Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” (1994) Film Review

Catch a falling star and put him in your movie. “What a picture.” As many horror and horror-adjacent movies I’ve seen over the years, I am still finding those that I am familiar with–yet–have never taken the time to watch. And Ed Wood is one of those movies. Even if you know the story, and have even seen clips of the movie in your cinema studies class, believe me, you want to seek out this brilliant motion picture about the dark side of show business. There is perhaps no greater example of posthumous notoriety and success in cinema than the late filmmaker Edward D. Wood, Jr., most famously known for Plan 9 from Outer Space and casting the great Bela Lugosi in his final screen appearance. While his Z-grade movies were laughed at during their day, these movies provide inspiration to artists everywhere that you can pursue your dreams even when your harshest critics and financiers dismiss you. Ed Wood was a creator with a passion for bringing joy through entertainment into people’s lives. Perhaps his films were poorly produced, written, directed, and virtually everything else, but what this films demonstrate is a love of filmmaking and respect for great talent that flew in the face of a “town that chews you up and spits you out.” Ed Wood was in motion pictures for the art and love, not for the business. Tim Burton’s quasi biographical film about the production of Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space, and the relationship between Bela Lugosi and Wood is a beautiful portrait of love and respect. Of all the fantastic performances in this film, Martin Landau’s Bela Lugosi is a command performance that rightly earned him an Oscar for Supporting Actor. If you’ve ever had a dream, this film serves as inspiration and provides darkly comedic anecdotes that shine a light on the lengths independent filmmakers have to go in order to find a way to finance and produce films. This film is a sort of ode to all the misfit creatives out there, and probably the most sincere and personal film that Burton has ever made.

Because of his eccentric habits and bafflingly strange films, director Ed Wood (Johnny Depp) is a Hollywood outcast. Nevertheless, with the help of the formerly famous Bela Lugosi (Landau) and a devoted cast and crew of show-business misfits who believe in Ed’s off-kilter vision, the filmmaker is able to bring his oversize dreams to cinematic life. Despite a lack of critical or commercial success, Ed and his friends manage to create an oddly endearing series of extremely low-budget films. (IMDb)

From a visionary director, i

All the technical elements scream classic Tim Burton! From the moment the movie opens, even if you did not know that this was a Burton film, you would instantly identify the stylistic opening as quintessentially Burton. And not just the choice to make the movie grayscale, but the production design has a gothic poetry to it. Burton was able to successfully capture the look and feel of 1950s Hollywood. He was careful to recreate the world of Ed Wood, all the way down to the character blocking in the movies within the movie. For example, you can compare the recreated Ed Wood movies within this biopic to the real deal, and many are practically carbon copies. I appreciate this because it makes the filmmaking we see in the movie feel all the more real when what’s being shot in the movie is the same as was shot in real life. Perhaps Burton didn’t shut down Hollywood Boulevard like QT did for OUATIH, but he painstakingly transports the audience of the then 90s and even today’s audience to an era of independent film production that produced movies that look like they belong on an old UHF station.Most of the scenes are set in dank, warehouses or the empty streets of a nondescript section of the city. Other scenes are simply in a humble home. The filmmaker Ed Wood never shot a frame that he didn’t like; moreover, this practice was so extreme that he would ignore complete technical blunders and horrendous acting that was so bad that it achieved a kind of grandeur or cult status that can be appreciated decades later because Wood’s love of movies and movie making shines through in every frame of his masterful disasters.

Just as Ed Wood loved every frame of everything he ever made, the visual design of this film has got to be loved by Burton. His signature is on every scene. No mistaking it, there is more to the reasons for recreating Ed Wood’s Hollywood than just making an accurate biopic. Much like Norma Desmond took audiences on a journey into the life of a faded once-great(est) star of the silent era, It’s in these very dark corners and abandoned places where the true love of motion picture making lives, where the only reward for wrapping a picture is the love of the work itself and the cheers of those whom stood by you and helped take the idea from concept to screen. Ed Wood represents geek culture of the 1950s, future icons of horror and science-fiction are featured as unappreciated in their time. Fortunately today, geek culture is alive and well, and even celebrated. Yeah, there are obnoxious stans out there, but most of us movie and horror geeks simply love the medium and enjoy having fun with movies that still capture our imaginations. The director Ed Wood was not unlike many of us; he had a dream, and stopped at nothing to realize it. While I do not care much for Burton’s work after the 80s and 90s, he is a filmmaker that showed audiences through BeetlejuiceBatman Returns, Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands, Mars Attacks, and Ed Wood that he loves the art of motion pictures. When you went to a Burton picture in the 80s and 90s, you knew that you would witness the hand of the artist. In both Ed Wood’s and Tim Burton’s films, there is an effervescent life, a joy in their films that technically and critically “better” pictures only wish they had.

We cannot talk about Ed Wood without spending some on Landau’s Oscar-winning performance as Dracula himself Bela Lugosi! I was blown away by how sincere the performance was. What we saw Renee Zellweger do with Judy Garland in last year’s Judy, Landau did with Lugosi in Ed Wood. If I didn’t know any better, I would have said that I was watching Lugosi in this film. Both vocally and physically, Landau transforms into the famous Hungarian actor. From the moment we first see him laying in the coffin (creative latitude on Burton’s part), Landau captures our imaginations. Landau delivers a performance of a faded film star that Gloria Swanson would be proud of. In many respects, the characters of Bela Lugosi and Norma Desmond are similar. While Norma wasn’t living in near poverty, she was living in a world in which the parade of fans long sense passed her by; likewise, Lugosi fell into such obscurity that even people in the business thought he was dead. Landau embodies the mind and soul of someone that feels completely abandoned by the world and the fans that once loved to see his pictures. And it wasn’t the fame or money that Lugosi missed per se, but bringing joy to millions and simply the feeling of being wanted or needed is what Lugosi missed most. While Landau received negative criticism from the family and friends of Lugosi because his family said that Lugosi never used profanity or slept in coffins, there is no doubt that this is one of the finest performances of Landau’s career and in biopics.

Everything about this motion picture works brilliantly! I’m only disappointed that it took me this long to finally make time to watch it. Even though there is something in this movie for everyone, I feel that it impacts cinephiles and filmmakers the most. Though, there is a high degree of relatability for anyone that has ever had a dream and stops at nothing to continue to pursue it. Amid the recreation of all the tacky filmmaking and notoriously bad acting, there is a warmth and charm that will stick with you long after the credits role.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in the Tampa area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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Alfred Hitchcock: the First Director to Brand Himself (Part 1)

More than an instantly recognizable silhouette. Before the idea of a director branding him or herself became as common a goal as it is today, Alfred Hitchcock pioneered the very concept of a director developing a brand that would instantly be recognizable by millions. Not only was Hitch the Master of Suspense, and still is, but he was also a master of marketing. Unknown to many, Hitchcock worked in sales and marketing before he became one of, if not the, most recognizable name in cinematic history. Between his experience in marketing and with silent filmmaking, he was a master of captivating visual storytelling way before his most well known works of cinema. I teach media and screenwriting at the University of Tampa, and I’ve often told my students that writing a compelling, memorable, effective thirty-second commercial can be more difficult than writing a two-hour film. I realize that illustration overly simplifies the respective concepts; however, the idea is that if you can proficiently tell an intriguing or impactful story in thirty-seconds, then you can proficiently write a two-hour movie. Taking what worked well in advertising and marketing, and adapting it to a cinematic diegetic structure, Hitchcock was able to capitalize on his penchant for visual storytelling and ability to prompt desired physiological and emotional responses from the audience. The American Marketing Association defines a brand as “a name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” The fact that Hitch’s name and silhouette have instant meaning, definition attached to them, is evidence enough that he was a master of branding.

Prior to understanding just how Hitchcock became the first director to brand himself, it is paramount to understand how a brand–more specifically brand recognition–comes to exist in the first place. A simplistic method of understanding what defines a brand takes the form of a relationship between an image (or idea) and the individual. Relationship is key. There is an emotion attached to the relationship between the image and the products or services that it represents; moreover, this relationship is not without a practical component such as cozy fur-lined boots or an automobile with consistent impeccable quality. By extension, the relationship between an individual and a brand can create a sense of importance, safety, or class. Once a relationship is formed, then the individual experiences both physiological and emotional reactions to the sight or sound of the image or idea. Think of that feeling you get when you see the Disney castle or hear “Wish Upon a Star.” Or perhaps, imagine how you feel or react when you see a BMW or wear a Rolex. These are iconic brands that mean something to many individuals. The mere exposure to the sight, sound, or message will prompt a comprehensive response within the mind and body. As the maxim goes, “imitation is the highest form of flattery;” therefore a quality, successful product or service will be copied but never fully replicated because there is always a secret ingredient that makes the original unique. In addition to the aforementioned, when an image or idea becomes a recognizable brand, then there is a power endowed upon that image that gives that company (that owns the image, product, or service) a kind of soft power that cannot easily be quantified but it’s quite real and figuratively measurable.

Not unlike Rolex, BMW, and Disney, Alfred Hitchcock was and is also a brand–and a powerful one at that. He was the first director to become a brand; and since then, others have tried to brand themselves as well. Some with success and others with defeat. One of the keys to Hitchcock’s ability to combine the words of marketing and filmmaking in order to not only develop a reputation but become a brand, Hitchcock recognized early in his career (especially after coming to the United States) the importance of promoting himself–his actual image–in conjunction with the promotion of a particular film. He demonstrated a clearly intentional desire to ensure that his name was at the forefront of the conscious of the American public. When a particular director, who consistently delivers quality or groundbreaking films, links the outstanding performance of the films with his or her image, then the mere sight of or name of that director carries priceless value. Following the breakup of the studio system over the late 1940s through the 50s, there arose an increased opportunity for to claim authorship of a motion picture. Prior to the decentralization of Hollywood, most movies were completely packaged by the Studio/distribution company, with the director playing a minor role. With the new opportunities to connect a motion picture to the director during marketing, it paved the way for directors to advance their own careers as well as the success of the movie. As studio authorship decreased, individual (director or producer) authorship increased!

According to Janet Staiger in her essay Creating the Brand: the Hitchcock Touch, she outlines four significant criterion that apply to image or brand as it relates to showbusiness. (1) the character persona that is created by selection of performances in film, tv, web media, etc (2) the performer (acting ability) in those mediums (3) the worker/laborer that develops from what is learned about the individual’s professional life in respect to business dealings and (4) the private persona that derives from the individual’s off-camera personal life. Whereas these criteria are more aligned with an actor or actress, these elements can be applied, by extension, to understanding Hitchcock as a brand. Hitchcock’s character can be seen through his genre selection–the types of films that a director authors. Think of his genre selection as the equivalent of the types of characters an actor or actress chooses to play. We recognize the performer element in Hitchcock’s consistent ability to direct the motion pictures with incredible precision and innovate programming for then-new mediums like television. Hitch’s worker/laborer attribute is found in what we know about his behind-the-scenes work on set and in the business offices. Most famously is his near-departure from Paramount when he went to make Psycho, for which they earmarked zero funding. He self-financed the iconic film and used his Alfred Hitchcock Presents crew. Passion, determination, and commitment witnessed. In terms of his private persona, Hitch was famously a practical joker and a family man. In fact, his daughter appeared in multiple episodes of Presents. All these elements together combine to create Hitchcock’s image.

But there is more to branding oneself than crafting an figurative or metaphysical image. There is the physical image that is recognized by the naked eye. After injecting himself into film social circles comprised of well-established directors, screenwriters, and even critics and journalists, he had a well-known name. And even though a name can carry power, it needs a tangible representation. Although one may assess that Hitchcock came up with that trademark minimalistic nine stroke silhouette, the inspiration came from a series of director sketches that appeared in The Motion Picture Studio journal in 1923. There, we have a group of then and now famous directors with Hitch appearing sideways with his famous belly out and hands in his pockets. By the 1930, Hitchcock was being heralded as a master of suspense. And that description of Hitch’s work continued until the moniker stuck in perpetuity.

In addition to the soon-to-be-moniker, film magazines took notice of his notable weight. By the late 1930s, it is said that Hitch already weighed in excess of 300lbs. As the maxim goes, “there is no bad publicity,” and that can definitely be witnessed in how Hitch’s brand continued to develop during his early days in America. The constant articles about his weight, the unprecedented success of his films, his cameos in those films, and sketched of Hitch, all those elements together created Hitch’s image. You can very much liken the evolution of the Hitchcock figurative image and physical logo to the evolution of Walt Disney’s image and either the Mickey ears or castle logo. Whereas the content of the motion pictures that both produced/directed respectively are quite different, they share one important element in common. They both injected themselves into the production and marketing of their work as much as possible. Although Walt Disney made himself into a brand (most solidly after Snow White), it was Hitchcock who was the pioneer in the very idea of a director creating his (or her) recognizable brand. In many ways, Walt follow Hitch’s direction to make his brand. But where did the famous nine stroke sketch come from? Well, according to author Robert Kapsis in his book Hitchcock: the Making of a Reputation, he drew the sketch himself in 1927 for the purpose of making it into a gift for his friends and colleagues. He created a wooden jigsaw puzzle with the iconic image an placed it in a small linen bag. I cannot think of anything more Hitchcock. This parallels how Hitch injected himself into his cinematic work both in the story itself, as a cameo, and in the marketing of his films.

Hitchcock knew that to create a brand–as everything he has accomplished for this result has been completely intentional–he needed to make a connection between his films and himself, and then himself to his name, and his name to the abstract profile. Then when someone sees the logo, they are immediately predisposed to feeling a certain way about Hitch and his films. It’s a bi-directional highway, so to speak.

Part 2

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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“La La Land” movie review

lalalandSimply dazzling! A beautifully produced motion picture musical that is sure to delight audiences around the world. Ryan Gosling (Sebastian) and Emma Stone (Mia) shine brightly in this self-reflexive modern romantic film set on the backdrop of a classically composed movie musical echoing the song and dance numbers that Busby Berkeley brought to the silver screen through Hollywood studio system powerhouse Warner Bros. Summit Entertainment’s La La Land will have you laughing one moment and crying the next in this roller coaster of emotions. Every aspiring professional who has the dream of a substantive career as an artist in the visual and performing arts–or just an artist in general–needs to watch this film. If you have ever been discouraged on your career path, or lack thereof, this film will aid in reigniting the flame that fuels your dreams of writing, acting, playing, or whatever your passion happens to be. Whereas many films similar to this one would have shot it as a period OR modern piece, this film is nothing short of a masterpiece that harnesses the nostalgic appeal of the classic musical with the power of modern cinematic storytelling.

Stories of struggling to reach your dreams are nothing new, but there is so much more to the story of Mia (Stone) and Sebastian’s (Gosling) respective goals of successful careers in the city of angels. Following a chance meeting at a night club in LA where Sebastian was playing a set list of traditional Christmas carols, Mia and Sebastian continue to bump into each other at parties and in the work place. The focus of this musical is on the everyday life of two struggling artists trying to make it in a city notorious for shattering dreams and breaking hearts. Mia and Sebastian must learn what is more important: chasing dreams of being in the spotlight or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a beautiful love unmatched by any other.

Best part about Damien Chazelle’s La La Land? The old-school movie musical feel from the moment the film opens. From set pieces to matte paintings to the manner in which the cameras capture the story as the drama unfolds, this is both a modern story of romance and conflict and classic Hollywood musical. While some may find the cinematography, lighting, and editing to be nothing remarkable, the fact of the matter is that it required great skill and hundreds of hours of effort to capture the essence of an old Hollywood musical. To recreate a nearly extinct film genre, is an outstanding achievement in cinematic storytelling and deserves all the 9s and 10s this film is receiving from critics and fans alike. La La Land takes pages right out of the books of Busby Berkeley (Footlight Parade) and Gene Kelly (Singin’ in the Rain). Such a gorgeous combination of a classically structured and choreographed musical within a modern Hollywood. And the film could have easily rested its laurels on the technical and artistic achievements alone, but the film also possesses an incredibly beautiful love story between two aspiring artists.

In a modern studio system who appears all too often to be more concerned with franchise building, merchandising, theme park integration, and rebooting, this film is fresh, real, gritty, and endearing. In a climate so predisposed to the Star WarsesHarry PottersJurassic Parks, and Avengerses, this film brings with is a breath of fresh air that is nearly unmatched by any other film this year. While many are concerned with the lack of original stories coming out of Hollywood, may this film be a testament that masterpieces can still make their way into cinemas nationwide and not simply the art house theatre of the US’ largest metro areas. Although film is a visual medium and should not rely upon the score or songs to carry the bulk of the film (i.e. Frozen), this film is very much about the music. However, unlike films that integrate music in order to cover up poorly structured and developed writing, La La Land embraces the music as much a part of the story as the writing itself. In many ways, the film plays out like music and flows like a musical score. The way the cameras moves, the editor cut, and the blocking of the characters is very much like a musical staff, like the way music is composed and performed. But at the same time, the movie is not simply about the music but about the relationship between Mia and Sebastian; and furthermore, about their aspirations for the spotlight. Solid writing and a solid score.

The casting of La La Land could not have been more brilliant! Both Stone and Gosling successfully bring about that 1940s feel in a modern story. That could be due to the successes of both in 1940s era films prior. Stone in Magic in the Moonlight and Gosling in The Notebook. While both can successfully carry a period piece on their own respectively, together they are a powerhouse couple like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Their performances in this film were so incredibly natural, so real, and believable. At the same time, the actors are also very much contemporary–just like the film: classic yet contemporary. Even though the audience is well aware that Stone and Gosling are anything but struggling artists, they play their respective parts so convincingly that you’d swear that we were actually watching a pair of struggling artists who do desperately want a substantive piece of that Hollywood pie. A great screenplay possesses protagonists that the audience will love or love to hate, and the characters in La La Land connect so incredibly well with classic and contemporary audiences.

Inspirational. This film will help to inspire those who have a talent for storytelling, music, or writing to continue to work hard and remain dedicated to one’s craft because that is the only way that a career can pay off. The moment you stop trying is the moment that the dream dies along with settling for less. Not that day-jobs aren’t important. Certainly the importance of a day job is shown in the film, but it’s imperative that the day job never cause an artist to sell out or give up on the dream. Day jobs should fund imaginative dreams not eclipse them. There is much to love about this film; so much so that you will likely find yourself with a desire to watch it again. This IS definitely my pick for Best Picture as we head into award season with the holidays coming to a close.

Lights, Camera, MotionGate! A Look into Dubai’s Newest Theme Park

Dubai_Parks_mapWhile the themed entertainment industry continues to explode with new lands and attractions at the US’ biggest players, the luxury destination Dubai, UAE is throwing its hat into the ring. MotionGate may just be the competition that Disney and Universal were not expecting. Primarily including intellectual property (IP) from Sony Pictures, LionsGate, and DreamWorks Animation (now owned by Comcast), MotionGate will boast some of the most advanced attractions in the world. Starting out the gate with 27 attractions and shows based on some of the most well-known IP from the worlds of cinema and television, this brings the total attraction numbers to more than 100 when added to the existing offerings at Dubai Parks and Resorts (a government owned themed entertainment holdings company).

motiongate_image.fw_Unlike the public-private partnership of the parks in China, the government of UAE is uniquely positioned to capitalize on the wealth of the nation. That allure and wealth has driven millions of tourists from around the world to their nation as it is; factor in a world-class leading theme park, and those numbers will increase exponentially. This influx of revenue may actually pave the way for the non-wealthy classes of people to be able to enjoy the Dubai Parks and Resorts as additional flights, hotels, and transportation methods will be added. One of the biggest advantages that MotionGate has over its Disney and Universal competitors (Fox will soon be added to that as well) is that it is being constructed amidst digital, wireless, and multimedia technologies. Whereas the big boys have to modify existing technologies in attractions as they change, these parks are built with the latest technology which directly impacts efficiency of operation.  This same idea of being late to the game but a quickly asserted leader can be seen in nations like South Korea who only recently, relatively speaking, have had access to wireless internet technologies. As they did not have to adapt or modify existing legacy infrastructure, they built on current communications technologies and have a much faster, reliable, cheaper, and efficient ‘internet of things’ than the United States.

MotionGate_DubaiIn the vein of Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, Dubai Parks and Resorts is a themed entertainment complex featuring separately themed parks. Specifically, MotionGate bares a striking design modeled after Magic Kingdom in that it is ONE theme park that contains five distinctly different themed lands that all center in and around the concept of motion pictures, filmmaking, and live entertainment. Each land, much like the ones at Magic Kingdom, has its own gateway, themed rides, restaurants, shows, and landmarks. Also, keeping with the Magic Kingdom layout, MotionGate contains the hub and spoke system. Unlike Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, SeaWorld, or Busch Gardens, MotionGate employs the hub-and-spoke system in order to make maneuvering the park user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing to the eye. This provides opportunities for centralized entertainment offerings and landmarks. Prepare for the glitz, glamour, nostalgia, and excitement of the lands: Studio Central, LionsGate, DreamWorks, Sony Pictures, and the Smurfs’ Village. What makes this concept additionally interesting is the fact that MotionGate includes IP from different studios that are self-contained. Instead of taking the IP from the different companies and integrating them in more generically themed lands, each IP is contained within its respective land.

sony-motiongateOne cannot help but notice that the concept of Dubai Parks and Resort’s flagship theme park MotionGate resembles the original Universal Studios Florida or to a lesser extent Disney-MGM Studios. How so? If you are not familiar, both Universal Studios Florida and then Disney-MGM Studios were theme parks inspired by the idea of “what lies beyond the fifth dimension” (Tower of Terror, Disney); moreover, the story that exists outside of the frame–beyond mise en scene. In addition to attractions and shows inspired by filmmaking or theatre, both parks were also east coast counterparts to the Hollywood stages. Universal/Nickelodeon and Disney produced major motion pictures and television shows in the sound stages that are all but gone (or turn into conventional  attractions) in the 1980s and mid to late 90s. By 2000, most filmmaking and television production operations ceased because it was cheaper to move operations back to Hollywood and to other places like North Carolina and now Georgia. MotionGate goes back to the drawing board to resurrect a dying idea of turning filmmaking into an attraction. It truly holds up Geoff King’s studies and theories of “the cinema of attractions.” Universal founder Carl Leammle knew there was more to filmmaking than making movies. That’s why he opened his movie making ranch outside of Los Angeles to day guests to be entertained by special effects and stunt shows as well as watching the magic behind the camera.

20thCenFoxWorldIt is an exciting time for the themed entertainment and motion picture industries. For the longest time, Disney and Universal (Comcast) were the kings of cinema and TV based theme parks. Now, Dubai is becoming a heavy hitter and once MotionGate opens in October, the landscape has the potential to shift drastically. Now, the parks in the US will not only be competing against each other, but against heavy competition on the other side of the world in an area with much deeper pockets. All the while the word is focussed on the Word of Pandora, The Reign of Kong, Cobra’s Curse, Mako, Star Wars Land, Toy Story Land, and the unnamed new theme park under construction for Universal’s third park (not counting the forthcoming water park), MotionGate will open and create a whole new atmosphere of innovation amongst the chief players. In addition to the parks in Dubai, Fox is also entering into the game with their 20th Century Fox World opening in Malaysia in 2017. Also on the books is the 20th Century Fox World expansion to Zoo Miami AND another indoor Sony theme park in Wisconsin. With all these parks opening, there are more and more opportunities for careers in either cinema or themed entertainment. Or, a career that spans both (which is what yours truly is trying to do). I just love all the new completion because it will drive continued innovation. However, it’s also nice to see that we have a new park that is getting back to the roots of what started it all: motion pictures.