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KNOCK ON WOOD

The career (if you can call it that) of Edward G. Wood Jr. has become the stuff of cult legend because the man is widely acknowledged as the worst movie director of all time. In his 1950s heyday, such as it was, even Hollywood's lowest shlockmeisters wouldn't hire him.

If you've never seen Glen or Glenda, Wood's cheesy cross-dressing drama, or Plan 9 From Outer Space, his spectacularly incoherent saga of invading aliens (complete with graveyard scenes and flying saucers contrived from pie tins set aflame with lighter fluid), you probably don't know what real grade-Z moviemaking is all about.

Actually, it can be a lot more fun than Ed Wood, Tim Burton's comic biopic. For more than two hours we are subjected to poor Ed's delusions and ineptitudes, and the spectacle wears a little thin. Shot in black-and-white, in the same trashy nonstyle as Wood's own bombs, this exercise has its riotous moments. For one thing, the director had a thing for his wife's angora sweaters. For another, he sometimes envisioned himself as the next Orson Welles. His coterie (and working cast) included the drag queen Bunny Breckenridge (played hilariously by Bill Murray), the mystical charlatan Criswell (Jeffrey Jones), a bloated Swedish wrestler named Tor Johnson (played here by one George "The Animal" Steele) and, most notably, the decrepit horror star Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), who's strung out on morphine by the Fifties and clinging to his faded laurels.

Johnny Depp, who earlier worked with Burton in the suburban fantasy Edward Scissorhands, portrays Wood as a grinning, sunny dreamer who rarely questions his talents, just presses on with dim visions. The low camp grates a bit in hour number two, but there's something touching about Ed's innocence and his hustler's energy. "This is the one I'll be remembered for," he says of the misbegotten Plan 9. Prophetic indeed. Little matter that the entire cast and crew agreed to be baptized by the church elders Wood sweet-talked into financing the thing.

Inevitably, Burton lets condescension and sneer slip into his film, and that blunts the comedy. Still, there's a wonderful scene in which Lugosi grapples with a rubber octopus, and Sarah Jessica Parker is terrific as Wood's wife, Delores Parker--a truly awful leading lady, but the clearest thinker of the group.

As inside movie jokes go, this one simply goes on too long.

The Denver International Film Festival gears up Thursday night with a showing of Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway at the Paramount.

Otherwise, DIFF number seventeen will feature more than 100 films from around the world. In the course of shopping trips to Berlin, Telluride and points in between, festival director Ron Henderson has seen them all. Here are some of his recommendations:

Dorota Kedzierzawaska's Crows is a heartrending coming-of-age story set in Warsaw, where a nine-year-old girl left alone by her working mother must struggle to create her own fantasy world of love and relationships. Red is the final installment of Krzysztof Kieslowski's celebrated "colors trilogy" (Blue and White are also being reprised), featuring Irene Jacob as a Swiss student who becomes involved with a judge (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who eavesdrops on his neighbors' phone conversations. The ever-productive Kieslowski claims, mysteriously, that this is his last film.

Palms, a first film by Russian director Artur Aristakisijan, is a meditation on poverty shot among the beggars of Kishinev, a beleaguered city in Moldavia. Vukovar Poste Restante, from the former Yugoslavia, tells the story of a Croatian woman and a Serbian man who fell in love, married, then were torn apart by ethnic conflict. As filming continued, so did the war.

Changing Eastern Europe aside, festivalgoers will see two powerful documentaries, David Sutherland's Out of Sight, about a dancing, flirting, blind woman who defies the stereotypes, and Nicolas Philbert's In the Land of the Deaf, a poetic look at a school for the deaf in France.

Strawberry and Chocolate is Tomas Gutierrez Alea's vivid comedy about an uptight, macho student devoted to the Cuban Revolution and an openly gay man who has plenty to say about revolution. "It's a `Kiss of the Spider Woman' type of film," Henderson reports, "and, in its way, anti-Castro."

Whither America? Actress Gena Rowlands will visit the festival this year, and fans will get another chance to view A Woman Under the Influence, featuring perhaps her finest performance. Tom Noonan's What Happened Was is "an unusually quirky first-date film," with extraordinary acting jobs by playwright Noonan and Karen Sillas.

 
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