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

Empire Records

(USA 1995)

“I’m the idiot, you’re the screw up, and we are all losers,” sums up Empire Records general manager Joe (Anthony LaPaglia) when he realizes that clerk Lucas (Rory Cochrane) blew the store’s receipts in Atlantic City the night before, which incidentally was the first time Joe let him close shop. His heart was in the right place: Lucas wanted to raise capital to buy the store before owner Mitchell (Ben Bode) sells it to a lame corporate chain called Music Town. Empire Records, you see, is more than a retail outlet: it’s a haven for floundering misfits, including a young shoplifter (Brendon Sexton) who goes by “Warren Beatty.”

Empire Records was a box office bomb (http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=empirerecords.htm). Carol Heikkinen’s script is earnest in its desire to (I guess) reveal some revelation about ’90s youth, but the plot is all too predictable, coming off as a third-rate The Breakfast Club. The cast, though, is impressive; loaded with professionals (Debi Mazar and Maxwell Caulfield) and future stars like Renée Zellweger and Liv Tyler, the actors collectively ooze a credible chemistry. Director Allan Moyle pulls some decent performances out of them. A playfully snarky sense of humor about American culture pervades this film, evident in such nifty devices as “Rex Manning Day” and a dream sequence involving Gwar.

Empire Records is very much a product of its time, but that’s what makes it interesting to watch now. This no doubt is why it was selected as the third screening of Chicago International Film Festival’s Totally ’90s series.

With Robin Tunney, Johnny Whitworth, James “Kimo” Wills, Ethan Embry, Coyote Shivers

Production: Monarchy Enterprises B.V., New Regency Pictures, Regency Entertainment, Warner Brothers

Distribution: Warner Brothers

90 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Public Chicago) C+

Chicago International Film Festival

Truth or Dare [In Bed with Madonna]

(USA 1991)

“I do not endorse a way of life but describe one, and the audience is left to make its own decisions and judgments.”

“Even when I feel like shit, they still love me.”

“Yeah. It ain’t all fucking hunky-dory.”

“I know I’m not the best singer and I know I’m not the best dancer, but I’m not interested in that. I’m interested in pushing people’s buttons, in being provocative and in being political.”

—Madonna

In Richard Linklater’s Slacker—released the same year—an Austin, Texas, townie (Teresa Taylor) hocks a jar she claims is a “Madonna pap smear,” talking it up as an item “closer to the rock god than just a poster.” Up close and personal, that’s essentially what Truth or Dare is: a Madonna pap smear, figuratively speaking.

Truth or Dare is Madonna showing us all how cool she is. It encapsulates an exceptionally interesting time—the best time for her to do something like this, as proven by her later tour documentary, the painfully dull I’m Going to Tell You a Secret, in 2006. Certainly no run of the mill performer, it’s only fitting that Truth or Dare is no run of the mill concert film. Shot at the zenith of her career during the Blond Ambition Tour in 1990—a banner year for an artist with a long track record of controversy and success—Madonna allows director Alek Keshishian unprecedented (though not complete) access behind the scenes, and he in turn gives viewers a lot of juicy nuggets to feast on. For fans, Keshishian shows that Madonna really is—or was—all that, and more: she’s snappy, saucy, snide, mischievous, rebellious, witty, tough, and through it all ridiculosly entertaining (and I imagine a lot of fun if you’re on her good side).

The live stuff is superb. Keshishian picks all the showstoppers from Madonna’s most iconic tour: “Express Yourself,” “Holiday,” “Vogue,” a what-the-fuck version of “Like a Virgin” inspired by an ancient Egyptian orgy, and my favorite despite its unfortunate truncation, a Bob Fosse meets A Clockwork Orange take on “Keep it Together.” Views from both the floor and onstage present the show in all its over-the-top glory. Using color in an otherwise black and white film makes the live pieces all the more special.

The backstage shots on tour—the nightly prayers, the stress and snafus, the post show parties—are even better. The shade Madonna thows at other celebrities—Oprah Winfrey, Belinda Carlisle, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and of course Kevin Costner—is uncalled for but hilarious, sometimes uncomfortably so. Personal events like her spat with Warren Beatty before the Dick Tracy opening in Orlando (she calls him an “asshole”), a phone call with her father to arrange tickets for a show in Detroit, meeting a childhood friend, even attending Pedro Almodóvar’s party in Madrid all uncover multiple sides of Madonna.

But Keshishian goes deeper (and deeper): for every cringeworthy contrived scene that rings hollow—like visiting the cemetery to see her mother’s grave—is an honest one revealing the flawed and complicated person Madonna is. My favorite moments in Truth or Dare are the small events that show her human side. She’s generous with her dancers and her family—the scene where she sings “Happy Birthday” to her father onstage is precious. Her conversation with Sandra Bernhard where she admits she’s bored is illuminating and oddly relatable. I still find her comment that “everyone talks about how fame changes a person, but they never talk about how fame changes the people around them” her most poignant statement—and Keshishian demonstrates what she means. Often, Madonna doesn’t have it all under control: it rains on the Asian leg of her outdoor tour, her headset keeps shorting out during a concert, the police pop up to arrest her at her show in Toronto, her brother Martin doesn’t show up at her hotel suite when he’s supposed to, her throat gives out, a member of her entourage is drugged and assaulted, a dancer (Oliver Crumes) goes AWOL. These scenes stand out because they reveal a lot about how Madonna handles tough situations—and she’s not always good at it. Moreover, she doesn’t have everything she wants: phone messages, Antonio Banderas, Slam and Gabriel, to name a few.

Madonna has admitted she was shady and a horribe brat in Truth or Dare (http://www.ew.com/article/2015/08/07/madonna-truth-or-dare). What makes it richer and more thorough, though, is that the focus is not solely on her. Madonna’s dancers are given ample space to show who they are and let some of their stories come out. Bringing out their homosexuality, especially during the age of AIDS, is a bold move that points to the topics and issues that clearly color(ed) her work. Truth or Dare got me to see Madonna more as a performance artist than a pop star.

There are loads of truly fun moments here. Plus, we get to see a flash of her boobs. In the end, Madonna shows us a good time but still leaves us asking, who’s that girl? It’s a strategy that’s served her well throughout her career.

120 minutes
Rated R

(Home via iTunes) A-

http://www.miramax.com/movie/madonna-truth-or-dare/