ED WOOD (1994) – Great tribute to a cross-dressing auteur

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Ed Wood is easily the best film ever made about one of the worst filmmakers ever.

Edward D. Wood, Jr. is renowned in movie cults for two astounding facts: (1) he was an enthusiastic transvestite with a fondness for angora sweaters, and (2) he was so excited about being in the Hollywood aura that he never noticed how bad his own movies were.

Wood’s primary connection to Hollywood glory is with washed-up Dracula star Bela Lugosi (a deservedly Oscar-winning performance by Martin Landau). Wood convinces himself that because he uses a former star in his movies, his films are automatically great — even though one of Lugosi’s scenes involves his struggle with a fake octopus that can’t be made to move.

Other Wood actors include The Amazing Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), a psychic of no known talent. (Criswell’s monologue, which opens the film, sounds bizarre until you discover that it was paraphrased from one of Wood’s own movies.) There’s Tor Johnson (George “The Animal” Steele), a wrestler whose bulk was used to mask his total inability to take direction. Wackiest of all is Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray), an outrageously fey hanger-on.

Wood’s enthusiasm for filmmaking overcomes disinterested distributors, budgets that ran from shoestring to nothing, and a vast array of non-talent. His main claim to immortality is Plan 9 from Outer Space, an astoundingly bad sci-fi movie whose making is well-chronicled here.

Tim Burton, who certainly understands misfits (BeetlejuiceEdward Scissorhands), directed this potentially campy bio-flick with only the greatest affection. The black-and-white photography perfectly mirrors Wood’s era. All of the performances are crazily heartfelt. And Depp delves into another quirkily beiievable character. (Most winning of all is Vincent D’Onofrio’s cameo as Orson Welles, who gives Wood some much-needed encouragement.)

The movie ends with Wood’s triumph of Plan 9‘s premiere and before his descent into alcoholism and poverty. The real-life Wood craved any attention he could get, and no doubt he would have been thrilled at this affectionate look at his filmmaking ineptitude.

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L.A. STORY (1991) – IMHO, Steve Martin’s masterpiece

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It’s always a delight to follow a movie comic who really knows what he’s doing, because eventually you hit the jackpot. With Woody Allen, it was Hannah and Her Sisters; with co-exec-producer/writer/star Steve Martin, it’s L.A. Story. Rarely does any movie, much less a comedy, keep me bolted upright in my seat in anticipation of what might happen next. But from its schizoid opening ballet to its sweetly happy ending, even when I wasn’t laughing, I was enchanted.

Martin plays Harris K. Telemacher, a Los Angeles TV weatherman who’s unsatisfied with his superficial lifestyle. He woos and beds some women whom most men would probably be thrilled to have (Marilu Henner, “Sex and the City’s” Sarah Jessica Parker), but he is unsatisfied until he meets a British journalist (Martin’s then-wife Victoria Tennant) whose very unpretentiousness is enough to knock him off his feet.

This is obviously Steve Martin’s attempt to be another Woody Allen — here’s the Annie Hall-like quirky romance, the use of jazz great Django Reinhardt on the soundtrack (he also uses Enya, which was my introduction to this beautiful vocalist), and he romanticizes L.A. the way Allen does The Big Apple. Funny thing is, it all works. Even if you’re as anti-L.A. as Manhattanite Allen is, it’s an L.A. crafted in Steve Martin’s mind, anyway — and what an original landscape it is.

It even goes Allen one step better. One scene Allen filmed and then deleted from Annie Hall featured the rolling news marquee in Times Square telling him to return to Annie in L.A. I have no idea whether Martin ever heard about this or not, but in L.A. Story, he gets romantic advice from a highway traffic sign. The concept sounds hopeless (as Allen obviously decided it was), but Telemacher is so disbelieving about the concept that its comedy comes across. After all, everything else offbeat happens in L.A.; why not this?

There are few comedies that meld so perfectly. One is tempted to credit its lush visuals and on-the-button pacing to director Mick Jackson, except that Jackson has done little before or since that is this striking (The Bodyguard was a big hit, but I can’t say it stands out in my mind). It’s obviously Martin’s comic vision all the way, and it’s pure delight.

Martin’s physicality and wit are on grand display here. And though Victoria Tennant, like Jackson, has done little else in her career that’s this good, Martin certainly makes us see just what he saw in her. When they finally come together, it feels deserved and not at all forced.

In an era where gastric wheezing and room-temperature mentalities substitute for wit, it’s refreshing to see a comedy that actually creates its own special world. For me, L.A. Story ranks right up there with Preston Sturges’ screwball comedies — a one-of-a-kind take on the world’s craziness and the love that helps us endure it.