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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

Got Wood?
Howard Hughes, Dr. Alfred Kinsey and Edward D. Wood, Jr. in Attack of the Killer Biopics! (Based on a True Story)

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

Every so often, some pundit or another will come along to proclaim a movie genre dead and buried. Horror, musicals, westerns, and sci-fi have all been through the cinema morgue at one time or another, only to find that reports of their death had been greatly exaggerated. But one genre that has never been out of favor is the biopic. Movie audiences have been seeing other people's lives reenacted at double-life-size since before George Arliss won an Oscar for the title role in Disraeli back in '29. They're especially popular in the fall, Oscar Season, because if there's one thing the Academy loves more than a movie star playing a mentally or physically challenged individual, it's a movie star playing a real person. And if that movie star has the good fortune to be playing a real mentally or physically challenged person, stop the presses! Contest over, folks, we have a winner! Tom Cruise looked like a shoo-in for a Best Actor trophy when he played Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July. But when his competition turned out to be Daniel Day-Lewis as the even more severely handicapped Christy Brown in My Left Foot, poor Tom turned into an also-ran.

And while biopics are favorite projects of movie stars (many of them actually originate with the star who wants to play a certain character, including one of them discussed below), they aren't always known for attracting great directors. Everybody remembers that Sissy Spacek played Loretta Lynn, Lou Diamond Phillips played Ritchie Valens and Gary Busey played Buddy Holly, but how many people know or care that Michael Apted directed Coal Miner's Daughter, Luis Valdez directed La Bamba or that Steve Rash directed The Buddy Holly Story? Not that any of those are bad movies. Quite the opposite, in fact. They're just examples of a very meat-and-potatoes style of filmmaking.

Even when an acknowledged master steps into the biopic ring, there's no guarantee that they'll do things any better. Oliver Stone did right by the aforementioned Ron Kovic biopic but had a harder time with Nixon. Even so, having an exciting filmmaker at the helm greatly increases a biopic's chances at greatness, even if it means sacrificing the real facts of that subject's life. Milos Forman's Amadeus veers wildly away from the true story of Mozart but it's an infinitely better movie than Bernard Rose's equally fact-challenged Beethoven biopic, Immortal Beloved.

For a biopic to click on all levels, there needs to be a near-miraculous alignment of director, stars and subject matter. It's relatively easy to find interesting lives to adapt into movies. Because of that, even the worst biopics usually have something redeeming about them, whether it's a performance, a recreation of time and place, or the story itself. But the most memorable examples of the form capture the essence of what makes these people fascinating. A great biopic shouldn't just appeal to people who are already interested in the subject. It should, over the course of telling its story, make you understand why this person is important to the people who made the film. These three movies do just that.

The Aviator: 2-Disc Widescreen Edition

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The Aviator
2-Disc Widescreen Edition - 2004 (2005) - Warner Bros/Miramax (Warner Bros.)

Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A-/B

Few lives have been even half as interesting as Howard Hughes'. But in spite of that (or more likely, because of it), a full-fledged biopic has been a long time coming. Not that Hughes as a character is a stranger to the movies. He's danced around the edges of everything from Melvin and Howard to The Rocketeer. But aside from a made-for-TV bio called The Amazing Howard Hughes with Tommy Lee Jones, it's been difficult to put him center stage. There's just too much scope in the Hughes biography to allow a filmmaker to easily get a focus on it.

Enter Leonardo DiCaprio. He developed an interest in the billionaire back in the 1990s and, in typically Hughes-ian fashion, became obsessed with bringing him to life on screen. DiCaprio brought the project to Michael Mann and they recruited screenwriter John Logan to craft a script. By the time they finally had a screenplay they were satisfied with, Mann had just wrapped another epic biopic, Ali, and bowed out of directing what would have been another herculean project. And not to take anything away from Michael Mann but that may well have been the happiest accident to befall The Aviator. Because by this time, DiCaprio was shooting Gangs of New York with Martin Scorsese. And everyone agreed that Scorsese would be an ideal replacement for Mann.

One of the interesting things about Scorsese's filmography is how easily it can be divided into two columns. There are the highly personal dream projects he nurses from infancy, like The Last Temptation of Christ and Gangs of New York. And there are the work-for-hire projects, like Cape Fear and The Aviator. And while conventional wisdom would suggest that the movies in Column A would be Scorsese's best, that isn't necessarily so. It often seems that Scorsese puts so much of himself into every movie he makes that the closer he is to a project, the more difficulty he has seeing it objectively. Gangs of New York is clearly a more important and personal project to Scorsese but for my money, it isn't nearly as good a movie as The Aviator.

In this case, it actually helps the movie that Scorsese was not the driving force who was obsessed with Howard Hughes. DiCaprio carries more than enough obsession for both of them. What Scorsese brings to the picture is a feel for and love of the time and place. In sequences like the Grauman's Chinese premiere of Hell's Angels, Scorsese's joy at being able to recreate these moments of the golden age of Hollywood is palpable. What other filmmaker would have shown the passage of time by recreating the early two-color process used in movies of the time? What other filmmaker would have paid so much attention to details like the changing styles of on-stage entertainment at the Coconut Grove? And what other filmmaker could have trapped us in Hughes' mind by locking us and him alone in his screening room?

Yet for all its bravura moments, The Aviator remains very much a standard Hollywood biopic, following the unspoken rules of the genre. We start with a brief glimpse of Hughes as a child. We get plenty of scenes of Hughes meeting key figures in his life for the first time, including Noah Dietrich (John C. Reilly) and Katharine Hepburn (Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett). With only a few minor moments of cross-cutting, the story proceeds in a linear fashion. Just about the only biopic rule that The Aviator breaks is that we don't follow Hughes all the way up to his death. This works very much in the picture's favor. For most people, the germaphobic recluse image of Hughes is the first one that comes to mind. Everyone knows that part of the story and both Scorsese and DiCaprio do a good job pointing things in that direction without actually taking us all the way there. It lends the story an air of tragedy instead of an air of exploitation.

The Aviator is a long, epic film and really, it has to be. Hughes' life does not lend itself to being told in under two hours. For the most part, Scorsese keeps things moving right along, although you may begin to feel the time passing more slowly toward the end. The movie feels like it has several endings and while I wouldn't have cut any of them, it does tend to stretch things out. As for DiCaprio's work, his obsession paid off. This is one of his best performances to date (and for those of you who would suggest there isn't much competition for that trophy, allow me to point you toward This Boy's Life and What's Eating Gilbert Grape, to name just two). Scorsese surrounded him with a roster of equally outstanding actors, including Alan Alda, Alec Baldwin, Kate Beckinsale, Ian Holm, Reilly and Blanchett. But much of DiCaprio's best work in The Aviator is done on his own, whether it's an internal struggle between himself and a men's room doorknob or that remarkable sequence in the screening room.

Warner's two-disc treatment of The Aviator is technically very good (despite the fact that it boasts some truly unfortunate cover art that suggests the enormous head of Leonardo DiCaprio is about to swallow an airplane). The picture quality may take some getting used to, since we don't really see movies that look like this anymore, but I'm fairly certain that any oversaturation of color you may see is intentional and not the fault of the transfer. The 5.1 sound isn't altogether as flashy as you might hope but works well enough, especially with the almost wall-to-wall music. Having said that, that Beverly Hills airplane crash scene is as flashy as you might hope. Prepare for much destruction. Most of the special features are found on the second disc, although the main platter does include a feature-length commentary by Scorsese, editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and producer Michael Mann. It isn't the most captivating track I've ever listened to but it's at its best when Scorsese goes to town discussing Hughes' films and the golden age of Hollywood. He describes a 16mm screening of Hell's Angels in the early 1970s at his house in LA with Steven Spielberg, Roy Scheider, John Milius and others in attendance. Those were the days...

As for Disc Two, Howard Hughes may have been one of the leading innovators of the twentieth century but The Aviator is as un-innovative a DVD as you'll find. No multi-angle hoo-hahs or interactive whoop-ti-doos in this package. Just good old-fashioned straight-forward making-of featurettes and documentaries. The good news is there's sure a lot of them, so if you like these kinds of things, you're in luck. If you don't, I recommend checking out at least these few: Modern Marvels is a 43-minute documentary made for the History Channel. It does an excellent job going into more detail about Hughes' achievements and his legacy. The Visual Effects of The Aviator is about 12 minutes long and gives a good taste of the mix of models, CGI and live-action photography used in the film. The title of An Evening with Leonardo DiCaprio and Alan Alda might remind you of Homer Simpson ("Just an evening?!"), but it's a chummy and interesting Q&A held by the two actors either before or after a screening of the film. There's also quite an interesting deleted scene between DiCaprio and Beckinsale that's only about 90 seconds long, so I can't for the life of me figure out why it was cut ("Marty, people won't stand for a 172-minute picture! You've gotta cut it down to 170!"). There are plenty of other featurettes on here, including looks at Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, the costumes, production design, hair and makeup, and music. If you love the movie, you should definitely check all of them out although they're fairly standard talking-head pieces.

The Aviator is a monumental achievement for both Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio. It takes an epic life and transforms it into an epic film without sacrificing the tiny, intimate details that so obsessed Howard Hughes. It's odd that a film devoted to someone who pushed the envelope of technology so far should produce such a low-tech DVD but the presentation of the film itself makes up for the underwhelming, albeit interesting, special features.

Kinsey: 2-Disc Special Edition

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Encoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround

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2-Disc Special Edition - 2004 (2005) - Fox Searchlight (20th Century Fox)

Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B+/A-

If Howard Hughes seems like a natural, if difficult, subject for a biopic, Alfred Kinsey is probably twice as difficult and half as natural. While Kinsey may not have been single-handedly responsible for the sexual revolution whose effects are still lightning rods of controversy even today, he was undeniably one of the key figures in getting it kick-started back in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Kinsey is a household name (most everyone has heard of The Kinsey Report) but for many people, it's a name without a face or context. Kinsey wasn't just a man of ideas, he was a man of controversial ideas. And while movies are great at doing a lot of things, conveying ideas isn't often their strong suit.

Fortunately, Kinsey fell into the hands of an extremely talented writer/director. Bill Condon won a Best Screenplay Oscar for his previous directorial effort, the outstanding and underrated Gods and Monsters. In lesser hands, Kinsey ran the risk of being either too salacious or too dry. Kinsey himself was not the most sympathetic or appealing figure in the world and making a movie about scientific data collection and analysis, even sexual data, isn't usually anyone's idea of a good time.

To solve these problems, Condon employs several interesting techniques. While Kinsey himself is certainly front and center, we often have our perception of him filtered through the eyes of his devoted wife, Clara. Laura Linney is indispensable in this role. No matter what happens, the love of this woman for this man is never called into question. Thanks to Linney's performance, we see in Kinsey what she sees.

Liam Neeson is equally good as Kinsey, creating a man who is socially awkward, ahead of his time, endlessly curious and frustrated by his inability to get everyone to see things his way. Instead of focusing on the prurient details of the sexual histories Kinsey collects, Condon concentrates on Kinsey's remarkable interviewing technique which allowed him to get total strangers to open up about things that previously had never, ever been discussed. It's a simple but effective narrative device that gives us both insight into Kinsey's methods and underscores what was so revolutionary about his project.

Fox has issued Kinsey on DVD in two versions, a two-disc special edition and a version with just the first disc from that package. Image quality is up to par for such a recent film and the audio options (which curiously include DTS though this movie is far from a sonic powerhouse) are solid if unremarkable. So are the special features on disc two worth the extra dollars for the special edition? The answer is an unequivocal yes.

Leading the disc is an 83-minute documentary called The Kinsey Report: Sex on Film. This is a fascinating, detailed making-of following Kinsey's long trip to the screen from conception to birth, including discussions of the controversy that still surrounds Kinsey, the film's difficult development process, and the filming itself. Like the best making-ofs, The Kinsey Report made me see things in the film I hadn't noticed before. It's a terrific piece of filmmaking in its own right. Disc two also features no less than 21 deleted and alternate scenes with optional audio commentary by Bill Condon. Most of them are pretty short but they're all interesting and Condon's comments are illuminating. There's also a six-minute tour of a display called Sex Ed. at the Kinsey Institute, a short gag reel, and two trailers. Wrapping up the second disc is an interactive sex questionnaire developed by the Kinsey Institute. Usually things like this are short and kind of jokey but this is a serious look at the work still being done at the Institute. It's a terrific addition to the disc (and since all work done at the Institute is anonymous, I will not tell you how I scored).

Both versions of Kinsey include an audio commentary by Condon on the film itself. At first, the track seems fairly redundant in light of all the information packed onto the second disc but stick with it. Condon does eventually stop going over ground already well-covered in the documentary and provides some good material, like how he used lessons he learned working on horror movies like Sister, Sister on Kinsey.

When I first saw Kinsey in the theatre, I was impressed but not particularly taken with the film. And while I still prefer Gods and Monsters to this, Kinsey has grown on me quite a bit. It's an effective, thought-provoking and ultimately moving biopic that demonstrates both how far we've come in our attitudes toward sexuality and how little has changed.

Ed Wood: Special Edition

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Ed Wood
Special Edition - 1994 (2004) - Touchstone (Buena Vista)

Film Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B-/B/B-

Anyone who has hopes of being a filmmaker or writer will sooner or later experience having someone else get to one of your ideas before you, especially if your idea is based on a true story. This has happened to me a couple of times now. The first time was with Ed Wood. Back in my film school days in the late 1980s, I started putting together ideas for an ultra-low-budget movie based on the life of Edward D. Wood, Jr. When Tim Burton's movie came out, at first I was more than a little annoyed. But when I saw the film, I was overjoyed that Burton had made the movie and I didn't. His movie was great. Mine would have been terrible. His movie nailed it. Mine would have wallowed in depression and ineptitude.

Ed Wood is unique in the biopic genre for a couple of reasons. For starters, it's a comedy. Most biopics are dramas, even those that are about comedians. For another, while most of the movie has at least one foot in reality there are moments that are complete fabrications of the screenwriters, including a chance meeting between Ed and Orson Welles at Musso & Frank's during the filming of Plan 9 from Outer Space.

What Tim Burton's film does is capture perfectly what makes Ed Wood special to those of us who love him. The worst director of all time is not an obvious subject for a biopic. Yes, some of us can watch Plan 9 and Glen or Glenda? repeatedly but we're not exactly the majority. Most people considered Ed Wood to be a talentless buffoon. But Burton's movie persuades you that there's more than meets the eye. If you watch Plan 9 and just see bad filmmaking, watching Ed Wood allows you to see what the rest of us see. Optimism, exuberance, and sheer joy in the process of filmmaking. If you see Bela Lugosi's performance in Bride of the Monster as the last gasp of a once great career, Ed Wood lets you see it as a touching act of friendship between the aged movie star and the only friend he had left.

Planet of the Apes not withstanding, I've been a fan of every one of Tim Burton's movies so far. To me, Ed Wood is his masterpiece. It's a pitch-perfect evocation of a subject that was clearly close to his heart. Johnny Depp, who often seems genetically incapable of a bad performance, does some of his best work here. It's an infectious performance and you can easily see how Wood gets this family of oddballs and misfits to rally behind him. Martin Landau won a much-deserved Oscar as Lugosi, giving the legendary star a moving valedictory.

The weirdly delayed Ed Wood: Special Edition isn't exactly bursting at the seams with bonus materials but it's not bad. The picture looks a little worse for wear after ten years but it's not so bad that's it's worth getting bent out of shape about. The same goes for the sound: good but not great. Then again, this is a movie about Ed Wood so just how spectacular do these things have to be? As for extras, the reason for the delay was to get rid of a nine-minute featurette about crossdressing called When Carol Met Larry, interesting but certainly nothing to shell out big bucks on eBay for. All the best stuff is still there, including a nice little piece called Making Bela that interviews Landau and makeup artist Rick Baker (who also won an Oscar for this). Pie Plates Over Hollywood interviews production designer Tom Duffield and features some of his sketches and research. There are five deleted scenes, at least two of which are quite good but were understandably cut for time purposes. There's a brief featurette on The Theremin, as well as an odd music video for Howard Shore's main theme co-directed by Burton and Toni Basil. Johnny Depp provides a funny introduction to Let's Shoot This F#*%@r!, fourteen minutes of narration-free, fly-on-the-wall behind-the-scenes footage. Finally, Burton, Landau, costume designer Colleen Atwood and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski provide an interesting and amusing commentary track, one of the better Frankenstein tracks (i.e., a single commentary stitched together from multiple individual recording sessions) I've heard lately.

Some may disagree but for me, Ed Wood belongs to that rarefied level of movies I never get tired of. If I see a portion of it, I have to watch until the end. And as with movies like The Big Lebowski, Ed Wood never fails to cheer me up and put a big grin on my face. It may not be a traditional biopic but it demonstrates that the genre is capable of more than serious drama and big ideas. At its best, the biopic serves as both an entertaining history lesson and an affectionate tribute to its subject.

Adam Jahnke

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