A reminder that Tim Burton plus Johnny Depp was once worth celebrating
Tim Burton’s account of the life and filmmaking of Edward D. Wood, Jr easily still feels like his best and most polished picture, even eighteen years now since its release. The trajectory of Burton’s career has perhaps been an odd one. While most every film he’s directed could easily be recognized and labeled as such, the path of growth and progression seems to have hit a snag somewhere along the way. Mining similar territory with a distinct perspective can be okay to a point, but the more disheartening part of Burton’s recent work is how stagnant it’s felt, even to the point of self-parody at times. Since the atypical Big Fish in 2003, it’s been anything but deviating from the type of material expected of Burton. One could argue that the movies he’s made since have been worthwhile to varying degrees, but they’ve certainly not offered much of substance to cling to for those wishing and hoping for some evolution. Many actually play like a regression, and all star Johnny Depp.
For those a bit disheartened by Burton’s development (or lack thereof), it might be good to return to Ed Wood, the 1994 biopic of the man anointed as the worst director of all time. The Burton trademarks are all present, from Depp in the lead role to having his girlfriend of the time Lisa Marie shoehorned into the picture. There’s weirdness and food for the cult and a great love of the kinds of monster and sci-fi movies which inspired Burton. It’s even in black and white. The great thing is that here it all works. There aren’t just moments of promise or hints or positive signs for the future. Ed Wood was Burton showing he could make a great film that wasn’t buried in fantasy. It was like he adapted the weird and extraordinary into a real-life situation without compromising his interests.
It’s tempting to give significant credit to the film’s screenwriters Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, who perhaps conceived of a project which proved to be perfect fodder for Burton’s strengths while negating his weaknesses. And while the same screenwriting pair again used a similar formula in crafting scripts for Milos Forman’s takes on Larry Flynt and Andy Kaufman, they also collaborated on more dissimilar efforts like Problem Child, the remake of That Darn Cat and Agent Cody Banks. At this point, the lightning in a bottle theory seems to hold as much weight as any other. Burton’s rare willingness to use writers like Karaszewski and Alexander and deviate from his usual partnership with composer Danny Elfman in favor of Howard Shore are potential examples of a post-Batman willingness to drift away from his usual comfort zone. It’s easy enough to wonder, too, whether Burton’s choice to make Edward Scissorhands after Batman and this film after its sequel might have displayed some kind of creative residue stemming from the freedom of leaving the constraints of Gotham City.
Regardless of the specific motivations and reasons, Burton’s Ed Wood carries with it a charm which, coupled with his usual affection for the eccentric and unusual, gives the film a strange sweetness that’s unusual in Hollywood biopics. Depp’s portrayal of Wood finds the actor in solid form and, as with Burton, serves as a reminder to when the artifice didn’t play quite so prominently into the art. Depp gives Wood an exuberance and energy that completely belies the fact that he’s shown to lack any creative talent for filmmaking. It’s so nice to see Depp tearing into a role absent heavy make-up and props. There’s still a slightly funny voice here but he’s generally hiding behind an All-American sort of facade rather than burying himself in physical distractions. The willingness, on Depp’s part as well as everyone else’s, to essentially get out of the way of Martin Landau for his Academy Award-winning performance as Bela Lugosi is quite kind and well-deserved. Landau is unimpeachable as the Hungarian star of Dracula and eventual friend of Wood’s.
Something that emerges throughout Ed Wood is a love, even a defense, of making movies. There’s a sense here, as in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights which would follow three years later, of an impromptu family at work creating simply for the sake of doing so rather than with the expectation of fame or fortune. Wood the director is shown as a lovable hack who’s filled with enthusiasm for his profession. He wants to be a part of this industry and though he believes in his ability, he seems to most relish the idea of being in the movies. He loves every take he sees. He carries some self-doubt but never enough to critically question his own projects. The goal, it would seem, is to create. It’s an awkward form of artistry, to be sure, but Burton’s movie makes a compelling case for admiring Wood’s passion and resilience. He’s not, in my mind, making fun of Wood but celebrating his bravado and marveling at his dedication.
For this Blu-ray, Disney has ported over all of the special features previously available on the DVD release of the film, which was originally put out under the Touchstone banner. This region-free U.S. disc is dual-layered.
Video quality here is a subtle improvement over the previous DVD edition. The black and white image, in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio, has been rendered quite well, with increased detail and more visible levels of grain. Brightness and contrast register without incident. There’s no damage at all in this transfer. It looks, on the whole, very pleasing and absent any significant defects.
Audio, in the form of an English DTS-HD 5.1 track, sounds crisp and well-balanced. Nothing to give one pause certainly, and a solid showcase for Howard Shore’s sci-fi tribute score. Dialogue registers clearly. Audio dubs are available via a French Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and a Spanish DD 2.0 track. There are optional subtitles in English for the hearing impaired, French and Spanish.
Extras start with a commentary featuring Tim Burton, Martin Landau, co-writers Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, director of cinematography Stefan Czapsky, and costume designer Colleen Atwood. The many participants, other than the writers, seem to have had their contributions recorded separately and pieced together. The many featurettes previously available on the R1 have been carried over to this disc. These include:
Deleted Scenes (7:39) – A collection of five scenes which didn’t make Burton’s final cut
“Making Bela” (8:14) – Featurette on the makeup done by Rick Baker for Martin Landau’s transformation into Bela Lugosi
“Pie Plates Over Hollywood” (13:49) – A featurette on the production design of the picture
“Let’s Shoot The F#*%@r!” (13:55) – A behind the scenes peek at the production
“The Theremin” (7:24) – A look at the distinctive musical instrument used in the film.
Music Video (3:27) composed by Howard Shore – Black and white footage of Lisa Marie as Vampira roaming around a graveyard; directed by Tim Burton and Toni Basil and choreographed by Basil
Theatrical trailer (2:18)
For the record, the “When Carol Met Larry” featurette on cross-dressing – which can be accessed from the menu on recalled first pressings of the R1 disc and the R2 edition and is reportedly “hidden” on the official R1 version – is nowhere to be found on this Blu-ray. Also missing is an Easter Egg which showed a brief deleted scene.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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