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

Roller Coaster Rabbit

(USA 1990)

I saw Dick Tracy during its original theatrical run, and I don’t remember a Roger Rabbit cartoon with it. Then again, I don’t remember tee shirt tickets, either. So, what do I know?

Directed by Rob Minkoff and Frank Marshall, Roller Coaster Rabbit is essentially a Warner Brothers cartoon — right down to the logo at the beginning. Roger Rabbit (Charles Fleischer) is left to babysit Baby Herman (Lou Hirsch) at a county fair while his mother (April Winchell) goes off and … does something else. I don’t know what.

A red balloon is the impetus for the insanity: Baby Herman drags Roger into a series of painful mishaps involving darts, gunshots, cogs, a roller coaster, and a grazing bull (Frank Welker) whose nuts become an object of Baby Herman’s curiosity. The story is a group project: Bill Kopp, Kevin Harkey, Lynne Naylor, and Patrick A. Ventura all contribute. Clearly, they’ve seen their share of ‘40s and ‘50s cartoons. There’s even a cameo by Droopy (Corey Burton). I respect that. Roller Coaster Rabbit is a fun piece of fluff.

With Kathleen Turner, Charlie Adler

Production: Touchstone Pictures, Amblin Entertainment

Distribution: Buena Vista Pictures

7 minutes
Rated PG

(Music Box) B-

Chicago Film Society

Quiz Show

(USA 1994)

“Cheating on a quiz show? That’s sort of like plagiarizing a comic strip.”

—Mark Van Doren

 

The quiz show scandal of the late 1950s doesn’t sound like a riveting topic for a film, but that’s exactly what it is in Quiz Show, Robert Redford’s fourth directing gig. Every aspect of this film is spectacularly elegant, starting with Bobby Darin crooning “Mack the Knife” as the opening credits roll over shots of armored security guards transferring sealed questions and answers from a bank vault to a studio. Quiz Show is a modern morality play with lots of style.

It’s 1958, and NBC’s Twenty-One is the biggest game show in America. Homely goofball Herbert Stempel (John Turturro) of Queens is a surprise celebrity after an unprecedented winning streak, but the show’s ratings have “plateaued.” The show’s sponsor, Geritol, is ready for a change. So are producers Dan Enright (David Paymer) and Albert Freedman (Hank Azaria), who decide that a charismatic, television-ready new contestant is what the show needs.

WASPy college professor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) happens to audition for another NBC game show, the less popular Tic Tac Dough. Handsome, polished, and hailing from an eminent intellectual family, “Charlie” fits the bill for Enright and Freedman’s vision.

Enright takes Stempel out for a steak dinner and asks him to “take a dive,” or purposely lose to Van Doren, on an upcoming show. Predictably, this isn’t something Stempel wants to do—at least, not without something in return. Enright fails to deliver on purposely vague promises, and Stempel publicly calls Twenty-One a fraud, saying it’s rigged. A judge seals the findings of a grand jury investigation, which gets some very minor press: a blurb in the paper. It catches the attention of ladder climbing Richard “Dick” Goodwin (Rob Morrow), a lawyer with the House Legislative Oversight Subcommittee in Washington, D.C., who plans to “put TV on trial.”

Quiz Show didn’t set the box office on fire during its original run, which is really odd (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/yearly/chart/?yr=1994). No matter, because it’s a fine drama. Based on the book Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties by the real Richard Goodwin, Paul Attanasio’s screenplay is meticulously calibrated and cerebral, rich with strong characters, intertwined dilemmas, a fascinating plot, and a plethora of Fifties pop cultural references without nostalgia. Redford’s pacing is excellent: he sets up the story slowly then knocks down each character one after another. He draws superb performances out of the actors, too. The literary repartee between Van Doren and his genteel father, Mark (Paul Scofield), is one of the best things about this film. A wry and subtle sense of humor keeps the story exuberant: Martin Scorsese is great as fast talking Geritol CEO Martin Rittenhome, and Christopher McDonald makes an awesome Jack Barry.

Sure, Quiz Show isn’t an “exact word” historical documentary; Redford and Attanasio took some license. However, the result is an excellent depiction of good versus evil, not just in the television industry but in corporate America altogether. There’s not a lull or a dull moment here. The only criticism I have is Morrow’s unconvincing Boston accent; that can go. Everything else, though, is brilliant. Enright’s son, Don, wrote a piece about Quiz Show for the L.A. Times (http://articles.latimes.com/1994-09-19/entertainment/ca-40429_1_quiz-show); it’s another view worth considering.

With Mira Sorvino, Johann Carlo, Elizabeth Wilson, Allan Rich, Griffin Dunne

Production: Hollywood Pictures

Distribution: Buena Vista Pictures

133 minutes
Rated PG-13

(DVD/iTunes purchase) A

TwentyOne Pic