Wednesday, March 28, 2012

CARLITO'S WAY and Opening Scene Sabotage


***SPOILERS ALL THROUGHOUT***

When Brian DePalma is at the height of his powers, his films can be some of the most exciting, entertaining thrillers and dramas around.  Of course, he hasn't been on his game in many years now.  Blow Out, The Untouchables, Carrie, and a handful of others could be debated as great films.  One of his best films, in my humble opinion, is the 1993 crime drama Carlito's Way, a firecracker of a film with great performances from Al Pacino and Sean Penn as an unrecognizable, slimy lawyer.  Carlito's Way has always been one of my favorite American gangster films and too often is overlooked when lists of gangster pictures are assembled.  It is a thrilling and fast-paced film that holds a special place in my heart. 

It is also a fatally flawed picture that is undone by its opening scene.

Now, as I have said, I still hold Carlito's Way in the highest regard.  But the opening scene has to be one of the biggest miscalculations in film history, a prologue which pulls the rug out from the narrative of our hero, Carlito Brigante.  We open on Carlito taking two bullets to the stomach and falling to the ground, clearly inside a train station.  Then, we get a slow-motion shot of Carlito on a gurney as he is being wheeled to the ambulance.  But it is clear he will die on this gurney.  And then, from this black-and-white prologue we go into the story and we meet a vibrant Carlito Brigante being freed from prison, making a promise to himself to walk the line. 

This opening sequence sabotages the entire picture.  Sure, there are still moments of dramatic tension and thrilling sequences, such as the one in Grand Central Station just before Carlito is shot.  The ultimate death of Carlito's snake lawyer, Davey Kleinfeld (Penn) is a great "A-HA" moment.  If there weren't such instances I would not love this film as much as I do.  But there could have been even more moments like this had DePalma decided to lop off the opening scene.  First of all, it is unnecessary.  We could have simply gone into the courtroom, where Carlito grandstands and struts out of the courthouse a free man.  The film wastes no time in slow burn, it thrusts the viewer into the nightclub scene immediately.  So the pacing and the melodrama of the opening sequence feels completely wrong.  But pacing is not the largest issue with this open.

If we know Carlito is going to die, certain risks are stolen from the picture.  We not only know he will die, but we know where.  So when he is cornered in the subway, or in the lobby of Grand Central Station, no matter how marvelously these action scenes are staged and no matter how tense they still are, that ultimate risk is absent since we are not in the train tunnel yet.  It also takes away hope, a running theme throughout the film that never registers the way it should.  The entire film deals with Carlito's struggles to stay clean and get out of the neighborhood.  But since we know the entire time he will not find the hope he so desperately yearns, there is that extra dramatic push lacking.  And all because of one mishandled opening sequence.

Of course, after seeing the film the first time, repeat viewings don't have this issue since the viewer knows what is happening all along.  But this is not where the issue lies.  Films should be dissected and analyzed as stand alone pieces, without any future or past.  To observe and critique a picture, it should have a bookend existence, and seen with this mindset Carlito's Way has a fatal flaw.  And it exists within an opening scene that is both unnecessary and steals a certain thrust out of the heart of the story.  My suggestion for people wanting to show other people this film is to skip past the opening scene.  This is what I have done, and what I plan on doing from here on out.     

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: Tim Burton Fatigue

Any regular readers here might have picked up on the fact that, over the last few years, I have grown increasingly weary of Tim Burton.  I feel like it's been several years, now approaching a decade, since Burton has directed a film that feels fresh.  Remakes and "re-imaginings" of classic movies, books, and plays, have been Burton's modus operandi.  Of course there have been a few small victories in the last ten years, but overall it feels like Tim Burton has transformed into that picture of the snake eating its own tail.  Any time a Burton film is announced, it will be a remake or an adaptation of existing material, only now we realize it will be splashed with gothic imagery and art direction, scored by Danny Elfman, and starring Johnny Depp.

I say all of this despite the fact that Burton's latest adaptation, Dark Shadows, of course starring Johnny Depp, looks rather fun.  But still, there is nothing very surprising about the material except that the tone is comedic rather than melodramatic like the seventies series.  That works.  Also, the source material has been out of sight for a very long time, and the obscurity works in Burton's advantage.  Regardless, it is not original work.  Ever since Burton botched an unnecessary remake of Planet of the Apes, a dreary and forgettable and murky picture, complete with an ending of which I have yet to find a reasonable explanation, it seems he has been seeking out material that he can easily "Burton-ize." 

He tackled Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 2005, yet another pointless remake fashioned as a more accurate depiction of the book than the classic Gene Wilder film.  Regardless, it was a remake of existing material and the result was a film that is, frankly, not very good.  In 2007, Burton re-imagined the famous play Sweeney Todd.  This was arguably his most successful film of the decade, but again I found very little interesting material here.  Three years later Burton did the exact same thing with Alice in Wonderland he did with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, adapting an existing picture based on a novel but explaining it away by saying it was more of a continuation of Alice's story.  Either way, here was another tired remake.  Oh and I forgot to mention that, as you probably realize, all three of these films starred Johnny Depp. 

Directors have latched on to stars over the years and their collaborations have generated some of the greatest films.  Scorsese and DeNiro became Scorsese and Dicaprio.  Think about Cronenberg and his three films with Viggo Mortensen.  But this Johnny Depp collaborative think tank has run its course.  The entire loop of Burton/Depp material has gotten tired.  Because every film feels like a different version of the same thing.  Sure, Scorsese and DeNiro teamed up for a handful of gangster pictures, but think about the wild difference between Taxi Driver and Raging Bull along the way.  Mean Streets and Goodfellas are both gangster pictures, but they are hardly comparable in style.  All of these Burton/Depp films feel too similar and have become repetitive.

Burton and Depp made some wonderful films together, including Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands.  But, you see, those two examples are very different from each other.  When Burton has made fresh and original films in recent years he has stepped out of his comfort zone.  Think Big Fish.  There is no Depp to be seen.  Tim Burton needs to write some new material, something original and fresh and something free of Johnny Depp as inspiration.  He still has it in him, but he needs to head back to his own quirky and crazy drawing board, the one inside his imagination.

Friday, March 23, 2012

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Cronenberg and Parttinson, Prometheus, Texting in the Theater

* First things first, the teaser trailer for David Cronenberg's next film Cosmopolis is out.  It is everything fans of the director love; sex, depravity, monsters, mind-bending visuals... Seek it out immediately.  After you read this of course.

* Robert Pattinson as Cronenberg's protagonist might be the very boost he needs to shake off Edward Cullen.  I contend that Pattinson will have the most lucrative career of any of the three Twilight stars.  Yes, even Kristen Stewart.

* Cronenberg missed the mark with his historical drama A Dangerous Method.  This, I am confident, will miss no mark it is intended to hit.

* I am worried about Prometheus.  If for no other reason the overwhelming buzz is so loud and so crazy that Batman isn't on a fanboy radar anywhere.  Lofty expectations.

* Also, Prometheus is said to be a prequel to the Alien franchise, perhaps the original Alien picture as it is directed by Ridley Scott.  And since it's being released in summer, I feel like the studio is hoping for young males to fill the seats.  But how many 18-24 year old everyday males are familiar with the Alien franchise at all?  Of course I'm not talking about fanboys and movie buffs, but run of the mill moviegoers who typically go in the summer.  Maybe they are, maybe I shouldn't be too concerned.

* I know Alien vs. Predator crapped out two garbage movies, but in the original franchise, Alien: Resurrection came out some fifteen years ago, when the target audience for Prometheus was 3-9 years old.

* Speaking of idiot youth, teens are trying to get texting allowed in theaters.  Now, my blood pressure tends to spike when someone has a loud bag of candy.  If texting is allowed my brain might explode in a fit of anger.  THIS, is the beginning of the end of humanity. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

DVD REVIEW: Carnage

Upper-middle class behaving badly has been a great avenue for comedy throughout the years.  There is something fascinating about proper manners and etiquette deteriorating under tense circumstances.  That is the basis of Carnage, Roman Polanski's comedy about a pair of wealthy parents who meet in an apartment to discuss an incident between their children.  The meeting begins polite enough, but it isn't long before the mask of measured words and proper dialogue melts down as the disagreement dissolves to rudeness.  It is a minefield for comedic banter, but Carnage never really has a grasp on timing, and it never really goes anywhere.  Based on the play "God of Carnage," I feel like the subject matter has been stretched too thin on the screen.

There is a confrontation on the playground at school, where one boy hits another one in the face with a stick.  Seen at a distance, the assault leads us to a stylish apartment where the parents of the children discuss the incident.  John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster play Michael and Penelope, the parents of the victim.  Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet are Alan and Nancy Cowen, the parents of the attacker who have come to Michael and Penelope's to, do what exactly?  Discuss the incident?  Apologize?  Make sure there is no lawsuit down the road?  The conversation bounces back and forth, tip-toeing around the subject so feelings aren't hurt.  They all have cobbler and tea and coffee, trying to remain civil.  But it doesn't last long.


These parents are all successful.  Michael sells hardware supplies, Penelope is a writer.  Nancy is an investment banker and Alan is a lawyer, who cannot take the time to discuss such frivolous matters in this apartment without taking phone calls regarding a very big case.  Of all the four involved, Penelope is the most passive-aggressive antagonist, worrisome and uptight.  She casually mentions the two teeth her son lost, a possible concussion, but Nancy continually blows her off until she can't take it anymore.  Michael struggles to keep everyone calm.  "We're all decent people," he says, maybe trying to convince himself as much as the others.  A funny running gag is the fact that Alan and Nancy wind up in the hallway or have a foot in the elevator before a snide remark or Alan's ringing cell phone bring them back into the apartment.

The unit breaks down.  Alcohol is introduced, and dirty laundry is aired more rapidly.  But up until the point where Michael breaks through his facade ("Penny made me dress up like a liberal!") and starts pouring the scotch, Carnage doesn't function like a film.  It goes around and around in circles and grows achingly repetitive.  At under 80 minutes, the first hour of the picture feels much longer and is uninvolving.  Polanski keeps the film fittingly claustrophobic, and the final minutes of the film are much more entertaining that anything before it.  But Carnage is clearly a play that worked better on stage.  Here, it feels stretched out to the point where everything feels like a reach.

C 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

DVD REVIEW: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

The Cold War is one of the most compelling eras in the history of this world, and a time in place which lends itself to some great storytelling.  James Bond was birthed from The Cold War, and countless spy thrillers have come and gone dealing with the silent conflict.  Some better than others.  But I cannot imagine there is a more realistic telling of spy hunting and espionage than what is laid out in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, a moody and patient story about an elaborate mole hunt within the British Intelligence Agency, the MI6, at the height of The Cold War.  It is a beautiful film, shot in ashen tones and a gray palette, in back rooms and spoken in hushed tones and tense conversation.  There is very little gun play, no car chases, and no exotic locations.  There is only the foggy European landscape where these investigations realistically existed.  While the web may reach too far at times, and the zig-zag of the time lines muddies the waters, it is important to see the forest and not focus on each and every tree.

There is a mole inside the MI6, a Soviet turncoat that is a danger to British/American operations.  The head of the MI6 is Control, played by John Hurt.  He is sure there is a spy within the agency, and has narrowed the field of candidates to five men, all of whom operate directly with him.  The five men include Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Toby Esterhase (David Dencik), Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds), and, of course, George Smiley, played by Oscar nominee Gary Oldman.  Despite Control's suspicions, he trusts George enough to have him lead the investigation.  George comes out of retirement to seek out the mole, and his investigation leads him through a web of shady dealings and double speak.

George has an assistant, Peter (Benedict Cumberbatch) to help him in his investigation, to go where he cannot go.  There is also a key character named Ricki Tarr, played by Tom Hardy.  Ricki might very well be the key in uncovering the mole, and his past in Moscow lends itself to the investigation.  We learn only bits an pieces about George, about all of these characters, as they are shown in flashbacks and told in cryptic conversations.  Oldman is a true exercise in measured calm in a bottled-up performance that is appropriate and compelling.  All of the main players are easily identified through their status as actors - Firth, Hinds, and Jones especially - or their defined appearance.  But still, even the differentiation in appearance is not enough at times.

I didn't necessarily want Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to be easier to follow.  I did not want a paint-by-numbers thriller dumbed down for audiences because I do enjoy a challenge sometimes.  And the subject of the film is ideal for a twisting, turning narrative.  But sometimes I have to admit I was confused, that is until I realized I was focused on too many plates in the air.  The timeline bounces back and forth and the web of deceit is far reaching.  But simplify things in your mind when you watch the film.  If you do not focus on every last detail, because there are details at every turn, the generality of the plot comes into focus.  There is a mole, selling secrets.  This person knows something and someone tried to silence him.  This other person may know something as well.  Catch my drift?  Follow the characters, not necessarily the words, and things may be as clear as possible.  At least clear enough to enjoy the film and not grow weary.

Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In) directs the film with wonderful style and a firm grasp on the time and place.  I could not imagine a better looking film for the subject.  And the score itself plays like an omniscient character, spelling doom and dread and mystery as much as a simple glance or a whisper.  It may not be totally accessible, but Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a smart thriller with wonderful performances.  Just focus on the forest, don't study each and every tree.

B+

Monday, March 19, 2012

21 Jump Street


21 JUMP STREET: Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill (105 min.)

Maybe the most impressive thing about 21 Jump Street is the fact that the movie stays out of its own way.  Here is a film that could have been a complete disaster.  For anyone doubting that this most recent television-series-turned-comedy film could have wound up a terrible film, consider the long list of failures like The Dukes of Hazzard, Land of the Lost, Get Smart, The A-Team, and Bewitched just to name a few.  But I am getting off point, which is that 21 Jump Street is none of these adaptations.  It has to be the best TV-to-film adaptation up to this point, but not just by default.  21 Jump Street is smart about itself, so it goes dumb and funny; the film realizes what it is, and it embraces it with a screenplay that is self aware, performances that know their place, and plenty of laugh out loud moments.

The original 80s TV series starred Johnny Depp and Richard Greico as young cops assigned to do undercover work in high school.  The premise in this new film is the same, but I cannot imagine much else is similar.  This time around, the two young cops assigned to high school are Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill.  Tatum is Jenko, Hill is Schmidt, and the two attended high school together seven years before our story.  In high school, Schmidt was smart but nerdy in dyed blond hair and braces while Jenko was the popular dumb jock.  Now the pair meet up in police academy, where Schmidt aces the written exams but struggles with the physical side and Jenko, of course, does the opposite.  They find friendship in their differences and work together to become misfit cops assigned to bike patrol in a local park.

After a series of missteps and a botched arrest, the duo is reassigned to Jump Street.  As their captain tells them "it's some dumb program from the 80s" and "these programs just get recycled because nobody is original anymore," clear winks and nods to the film you're watching.  Their boss at the Jump Street program is a stereotypical angry black cop named Dickson (Ice Cube), who devours the screen when he's on it.  Sure, it's a cliche, but that's the point, see.  Dickson even points it out for us.  That's the whole running gag about the film, that it knows it's ridiculous and has no problem telling the audience the truth.  And these guys are clearly too old for high school, which is another running gag exposed in some clever writing.  Truth goes a long way.

The plot, about a new synthetic drug ring in the local high school, takes a back seat until it's time to fall into conventional buddy cop action tropes that are mildly disappointing.  Before the climactic scenes, however, 21 Jump Street takes a pretty interesting look at high school and the way it's changed.  Jenko thinks he knows how to be cool, but it turns out Schmidt is the popular kid this time around.  "These kids are weird," Jenko says.  "The cool kids are all granola earth lovers."  It's funny how things can change in the high school social structure in seven years.  Thanks to a funny schedule mix up when the pair can't get their undercover names straight, their courses are mixed up and Jenko winds up making friends with the nerds in AP Chemistry.  The high school environment is a minefield of comedy for the film, especially when Jenko and Schmidt sample the new drug and have to carry out the rest of their day. 

There is nothing the slightest bit realistic about 21 Jump Street, but when the picture realizes it beforehand, the end result can be very funny.  But it isn't all just knowing nods; the class structure and the reversals of fortune for Jenko and Schmidt add a layer.  We all know Jonah Hill can be funny, fat or thin, and he is on his best comedic behavior as Schmidt.  And then, here is Channing Tatum, who I am convinced has been miscast in weepy melodramas for five years now.  Tatum is dry, dense, and uses his expressionless face to draw out the funniest moments in his character.  I could absolutely see him as the villain in one of these screwball comedies somewhere along the way.

Maybe there are one or ten too many dick jokes in 21 Jump Street, and like I said the action ending is a little drab.  But still, even in the car chases screenwriter Michael Bacall and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller try their best to pep it up with new ideas, like explosions that might or might not work, and constant traffic jams.  There is real inventiveness here, something I never expected from the early previews that made the film look ordinary.  But despite it's very ordinary 80s TV series roots, this new version of 21 Jump Street is smart in playing things stupid.  It succeeds when it tells the truth.

B+  

Friday, March 16, 2012

FRIDAY SCATTER-SHOOTING: Burton's Dark Shadows, College B-Ball Movies, The Graduate, Robocop

* As discouraged as I've been recently by Tim Burton's recent career moves, floundering through remakes and unoriginal material, I must say Dark Shadows looks fun.  The trailer is very promising.

* While the original Dark Shadows series was considered a soap opera of sorts, it would have been a huge mistake to play the film version seriously.

* There aren't many college basketball movies around.  I'd have to say the best is... Blue Chips maybe?  And that is only because of Nick Nolte's great performance channeling Bobby Knight.

* Nevermind, Blue Chips isn't good.  I don't know if there is a good college basketball movie.

* He Got Game is not a good film despite what you might think.  That being said, Ray Allen's character Jesus Shuttlesworth is one of the best names in cinematic history. 

* So The Graduate is getting a 45th Anniversary re-release.  Really?  Forty-five years huh?  We couldn't wait five more years to get a nice round number?  I've never heard of something so stupid as a 45th anniversary re-release.

* We should do a 32nd anniversary re-release of Raging Bull while we're at it.

* The Graduate is still a great film, but it feels more like an extended Simon and Garfunkel music video this far away from 1967.

* Robocop is being remade.  I don't think this is really the worst idea.  Now, had there never been two sequels, direct-to-video movies, and terrible TV shows over the years to soil the legacy of Verhoven's original film, I might sing a different tune.  But Robocop is not some sacred cow after being diluted so severely since 1987.  Hell, as long as the remake doesn't have flying Robocop from part 3 I will probably be just fine with it.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Tape (2001)

Tape is a hidden gem, a masterwork in the power of dialogue and the shifting dynamics of tense conversation.  The wordplay, which is the entirety of the picture, works like a scale as one character takes the control over another, and the weight then shifts back and forth throughout.  Shot in one location, a dingy motel room, Tape is a claustrophobic and wonderfully tense battle of wits between old high school friends who carry with them different views of the past.  Richard Linklater is one of the more experimental filmmakers around, bouncing from genre to genre and scenario to scenario, and with Tape he takes an existing play and fills it with three compelling performances.  Who is right in this situation?  Sometimes you think you have a grip on who is right and wrong.  But just when you have a handle on the events, they shift again.

We first meet Vince, played by Ethan Hawke.  Vince is holed up in the narrow, dank motel room with a pair of beds and an eerily blue-lit bathroom.  Vince, bouncing around the room in a tank top and boxers, shotguns beers, snorts some coke, and does some pushups.  He is clearly preparing for something, but we don't know what.  We don't really know what to make of Vince until there is a knock at the door.  It is Jon (Robert Sean Leonard), a high school friend who is in town to promote his first film at a local festival.  Once Jon arrives, we get a sense of the relationship between the two and begin to form opinions.  Jon is genuinely curious as to why Vince contacted him, why he is in town (is it for the film?), and a sense of suspicion grows.

The two engage in rapid conversation.  Jon speaks measured and with calm intelligence, Vince spurts out aggressive talk and hops around the room seemingly about to explode.  The two old friends talk about Vince's ex-girlfriend, Jon's film career, and what exactly is going on here.  It is clear Vince has a motive for bringing Jon in but he doesn't directly explain said motive.  Instead, he leads conversations into the past, and begins grilling Jon about high school.  They share a joint, and this leads the dialogue towards a certain name: Amy.  Pay close attention to the subtle shift in power between Vince and Jon once Amy is mentioned.  Beforehand, Jon appears to have control of the situation while Vince seems erratic and unstable.  But once Amy is mentioned, a shift in the room dynamic happens deftly, in small facial expressions and sighs.

Vince dated Amy in high school, but they broke up and late in their senior year she dated and slept with Jon.  But Vince questions the nature of the sex.  Was it consensual?  Was it too rough?  Vince begins cross-examining Jon's recount of the sex, accusing him of rape.  The conversation elevates and the tension swells until Vince forces a confession out of Jon.  He pulls a tape out of his bag and revels in the fact he has some blackmail.  His plan comes to fruition when there is another knock at the door, and Amy walks in.  Amy, played by Uma Thurman, is the key to the story.  Her memories and her attitude towards the two men will decide the fate of the story.  In a lesser film, Amy would develop purely as a villain, but in this film she flips the script just about the time we have the thing figured out.  It is a genius move by writer Stephen Belber to add yet another layer that these characters must work to penetrate. 

There is nowhere for the characters to go in Tape, they are forced to stay in this room and confront the past.  Each have their own opinions of the events and each one of these opinions contradicts the other.  This film relies on powerful acting, and all three players dominate their roles.  The most compelling is Hawke, a teeming bottle of energy and aggression.  And despite the fact that the film never leaves a single set, has only three actors, and relies exclusively on dialogue, it never feels stagnant.  Because there is so much said and unsaid, so many sifting dynamics in the tense words, and so many angles to take.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

DVD REVIEW: My Week With Marilyn

The legend of Marilyn Monroe has become something beyond film and culture.  She was the first true icon, the first sex symbol in America, and despite her notorious penchant for poor acting and work ethic on set, Marilyn Monroe surpassed the bad publicity to live forever in the minds of everyone.  Over the last few decades, most have come to understand the sadness that was Marilyn Monroe, a hollow center hidden by a sexy facade that flew threw marriages and relationships without ever finding peace.  My Week With Marilyn attempts to uncover the psyche of America's favorite blond while keeping a narrow focus.  The film tells the story of Monroe and her time spent on the production of The Prince and The Showgirl, where she may or may not have had a relationship with a young assistant, Colin Clark, and where she most definitely got under the skin of Sir Laurence Olivier.

Eddie Redmayne plays Colin, our guide in the film.  Eddie has a great desire to get into Hollywood, and he fights his way into an assistant position to Laurence Olivier, played here by Kenneth Branagh in a brilliant performance.  Olivier is filming The Prince and The Showgirl, a whimsical comedy which he also plans to direct.  The early scenes show the bits and pieces of a film production coming together, and things begin to grind to a halt once Olivier decides to cast Marilyn Monroe in the lead.

Michelle Williams, nominated for her role, completely disappears into the role of Monroe.  At this point in Monroe's life she was fresh off her most recent divorce, dating the playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott).  It takes some mountain moving to get Monroe to align with production, and when she finally arrives the film shows us why she was so difficult.  Her drug abuse was showing signs, her tardiness to the set delaying production, and her problems memorizing her lines consistently frustrating the consummate professional Olivier.  Branagh has great fire and energy as Olivier, whose patience wears increasingly thin with Monroe's act.  And all the while, according to Colin Clark's book - the source material for the film - Monroe began a May-December affair with Clark on set.  There is a bit of a problem with the source material, with the author claiming he had a relationship that was never documented otherwise, but let us suspend disbelief for the sake of debate.

The two main draws of the film are the performances from Branagh and Williams.  Again, Branagh is wonderful in his role, much deserving of his Supporting Actor nomination this year.  Clearly, though, this is a film belonging to Williams.  It must be a challenge to play such an iconic American symbol, one that transcends nationality to become a worldwide sensation.  That is why, I imagine, it's always been a difficult task for anyone to do an Elvis biopic well.  I cannot imagine trying to work through a role as Michael Jackson if a film were ever in the works.  Playing Marilyn Monroe would lend itself to caricature, an emphasis on her mannerisms that would ruin characterization.  Williams balances the very idea of Monroe with the development of a real character.  Her tricks are personified in Williams' performance, but she seamlessly creates a real character with true sadness and desperation.

The problem then arises with the rest of the film, a somewhat soggy and forgettable narrative elevated by the work of Branagh and Williams.  Eddie Redmayne is not memorable in a role which requires the audience to follow behind him.  There are other solid supporting roles, including Julia Ormond as Vivien Leigh and Dame Judy Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike, a career actress trying her best to help Monroe on the set.  But in the end, as an overall film, nothing stands out where it should.  Events come and go, and before you know it the film is over and very little has changed with these characters.  A simple slice of life tale can work sometimes with energy and forward momentum.  My Week With Marilyn, unfortunately, has little of those things.

C+

Monday, March 12, 2012

Last Action Hero and The End of 80s Action

I cannot remember a more divisive meta-fictional film from my childhood than one Last Action Hero.  Panned by the critics, floudering at the box office, the Arnold Schwarzenegger action film was an exercise in the tail wagging the dog that is generally considered a failure some twenty years down the road.  I am not here to defend Last Action Hero, because there are definite warts and a great misinterpretation of tone throughout the events on the screen.  But I am here to take a look at the film itself, what it was trying to do, what is was trying to say;  I find myself wondering if it was maybe ahead of its time.  Audiences have evolved since 1993, and the structure of narrative and what sells to the masses has become something altogether different.  Maybe crowds in general weren't ready for something to peel back the curtain of their action films.  Dare I say, Last Action Hero signified the end of a certain action film, and pushed the industry forward towards something new.

Most of us know the bsic structure of the film: a young boy becomes sucked into the on-screen world of his favorite action star, Jack Slater.  Slater is Arnold Schwarzenegger in the real world, and young Danny Madigan (Austin O'Brien) is the only one in the cinematic fantasy world who understands these people are merely characters created in the Hollywood magic machine.  Danny spends a great deal of time trying to convince Slater he is not, in fact, a rogue cop impervious to bullets, but a mega-star playing a part.  Everyone in LA is beautiful, numbers are all "555,"  Slater's boss is F. Murray Abraham is Slater's boss who Danny points out "killed Mozart."  Despite his objections to the reality he finds himself in after being sucked into the screen, Jack Slater can't buy it.  It is only when Slater is pulled out of his on-screen world, back into the real world, that he begins to question his own existence.

Last Action Hero is an action comedy that would have been a marvelous and compelling picture had it been written by Charlie Kaufman.  But Kaufman had yet to make his mark in Hollywood.  It would be five years before Being John Malkovich took this meta-fiction to a more cerebral and impacting level.  In 1993, action was still king of the land, including Schwarzenegger, fresh off the worldwide pehnomenon of Terminator 2.  The action films of the time were the very ones being deconstructed by Danny in Last Action Hero.  At the time, there was a certain rejection to the notion of deconstructing action films, the ones audiences were still filling up seats to see.  In 2012, action films have been tweaked and redefined and broken down to be rebuilt as any variation of genres.  Think about the raw action of the Bourne franchise, or the action comedy in films like Sherlock Holmes and Red.  These pictures have a certain self awareness, a knowing nod to the audience that everyone involved realizes this is simply a film. 

Action and comedy had been blended before Last Action Hero, but never without serious undertones.  Think about the Lethal Weapon franchise.  Two of the four films had been released prior to Last Action Hero, and while the comedic banter between Mel Gibson and Danny Glover was some of the enticing charm of the franchise, the action was still anchored in some form of seriousness or reality.  But once Last Action Hero peeled back the curtain and busted through the fourth wall with a jackhammer, the action comedy felt stale unless it was more self aware.  This destruction of the action film also pushed creativity forward; studios and directors realized the corny pyrotechnics of 80s action films would no longer please audiences.  The absuridty of the 80s action had been exposed a little, so audiences wanted something fresh. 

Perhaps I am giving too much credit to Last Action Hero.  There were still absurdly over the top action films filling up the 90s, but none of them were as big box-office draws as they were in the 80s.  Even Schwarzenegger's films like Eraser, Collateral Damage, and The 6th Day found very little interest for audiences.  True Lies was released in 1994, and was a huge success, but it had the audaciousness of James Cameron behind the camera, who took action to a new and unmatched level of absuriduty on a regular basis.

I also think reality television has changed the face of action stars and films.  When everyone is on camera all the time, when actors lives are followed on a regular basis, meta-fiction has become more interesting to the general public.  Last Action Hero might have very well started a groundwell of change in action films.  Of course, the darkness of the film and the clumsy pacing made Last Action Hero less than stellar as a film, but look at the ideas at work there.  Had this film been released five, seven, ten years later, it may have been much more successful.  And perhaps if Charlie Kaufman would have tried his hand at action comedy, this would be the result.  

Sunday, March 11, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller (114 min.)

The notion of an evil offspring, a demonic child, has been studied ad nauseum in the horror genre over the years, reaching all the way back to The Bad Seed and peaking in pictures like Rosemary's Baby and The Omen.  More often than not a supernatural force is behind the evil child.  Sometimes, as in the more recent and underrated Orphan, it is a shocking mental and physical disorder which makes the child in question wicked.  And in all of these films I mentioned, either the mother or both the parents begin the story with love, only arriving at a realization that something is wrong with their sweet child as the events unfold.  But what if the mother didn't want the child to begin with?  And what if there is never an explanation as to why the child is a psychopath?  Those are the two central questions in We Need to Talk About Kevin, a film not dealing in the supernatural realm of the "wicked child" story. 

The events of the picture all exist in a version of the real world.  There are two timelines to follow, a before and an after.  The hinge of these before and after narratives is a traumatic event.  As the film opens we meet Eva (Tilda Swinton), looking for a job at a travel agency and hiding away from the world like a hermit.  She must hide that way because, for whatever reason, she is reviled in the community.  So much so that on the first morning we see her, the front patio of her home is covered in red paint.  The "before" narrative comes to us first in the form of Eva's memories.  She remembers her marriage to Franklin (John C. Reilly) and the good times they had until their son, Kevin, was born. 

Eva did not particularly want a child.  She enjoyed the freedom of traveling the world without boundaries.  Does Kevin realize from birth that Eva does not want him around?  Because there is clearly a line of communication and love not properly functioning between the two.  Kevin screams as a baby when Eva holds him.  As a toddler he will not cooperate, and as he grows into a young adult his rebellion towards his mother turns more and more sinister This teenage version of Kevin pits his father against his mother by cleverly acting one way around Franklin and another around Eva.  The teenage Kevin gets the bulk of the film, and played by Ezra Miller, teen Kevin is devilishly similar in look and frame to Swinton's Eva.  But why in the world is Kevin evil?  Perhaps a baby realizes or understands love growing in the womb, and if that love is absent is it then manifested in the child's disposition?  I am not sure, and neither is the film as it travels along to a horrific climax.

We Need to Talk About Kevin feels a bit confused to me.  It's as if there is a static feed underlying the film all the way through, as questions and answers never meet one another.  Sure, ambiguity is sometimes a key element in film, but not in the ways director Lynne Ramsey approaches things.  Her direction feels too apprehensive or uncertain at times.  The opening act is a muddled work of timelines intersecting that seem unnecessary once the picture settles in to it's central story.  And the climactic scene is, again, handled with ambiguity, as if the camera were too frightened to show what was really happening.  I found myself wanting to peek off the screen to see reactions and events that were just outside the camera's line of sight.

There are elements I do like about We Need to Talk About Kevin, namely the performances from Swinton and Ezra Miller, the teen Kevin.  They have wonderfully awkward moments and great tension that can only be conjured through two solid actors.  The use of red throughout the film fills scenes with a certain unconscious passion that I really loved.  But Reilly's Franklin is already in a tough spot as a character because he plays the naive father who doesn't see the evil side of Kevin no matter how much his wife, whom he is supposed to love and trust, protests.  And even when the evidence begins popping up in little instances throughout Kevin's childhood, Franklin staunchly remains blind deaf and dumb to the monster in his house.  It is a stretch sometimes.  Because if my wife were as nerve-rattled as poor Eva is throughout this film, I might want to consider that my seething, squinting, archer son would have something to do with it.

B-   

Thursday, March 8, 2012

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Rear Window (1954)

Alfred Hitchcock was always forward thinking in his films, taking familiar themes and displaying them in unique ways.  Sometimes his experiments didn't quite work, as was the case with Rope, a film shot in one single take.  But more often than not Hitchcock's creativity and ingenuity paid off in the form of a masterwork.  That is the case with Rear Window, one of Hitchcock's most revered works, is an experimental picture that is typically regarded as one of his masterpieces.  Existing on one set (which Hitchcock built specifically for the film), Rear Window explores the moral issues of voyeurism while simultaneously approaching it with undeniable fascination.  It juxtaposes what we think we might see and what we actually do see when we become absorbed in the lives of others.

Jimmy Stewart, one of Hitchcock's most treasured and reliable partners on the screen, plays L.B. "Jeff" Jefferies, a talented who, after an accident on a photo shoot, finds himself stuck in a wheelchair in his apartment with a cast running up the entirety of his left leg.  Jeff spends the majority of his days watching his neighbors through a window facing a courtyard.  Across the courtyard there is a cheery young lady who enjoys dancing in her underwear, Miss Lonely Hearts who throws parties for men who never arrive, a couple who lower their little dog into the courtyard in a basket, and a salesman and his bed-ridden wife.  Jeff has only two regular visitors, both women.  One of them is Stella (Thelma Ritter), his caretaker from the insurance company.  The other is Lisa (Grace Kelly), a beautiful model who desperately seeks a lasting relationship with Jeff.  But Jeff, like many of the men in Hitchcock's films, keeps an emotional distance from Lisa.

Jeff is convinced, over the course of a few days, that the salesman has murdered his bed-ridden wife.  The salesman's name is Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr).  Jeff spots Thorwald leaving his apartment at odd times of the night with his merchandise case.  His wife's bedroom window has been closed despite the humidity which keeps everyone else's windows wide open.  Using his telephoto lens, Jeff spots Thorwald wrapping up a saw and a butcher knife in newspaper.  The flowers in Thorwald's garden in the courtyard have been switched out.  Jeff calls his old war buddy, a policeman named Doyle (Wendell Corey), to lay out the sketchy evidence he's accumulated through his voyeurism.  Doyle isn't buying Jeff's theory, and neither is Stella or Lisa at first.  But before long Lisa and Stella are convinced there is something fishy going on and they find themselves absorbed in the life and movements of Thorwald.

The experimental aspect of Rear Window is in the way the information is given to the audience.  We only see what Jeff sees.  We are trapped in the apartment as well, sitting right next to Jeff watching the events across the courtyard unfold.  The suspense is built through Jeff's spying and his telephoto lens.  As Jeff, Stella, and Lisa begin their amateur detective work, they uncover more and more clues pointing to a murder.  Eventually, the police come around to the truth, but it might be too late as Thorwald is apprised to Jeff's suspicions.  This leads to a climactic confrontation between Thorwald and Jeff, where Jeff's only defense is his flashbulb.

Rear Window is like a calling card of Hitchcock themes.  He often dealt with the fear of impotence in his male heroes, never truly understanding the women in their lives.  Women are seen as a sexual threat to Hitchcock protagonists.  In Vertigo, the fear of heights was a manifestation of the impotence.  Here, the full leg cast is an obvious metaphor.  Hitchcock also had a strong understanding of the power of voyeurism.  Think of Norman Bates, or of Jimmy Stewart's character in Vertigo, each spending a great deal of time spying on people who had no idea they were being watched.  Rear Window is an entire film devoted to spying.  The suspense works to perfection, and the sense of dread is palpable as Jeff works tirelessly to absorb himself in the lives of those around him.        

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

THE DEFENSE CALLS: The Rules of Attraction (2002)

After the critical success of American Psycho, it was inevitable that Bret Easton Ellis novels would become hotter commodities in Hollywood.  True, Less Than Zero was released in the mid eighties, but it didn't have the same impact as Christian Bale in American Psycho.  Two years later, director Roger Avary released The Rules of Attraction, a myopic and unsettling look at emotional and sexual depravity in a New England liberal arts college.  The subject matter is not for everyone, not for most, as the events that unfold are disturbing on a regular basis.  This is one of the darkest of dark comedies, and critics and audiences met it with a mix of anger, disdain, and indifference.  A few critics bought into the darkness surrounding college students wandering through sex drugs and parties without much consideration for their own personal safety.  Most critics despised the picture, as evidenced by the 43% Tomatometer.  Roger Ebert called the characters "shallow, selfish, and greedy."  Mark Caro called the film "a bravura exercise in emptiness." 

But there are things that work in The Rules of Attraction.  Most of the depravity and the narrative works for a variety of reasons.  At times, the film plays like the work of a mad genius, and there is no other way to describe Bret Easton Ellis. 

EXHIBIT A: The Inspired Cast - All throughout The Rules of Attraction, recognizable actors and character actors appear.  Satellite players like Eric Stolz, Kip Pardue, Kate Bosworth, and a startlingly funny turn from Fred Savage litter the nihilistic landscape of the university.  And, believe it or not, one Faye Dunaway makes an appearance as a pillhead mother alongside Swoozie Kurtz.  but don't look past the leads here.  In the forefront is the one and only James Van Der Beek, shedding his squeaky clean image as Dawson to play Sean Bateman, the most disturbed and wicked of the students.  Bateman is the catalyst for the film, a seething, angry asshole who can only see himself everywhere he goes.  It's clear Van Der Beek's motivation here, to shed his goodie-goodie image as the character he played for a decade on the WB, and he goes full force into the role.

And despite Ebert's claim that there is no way in for the audience because these characters are all despicable, I disagree.  The access point for the audience is Shannyn Sossaman, who plays Lauren Hynde.  Lauren can see the forest through the trees, and she wants to succeed despite sharing a dorm room with a coke-snorting slut (Jessica Biel, dark but funny as well).  Lauren is the innocent here, she is a way in for the audience as they find ways to sympathize with her throughout the story.

EXHIBIT B: The Look - There is a great deal of inspired camerawork and a certain visual beauty in The Rules of Attraction.  The tricks work in a story about parties and college idiocy, otherwise they would feel self-indulgent.  At times, the narrative reverses back on itself to the beginning of a party, showing these characters being re-wound on the screen.  It plays into the repetitiveness of these students' lives.  Split screens are employed at times effectively.  But the most impressive camerawork is a brief scene where Kip Pardue's character, Victor, describes his rapid-fire trip through Europe.  The scene is fast and furious, and read in a monotone from Victor which plays like the spewing of a mad poet.  Overall, the indulgence of the film itself overloads the picture with a great deal of energy and immediacy.

EXHIBIT C: The Light and The Darkness - It may be hard for many people to find the humor in The Rules of Attraction, but it is there.  This is one of the darkest comedies ever, but so was American Psycho, and most people couldn't see the brilliant humor there either.  The funniest scene here involves Ian Somerhalder's trip to see his mother (Dunaway) and friend, a drunk asexual played by Kavan Reece.  Reece is a wild drunken idiot who causes a scene in a restaurant that is side splitting.  This is one of a few comedic moments that audiences need not feel guilty about laughing at, but there are plenty of darker moments worth laughing at.  The scene with Fred Savage shooting heroin into his toes is disturbingly funny.  Bateman's suicide attempt in his dorm room is another moment that may play too dark for more conservative viewers, but there is humor here as well. 

At the same time there is a line of seriousness throughout the picture.  A suicide the night of a big party is a poignant moment for the film.  It shows that while most of these students don't regard their own body or life with any sort of reverence, there are still some students who take things too far.  And of course there is Sossaman's Lauren, heartbroken and lost amid the nihilism. 

IN CONCLUSION - The Rules of Attraction will turn off most viewers, and that is understandable.  This is not an accessible picture for most people, and it takes some work but it might be worth a revisit for anyone who hated it initially.  The cast is wonderfully diverse, and all convicted in their roles, the camera tricks add great energy, and there is a hint of serious narrative amid the chaotic, dark humor. 

 

Monday, March 5, 2012

FILM'S BEST YEARS: 1975


You could arguably point to any year in the decade of the 70s and make an argument for that year being one of film's best.  1975 sticks out above even 1976 where Rocky beat out Taxi Driver and Network, or 1977 where George Lucas introduced the world to Star Wars and Woody Allen made waves with Annie Hall.  1975 was the most powerful year in the most powerful decade for American cinema.  The 48th Annual Academy Awards held that year was unbelievably loaded with films and directors, all legendary and fighting for immortality.  Only three times in history has a film won the "Big Five" awards - Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay - so any of those years must be examined to see who the film beat and what it says about the year itself.  I would argue that this year's "Big Five" winner had the stiffest competition.

LEGENDARY OSCAR PRESENCE


One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest would become only the second film to win the five major Oscars, winning Best Picture, Best Director Milos Forman, Actor Jack Nicholson, Actress Louise Fletcher, and Best Adapted Screenplay.  The psych-ward film that challeneged the establishment was a testament to the decade, and is truly a great film.  And the competition was decidedly fierce.  The four other Oscar nominees for Best Picture were Dog Day Afternoon (my personal favorite), Barry Lyndon, Jaws, and Nashville.  In their own ways, all five of these pictures are great.  Some of them belong on a list of the greatest films of all time, including Cuckoo's Nest, Dog Day Afternoon, and Jaws


But go beynd the film on the screen and consider the talent behind the camera.  Steven Spielberg was not nominated for his directing job with Jaws, no, the five nominees included the legendary Federico Fellini for Amarcord to go along with Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, Sidney Lumet, and Forman.  Take a second to consider the five Best Director nominees and I challenge anyone to point to one of these auteurs and say they are not legendary in the business.  It is hard to understand how Lumet, Kubrick, and Altman would never win Best Director, but to consider the years in which they ran and the competition they faced it may be at least a bit more understandable.  

THE BIRTH OF THE BLOCKBUSTER

1975 was also one of those very special years that changed the landscape of film forever.  These are rare moments, and it takes some time to look back and see where the pendulum swung in film history.  This was the year where the summer blockbuster became an item for studios.  Steven Spielberg spent nearly a year in the water, fighting a robotic shark, a ballooning budget, and low expectations to terrify audiences with Jaws, one of the most pivotal and thrilling adventure films of all time.  Despite the overwhelming odds against Spielberg's shark thriller, it would open huge in 1975 with $7 million and become the highest-grossing American film at the time.  It was also the first film to cross the $100 million mark.  The success of Jaws opened the floodgates for studios to spend big bucks on summer films, and they have never looked back.  Without the success of Jaws, it could be argued that Star Wars would have never seen the light of day.

THE REST OF THE YEAR

Even if 1975 was as overwhelmingly top heavy year it should be considered as one of the very best.  But the year saw many other great films and personalities emerge.  John Wayne was still on the silver screen, starring in Rooster Cogburn.  Warren Beatty made a splash with his offbeat sex romp, Shampoo, which also found some love on Oscar night.  In May, one of the biggest cult-comedy favorites ever, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, hit the big screen.  The box-office haul was not that impressive, but a film like this need not worry about the box-office debut.  It has become a legendary comedy in the last 30 plus years.  The same thing goes for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the very definition of cult classic, released in late September. 

For horror crowds, The Wicker Man was released in 1975.  For spy thriller greatness, Three Days of the Condor came out in September.  Overall, 1975 has to be one of the three or four best and most important years for film.  It was a year about legends, making great films, and perhaps not even realizing the legendary world they were creating.  

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Separation


A SEPARATION: Peyman Moadi, Leila Hatami, Sareh Bayat (123 min.)

The best domestic dramas deal in the currency of moral choices.  Think of In the Bedroom, and the pain and emotional weight of tough decisions serving as the dramatic tension.  A Separation, the 2011 Best Foreign Language Film winner from Iran, deals with so many different moral conundrums, so many variating domestic situations, but never loses focus.  It is a film of simple brilliance, focused and uncluttered, and rife with stellar performances from top to bottom.  As an American, or better yet as a non-Iranian citizen, I think the picture may even work on more levels of intrigue than it would to a native Iranian viewer.  Here is a side of the tumultuous country many never see.  And while the events that transpire are unique to the environment in which they are created, the power of the film lies within the universality of the subject and the characters.

Nader (Peyman Moadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are a married Iranian couple who, as the film opens, are arguing in front of a judge.  Simin is requesting a divorce, but not because she no longer loves Nader.  She wants to leave the country with their daughter, Termeh, to give her a better life and more opportunity.  But Nader refuses to leave because he must tend to his father, deep in the throes of Alzheimer's disease.  Simin cannot leave the country without Nader, so the divorce is necessary.  Until the divorce is finalized, Simin decides to live with her parents, leaving Nader in a tough spot.  He must work, his daughter must go to school, so he hires a near helpless woman, Razieh (Sareh Bayat), to tend to his father.  Razieh soon finds out this task is more than she can endure on a daily basis.

There is an error in judgment which leads to an argument between Nader and Razieh.  The argument leads to an accident, a death that I will not divulge here.  I will only say Nader is accused of murder and must defend himself in front of the courts, figthing against the words of Razieh and her volatile, dangerous husband, Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini).  All the while there are children caught in the middle of the trial.  There is the young daughter of Razieh, Somayeh, who may have seen something, and Termeh, the teenage daughter of Nader and Simin played with compelling conviction by Sarina Farhadi.  Termeh becomes a pivotal character in later scenes where she must choose with which parent to live.

Peyman Moadi delivers a performance as Nader that is so crucial to the emotional center of the story, and is executed to perfection.  Nader is not a bad man, he is quite the opposite.  He loves and is dedicated to caring for his dying father, he respects his wife and adores his daughter, he is a great moral man, but in a moment of anger he allows his moral center to fade.  It is absolutely vital that Nader be a sympathetic character; had he been a bad father or husband, A Separation would have lost a certain emotional pull.  The weight of morality and making the right choices abound all throughout A Separation.  Blame hangs upon these characters, especially Simin, like an albatross.  There are questions of what Nader knew or didn't know, who may have answers to the question, and the ultimate decision of the players feels genuine.  The screenplay from Asghar Farhadi, who also directed, is exceptional in every moment. 

The added intrigue to a non native of Iran lies within the judicial system, and the gender relationships of these characters.  This is the other side of Iran not seen in CNN sound bytes and editorials.  There is a domestic environment in the country I found fascinating, and if A Separation should be considered true to the core - and I believe it should be - the women of the country are not as marginalized as certain outlets would lead you to believe.  Despite the uniqueness of the film's environment, the themes and the narrative strike a universal chord.  The camera never uses tricks, it stays immediate and tightly focused on these people as they navigate a tricky moral ground. 

A Separation is practically a flawless and ingenius work of filmmaking from everyone involved.  I am only surprised there were not acting nominations handed out for several of the characters, most especially Moadi.  This should have taken the ninth slot in the Best Picture race.

A+ 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Ed Wood (1994)

I have been nostalgic lately for a version of Tim Burton I no longer think exists.  Burton was once a reverent and ingenious director full of ideas and great creativity; these days, as he plods through remake after re-adaptation after re imagining, Burton is a parody of himself.  And it wasn't that long ago when he was at the height of his powers, the mid nineties, where his creative juices were flowing.  This is where he directed Ed Wood, his masterpiece.  While it may not have been an "original" film in the true sense, it was a biopic about one of the strangest and most bizarre people to ever float around the fringe of Hollywood.  It is a film tailor-made for the themes Burton explores in his better work, and a fully-realized and intricate character study about a great number of characters.  To say the least.

Ed Wood's only real strength as a filmmaker was his love for film.  As a technician of the craft, Wood was atrocious, horrible on a level which goes beyond simple badness to a level that flirts with genius in some warped universe.  His most famous film was Plan 9 From Outer Space, where silver plates dangling from wire substituted as UFOs and door frames shook when bumped into.  Wood, played by Johnny Depp, is an insufferable stage hand and low-rent filmmaker when we first see him, living with his helpless girlfriend, Dolores (Sarah Jessica Parker), and dreaming of one day getting his own shot at making a film.  Wood travels in a certain circle of lowlifes, losers, and burnouts of the Hollywood scene all shuffling and scamming their way into whatever living they can find.  Bill Murray is perhaps the most entertaining of the rogues gallery, as Bunny Breckinridge the infamous queen.  Jeffrey Jones plays Criswell, a magician whose only trick is convincing people he actually has any tricks. When Wood finally gets his big break, working for a low-rent exploitation film producer, naturally he employs his wacky circle of friends to star.

The most important and touching relationship in the film is between Wood and Bela Lugosi, played by Martin Landau (who would win the Academy Award).  Wood sees Lugosi and is smitten with the idea of the former star, long out of the spotlight and deep in the throws of alcoholism and drug use that would eventually kill him.  Wood still idolizes Lugosi as the Dracula of his youth and wants him to star in his next film.  Landau plays Lugosi as a bitter old man, sometimes funny, but often quite sad.  Lugosi resents Boris Karloff for becoming famous after playing Frankenstein, he is alone and sour and he naturally latches on to Ed as a mentor.  But the relationship soon evolves into a caretaker role for Ed, as he tends to what becomes an ailing father of the craft he loves so dearly.  Landau is nothing short of brilliant in his role.

Shot in crisp and clean black and white, Ed Wood captures the mood and the energy of Hollywood in the fifties, when wannabes like Wood could walk into shoddy production companies, pitch their ideas and get some money to throw whatever they could together.  It was a time where epics dominated the mainstream of Hollywood, but corny science fiction and horror films filled seats in matinees and date night.  Johnny Depp has great energy as Wood, who was an open cross dresser, regularly wearing his girlfriend's Angora sweaters on set to help him relax.  All of the performances fill a certain need for the quirkiness of the picture, including Vincent D'Onofrio in an inspired cameo as Orson Welles. 

Ed Wood makes you long for a different version of Tim Burton.  Not this director who takes already formed material and just throws in weirdness for the sake of weirdness in order to easily identify the film as a Burton vehicle.  He is best when he takes his themes of alienated and quirky characters and manages to create a believable world around said characters.  Look at Beetlejuice, Big Fish, Edward Scissorhands, and of course Ed Wood to see where Tim Burton shines as a true, brilliant filmmaker.