Friday, March 26, 2010

Hollywood Profile: Edward D. Wood Jr.

Edward D. Wood Jr. (1924-1978)

I know very little about the life of the notoriously terrible film director, Ed Wood. What little I do know is gleaned from Tim Burton's 1994 tribute, Ed Wood, and various small articles and tribute videos floating around the Internet. But from what I do know...he makes for a fascinating Hollywood eccentric.

The infamous Mr. Wood has been the subject of numerous biographies, documentaries and films focused on his eccentricities and general awfulness. Ever since he passed away of a heart attack at the age of 54 in 1978, Wood has achieved an astounding cult status only a select few people ever obtain.

Known for his showmanship and his ability to attract every oddball in Hollywood, Wood "won" the honour of the Golden Turkey Award for Worst Director of All Time in 1980, only two years after his death. This only cemented his rise in popularity after his death.

The first film to bring Wood fame (or, rather, infamy) was based on the true story of Christine Jorgensen, the first well-known person to go through sex reassignment surgery. The initial working title was I Changed My Sex! (complete with exclamation point). Wood convinced producer George Weiss that he had something special that only he could bring to the film. That little special something? Wood's own secret desire of dressing as a woman (something his close friends and second wife, Kathy O'Hara, insisted was not a sexual inclination, but an emotional connection to angora material).

Wood immediately wrote the script and cast himself in the lead. The only problem was that Wood made the film more of an autobiography, veering away from the original premise. Wood retitled the film Glen Or Glenda and it was released in 1953 in only three American states. Surprisingly, the film co-starred former horror film legend, Bela Lugosi. Best known for his role as the original Dracula and his alleged rivalry with Boris Karloff, Lugosi appeared in the film both for the desire to work again (he hadn't appeared in a motion picture in nearly five years by that time) and as a favour to his new, vibrant young friend, Ed Wood.

Throughout the film, Wood appeared in full women's clothing. Despite its unpopularity it gave Wood the confidence boost he needed to start appearing in public in drag. His alter ego was Shirley and he would often direct in a full dress and wig.

Bride of the Monster (originally titled Bride of the Atom) was Wood's own brainchild. It starred Lugosi in his last speaking role. He played a mad scientist who wanted to create his own super-race. Every horror story ever told about the hardships of bringing this film to fruition are true. The backdrops were all hand-painted, the 400-pound Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson knocked over many of the set pieces during filming and Lugosi actually did have to thrash around in freezing water with a fake octopus despite the fact that he was old, frail and cranky due to his drug addiction. Even more noticeable was the stock footage of alligators and octopuses randomly inserting itself in the film. Released in 1955, Bride of the Monster was reviled.

Plan 9 From Outer Space, for which Wood is most famous, debuted in 1956. Originally, Wood wanted to film his script The Ghoul Goes West, but turned back to his Plan 9 script when a southern Baptist church group agreed to pay for the production with the promise that the film would be such a huge success that they would be able to make a film series on the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ. Wood and the Baptists made an unlikely pairing.Lugosi died before filming so Wood inserted stock footage of the late actor and hired his chiropractor to be Lugosi's stand-in. Terrible sets, lousy acting and an incomprehensible script helped lend a hand to the cult status it would eventually achieve.

Part of Wood's legend is his genuine friendship with Bela Lugosi. While some accused Wood of stringing along a frail, drug-addled old man who was desperate for Hollywood to want him again, Wood helped Lugosi through the worst period of his life. Through the duration of their friendship, Wood comforted Lugosi when he overdosed on drugs and convinced him to enter into rehab to get sober. Wood was one of the few people who attended Lugosi's funeral. Hollywood may have forgotten the former horror legend, but Wood was loyal to the end.

After Lugosi's death, Wood's fan base dwindled and the director turned to heavy drinking for comfort. He made a series of pornographic films and wrote sex novels for as little as $100 in an attempt to make as much money as he possibly could. By this time, Hollywood was officially done with Edward D. Wood Jr. He fell deeper and deeper into depression and alcoholism before succumbing to a heart attack. The last years of his life were marred by financial instabilities and empty attempts at making films that mattered to him. Wood was survived by his second wife, Kathy, and his daughter.

His ashes were scattered in the sea. Plan 9 and its cult status reached fever pitch. It even revived Lugosi's cult status.

++Wood's mother always wanted a daughter and, when he was 12, she started dressing him as a girl when he was at home.
++He considered himself a heterosexual transvestite.
++He had a fetish for angora sweaters.
++Wood fought in the Second World War and participated in the Battle of Guadalcanal...while wearing women's underwear and brassieres (he didn't fear death; his only fear was that people would discover his secret).
++He was missing his top four front teeth and had a disfigured leg.
++Upon returning from the Second World War, Wood joined a freak show. He played the role of the Bearded Lady.
++Glen Or Glenda and Plan 9 have both been remade into porn films (Glen & Glenda and Plan 69 From Outer Space).
++In 1996, Reverend Steve Galindo founded the Church of Ed Wood. There are over 3500 baptized followers in Sacramento, California, where it was established. Worshippers refer to themselves as Woodites and celebrate Woodmas on October 10th (Wood's birthday).
++In 1998, the film I Woke Up Early the Day I Died was released. It was based on a Wood script. The film starred Billy Zane and Christina Ricci.
++The University of Southern California hosts an annual Ed Wood Film Festival.

"Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr."
By: Rudolph Grey

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Movie Review: Alice in Wonderland

STARRING: Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska Helena Bonham Carter and Crispin Glover

Despite it's huge haul at the box office, one of the most anticipated films of 2010 is also one of its biggest duds.

Tim Burton's disappointingly dull re-imagining of the famous Lewis Carroll story, Alice in Wonderland suffers from extreme bouts of boredom and poor script pacing.

Alice (Aussie newcomer Mia Wasikowska) is much older, but none the wiser, in Burton's Wonderland sequel. Now nineteen years old and expected to marry, Alice once again falls down that crazy rabbit hole and into a world fantasy and violence. She can't recall her first time spent in Wonderland as a child and brushes off her current adventures as nothing more than an outlandish dream. Along the way she reunites with old friends, specifically the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), who informs her that the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) leaves behind destruction and death wherever she goes. Alice is expected to slay a dragon (?!) and help the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) regain the throne she lost to the Red Queen after an epic battle.

Despite everything just mentioned, there actually isn't any discernible plot. Burton and his screenwriters have taken bits and pieces from both of Carroll's books and strung them together into little vignettes which amount to nothing of any significance. Alice still takes a drink from a bottle and grows in size. She still meets up with the Mad Hatter in the midst of a tea party. But why replay these scenes if this film is to be treated as a sequel? Despite the subplots of having to slay a dragon and aide the White Queen, Alice in Wonderland does very little during its two hour running time. The pace is so leisurely that it quickly becomes boring; something is never recovers from.

The much ballyhooed 3D amounts to nothing. Unlike James Cameron's Avatar, which made full use of its CGI and 3D technology, Alice in Wonderland pales in comparison. The 3D effects are so poorly utilized it's easy to forget you aren't just watching it in normal 2D.

Tim Burton's lavish sets (often inspired by his love for the German Expressionist films of the 1920's) are lacking due to the largely CGI-created visuals. The unique visual style Burton so often brings to his modern fables is missing here. Instead of dark, ominous corridors (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), structurally inept houses (Beetlejuice) and dark, threatening skies (Batman, Sleepy Hollow), we get a computer-animated world that bears no resemblance to the Burton films we know and love. One of the charms of Burton's films are his set designs and the fact that he rarely relies heavily on CGI. Too much green screen and so few actual props and sets makes for an unimaginative and an un-Burtonesque film.

Burton excels at bringing out the humanity in every quirk and weirdo in his films. Alice in Wonderland is full of these types of characters. What Wonderland lacked, more than anything, was that human touch that Burton so charmingly brought to life with his unique characters in Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood.

As Alice, Wasikowska is a bore. There is no reason to root for Alice or to even worry about her character's fate. She moves through each scene in a charming blue dress, with little to do or say. Granted, the script gave Wasikowska little to work with, however, she wasn't able to rise above the drudge and create a feisty heroine. Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter is given little to do. It's as though Burton decided to rely solely on giving Mad Hatter a strange costume and CGI-enlargened eyes; as though that would be enough to make everyone rave about Depp and the film. It would have been more effective had Burton and Depp conspired to make Mad Hatter a genuinely unhinged character; someone who wanted to help Alice while also making sure that his Wonderland maintained an air of lunacy. It seemed as though Depp was just going through the motions. Three excellent British actors (Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat, Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit and Alan Rickman as the Blue Caterpillar)are all wasted in small speaking roles that are given such a tiny amount of screen time that their roles are rendered pointless.

The two standouts are the always reliable Helena Bonham Carter as the ranting and raving Red Queen and the wonderfully oddball Crispin Glover as her eye-patched henchman, Stayne.

What once seemed like an ideal pairing (Burton and Carroll) has instead become a major disappointment. Instead of a dark, dangerous and terrifying Wonderland for adults and teens, we get, at best, a mediocre children's film. Burton has such a strong resume that it's doubtless that he will bounce back and recover with a better film. Here's hoping he goes back to his roots doing what he does best: making Tim Burton films.


Thursday, March 4, 2010

Favourite Film Scenes: Amadeus (1984)

AMADEUS (1984)
DIRECTED BY: Milos Foreman
STARRING: F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce, Elizabeth Berridge, Jeffrey Jones and Simon Callow

THE BASIC PLOT: Based on Paul Shaffer's play, Amadeus takes a fictional look at Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's astronomical rise to fame in the late-eighteenth century Vienna. The genius Austrian composer and former child prodigy (played in the film by Tom Hulce) transforms from a charming, albeit arrogant, youth into a raging paranoid alcoholic. However, for the most part, the story unfolds through the eyes of Mozart's rival, Italian composer Antonio Salieri (played by F. Murray Abraham). According to popular myth, Salieri had a hand in Mozart's premature death in 1791 at the age of 35. The film went on to win a total of 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (for F. Murray Abraham).

MY FAVOURITE SCENE: The very end of the film, when a dying Mozart lies on his deathbed, too weak to complete his final composition, the Requiem Mass in D Minor. He enlists the help of Italian composer Antonio Salieri, thinking he is a loyal friend when, in fact, Salieri is insanely jealous of Mozart's talent and is tempted to pass off the Requiem Mass as his own piece, once Mozart is dead.

WHY?: This scene is incredible, powerful and well-edited. It illustrates Mozart's genius through the way that he can make up something as epic as the Requiem Mass right on the spot, with little or no self-editing. This was an actual fact about Mozart, who very rarely had to edit his own work. He was naturally gifted and, more than any other scene in the film, this grand finale really allows to the audience to experience his brilliance.

I love how director Milos Foreman chose to have a sickly Mozart weakly vocalize and try to articulate his music to Salieri as he lay in bed. Meanwhile, the soundtrack translates it into actual music. I love how Mozart's fading voice and the soundtrack play over top of one another in layers. Before your eyes, a piece of music is created for the audience. You can literally hear and experience it all coming together. It's all layered and beautifully presented on film.

The performances by F. Murray Abraham, as Salieri, and Tom Hulce, as Mozart, are absolutely perfect. I love the look on Abraham's face when his Salieri realizes he will never be the talent that Mozart is, no matter how great his attempts, no matter how feverish his prayers to God. Despite the fact that he loathes Mozart and feels he is an ungrateful, spoiled brat, Salieri wishes he had the ability to hear and see music as Mozart does; to be "God's instrument." The awe is evident in Salieri's face. It outweighs his jealousy, in the end. Salieri is a music-lover first and foremost and he can appreciate the unique and effortless genius of Mozart. One of the real tragedies, though, is that Salieri wasn't mediocre at all. However, history may suggest otherwise as his compositions are rarely heard anymore.

Abraham is flawless in this film and it's one of my all-time favourite male performances. He registers Salieri's jealousy perfectly. Despite Salieri's self-appointed title as the "patron saint of mediocrity", he is an incredibly sympathetic character. Who hasn't, at some point in their life, felt inferior to someone else's seemingly effortless talent? We all fear mediocrity, of being forgotten when we are gone. No one can really begrudge Salieri that feeling. Abraham gives a wonderfully subtle performance. Instead of going over the top, his emotions are always just below the surface, ready to burst. His demeanour is in direct contrast to the childlike exuberance that Hulce gives Mozart.

Even if you've never seen Amadeus (and, if you haven't, you really should), at least do yourself the favour and watch this scene. Mozart died at the age of 35 without having completed his Requiem Mass, but the parts he did leave behind are haunting and beautiful. Though the film is not an accurate biographical account of Mozart, by any means, it's a captivating look at the battle between two composers, one with genuine talent and the other who struggles with mediocrity. And this final scene between Mozart and Salieri is the best moment of this often-forgotten cinematic masterpiece.

Watch the scene here: