A Star is Born (1937)

Dir: William A. Wellman. 1937. Starring: Janet Gaynor, Norman Maine, May Robson. English. Drama.

A Star is Born. What a title. It promises greatness, wish fulfillment and a kind of immortality. What could sustain such a fire? What could possibly bring forth such legendary light? Even a star has humble beginnings and we meet our speck of star dust in a provincial home on a snowy day in Smalltown, USA. It is classic Americana movie making that marries depression era silents to the slow emerging prosperity of WWII America still harboring a romantic vision of manifest destiny.

There is an embittered aunt, a struggling pop, a bright but unformed kid brother, but most importantly and impressively a wise grandmother played with brilliance by May Robson. If you ever need inspiration watch her speech to Janet Gaynor's young and determined Esther, as she encourages her to follow her dreams of being an actress in Hollywood. It practically sings with the spirit of the wild west, not to mention female empowerment.

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Posted by:
Jessica Kaman
Jan 21, 2008 3:54pm

Ed Wood

Dir: Tim Burton, 1994. Starring: Johnny Depp, Martin Landau, Sarah Jessica Parker. Cult.

I readily admit that among my favorite films some are more naturally enjoyable than others. I’ve enjoyed the films of Guy Maddin and Godard and Bergman I’ve seen, but their films are generally not those I’m going to put on after a few drinks on a Saturday night. That sacred time slot is reserved for The Girl Can’t Help It or All about Eve or True Romance. A really brilliantly made film designed to be popular with lots of people is my favorite kind of film, truth be told. Ed Wood is a superb film that should have been a hit with audiences but was inexplicably not. I’d lump similarly marvelous entertainments, Quiz Show and L.A. Confidential, into this category as well. The fact that they were celebrated by critics and not particularly popular with the public is just another piece of evidence that I don’t understand the American public very much at all.

Ed Wood is Tim Burton’s lost classic. He was sent into movie director purgatory because of its dismal box office performance and it took several films (mostly remakes) to regain his stature as an auteur with box office clout. Ed Wood is Burton’s ode to the auteur, in this case a hopeless kind of auteur. It’s a celebration of the kind of director who stays defiantly, naively, but always sincerely true to his own cinematic vision. Ed Wood the man is notorious as one of the worst directors who ever made movies in Hollywood. Burton uses Wood's life and career as a means to examine the pressures on an artist as he tries to turn his vision into reality. The film is also a touching story of friendship between a Hollywood monster movie has-been (Martin Landau playing Bela Lugosi) and the ultimate Hollywood outsider working on the fringe of the poverty row film industry. It’s also a love letter of sorts to a Hollywood that no longer exists—Hollywood the small town with its crazy hat-shaped restaurants and eccentric, seedy show people. Not since Edward Scissorhands had Burton made such a personal film about the life of an artist.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Nov 11, 2010 11:05am

Get Shorty

Dir: Barry Sonnenfeld. 1995. Starring: John Travolta, Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito, Rene Russo, Delroy Lindo. English. Comedy.

Chili Palmer (Travolta) is a Miami shylock who finds himself looking for a new career path in life. While chasing down a collection, Chili encounters a B-movie producer named Harry Zim (Hackman) and his scream-queen star, Karen Flores (Russo). Harry has backed himself into a corner, owning money to a local hoodlum (Lindo), who tries to get a piece of the best script Harry has ever owned. In steps Chili, who loves Tinseltown and decides to become a producer. Chili and Karen approach her ex-husband, mega-movie star, Martin Weir (DeVito), to star in the film.

After a successful career as a cinematographer (Raising Arizona, Misery), Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black) took his place in the director’s chair. After two successful Addam’s Family films, he brought Elmore Leonard’s bestseller to the big screen.

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Posted by:
Seamus Smith
Aug 11, 2008 3:41pm

Inserts

Dir: John Byrum, 1975. Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Jessica Harper, Bob Hoskins, Stephen Davies, Veronica Cartwright.

Set in Depression-era Hollywood, Inserts follows the lives of a has-been film director and his entourage of “degenerates” that helps him lead a career directing pornography. The movie might bring to mind a stage play as it is set in a single day, in one room, and follows the actions of the cast in real time. What made the story interesting was realizing that the glamorous and privileged approach to blockbuster films in the late '20s was also used with smut. The performances and heavy dialogue also allow you to mentally compare the fickle and sleazy attitudes in the filmmaking industry of yesteryear with those of today.

Richard Dreyfuss plays The Boy Wonder, a young director known for his achievements in silent film who discovered that he couldn't direct talkies. He's hit rock bottom, just like the rest of America during the Depression, and refuses to leave his Hollywood Hills home. He's dealing with a looming anxiety about not only being a failure but what will happen to his home when the city wants to build a freeway through the land. When a fellow called Big Mac (Bob Hoskins) offered him a contract to direct porn, he took it, not knowing that having such a brutish producer might be the end of him for good. Harlene (Veronica Cartwright) is his star in the picture, and a real handful. Sparing no time, she dives into a frenzy of antics and gossip before settling into her heroin fix. Her co-star is the young and naive Rex the Wonder Dog (Stephen Davies), who laps up praise from others so quickly that you'd think he was a bit dense. The three try to pick up from where they last left off filming and are disturbed by a knock on the door. Harlene's daily gossip comprised of telling the director that the then unknown Clark Gable thought he was a genius and wanted him to direct again. She gave him his address, and now he's come to talk. The Boy Wonder wants nothing to do with that world and sends Rex to shoo him away. They pick up again and grow close to finishing when Mac makes an entrance with his fiance Cathy Cake (Jessica Harper), who is mesmerized by their activities. Mac's presence causes tension because he's paying for the picture and providing Harlene's drugs. Once the actors are paid and high, The Boy Wonder finds it nearly impossible to continue working. As Mac bullies everyone and makes them uncomfortable, Harlene exits the room to shoot up and the others talk of developments in both the film world and America's future.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Apr 7, 2011 4:02pm

The Aviator

Dir: Martin Scorsese, 2004. Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Kate Beckinsale, Alan Alda.

I’m a sucker for lavish recreations of Hollywood’s Golden Age and they don’t come much more spectacular than Martin Scorsese’s epic retelling of the life of Howard Hughes, The Aviator. The story and various legends of Howard Hughes could fill a couple of films. He was rich, by all accounts insane, and had an enormous influence on everything from aviation history to the dismantling of the Hollywood studio system. His life was by turns both enviably glamorous and enormously tragic. The Aviator doesn’t try to completely deconstruct Hughes because I think Scorsese realizes that there is something fundamentally mysterious about the man that no one key event from his life or particular psychological tic will ever fully explain. Instead, Scorsese focuses on Hughes as a man of his moment, documenting his rise and just hinting at the fall to come.

The Aviator begins as Hughes (played by current Scorsese muse Leonardo DiCaprio) is commanding both a film production unit and a group of stunt pilots for his one film as Director, Hell’s Angels. His obsessive style exasperates both his crew and the money men in charge of bankrolling his endeavor (though they work for Hughes). His painstaking attention to detail regardless of cost is virtually unheard of in Hollywood because as an independently wealthy director he is beholden to no one. He stretches the shoot for months waiting for clouds to appear. Finally, he scraps the at-long-last finished film because it wasn’t shot for sound and was finished just as silent films were on the wane. He reshoots the film because he can.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Mar 24, 2011 11:24am

The Boys & Girls Guide to Getting Down

Dir: Paul Sapiano, 2006. Starring: Cricket Leigh, Kat Turner, John McGarr. Comedy.

Are you one of those people who drives past a club and sees all the scantily clad ladies and roguish gents lined up outside a club and wonder, “Is that really their idea of a good time?” I've never understood the thrill of clubbing and, upon seldom experience, always walked away with anxiety over the smell of sweaty bodies and hard liquor. Clubs are often featured in films as this oasis of sexy young 20-somethings and pulsating music to which anyone with pizazz and the right clothing can go and have a great time. This movie not only takes you into the cliched world of nightlife in Los Angeles, but it also sheds a light on the absurdity and downright funny aspects of partying. By mocking those who thrive on heavy drinking, narcotics and noisy music, it presents the party-hardy lifestyle as something to experience, if only for the opportunity to marvel at mankind in one of its most praised, and yet semi-barbaric, rituals.

The movie supports an extremely large cast and focuses on no one in particular. It begins with several groups of friends and roommates choosing where to hang out in Hollywood. The goal for most of the men is to get laid, while the women, the narrator claims, act as if they are hanging out with their girlfriends but are really after the same thing. It then differentiates between clubs, house parties, and after parties when the dreaded last call has been shouted. Mixed into the action is a series of energetic doctors who are “researching” clubbers in their natural habitat. The club sequence is short, and of course we never see the inside of them.

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Posted by:
Edythe Smith
Apr 21, 2011 12:51pm

The Day of the Locust

Dir: John Schlesinger, 1975. Starring: Donald Sutherland, Karen Black, Burgess Meredith, William Atherton. Drama.

Adaptations of quintessentially L.A. novels tend to either work marvelously, as with L.A. Confidential, or don't quite measure up to their source material (a category I’d lump Ask the Dust into). John Schlesinger’s adaptation of The Day of the Locust was a costly misfire for Paramount Studios which spent something like 6 months on the film and a whole lot of dough. It could have been as influential as Chinatown, but it was a flop upon release, though ultimately it had some enduring appeal as a cult film in later years. Nathaniel West’s novel is generally considered to be the very best novel on Hollywood, its more grotesque inhabitants, and its tragic allure as a festering dump where dreams go to die. That makes the novel sound sobering and self-serious but this is a story about fame whores, violently degenerate midgets, sociopathic child actors, cockfights, stag films, and a movie premiere that culminates in the apocalypse. It’s brutally dark and really, really entertaining.

The movie is essentially a literal adaptation of West’s novel and it came under criticism from some quarters for being too literal. Director John Schlesinger was taken to task for supposedly ignoring the arch satire of West's depiction of Hollywood as the epicenter of greed, desperation, and idiocy, and instead ratcheting up the cartoon nihilism to a fever pitch. But when you do a story about America’s pop cultural border town that ends with a murderous orgy of celebrity blood lust I’m not exactly sure "holding back" is the way to go. The Day of the Locust is about a particular kind of American tragedy that West found on Hollywood Boulevard during the 1930s. In the dive bars and diners that lined the boulevard were hundreds of desperate people without a nickel to their name, all drawn to Hollywood in the hopes of making it big. Most, West found, couldn’t even get work as extras. He saw them as a mass of human wreckage under the movie premiere kleig lights. The dark joke beneath the glittering dream that Hollywood came to embody was exquisitely rendered by West as it was happening. The film does justice to the novel with its horror show theatrics under the palm trees and sunny skies of Southern California and ultimately it’s more creepy than campy.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Jun 7, 2010 11:00am

Vito

Dir: Jeffrey Schwarz, 2011. Documentary.

Vito DVDI'll never forget seeing The Celluloid Closet, the documentary based on Vito Russo's seminal overview of LGBT representation in American film. I was 19, a college student in Lawrence, Kansas watching it in a documentary film class. It was like oxygen - for the first time I was seeing a film that confirmed gay stories and a gay sensibility had always been a part of Hollywood Cinema. You just had to know where and how to look.

Vito Russo's work as a film scholar synthesized a whole history of gay images and themes in film. The Celluloid Closet is an ecstatic celebration of such iconic gay images as Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo in Morocco and the gut-wrenching ensemble piece about life in New York for a group of gay male friends in The Boys in the Band. The movie also serves as a scathing indictment of Hollywood and its "morals" code, a system that perpetuated the false notion that homosexuals didn't exist and, if they did, they had to die by the film's end. It was sobering, educational, cathartic, and celebratory. And the man responsible was not alive to see it because he had died of AIDS years earlier.

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Posted by:
Jed Leland
Jul 9, 2013 6:21pm
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