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

Wonder Woman

(USA 2017)

Director Patty Jenkins aims to do for Wonder Woman what Christopher Nolan—and I suppose to a lesser degree Tim Burton—did for Batman: take an iconic comic book superhero that got campy over the years and return it to its darker roots, producing something dramatic, perhaps weightier, and far more artful. Jenkins doesn’t entirely pull it off with Wonder Woman, but she’s on the right track. I see a sequel or two in the near future, so she’s got time to get there.

To Jenkins’s credit, Wonder Woman is not what I expected. Aside from a nod or two—and that goddamned tiara—all the cut-rate kitsch of the ’70s TV series is gone. This Wonder Woman means business even if she’s still, shall we say, absurd.

Jenkins goes back to the beginning: young Diana (Lilly Aspell and Emily Carey) lives on Themyscira, a hidden island inhabited by war-ready buff goddesses. Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Diana’s mother, shields her from the strident ways of her subjects. It all has to do with an old score Ares (David Thewlis) seeks to settle—yes, that Ares, the son of Zeus and the god of war. General Antiope (Robin Wright), Hippolyta’s sister and Diana’s aunt/mentor, isn’t having it: she recognizes Diana’s potential and trains her on the sly. Diana blossoms into a beautiful woman (Gal Gadot) with serious supernatural power.

Diana stumbles upon Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a drowning American pilot whose plane crashes off the coast of Themyscira. She rescues him, unwittingly exposing the island to an invasion by German forces. Persuaded by the awesome power of Diana’s Lasso of Hestia, Steve confesses that he’s a spy in the “war to end all wars”—World War I. Spider-sensing Ares is behind it, Diana embarks with Steve on a mission filled with romance, adventure, and espionage in an effort to track down the god and stop the madness.

Wonder Woman starts out all Xena: Warrior Princess, silly and weird in a geeky softcore straight guy “lesbian porn” way that no doubt would appeal to the likes of Wayne and Garth. Thankfully, it moves in another direction once Pine shows up about 40 minutes in. I found myself enjoying Wonder Woman more as the story got to Europe—that storyline is more believable even if it too is silly. The battle scenes are decent with some Hollywood excess and humor thrown in. I love how the theme of gender equality is the star of every scene—neither subtle nor heavy-handed, it’s simply a given.

For all its perks, Wonder Woman is ultimately a typical blockbuster that emphasizes form over substance. If nothing else, it surprises, which is always a plus. Frankly, though, I could’ve kept going completely oblivious to the fact that Wonder Woman is more than Lynda Carter. She was more a lot more fun.

With Danny Huston, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya, Doutzen Kroes

Production: DC Entertainment, Atlas Entertainment, Cruel & Unusual Films, Rat-Pac Dune Entertainment LLC, Tencent Pictures, Wanda Pictures

Distribution: Warner Brothers, Karo Premiere (Russia), NOS Audiovisuais (Portugal), Roadshow Entertainment (New Zealand), Roadshow Films (Australia), SF Studios (Norway), Tanweer Alliances (Greece)

141 minutes
Rated PG-13

(ArcLight) C

http://wonderwomanfilm.com

Cool World

(USA 1992)

“That one, she’s a waste of ink.”

“What, you got ink for brains? Get down!”

—Det. Frank Harris

Oh boy. Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World is not good. It probably started out with some fun ideas, but man did they get lost in a morass of crap. A jailed cartoonist (Gabriel Byrne) draws a scantily clad floozie, Holli Would (Kim Basinger), whom he fantasizes about and no doubt spills a lot of seed over while he’s locked up. Upon his release from the big house, he gets zapped into Cool World, a fifth dimension where humans (“noids”) interact with cartoons (“scribbles”). They can’t have sex with each other, though—as if that’s the first thing you want to do with a cartoon.

Oh, there’s also a random, inelegantly placed storyline about Detective Frank Harris (Brad Pitt), Cool World’s one-man vice squad, and how he ends up there after a motorcycle accident that kills his mother (Janni Brenn-Lowen).

Where to begin? The plot is full of unexplained holes, and I didn’t care enough to bother trying to fill them in. The jokes are lame, and there’s an awful lot of filler. I’ve never seen Basinger as boring as she is here, with lines like, “Now you can buy me more fries, dickhead.” Whatever. Byrne is an even bigger snooze, unable to feign an ounce of excitement over…anything. Cool World is a blatant ripoff of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Dick Tracy, and even Tim Burton’s Batman; sadly, the finished product doesn’t come close to any of them.

The animation, however, is cool: a kind of retro-futuristic Ren and Stimpy thing. The soundtrack, which features original songs by the likes of David Bowie, Thompson Twins, and My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, is great even if it’s so 1992 with its techno-industrial sound. Plus, Pitt is actually decent despite the material, his affected accent and the awful suit and tie combo straight from U Men or Oak Tree aside. It’s strange and sad to see him in something as soulless as Cool World, but he’s nice to look at.

With Michele Abrams, Dierdre O’Connell, Frank Sinatra, Jr.

Production: Rough Draft Studios

Distribution: Paramount Pictures

102 minutes
Rated PG-13

(MoviePlex) D-

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

Florence Foster Jenkins

(UK 2016)

“People can say I can’t sing, but they can’t say I didn’t sing.”

—Florence Foster Jenkins

A lot of hype surrounded Florence Foster Jenkins before it arrived at a theater near us last fall. We wanted to catch it during its original run, but it came and went before we got around to seeing it. So, inspired by a post earlier in the day, I rented it on a Friday when we had no plans other than dinner at home. The night we watched it just happened to be Friday the 13th, which somehow seems appropriate.

Based on actual events and set during WWII, Florence (Meryl Streep) is a rich Manhattan society lady of a certain age who runs in an arty circle and knows a lot of people, some with money and others who follow it. She operates a private venue dedicated to opera, the Verdi Club, where she stars in a show and has a non-speaking role. Dying of either syphillis or the treatment for it—mercury and arsenic!—her one wish is to perform for an audience at Carnegie Hall. The problem is, she can’t sing; she’s downright awful. Her entrance here, lowered onstage from a rope and pulley while dressed as an angel with a harp, reminds me of Sarah Jessica Parker’s entrance (“I offer you mortals the bird of peace so that you may change your ways and end this destruction”) in Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic about a similarly talentless film director who came along a decade or so later. The comparison is so apt that I wonder if it was intentional. Here, Florence’s husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), doesn’t help matters by exaggerating her talent.

Determined to make her dream come true, Florence hires a vocal trainer, Carlo Edwards (David Haig), and a pianist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), to put together a show. Established and well-known Carlo is content to take Florence’s money, build her ego, and let her dream on. Budding Cosmé, however, struggles with lying to her about her obvious ineptitude, not to mention her negative impact on his professional reputation. He soon sees that those around Florence stretch the truth about a lot of things when dealing with her.

Nicholas Martin’s script is kind to its characters, going for laughs in a way that doesn’t demean any of them. I never heard of her until this film, but the actual Florence Foster Jenkins was an interesting person. Her singing truly was awful:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hcs9yJjVecs. As always, Streep is spot on with her portrayal. She seems to have fun in this role, and it shows. Grant, who usually bores me but doesn’t here, is well suited for St. Clair: he’s stuffy and straight, but he nicely coveys an underlying deceitfulness that doesn’t come off as sinister. I like the way director Stephen Frears plays with deceit here, ultimately using it to depict a very touching side of St. Clair—who lives with his mistress (Rebecca Ferguson) in Brooklyn in apartment that Florence pays for. Much to my surprise, though, Big Bang Theory‘s Helberg steals practically every scene he’s in: keeping it subtle with Cosmé’s homosexuality (as Cosmé himself no doubt would have done during his day), he plays his character as a spineless, perennially uncomfortable, asexual bundle of nerves. He peppers his performance with grimaces and nervous giggles. Later, he delivers a line to explain his tardiness to Florence (of course, it involves sailors) with perfect and priceless dryness. He outshines everyone here.

Florence Foster Jenkins has some funny moments and some very touching ones. I found it enjoyable enough, but certainly not a knockout. It could have benefitted from a little more quirk and edge, especially considering its title character who showed no shortage of either.

Also starring Nina Arianda, Stanley Townsend, Allan Corduner, John Sessions, John Kavanagh, David Menkin, and Sid Phoenix

Produced by Qwerty Films, Pathé Pictures International, and BBC Films

Distributed by Paramount Pictures (USA)

111 minutes
Rated PG-13

(iTunes rental) C

http://www.florencefosterjenkinsmovie.com

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

(USA/UK 1971)

What a great way to get into the Easter spirit: an afternoon screening of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory complete with Rocky Horror-esque audience participation (without the swearing) and a goodie bag filled with bubbles, taffy, a chocolate egg, an exploding popper, and a glow stick—sign me up!

One of the first movies I remember seeing, ever, is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I saw it with my sister and my cousins (Billy and Dottie), and I couldn’t have been more than three or four years old. We saw it at the Madison Theatre, which is long gone. Here’s a picture of it: http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/7383

I still remember what it looked like inside: it was a big open theater with a concession stand at the top of the seats divided by a half wall that allowed one to see the screen while purchasing popcorn. Today, it’s a lumberyard as it has been for decades. Sigh.

But I digress.

So how’s the movie? The screenplay isn’t totally true to Roald Dahl’s 1964 novel—he started it but didn’t finish it, and ultimately disowned the final version (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willy_Wonka_%26_the_Chocolate_Factory)—but it makes no difference. Director Mel Stuart keeps the film, to borrow from one of the songs, pure imagination and good fun. The sets are simple and the “special effects” are really low tech, like that trippy boat scene and the graphics accompanying the Oompa Loompas as they sing. Regardless, a timelessly magic quality that doesn’t need much comes through. Clearly, this is not the United States even if Charlie (Peter Ostrum) and Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson) speak in an American dialect. One of my favorite scenes from any movie is the one in which Violet (Denise Nickerson) turns into a blueberry. And who doesn’t love watching all these shitheads meet their fate: Augustus (Michael Bollner) sucked into a tube, Veruca (Julie Dawn Cole) falling down a trash chute to be incinerated, and Mike Teevee (Paris Themmen) shrunk down to size? The color pallette is an awesome late 60s drab, and the clothes are amazingly gaudy. Everyone’s hair is stiff. The whole thing is wonderfully weird.

I love Wonka’s (Gene Wilder) deadpan disdain for, like, everything. The Oompa Loompas’ moralistic nursery rhymes against eating too much, chewing gum, being a brat, and watching too much TV are awesome. Some scenes are thin and quicker than I remember, but it’s a perfect movie for kids. It even has a happy ending. I never found it scary.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory still brings a smile to my face after all these years. Although I didn’t mind Tim Burton’s remake, I’ll take the original any day. Oh yeah—a trip to the candy store after the film (like I had) is obligatory.

In 2014, the United States Library of Congress deemed Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.

(Music Box) A-

http://www.willywonkamovie.com

Big Eyes

(USA 2014)

A desperate housewife’s foray into 1960s San Francisco art scene becomes a surprising if dubious success. An “agreement” with her wannabe artiste husband, however, silences her claim to fame.

Something of a morality play, Tim Burton’s stamp is all over Big Eyes. But that doesn’t mean it’s great– it certainly is no Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood. The problem here is that it lacks the heart of Burton’s earlier work. Too bad. Despite a rushed wrap-up, though, Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz turn in highly enjoyable performances that save Big Eyes from complete inanity.

(Landmark Century) B-

http://bigeyesfilm.com