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Ed Wood Blu-ray Disc Review

Ed Wood (1994) movie poster Ed Wood

Theatrical Release: September 30, 1994 / Running Time: 127 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Tim Burton / Writers: Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski (screenplay); Rudolph Grey (book Nightmare of Ecstasy)

Cast: Johnny Depp (Edward D. Wood, Jr.), Martin Landau (Bela Lugosi), Sarah Jessica Parker (Dolores Fuller), Patricia Arquette (Kathy O'Hara), Jeffrey Jones (Criswell), G.D. Spradlin (Reverend Lemon), Vincent D'Onofrio (Orson Welles), Bill Murray (Bunny Breckinridge), Mike Starr (Georgie Weiss), Max Casella (Paul Marco), Brent Hinkley (Conrad Brooks), Lisa Marie (Vampira), George "The Animal" Steele (Tor Johnson), Juliet Landau (Loretta King), Clive Rosengren (Ed Reynolds), Norman Alden (Cameraman Bill), Leonard Termo (Makeup Man Harry), Ned Bellamy (Dr. Tom Mason), Rance Howard (Old Man McCoy), Maurice LaMarche (voice of Orson Welles - uncredited)

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When it comes to style, few filmmakers are in the same class as Tim Burton. Unfortunately, Burton's films have far too often lacked the substance to go with it. Even solid novels (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) have made for underwhelming adaptations in Burton's hands.
Technically innovative and tremendously successful commercially, but underwhelming nonetheless.

There have been a few films, however, that Burton has gotten just right, yielding more than just visually interesting diversion. Big Fish and Sweeney Todd come to mind. I would need to revisit it, but Edward Scissorhands might qualify. In these ranks I would also include Ed Wood.

Burton's first time in the director's chair since helming his second of two turn-of-the-'90s Batman movies, Ed Wood dialed down commercial expectations while seemingly cranking up its maker's passion for the subject matter. It's not as if Gotham City didn't have Burton's full attention and vision, especially the imprint-bearing Batman Returns. But one gets the impression that Burton cares a lot more about Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi than the Penguin and Catwoman.

As you should know, Edward D. Wood, Jr. was a writer, director, and producer of B movies beginning in the 1950s. That he is remembered and most of his contemporaries forgotten indicates that Wood was no ordinary filmmaker. But the reason that Wood remains renowned and is immortalized by Burton here is because he is considered perhaps the worst filmmaker who ever lived. His amateurish movies included infamous attempts at horror (Bride of the Monster) and science fiction (Plan 9 from Outer Space). People like Wood are the reason that "Mystery Science Theater 3000" existed and flourished (three of his movies were skewered on that cable institution). His films are of the so bad they're good variety. The cheap, hasty works invite derision and there is much ironic amusement to be had on account of that.

Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) pitches his directing services for a studio's sex-change film, disclosing his unique qualifications for the job. Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) mimics the hand gestures of his new best friend Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) as they watch a broadcast of one of Lugosi's earlier films.

The third screenplay by Problem Child and Problem Child 2 scribes Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Ed Wood both fits and defies the biopic mold. Its subject is clearly unworthy of conventional hero worship and yet the movie possesses respect and admiration for Wood's gung-ho spirit and can-do attitude.

In his second of eight (and counting!) turns for Burton, Johnny Depp portrays Wood, a longtime occasional transvestite with a taste for angora sweaters whose predilections became the basis of the 1953 exploitation flick Glen or Glenda, his feature-length debut. Revealing the secret fetish puts a strain on his genuine relationship with girlfriend Dolores Fuller (Sarah Jessica Parker), his go-to leading lady on stage and screen.

Wood works quickly, cheaply, and with the help of a small, loyal, supportive crew, including showy sham prognosticator Criswell (Jeffrey Jones) and gender-conflicted friend Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray), whom he often assigns acting roles. Despite those assets, the director meets resistance even from schlock-churning studios and even after he meets and befriends aging former movie star Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau). Broke, unemployable, recently separated, and addicted to morphine, Lugosi agrees to any work that Wood will send his way. The director's troupe expands to include monstrous Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson (WWE Hall of Fame inductee George "The Animal" Steele) and television's horror movie hostess Vampira (Lisa Marie), both found by fortuity.

When Wood decides to go independent, he courts potential financiers much less versed in the business and even they have their reservations. But Wood will take funding anywhere he can get it, as he boasts that he can make a movie for $60,000 that others would spend a million on. The fast shoots are chaotic and their fruits are not really appreciated by anyone. Still, Wood keeps plugging away, hoping to make the film for which he will be remembered, the equivalent of his hero Orson Welles' Citizen Kane.

Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) passionately directs Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson (George "The Animal" Steele) through the filming of a science lab scene. Psychic Criswell (Jeffrey Jones) pops up in his coffin to welcome you to the film.

Burton's film is an affectionate send-up of his genre-treading forebear.
Ed Wood does not emphasize the fact that it is a true story, but most of its ludicrous claims do check out. You will discover as much after this entertaining romp inspires you to see Glen, Bride, and Plan 9, the three films whose productions it details.

Burton proves to be a perfect fit for the material. Rather than warping it to fit his signature moody style, he honors the subject by fully embracing it with a black & white look resembling '50s cinema (without the technical kinks and limits). Miniature scale models, flimsy sets, and cheap props come to life with authenticity and awe. Instead of Burton's regular composer Danny Elfman supplying his usual wonderment, Howard Shore is hired for a delectable throwback score.

The technical elements of a Burton film are rarely a concern. But here, they're attached to a fine and funny script by Alexander and Karaszewski. The writers could have made this a pure farce, laughing at Wood's artistic futility. And to a degree, they do just that. However, they also imbue this with humanity, portraying the director as a decent, well-meaning optimist whose enthusiasm and speed greatly exceed his creativity and talent.

Beetlejuice put Burton on Hollywood's map and landed him the chance to redefine the superhero movie to record numbers. Ed Wood not only extended Burton's streak of representation in the technical categories of the Academy Awards by winning Best Makeup, it also got recognized in a more major way, with Martin Landau's exquisite Lugosi impression netting him Best Supporting Actor, the first (and still only) Oscar of his long, distinguished career.

By far the lowest-grossing release of Burton's career (it brought in just under $6 million in 600 theaters), Ed Wood is nonetheless considered one of the director's very best. On IMDb, only Edward Scissorhands and the short film Vincent edge it by average user rating. At this moment, Ed Wood clings to the site's all-time Top 250 list in the final spot. Its position may just rise in the coming weeks, with the film premiering on Blu-ray Disc on Tuesday and Burton's new black & white movie Frankenweenie potentially inviting comparisons in October.

Ed Wood Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.85:1 Widescreen
5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French), Dolby Surround 2.0 (Spanish)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish, Portuguese
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: September 18, 2012
Suggested Retail Price: $20.00
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap
Still available as Special Edition DVD ($14.99 SRP; October 19, 2004)
and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Ed Wood looks and sounds terrific on Blu-ray Disc. Though not old, the movie is old enough for the ball to have been potentially dropped. Gladly, that isn't the case here. The black & white visuals are sharp, detailed, and pristine. If there was a single imperfection, I didn't notice it. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio mix is also lively and exemplary. In 1994, 5.1-channel soundtracks were just becoming the norm, but Burton is not a director to skimp on technical aspects (Ed Wood's $18 million budget made it a pretty costly flop). The mix delivers solid score and atmosphere, while all but a single Criswell line of dialogue register as crisp and clear.

This deleted scene finds Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray) singing "Que Sera, Sera" with mariachi accompaniment in a meat locker. Vampira (Lisa Marie) dances to Howard Shore score in the untitled music video.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Ed Wood took a long time to show up on DVD, premiering in Region 1 in October 2004. The upside to that wait was that the film got treated to an anamorphic widescreen presentation and enough bonus features to justify a Special Edition moniker, benefits unlikely to be extended by distributor Disney just a few years earlier. Happily, the Blu-ray retains all of those extras*, presenting them in standard definition.

Oddly hidden in the Languages menu is an audio commentary featuring Tim Burton, Martin Landau, writers Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, director of photography Stefan Czapsky, and costume designer Colleen Atwood. With all but the writers recorded separately, the group shares their history as Ed Wood viewers. Karaszewski and Alexander (who drive the conversation) fascinatingly explain how their difficult experiences on Problem Child led them to sympathize with Wood. Other issues addressed include shooting in black & white and accepting the commercial challenges of that,
handling the cross-dressing aspect, Depp's lack of vanity, criticisms of Lugosi's fans and son at their imagined scenes, interesting Lugosi stories that didn't make the movie, Depp's three primary influences, a deleted marriage subplot, the story's parallels to Burton's encounters with Vincent Price, and the production's interactions with some of the real people dramatized. It is an unusually rich experience and one of the most engaging I've heard in a long time. Hilariously, Landau opens the track and announces speakers in his Bela Lugosi voice.

Video extras begin with five presentable 16:9-enhanced deleted scenes (7:39). The three highlights: Wood's dinner at the home of Tor Johnson's family, Bunny Breckinridge's mariachi-backed bilingual performance of "Que Sera, Sera" in a meat locker, and a freshly-dumped Wood getting tucked in after moving in with Bela Lugosi and his small dogs.

Next, a music video for the main theme of Howard Shore's score finds Vampira (Burton's then-girlfriend Lisa Marie) dancing erotically in a misty graveyard with the occasional use of a Landau/Lugosi bit from the film. It was choreographed and co-directed by one-hit wonder Toni Basil ("Mickey").

Tim Burton directs George "The Animal" Steele through Tor Johnson's grave sit-up. Mark Segal demonstrates how to play the theremin.

"Let's Shoot This F#%@r!" (13:55) is a mostly black & white making-of featurette from 1994. This piece opts to show rather than tell, treating us to candid behind-the-scenes footage as well as opening and closing remarks from Johnny Depp on the set.

The next three featurettes appear to have been made for the 2004 DVD release.

"The Theremin" (7:24) celebrates the otherworldly electronic instrument that features prominently in Howard Shore's score and in the cinema of the era dramatized. Shore informs us about the Russian invention and its application here, while theremin expert Mark Segal treats us to a demonstration.

"Making Bela" (8:14) gathers reflections from Landau and make-up artist Rick Baker on what was needed to convincingly channel a famous actor. We even get some looks at Landau getting into character in the make-up chair and clips and images of the real Lugosi.

Make-up artist Rick Baker discusses "Making Bela" in front of a life-size Bela Lugosi statue. Tim Duffield shares a wallpaper design from his Ed Wood album in "Pie Plates Over Hollywood." The "Ed Wood" title logo appears at the end of its theatrical trailer.

"Pie Plates Over Hollywood" (13:49) lets production designer Tim Duffield reminisce on his work, which he does over an album of his sketches, photos, and graphics for the film, a few of which he compares to stills of Ed Wood's own production design.

The extras conclude with Ed Wood's original theatrical trailer (2:18), all black & white down to the MPAA rating card and presented in 1.33:1.

Keen-eyed careful readers will notice I attached an asterisk to the phrase "all of those extras" above. That's because one 9-minute featurette, "When Carol Met Larry", was included on Ed Wood's first DVD edition, which was to be issued in 2003 but got recalled.
Some copies still got out and they contain easy access to the cross-dressing extra that Tim Burton purportedly disapproved strongly enough to get Disney to reprint the DVD minus that. The extra is included on the Region 2 release and it's apparently even on some reprinted DVDs (minus menu access) as Title 16. It does not show up at all here.

A short deleted scene previously presented as an Easter egg is also sadly missing.

The disc opens with three easily skipped videos: a Frankenweenie trailer, a promo for ABC dramas, and the anti-smoking urban cowboy truth spot. The menu's "Sneak Peeks" listing repeats the first two before adding ads for Who Framed Roger Rabbit: 25th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray, "Castle": The Complete Fourth Season, and more ABC dramas.

The simple but effective menu cleverly plays clips from the films within the film on a 1950s-style television set while a Shore excerpt is looped.

Though the release suggests that Ed Wood is one of the better-selling titles in Touchstone Pictures' catalog, it isn't a big enough deal to get a slipcover, an insert, reverse artwork, or more than a plain blue disc label. In addition, the disc fails to resume playback or bookmark spots in the film, standard touches that Disney is one of the last remaining studios not to provide.

Ed Wood (Johnny Depp), his date (Patricia Arquette), and his eccentric cast (Martin Landau, Jeffrey Jones, Lisa Marie, and George "The Animal" Steele) are chased out of the "Bride of the Monster" world premiere by a hostile audience.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Ed Wood is a funny and flavorful celebration of one of Hollywood's most notorious filmmakers. Definitely among Tim Burton's most satisfying creations to date, this immortalizes Wood's crudely-fashioned cinema while inspiring you to discover it for yourself if you haven't already.

Disney's Blu-ray offers no surprises, but the feature presentation is a delight and the recycled DVD extras are terrific company to the film. While it's too bad that none of Wood's public domain works (or even just their trailers) are deemed worthy of inclusion, that isn't enough to stand in the way of a hearty recommendation of this reasonably-priced disc.

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Reviewed September 14, 2012.



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