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

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

(USA 1988)

Let’s get this out up front: the appeal of Who Framed Roger Rabbit is not its outstanding narrative. Based on Gary K. Wolf’s novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman’s screenplay is competently written but it’s conventional if not downright pedestrian, a standard whodunnit complete with hiding, seeking, and a clock ticking. The situations are goofy, the characters are even goofier, and the jokes…well, they’re silly. The whole thing relies too heavily on farce and slapstick for my taste.

Los Angeles, 1947: alcoholic private investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is summoned to the studios of movie mogul R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern). Studio star Roger Rabbit (Charles Fleischer) is unraveling over romantic rumors involving his amply curvaceous toon wife Jessica (Kathleen Turner) and human Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), the inventor and maker of the sundry gadgets used in cartoons. It’s affecting the studio’s bottom line, so Maroon hires Valiant to check it out.

After catching Jessica’s act at an underground club, Valiant spies on her and Acme in her dressing room. He takes pictures of them playing “patty-cake.” He turns them over to Maroon, who shows them to Roger. Assuming the worst, he promptly freaks.

The next morning, Acme is found dead — a cartoon safe crushing his head. Naturally, all signs point to Roger. Dastardly Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), cloaked in a black cape and an evil hidden agenda, is following Roger’s tail. Valiant is unwillingly yanked into a crazy adventure to exonerate Roger, find a will, and stop Doom from selling Toontown, the appropriately named neighborhood where toons live, to a freeway developer.

Despite its shortcomings, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a technical marvel unlike much before it. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, it took awhile to make. It was a box office blockbuster, and it’s easy to see why. From the outset, it’s a dazzling mix of animated characters, or “toons,” interacting with real people. The look and technique are impeccable, with natural movement and even toons and humans touching that melds seamlessly without any jumps or visual hiccups. An ongoing gag with Roger handcuffed to Valiant, for example, is flawless. Clearly, this film was assembled with painstaking attention to timing. It is, in a word, neat.

Plus, the incorporation of classic cartoons — from Betty Boop to Woody Woodpecker to Droopy, to a scene with Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse to a piano duel between Daffy Duck and Donald Duck — is really, really fun. I’m sure this is the only place you’ll ever see Warner Brothers and Disney characters together, and it’s a hoot.

In 2016, the United States Library of Congress deemed Who Framed Roger Rabbit “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Joanna Cassidy, Lou Hirsch, Mike Edmonds, Eugene Guirterrez, Mae Questel, Mel Blanc, Tony Anselmo, Mary T. Radford, Joe Alaskey, David Lander, Richard Williams, Wayne Allwine, Tony Pope, Peter Westy, Cherry Davis, Nancy Cartwright

Production: Touchstone Pictures, Amblin Entertainment

Distribution: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

104 minutes
Rated PG

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-

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