "Ed Wood" has finally made its way on to DVD. Although I don't think that either Tim Burton or Johnny Depp consistently makes good movies (in fact, they've made a number of pretty bad ones), they offer such unique visions that it's important for a cinephile to check out Burton and Depp's movies, just in case something special was created. "Batman", "Batman Returns", and "Sleepy Hollow" are outstanding. "Pirates of the Caribbean" is a long-winded hack job, but Johnny Depp is amazingly hilarious in it. He's even charming in touchy-feely pap like "Chocolat".

"Ed Wood" is an ode to a man responsible for howlers such as "Plan 9 From Outer Space" and "Glen or Glenda?", movies universally acknowledged as being so bad that they're worth watching for your disbelief. It makes sense that Tim Burton would direct such a project; he's shown an obvious affection for underdogs, social rejects, and lowlifes. (For example, the Martians were much more interesting than the humans in "Mars Attacks!".) Ed Wood surrounded himself with bottom-feeders like a past-his-prime Bela Lugosi and Vampira the buxom hostess of horror movies when they played on TV (she was the inspiration for Elvira). While they worked in order to support themselves, Ed Wood simply wanted to make pictures.

The movie begins with Wood (Johnny Depp) and his friends putting on a production of a poorly-attended play. The theatre life isn't going well for Wood, so he persuades a scrappy independent company to finance a movie about cross-dressing. Despite the harsh reaction towards "Glen or Glenda?" from Hollywood insiders, he manages to squeeze out pictures through perseverance, dumb luck, and not doing more than one take for each shot. He gives Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau, a legend in his own right who won an Oscar for his performance) a last taste at happiness after the former "Dracula" star has ceased to be useful to Universal Studios.

"Ed Wood" is edited in such a way that, every so often, the movie lingers on an actor mugging towards the camera. This is meant to give audiences time to laugh. That way, laughter won't drown out the next bit of dialogue. However, to me, this was too obvious and too forced to be justifiable. The movie's "intended" funny moments weren't really funny at all. Its best chuckles are found during quiet moments, when the characters realize something about themselves after their travails. Still, most of the movie is really a tragedy about how a dying movie star has to demean himself making movies directed by a hack who doesn't even know that he's terrible. I didn't feel affectionate or protective towards Ed Wood the way that some of the characters do; rather, I wanted either to slap him awake or to look away from the screen.

The large ensemble cast includes Sarah Jessica Parker as one of Wood's girlfriends, Patricia Arquette as Wood's wife, Jeffrey Jones as a TV psychic, Bill Murray as a transvestite, Max Casella (from "Doogie Howser") as one of Wood's loyal assistants/actors, and Juliet Landau, Martin's daughter, as an aspiring actress. (Juliet Landau played Drusilla on TV's "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer".) People talk about how funny "Ed Wood" is. I laughed aloud just once, when Sarah Jessica Parker's character wonders if she has a horse face as per a critic's review; I don't care if Sarah Jessica Parker was the star of a TV show called "Sex and the City"--she's not the least bit attractive, and her face is indeed horse-like.

The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen is an odd creature. There are times when handsome, sterling black-and-white cinematography takes your breath away. There are times when the movie is intentionally meant to mimic the low-grade film stock that Ed Wood might've used. Finally, there are times when you can see print damage in the form of specks, dust, scratches, and in one brief instance, a film frame actually cut in half! You know Buena Vista took its time releasing the movie on DVD--someone could've done a much better job than what we have in our hands.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 English is front-heavy, as expected with a small-scale drama. The surrounds come into play only when there are thunderstorms, though the subwoofer participates in the action when Ed Wood's run-down car chokes and sputters its way on to the screen. Dialogue is crisp and clear, and Howard Shore's playful music score is done justice.

Optional English and Spanish subtitles as well as optional English closed captions support the audio.

There's an audio commentary by Tim Burton, Martin Landau, cinematographer Stefan Czapsky, costume designer Colleen Atwood, and co-writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Making a movie like "Ed Wood" requires a certain kind of enthusiasm, and these people have it. Therefore, there's a lot of substantive information to be gained from their historical research. Oddly, the audio commentary may be more valuable than simply watching the movie itself!

"Let's Shoot This F#*%@r!" is a behind-the scenes featurette with Johnny Depp hosting and channeling Ed Wood. "Making Bela" offers interviews with Martin Landau and make-up designer Rick Baker discussing how efforts were coordinated in order to bring a convincing resemblance of the legendary actor to life. "Pie Plates Over Hollywood" examines how production designer Tom Duffield dealt with the challenges of making his first black-and-white movie and with designing sets that allowed the moviemakers to mimic Ed Wood's horrendous shooting style. There's a featurette devoted to composer Howard Shore's invocation of period-specific music, including his use of the theremin. (Shore doesn't address why one of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" themes is quoted repeatedly.) There's a weird music video with Shore's music and dance choreography created specifically for the music video. Finally, you get some deleted scenes as well as the movie's theatrical trailer.

A glossy insert provides chapter listings.

Film Value:
Yes, "Ed Wood" is a loving tribute to a lousy moviemaker whose sole saving grace was his outsized enthusiasm for cinema, but the movie's worst flaw is one shared by every bad movie ever made--it's too long. Re-creations of Wood's shoots are longer than necessary in order for viewers to get the point, and seeing Wood do a bad job over and over again is numbing. Also, the movie becomes rather dull after Martin Landau's exit. Instead of the emotional range being experienced by Bela Lugosi, we get extended sequences of an ebullient Ed Wood acting like an oblivious goof (an unfunny one at that). This time, "it was meant to be bad" is not an excuse since Tim Burton is celebrating and not parodying Ed Wood. Johnny Depp and Martin Landau are great; how you respond to everything else depends on your generosity of mood.


Film Value