DICK TRACY (1990)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

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Directed by: Warren Beatty

Written by: Jim Cash & Jack Epps Jr.

(based on the DICK TRACY comic strips by Chester Gould)

Starring: Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Madonna, Glenne Headly, Charlie Korsmo, Charles Durning, Dick Van Dyke, Dustin Hoffman, William Forsythe, Paul Sorvino, James Caan & Catherine O’Hara

Based on the 1930s comic strip by Chester Gould, DICK TRACY is a strange movie. The visuals are entrancing, the style evokes a feeling of old-fashioned entertainment, and over-the-top makeup brings Gould’s illustrated gangsters to life. However, the film also feels hindered by its bafflingly too simple/too complex screenplay. This will be explained later and one particular subplot is eye-rollingly clichéd in a bad way. This 90s comic adaptation has mostly been forgotten to the annals of time, but it was a big financial success at the time of its release and even won three Academy Awards (Best Original Song, Best Makeup, and Best Art Direction). As of today, DICK TRACY is visually stunning entertainment and its faults (mostly) lend themselves to the film’s overall charm.

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Dick Tracy (Warren Beatty) is a hard-nosed detective and his favorite hobby is taking bad guys off the streets, much to the dismay of his angsty girlfriend Tess Trueheart (Glenne Headly). Dick finds himself facing his toughest foe yet when mobster Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice (Al Pacino) takes charge of a city-wide organized crime empire, leading to lots of robberies and murders. To add even more to Dick’s heavy load, he’s recently taken on young apprentice “The Kid” (Charlie Korsmo) and is attempting to get nightclub dancer Breathless Mahoney (Madonna) to testify against Big Boy. Dick isn’t the only crime-fighter in town though, because masked vigilante The Blank has also begun killing off mobsters. Dick certainly has his work cut out for him.

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DICK TRACY is one of those uncommon instances when a screenplay suffers from being too simple and trying to do too much at the same time. That complaint sounds like an oxymoron, but hear me out. The main plot concerns a gun-toting detective trying to take a bunch of gangsters off the city streets, with a big one as a prime target. At the same time, that gangster is trying to take over the city. There’s also a forced love triangle between Dick, Trueheart and Breathless that feels shallow and clichéd…and Dick is also taking a young orphan under his wing…and violent vigilante The Blank is on the loose. All of these storylines receive a significant amount of screen time, but all of them feel shallow and underdeveloped as a result. Though there is fun to be had in watching this movie, it seems cramped and superficial. This is especially true of the anti-climactic finale, which is downright lazy in how it concludes two major plotlines.

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What DICK TRACY lacks in story, it makes up for in style. This movie is gorgeous. Warren Beatty decided upon a pastel of bright colors and never deviates from them. Every single frame appears vibrant and provides more than a fair share of atmosphere. Computer graphics were interspersed with the sets and they blend into the film’s cool comic-inspired tone. The makeup effects are awesome to behold as well. Pretty much every gangster was fitted with some sort of prosthetic to help the actor resemble Gould’s original drawings. Al Pacino is hunched over and has a huge cleft chin, while William Forsythe has a square head and a goofy haircut. There’s also Pruneface, appropriately named for his wrinkled appearance, and Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles, a nervous wreck of a henchman.

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DICK TRACY’s performances range across the board. Warren Beatty is watchable in the lead role, though I’ve never really seen an impressive performance from him yet. Meanwhile, Al Pacino seems to be having a blast as Big Boy Caprice. Known for playing menacing Michael Corleone in THE GODFATHER and over-the-top Tony Montana in SCARFACE, Pacino was clearly having a good time in the role of this purposely cartoony gangster. Charlie Korsmo (WHAT ABOUT BOB?, HOOK) is well cast as The Kid, essentially coming off like a less wussy version of Batman’s Robin. Madonna is surprisingly good as femme fatale Breathless, while Glenne Headly is bland as Tracy’s concerned girlfriend/damsel in distress. As far as the rest of the notable performers go, Paul Sorvino shows up for a blink-and-you-missed-it role, Dustin Hoffman’s Mumbles is woefully unfunny, and William Forsythe’s Flattop is the most unexpectedly creepy character in the film.

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DICK TRACY was visually stunning at the time of its release and that cinematic flare has held up over two decades later. The film suffers from feeling too simple and too complicated at the same time, which doesn’t seem like a legitimate complaint until you actually watch the movie. The performances are all over the place, with Pacino, Madonna, Forsythe, and Korsmo sticking out as highlights…and Beatty, Headly and Hoffman falling by the wayside of mediocrity. Still, I had a good time watching DICK TRACY. Though the film’s writing is never on the same level as its breathtaking visuals, DICK TRACY will likely entertain viewers of all ages.

Grade: B

THE GODFATHER (1972)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 55 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola

Written by: Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola

(based on the novel THE GODFATHER by Mario Puzo)

Starring: Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan, Richard S. Castellano, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, John Cazale & Abe Vigoda

Cinephile or not, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard of Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER. This mob epic is currently #2 on IMDB’s top 250, was a sensation at the Academy Awards, and is considered by many to be among the best films ever made. While I wouldn’t necessarily go that far (for a couple of reasons that will become apparent later in the review), GODFATHER is a phenomenal piece of crime cinema that should be seen by anyone who loves film. GODFATHER is essentially a Shakespearean tragedy that happens to take place in 1940’s New York with gangsters.

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Don Vito is the head of the powerful Corleone crime family. Vito has five children. There’s hot-headed Sonny (the eldest son), naïve Fredo (the middle son), Tom (an adopted family lawyer), Connie (Vito’s only daughter) and innocent war hero Michael (the youngest son). When Vito declines to make a deal to work with a violent heroin dealer, an attempt on his life is made and five other major crime families stand opposed to the Corleones. Sonny is put in charge and Michael comes home to aid his weak father. What follows is a web of violent inner politics of a deeply dysfunctional gangster family. Michael slowly, but surely, transforms from the good son into the very monster who swore he wouldn’t become.

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First things first, I want to talk about the technical aspects of GODFATHER. This is an extremely well made film. To say it’s atmospheric would be an understatement. While watching this movie, you feel like you’ve been transported back to 1940’s crime-ridden New York. There’s a gloomy, grim atmosphere hovering over every block and building, but also a sense of class to it all. The film, though not necessarily blood-soaked from beginning to end, has many shocking scenes of violence that are all masterfully executed and never go over-the-top. Assassinations of various characters still hold a lot of tension and still come off as harrowing to this day. A moment near the end that involves a Christening intercut with various bouts of violence is one of the finest sequences in film history. The film may not be perfect all the way through (more on that in a moment), but the final third of the movie is perfection brought to the screen.

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While I know that many consider GODFATHER to be an undisputed masterpiece, I find the film to feel a tad overlong in areas. The first time I watched the movie (back when I was in junior high) I figured that it was just my MTV-addled senses that were used to non-stop action at a fast pace. However, having watched the film for multiple viewings at this point, I strongly feel that the middle hour (with Michael hiding away in Italy) is out-of-place when compared to the rest of the film. To me, it’s a big tonal shift and easily could have been shortened, especially given that the pay-off to the whole Italy story-arc doesn’t feel worth the time dedicated to it. That being said, the script is still a complex web of corruption, family relationships, and violence. It’s compelling from frame one, but does drag its feet in a few scenes…mainly during Michael’s stay in Italy.

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For a movie about gangsters, GODFATHER presents an ever so slightly glamorized view of our main characters. However, I’d attribute this to GODFATHER feeling very much like a complex Shakespearean tragedy. If you’re presented with a cast of despicable people and the story being told is an interesting one, then you’re likely going to have to sympathize or feel for at least one of the aforementioned despicable villains in the cast. Though he’s become a far more outlandish version of the actor that he once was, Al Pacino’s performance holds up as the best part of this film. It’s sad to watch the innocent war hero be corrupted into the monster he becomes by the time the end credits roll. Meanwhile, Marlon Brando plays Don Vito. With a raspy voice and paper-thin moustache, Brando actually inserted cotton balls into his cheeks to aid his performance. What resulted is the most iconic gangster in cinematic history. Even if you’ve never seen this film, you’ve seen Vito referenced in one TV show or movie. The other big stand-outs for me are James Caan as the easily enraged eldest sibling and Robert Duvall as the family’s adopted son/lawyer.

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THE GODFATHER may be a little too long for its own good and drag its feet during the middle hour (the piece with Michael in Italy feels out-of-place given everything else that happens in this film), but it holds up as an iconic and hugely influential crime epic. I disagree with it being called the best gangster movie of all time (for me, that’s probably GOODFELLAS), but it’s definitely in the top-tier of mafia movies. With fantastic performances, a complex story and a feeling of class hovering over the entire film, THE GODFATHER is a film that you simply can’t refuse.

Grade: A

MIDDLE MEN (2010)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sexual Content, Nudity, Language, Drug Use and Violence

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Directed by: George Gallo

Written by: George Gallo & Andy Weiss

Starring: Luke Wilson, Giovanni Ribisi, Gabriel Macht, James Caan, Laura Ramsey, Jacinda Barrett, Kelsey Grammer, Terry Crews, Kevin Pollak & Robert Forster

MIDDLE MEN plays out like the gooey mess of someone throwing THE SOCIAL NETWORK, BOOGIE NIGHTS, and THE WOLF OF WALL STREET in a blender. That description should tell you if this film is in your wheelhouse or not. Based on the real-life experiences of Christopher Mallick (a morally questionable businessman in internet history), the film seems to jumble a bunch of different events into a coherent storyline that begins with a fast-pace and a lot of dark humor. Somewhere along the line, things get fumbled as the film significantly deviates into more familiar (probably entirely fictional) territory and ultimately becomes far less interesting.

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Jumping from 1980’s to 1990’s and ultimately to the mid-2000’s, the plot revolves around (fictional character) Jack Harris who proves to have a talent for fixing difficult problems and being an equally skilled businessman. After turning a friend’s night club into a goldmine in the short period of a few months, Jack is called in to help two morons (Wayne and Buck) responsible for creating a revolutionary internet program. This program allows for anyone living anywhere in the world to enter their credit card information for a monthly subscription to online pornography. What else would be so popular on the worldwide web? Unfortunately, Wayne and Buck have gotten themselves in bed with the Russian mob and a crooked lawyer. Jack fixes their problems in the best way in can, but also finds himself immersed in the glamorous lifestyle centered around perversion, sex, and drugs. This puts his personal life in danger of falling apart, whilst also building tension between him and his long-distance family. The Jack’s (along with his two partner’s) problems only steadily increase into bigger issues…

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MIDDLE MEN sounds like a recipe for success on many different levels. For the first half of the film, it delivers. The story is equipped with a rip-roaring fast face that jumps all over the place with ease. Frequent dark humor litters every scene and provides some much-needed comic relief that totally works. The use of the soundtrack is absolutely fantastic too. The whole film really does reek of a Scorsese-inspired filmmaker (in this case, George Gallo) and unlike most others who wind up ripping off the man’s style, Gallo works this all to his advantage. I absolutely loved the first 50 minutes of this film. It nailed everything one would hope for from a movie like this. Then things quickly turn in the opposite direction.

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Everything that worked so well in the introduction and set up is slowed to a crawl for the remainder of the film and sometimes even forgotten. It seemed as if the filmmaker and co-screenwriter weren’t content with the already complicated story they were telling. The resulting solution being to throw in a bunch of unnecessary (most likely entirely made up) plot points that have been seen in plenty of crime thrillers. Every single one of these felt completely out-of-place in this would-be drama about the complicated inception of internet pornography. The tone also dives into decidedly darker territory and loses the likable sense of humor in the process. The laughs were so frequent in the first half that the rest of the film (again) seems to have forgotten what worked so well in the beginning. The tone jumps all over the place and things ultimately conclude in an ending that left me unsatisfied.

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As far as the big name cast goes, nearly everyone delivers good performances across the board with one exception. That stick in the mud would be Luke Wilson. He’s enjoyable enough in comedies, but his dramatic side seems to be a mixed bag (e.g. VACANCY). In MIDDLE MEN, he’s taking center stage as the Ray Liotta role in GOODFELLAS. His voice-over narration lacks the charisma that Liotta delivered in Scorsese’s masterpiece. I didn’t mind this at the beginning due to how fascinating and entertaining everything else was, but Wilson winds up being an almost nobody of a leading man. His performance comes off as wooden. I was more interested in seeing everyone else around him.

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Kelsey Grammer has a brief one-scene role. Kevin Pollak and Terry Crews show up as seldom seen side characters. As Wayne and Buck, Giovanni Ribsi and Gabriel Macht are a blast to watch. Their screen time seems to be significantly cut in the latter half, which adds yet another reason for the film to take a dip in quality halfway through. Their characters also make some far-fetched decisions that I didn’t buy, even seeing how dumb they had shown themselves to be in their actions leading up the final 30 minutes. A welcome James Caan is the best presence on-screen as a loathsome lawyer that has a shady side to say the least.

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I really wanted to love MIDDLE MEN and I thought this might be an underrated gem from just how awesome the first half was. The humor was very funny. The pace was quick and flying by. The soundtrack was awesome and appropriate for each given time period. Then the movie takes a huge switch flip and things go downhill. A jumbled tone, overly familiar twists and some final notes that didn’t satisfy me in the slightest make MIDDLE MEN into an overall disappointment. It’s far from a terrible film. Everyone, except Luke Wilson, gives a solid performance. The film is competently shot and directed. Sadly, the end result is a mixed bag. If I saw this playing on cable and nothing else was on, then I’d switch it over to kill some time. I just don’t see myself going out of my way to watch this film again.

Grade: C+

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