Dick Tracy

(USA 1990)

“You better get over here fast. They’re gonna find out we’re not together.”

— Dispatcher (from Dick Tracy’s watch)

Dick, that’s an interesting name.

It took 15 years for Warren Beatty to achieve his vision of Dick Tracy, Chester Gould’s hard-boiled square-chin (and nose) comic strip detective in the hideous yellow trench coat (http://www.newsweek.com/tracymania-206276). I skipped over him in favor of lighter and friendlier (not to mention more current) stuff like Peanuts, Hägar the Horrible, Hi and Lois, Marmaduke, The Far Side, Life in Hell, and later Calvin and Hobbes and, um, Crankshaft. Good times!

I remember the media blitz during the summer of 1990. It included Madonna — I’m Breathless, an album of music from and “inspired by” the film, and a landmark world tour (Blond Ambition). I guess it makes sense coming a year after Tim Burton’s mega successful Batman that the studio would push Dick Tracy to be the next big blockbuster. This one cost more and made less, but it still made a mark at the box office.

Dick Tracy (Beatty) is dying to bring down mob boss “Big Boy” Caprice (Al Pacino), the city’s most notorious criminal. He may have found a way through femme fatale lounge singer Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), Big Boy’s new girlfriend. She knows a thing or three. Now, if only Dick can get her to talk. The problem is, she’s more interested in Dick.

Written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., the screenplay is adequate: it doesn’t knock your socks off, but it certainly holds your interest. It doesn’t really matter, though, because the story is secondary.

Dick Tracy is a sensory feast. Rick Simpson’s sets are gorgeous and elegant art deco cityscapes punctuated with primary colors and Depression Era practicality. Makeup designers John Caglione Jr. and Doug Drexler concoct memorably grotesque prosthetics that define each villain — there are many — and actually help you keep track of who’s who. Vittorio Storaro’s camera work pulls the whole thing together like an Edward Hopper painting.

Finally, there’s the music. Danny Elfman’s score is cool, but throw in some Stephen Sondheim songs — three of which Madonna performs — and you’ve got a winner. In fact, “Sooner or Later” won the Oscar for Best Original Song (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1991). Bonus: Dick Tracy is the closest you’ll get, at least up to now, to seeing Madge perform “More,” an overlooked classic from her catalog that to my knowledge she has never done live. Ever.

Dick Tracy isn’t perfect. A few moments teeter dangerously close to overboard on cuteness and camp, but fortunately Beatty knows when to pull back. This is not an essential film, but it’s an enjoyable one. I like it.

With Glenne Headly, Charlie Korsmo, James Keane, Seymour Cassel, Michael J. Pollard, Charles Durning, Dick Van Dyke, Frank Campanella, Kathy Bates, Dustin Hoffman, William Forsythe, Ed O’Ross, James Tolkan, Mandy Patinkin, R.G. Armstrong, Henry Silva, Paul Sorvino, Lawrence Steven Meyers, James Caan, Catherine O’Hara, Robert Beecher, Mike Mazurki, Ian Wolfe

Production: Touchstone Pictures, Silver Screen Partners IV, Mulholland Productions

Distribution: Buena Vista Pictures

105 minutes
Rated PG

(Music Box) B-

Chicago Film Society

The 400 Blows [Les Quatre-cents coups]

(France 1959)

Childhood is fertile ground for storytelling. Usually, the stories that sell are heavily nostalgic and sweet, but the more interesting ones tend to come from a darker past. French New Wave pioneer François Truffaut’s autobiographical film The 400 Blows is the latter.

Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a prepubescent boy experiencing an existential crisis. At home, something is bubbling between his parents, mother Gilberte (Claire Maurier) and stepfather Julien (Albert Rémy). At school, a contemptible teacher known as “Sourpuss” (Guy Decomble) has him pegged as a troublemaker.

Antoine cuts class one day with his friend René (Patrick Auffay). They walk around, catch a movie, and enjoy a carnival ride—the Rotor, a cylindrical room that spins and the floor drops out, causing the riders to “stick” to the walls due to centrifugal force. While they’re running around, Antoine sees his mother kissing some man on the street. She sees Antoine, but it’s too late.

The next day, Antoine makes up an excuse for his absence: he says his mother died. It doesn’t work. After a few incidents involving Balzac, a fire, running away from home, and a stolen typewriter, Antoine winds up at a reform school.

Some New Wave films are hard to follow or quite simply just boring to watch. Not so with The 400 Blows, and this is because of quite a few factors.

The narrative is definitely loose. Like all New Wave films, what happens isn’t as important as what the director is showing us. Here, though, the plot is straightforward and sticks to a more traditional structure even if it doesn’t have a true “climax” or a single moment of reckoning. Truffaut gives us some really great scenes in this movie, not the least of which is this one:

400 Blows paddywagon.jpg

The 400 Blows is realistic and personal; it unfolds like something literally happening right before us. The acting, which doesn’t come off as scripted at all, is probably the biggest boon for this; the acting style is totally naturalistic. That said, Henri Decaë’s camerawork is a major contribution as well. He shoots on the streets of Paris using hand-held equipment, which allows him to get right up in front of the action. That’s likely a product of an independent low-budget film, but intentional or not The 400 Blows is so much better as a result; this film would not work the same way without Decaë.

Truffaut makes us empathize with Antoine. He’s not a bad kid; his behavior is no worse than his classmates or the adults around him. He’s made out to be one, though. The sad part is that he believes it. He clearly sees that there’s more to life than the little spot he occupies, but he’s not better off after he tries to be. At the end of the film, I want to be on the beach with him to tell him he’ll be okay.

As for the nonsensical title, I didn’t realize that it’s a literal English translation of the French idiom “faire les quatre cents coups”, which means “to raise hell.” Now that I know that, the title totally makes sense.

Nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay by Truffaut and Marcel Moussy (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1960), The 400 Blows is a movie that consistently ends up on many “must see” lists. There’s a reason it’s considered a landmark film. It’s hard to believe this is Truffaut’s first film.

With Georges Flamant, Pierre Repp, Daniel Couturier, Luc Andrieux, Robert Beauvais, Yvonne Claudie, Marius Laurey, Claude Mansard, Jacques Monod, Henri Virlojeux, Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Claude Brialy, François Nocher, Richard Kanayan, Renaud Fontanarosa, Michel Girard, Henry Moati, Bernard Abbou, Jean-François Bergouignan, Jacques Demy, François Truffaut, Philippe De Broca, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Michel Lesignor

Production: Les Films du Carrosse

Distribution: Cocinor, MK2 Films, Janus Films (USA), Criterion (USA)

93 minutes
Not rated

(iTunes rental) A-

Phantom of the Opera

(USA 1943)

I confess, I rolled my eyes when I found out that a print of Phantom of the Opera was chosen for a screening at the Nitrate Picture Show. I was totally unenthusiastic about seeing yet another version of something I’ve already seen more times than I care to admit. The trailer calls it “[a] story the world can never forget,” but that’s only because Gaston Leroux’s damned story won’t go away.

As it turns out, I quite enjoyed Arthur Lubin’s version. He switches gears with Eric Taylor and Samuel Hoffenstein’s screenplay, ditching horror in favor of romance and melodrama. In the process, he brings a really nice camp factor to the whole thing—I didn’t expect that. His version is a sillier, more fun soapy affair than what I’m used to.

Claude Rains is sympathetic as Erique Claudin, the downsized middle-aged composer who becomes the masked phantom after his publisher (Miles Mander) “steals” his new composition. One of my favorite moments of the entire film is the publisher’s exasperated secretary (Renee Carson) throwing acid from a baking pan in Claudin’s face. It’s so bizarre, it’s actually funny. Even with his acid face, Claudin has a crazy plan for making beautiful young soprano Christine Dubois (Susanna Foster) a star, even if she’ll never return his love. Her female rivalry with diva Biancarolli (Jane Farrar) stews while Anatole (Nelson Eddy), the baritone knight in shining armor, combs the Paris Opera House for the malformed monster (that would be Claudin) who murders anyone in his way. Things get dicier the closer Anatole gets to Claudin.

Phantom of the Opera is a treat for the senses, which makes it perfect for a nitrate print. A rich Technicolor dream, it won Oscars for cinematography (W. Howard Greene and Hal Mohr) and art direction (John B. Goodman, Alexander Golitzen, Russell A. Gausman, and Ira S. Webb) (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1944). Edward Ward’s score is lovely.

With Edgar Barrier, Leo Carrillo, J. Edward Bromberg, Fritz Feld, Frank Puglia, Steven Geray, Barbara Everest, Hume Cronyn, Elvira Curci, Kate Lawson

Production: Universal Pictures

Distribution: Universal Pictures (USA), General Film Distributors (GFD) (UK), Motion Picture Export Association (MPEA) (Netherlands), Realart Pictures Inc. (USA), Universal Filmverleih (West Germany)

92 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) B-

Nitrate Picture Show

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer

(USA 1947)

Richard “Dick” Nugent (Cary Grant) is a dashing, self-absorbed playboy charged with inciting a brawl at a nightclub. A self-employed artist, he shows up late for his hearing before priggish Judge Margaret Turner (Myrna Loy), who’s put off by his casual indifference. Nevertheless, she dismisses the case when she sees that the whole thing started with two floozies (Veda Ann Borg and Carol Hughes) fighting over him. With a slam of her gavel and an eyeroll, she sends Dick on his way, warning him to watch himself.

A free man, Dick heads straight to his next appointment: he’s the guest lecturn at a high school where Margaret’s dramatic 17-year-old sister, Susan (Shirley Temple), is a student. She attends the lecture, and is immediately smitten. Susan approaches Dick afterward and offers to, err, model for him. He’s noncommittal, clearly unaware that he’s dealing with a determined gal.

That evening, Susan gets all dolled up and sneaks out to Dick’s apartment, a spacious two-story downtown suite I’d kill to have. He’s not home, but she persuades the young doorman (Ian Bernard?) to let her up so she can wait for him. Naturally, she falls asleep on the davenport.

A big misunderstanding leads to Dick punching Margaret’s date, district attorney Tommy Chamberlain (Rudy Vallee), when they show up at his apartment to rescue Susan soon after he gets home and discovers her there. Dick is sent to the slammer, where court psychiatrist Dr. Matt Beemish (Ray Collins)—Margaret and Susan’s uncle—figures out what’s up. The good doctor proposes a “simple” solution: Dick agrees to date Susan, Margaret agrees to allow Susan to date Dick until her infatuation runs its course, and Tommy agrees to drop the assault charge. All three grudgingly agree to the plan. Hilarity ensues, especially as Dick and Margaret start digging each other—and Susan proves to be a real pain in the ass.

Penned by future TV creator/writer Sidney Sheldon (The Patty Duke Show, I Dream of Jeannie, and Hart to Hart), The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer is a solid textbook screwball comedy. It actually feels like a sitcom. Sheldon won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for this (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1948), and I can see why: his script is light and fun, capitalizing on the generation gap between youth culture and, I guess, middle age. I doubt the story would fly today; the whole premise reads as creepy by 21st Century standards. For a more innocent time, though, it totally works. And it’s amusing.

Director Irving Reis straddles the line between silly and ridiculous without going overboard. Grant, Loy, and Temple all have better work under their belt, but each still gives a memorable performance here even if their characters and this fluffy film are forgettable. I heard some grumbling from others in the audience, but I enjoyed this for what it is—and it ain’t Citizen Kane.

One final word about the nitrate print I saw: it was stunning, exceeding my expectations. I had my doubts that black and white film would make me sing the praises of nitrate, but The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer made me a believer; the whites were luminescent and the blacks and greys were deep and complex. Lovely!

With Lillian Randolph, Harry Davenport, Johnny Sands, Don Beddoe, Dan Tobin, Ransom Sherman, William Bakewell, Irving Bacon, Dore Schary

Production: RKO Radio Pictures, Vanguard Films

Distribution: RKO Radio Pictures

95 minutes
Not rated

(Dryden Theatre) C+

Nitrate Picture Show

Good Will Hunting

(USA 1997)

“Well, I got her number. How do you like them apples?”

—Will Hunting

Good Will Hunting, the final screening of Chicago International Film Festival’s Totally ’90s series, is not something I associate with its director, Gus Van Sant. Frankly, I didn’t know he directed it until I saw his name in the credits.

No, I associate Good Will Hunting with longtime friends Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who while they were both still relatively unknown turned the former’s drama class project into the script that would become this film (http://www.eonline.com/news/802830/looking-back-at-the-totally-crazy-story-behind-the-making-of-good-will-hunting). The success of Good Will Hunting seemed to come out of nowhere and established both of them as actors—never mind that they snagged the Oscar for Best Screenplay in 1998 (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1998). Damon and Affleck have both written since, but none of their screenplays has been as successful as this one.

Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård), a professor at MIT, is baffled when someone anonymously solves a wicked hahd math problem he posted on a chalkbaord in the hall as a challenge to his students—he expected it to take the entire semester. No one steps up to claim the work. He posts a second problem, one that took his colleagues two years to figure out. He’s amazed when he catches one of the school’s janitors, Will Hunting (Damon), red-handed. Will won’t have anything to do with Lambeau—until he ends up in jail for assault.

Recognizing Will’s gift, Lambeau makes a deal with him: he’ll pay for bail if Will works with him on math and sees a therapist. The problem is, Will doesn’t make it easy to connect. In fact, five different therapists fail. As a last resort, Lambeau calls former classmate Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), who has a similar Southie background as Will and stands up to his crap. Sean sees that Will is deflecting to hide his self-sabotaging tendencies.

Meanwhile, Will meets Skylar (Minnie Driver), who sweeps him off his feet. It all goes well until she tells him she’s going to medical school at Stanford—and asks him to go with her.

The script here is loaded with good ideas and gorgeous details—that story about Sean ditching a Red Sox game to be with a girl he just met in a bar (she would become his wife) is gold. So is Will’s confrontation with a grad student (Scott William Winters) at a dive. Hearing Damon sing “Afternoon Delight” while he’s faking hypnosis is hilarious. The story, though, is predictable. Good Will Hunting excels because of the acting. The casting—by Kerry Barden, Billy Hopkins, and Suzanne Smith—makes all the difference in the world.

With Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck, John Mighton, Rachel Majorowski, Colleen McCauley, Cole Hauser, Rob Lyons, Steven Kozlowski, Jennifer Deathe, Philip Williams, Patrick O’Donnell, Kevin Rushton, Jimmy Flynn, Joe Cannon, Ann Matacunas, George Plimpton, Francesco Clemente

Production: Lawrence Bender Productions, Be Gentlemen Limited Partnership, Miramax Films

Distribution: Miramax Films (USA), Bac Films (France), Buena Vista International (UK), Cecchi Gori Distribuzione (Italy), Filmes Castello Lopes (Portugal), Intersonic (Czech Republic), Laurenfilm (Spain), Lider Films (Argentina), SF Norge A/S (Norway), Scanbox Entertainment (Sweden), Scotia International Filmverleih (Germany), Shochiku-Fuji Company (Japan), Svensk Filmindustri (SF) (Sweden), Svenska Filminstitutet (SFI) (Sweden), United International Pictures (UIP) (Switzerland)

126 minutes
Rated R

(Public Chicago) B

Chicago International Film Festival

https://www.miramax.com/movie/good-will-hunting/

Heart Like a Wheel

(USA 1983)

“Trying to make us damned…golf!

—Connie Kalitta

Heart Like a Wheel is the kind of movie you see on late night TV: a mildly amusing true story about someone you’ve never heard of and her struggle to overcome adversity and maybe find herself in the process. In this case, that someone is Shirley Muldowney (Bonnie Bedelia), later known as “Cha Cha,” a 1960s housewife who became the first woman to obtain a license from the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) and the first person ever to win two and then three Top Fuel titles (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shirley_Muldowney). Her struggle consists of establishing herself as a serious dragster. The adversity, well, that’s the sexist all-male drag race scene. You might say the whole thing is a drag.

One night, Shirley’s mechanic husband, Jack (Leo Rossi), lets her race his sports car on the street. She beats Jack’s rival and discovers that she digs the thrill of drag racing. Soon, she’s hanging out at the racetrack, where she meets Connie Kalitta (Beau Bridges), a veteran racer and womanizer. Jealous of her success, Jack leaves Shirley to her own devices.

I picked up Heart Like a Wheel for one reason, and one reason only: I read that My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult sampled this movie in a song or two. Overall, it’s a mixed bag, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s better than mediocre. The acting is good. Ken Friedman’s screenplay is competent if not exactly deep, peppered with some snappy dialogue. When a skeezy reporter (Martin Casella) asks Shirley what a beautiful girl like her is doing at a racetrack, for example, her one-word response is casual, bored, and totally fucking awesome: “Winning.” Director Jonathan Kaplan stages realistic fight scenes, particularly between Connie and Shirley’s teenage son, John (played by a young Anthony Edwards). He even throws in a couple of real racers (Steve Evans and Sam Posey) and fire. It was nominated for an Academy Award for costume design (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1984). The whole thing comes off like a soap opera, but it works. I never did catch those samples, though.

Bonus: the DVD I have includes trailers for four other films, The Turning Point, Kenny & Company, Rhinestone with Dolly Parton and Sylvester Stallone, and Six Pack with Kenny Rogers and Anthony Michael Hall. They all look as awful as “Born to Win” by Jill Michaels, the Heart Like a Wheel theme song.

With Hoyt Axton, Creed Bratton, Tiffany Brissette, Michael Cavanaugh, Diane Delano, Mitzi Hoag, Nora Heflin, Brandon Brent Williams

Production: Aurora Productions

Distribution: 20th Century Fox

113 minutes
Rated PG

(DVD purchase) C

Ed Wood

(USA 1994)

“You’re wasting your lives making shit. Nobody cares. These movies are terrible!”

—Dolores Fuller

 

“How do you do it? How do you get all your friends to get baptized just so you can make a monster movie?”

—Bunny Breckinridge

 

“Can your heart stand the shocking facts of the true story of Edward D. Wood, Jr?”

—Criswell

 

“Confidentially, I even paratrooped wearing a brassier and panties. I wasn’t afraid of being killed, but I was terrified of being wounded and having the medics discover my secret.”

—Ed Wood

Edward D. Wood, Jr., or simply Ed Wood, is widely regarded as the worst director of all time. In fact, he received posthumous recognition—the Golden Turkey Award—designating him as such (http://www.legacy.com/news/celebrity-deaths/article/ed-wood-the-best-of-the-worst). His silly low-budget DIY pulp/science fiction/horror flicks from the 1950s—low on plot, technique, and talent—are beloved by many because they’re so bad. Monumentally bad. Okay, maybe ridiculous is a better word. You decide from this trailer:

Based on Rudolph Grey’s book Nightmare of Ecstasy and adapted for the screen by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Tim Burton’s labor of love, Ed Wood, is a period-piece biopic about the eccentric angora-loving filmmaker responsible for such gems as Jail Bait, Glen or Glenda, Bride of the Monster, and of course Plan 9 from Outer Space—Wood’s Citizen Kane (as Burton likens it here). This film rocks; I never get sick of it. Not ever. And for a few reasons.

The characters and performances are fantastic. Leading man Ed Wood is one of Johnny Depp’s most endearing roles; he plays Wood with an affectionate and demonstrative earnestness he’s never quite duplicated. Burton has always held sympathetic misfits in high regard—Edward Scissorhands, also played by Depp, immediately comes to mind. Here, he has a field day, bringing in an entire cast of warm and colorful weirdos that flock to Wood. Consider: best bud Bunny Breckinridge (Bill Murray), a boozy grand queen with a penchant for drama and glitter. “The Amazing Criswell” (Jeffrey Jones), an androgynous self-proclaimed psychic/horse shit artist. Max (Max Casella), the president of Wood’s fan club—and his errand boy. Overzealous, chatty crew member Conrad (Brent Hinkley). Later, Vampira (Lisa Marie), a gothic midnight movie hostess with lots of bosom, and TV wrestler Tor Johnson (George “The Animal” Steele) become regulars in Wood’s films.

The most important relationship, though, is the one between Wood and has-been Dracula star Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau), whom he meets in a coffin store. Lugosi’s life is far from glamorous: he lives alone in obscurity in a tiny tract house in a nondescript suburban neighborhood. He’s also a junkie. Wood moves from starstruck fan to employer to custodian and confidant. Landau gives a flawless performance; he earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for it. Every scene is inspired, but one of my favorites is his dramatic reading of that hackneyed “home” speech; it is, to use Wood’s word, “perfect.” Their friendship gives Ed Wood much of its warmth and humanity.

Despite the laughably amateur quality of Wood’s films—and his unorthodox way of shooting them—he gets them made. And no matter how poorly received they are, he doesn’t give up. In this sense, Ed Wood is uplifting and inspiring. He embraces his flaws, sticks to his guns, and believes in himself. Orson Welles himself (Vincent D’Onofrio) backs him up in one great scene at a bar.

Some might find the pace a bit slow. I don’t—the whole film is fun and jammed with quotable material that keeps it moving. Line after line is memorable—I could string together a bunch of quotes I know by heart and leave it at that (I’ve seen this film quite a few times). From a technical standpoint, Ed Wood is exceedingly well done. Filmed in shimmering black and white, Stefan Czapsky’s camerawork is beautiful. The cleverly composed, shadowy shots of Lugosi “fixing” in the bathroom and later tied to a bed in rehab, and Wood and future wife Kathy (Patricia Arquette) inside the carnival ride are especially remarkable. Howard Shore’s score—a rich mix of jazz, Cuban orchestration that wouldn’t sound out of place on I Love Lucy, and monster madness—is awesome.

Burton easily could have made this a snarkfest. Instead, he shows his idol in a respectful and positive light. His spirited take makes Ed Wood exceptional.

With Sarah Jessica Parker, Mike Starr, Juliet Landau, Stanley Desantis, Ned Bellamy, Norman Alden, G.D. Spradlin

Produced by Touchstone Pictures

Distributed by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

127 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes purchase) A