"Pull the string! Pull the string!"
Passion is a tricky beast. Like an undead ghoul or a grave robber from outer space, it aims to drain us of our blood and possess us body and soul -- and unfortunately, we seldom have any say in the matter. Despite our best interests, people rarely get to choose their true passion. It's just born into us, and try as we might, we'll never be happy until that pesky zeal is quenched. For infamous movie director Ed Wood, that passion was for filmmaking, and regardless of his total lack of skill, he directed several classic turkeys that remain cult favorites for fans of terrible cinema. With equal passion and thankfully a lot more talent, Tim Burton brings Wood's true story to the screen, chronicling the Z-movie director's penchant for eccentricity, enthusiasm, and ineptitude. A hilarious look at fast, cheap, dirty filmmaking at its finest, 'Ed Wood' offers a humorous but loving examination of friendship, acceptance, and flying saucers.
Based on the biography "Nightmare of Ecstasy" written by Rudolph Grey, the movie follows the 1950s filmmaking exploits of Edward D. Wood Jr. (Johnny Depp). While Wood has a ton of passion, determination, and a healthy helping of odd quirks, he sadly lacks any real semblance of talent. After a fateful meeting with the legendary but tragically washed-up horror film star Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), Wood and the former 'Dracula' develop a close friendship. With Lugosi now attached to star, the enthusiastic director is actually able to get a few low budget productions going. Joined by a growing cavalcade of misfits and outcasts, the filmmaker attempts to successfully translate his unique "vision" to the screen. Despite a constant barrage of obstacles, Wood is determined to leave his mark on the world of motion pictures, and won't let anything get in his way -- even total incompetence.
An affectionate ode to the cult "auteur" (who was once labeled the worst director of all time), the story is littered with 50s sci-fi nostalgia and lampooning comedy that pokes fun at its subjects without ever truly ridiculing them. While the film certainly finds a healthy dose of humor in Wood's directing flaws, the approach is never mean-spirited, and instead Burton successfully skirts the fine line between loving and mocking. I wouldn't say we're always laughing with Ed, but we're not exactly laughing at him either. The mixture of deadpan and oddball humor is mostly celebratory in nature, highlighting the more admirable and wonderfully strange qualities of the decidedly oblivious filmmaker. Wood and his strange moviemaking family are much more than mere objects of scorn, and Burton manages to inject the proceedings with a wonderful amount of genuine heart. Despite their faults and general lack of talent, this is clearly their story, and through Burton's affectionate lens they become an endearing (albeit delusional) gang of misfit underdogs that the audience can't help but root for.
Taking the fun nostalgia of the script even further, the director perfectly evokes the spirit of 1950s B-movies. Shot in black and white, Burton and cinematographer Stefan Czapsky subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) mirror the low budget aesthetic of Wood's own cheesy productions. Though famous for his distinct, highly stylized images, here Burton's approach is much more restrained and reserved, respecting the biography nature of the content. With that said, the director's trademark eye for dark eccentricity is still on full display, and Burton enhances the inherent oddities of the story and characters in several key sequences (including a slightly surreal movie premiere that gets out of hand, and a heartwarming trip through a spooky carnival ride). Shadowy lighting and dramatic angles all callback to classic monster movies, and the director finds ways to use many tried-and-true genre techniques to bolster real-life drama (a shot of Bela going through withdrawal at a rehabilitation clinic becomes a horror movie of a different kind).
Perhaps one of the most entertaining and atypical movies about moviemaking, the film is also littered with scenes of Wood on-set directing his many "masterpieces." This leads to several memorable, pitch-perfect recreations of numerous sequences from Wood's films (most notably 'Plan 9 from Outer Space'), complete with awkward acting, shoddy sets, cheap costumes, and glaring errors. Though Wood's original scenes are unintentionally bad, Burton and his crew have to deliberately replicate all the silly mistakes he made, and one gets a sense that the filmmakers are really relishing the opportunity, taking great care to get every flaw just right. This backstage peek into the ins and outs of movie production doesn't just stop on-set either. As the runtime goes on, the film offers an all encompassing expose on the whole dog and pony show that goes into pitching scripts, casting stars, and raising money. Through the narrative's hilariously accurate portrayal of the business, the filmmakers reveal the unwavering commitment and fervor necessary to get any movie made -- even really, really bad ones.
'Ed Wood' might be most famous for its hilarious look at low budget genre moviemaking, but at its core the film actually tackles so much more. Beyond everything else, this is really a film about friendship, and the relationship that forms between the star-struck Ed Wood and the tragic Bela Lugosi is quite touching. Depp's take on the passionate but clueless director is brilliant, and while the role requires far less makeup than most other Depp/Burton collaborations, the actor still manages to completely disappear into the role. A perpetually smiling, infinitely optimistic eccentric, Wood carries an earnest, childlike sincerity and enthusiasm. Though often quite delusional about the quality of his own work, his tenacity and passion are commendable. As pointed out in the commentary, Depp apparently based his performance on an appropriately bizarre mishmash of inspirations that include the likes of Casey Kasem, Ronald Reagan, and The Tin Man. A cross-dressing, desperate dreamer with a penchant for Angora sweaters, Depp's character is the ultimate outcast underdog. As a filmmaker he never sweats the "small" stuff (he's usually happy with a first take), and simply rolls with the punches, making compromise after compromise. It's this perseverance that serves as his greatest strength and weakness, forcing him to go on with his silly productions even when he really shouldn't.
Through his friendship with Lugosi, Wood discovers a kindred spirit of sorts, and together they find solace in each other. Landau's take on the past-his-prime thespian is masterful, and righty earned him an Academy Award. With the help of Rick Baker's impressive makeup (which also snagged an Oscar), the actor totally transforms into the Hungarian "creature of the night." Avoiding a simple caricature or impression, Landau finds the emotional center of the character, and his proud, profanity-laden version of Lugosi ends up stealing the show. A pathetic, lonely junkie, the aging star has been tossed aside by the business, and serves as a painful reminder of Hollywood's cruel and callous nature. His struggle with addiction is handled with surprising sensitivity, and Landau does a great job of balancing the humor and tragedy of the role. Though the 'Dracula' star is clearly on his last legs, all Ed Wood sees is his childhood idol, and despite the film's many overt quirks and oddities, their friendship is genuinely sweet and ultimately heartbreaking. Likewise, the rest of the ensemble is packed with a cavalry of goofball freaks, weirdos, and misfits, and they all do a great job of layering real heart beneath their amusing insanity (especially Bill Murray who is very memorable in his small part as drag queen Bunny Breckinridge).
A hilarious and moving love letter to dreamers, outcasts, and the passion of filmmaking, 'Ed Wood' is funny, quirky, and genuinely touching. While some might debate whether a terrible director really deserves to be celebrated, Burton's approach is so affectionately humorous, heartfelt and entertaining that it's hard to argue with the results. Depp and Landau turn in some of their very best work, and the movie offers a fantastic visual homage to low budget 50s sci-fi flicks. The film definitely finds humor in the flaws of its characters, but Burton never ridicules them for their quirks and differences -- instead, he does just the opposite. Through the (mostly) true story of one of the industry's worst directors, a truly great director is able to illuminate the many joys and hardships of moviemaking. A peculiar examination of friendship, acceptance, passion, and delusion, 'Ed Wood' remains one of the most endearing and unusual films about filmmaking ever made.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Touchstone Pictures brings 'Ed Wood' to Blu-ray on a BD-50 disc housed in a keepcase. After some skippable trailers, the disc transitions to a standard menu. The packaging indicates that the release is region A, B and C compatible.
The movie is provided with a black and white 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The video starts off quite strong, authentically replicating Burton's B-movie influenced style, but there are some very minor inconsistencies that crop up as the runtime continues.
The source print is in great condition with no real signs of damage or wear. A moderate, natural layer of grain is visible in most scenes, giving the film some nice texture. With that said, there are a few isolated shots that exhibit a faintly waxy/smeary quality that points to possible processing (check out the shot of Depp at the 45:50 mark). Thankfully, these instances are rare, and the vast majority of the presentation features natural grain, strong clarity and pleasing fine details. Wood's cheap sets, effects, and costumes are displayed in all their "glory" and one can make out every fuzzy thread on his trademark Angora sweaters. The high contrast black and white photography is steeped in stark shadows and bright whites. Black levels are deep and inky, but dark portions of the screen can crush (Depp's tie completely disappears into his black vest in an early scene, for instance). While not ideal, based on the visual style of the film, I'm inclined to believe that this is simply a natural result of the original photography, and not an actual fault of the digital transfer. An extremely faint instance of banding is visible in the black portions of the screen at the 01:21:50 mark, but this is barely noticeable and is not a real concern.
Despite some of the intentionally shoddy production work used to replicate Wood's infamous low-budget films, the movie looks quite good on Blu-ray. Burton's visual style offers a loving homage to 50s genre flicks, and the image carries a strong sense of pop and detail. With the exception of a few fleeting shots, this is a very respectful and impressive transfer.
The film is provided with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, a French Dolby Digital 5.1 track, and a Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 track. English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are also available. Though labeled a 5.1 track, surround activity is virtually non-existent, limiting the overall impact of the mix.
Dialogue is clean and full-bodied throughout. Effects work and directionality are strong throughout the front three channels, sending appropriate sounds to the left, right, and center with smooth imagining. Howard Shore's playful score is also a real highlight, and the theremin infused music comes through with strong fidelity. Unfortunately, outside of some faint music cues, rear activity is negligible. In fact, with the exception of the score, I detected no surround activity at all. Even crowd heavy scenes (like a movie premiere that turns into a riot of angry viewers) are devoid of rear speaker ambiance or isolated effects. On the upside, dynamic range is wide and distortion free, and LFE response is strong with some decent, natural rumble when called for.
For a 5.1 mix, this track is disappointingly front-heavy. The left, right, and center channels do offer some lively effects -- but surround activity is limited to faint music cues that don't do much to enhance the atmosphere. Don't get me wrong, this is still a faithful and technically strong mix that fits well with the low-budget 50s Z-movie content of the story, but viewers shouldn't go in expecting a full 5.1 experience.
Touchstone has ported over the special features from its previous DVD release. All of the supplements are provided in standard definition with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio and the same subtitle options as the main feature.
'Ed Wood' is a loving celebration of outcasts, misfits, passion, and filmmaking. Tim Burton brings a heartfelt spirit of quirky nostalgia to the picture that somehow finds laughter and tears in one of the most unlikely biopics ever made. The video transfer is strong and while the audio is very front-heavy, it serves the film well. The commentary and featurettes offer some great insights into the production and real-life inspirations for the story. This is one of my favorite films from Tim Burton, and thankfully Touchstone has done the movie justice. Highly Recommended.