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

CRUISING (1980)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: William Friedkin

Written by: William Friedkin

(based on the novel CRUISING by Gerald Walker)

Starring: Al Pacino, Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Don Scardino, James Remar, Jay Acovone

I discovered CRUISING in a list of the most controversial movies of all-time. While its most likely not nearly as offensive as it was upon release (it sparked huge protests from gay rights groups), the film remains a quality serial killer thriller. Proceeding celebrated films like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and SE7EN, CRUISING has a similar suffocating atmosphere that compliments the disturbing material. Some scenes haven’t aged well, but for the most part, this is a creepy film that leaves you with something to chew on after the chilling final shot. Directed by William Friedkin (of EXORCIST and FRENCH CONNECTION fame) and headlining Al Pacino (coming off four Oscar nominations in the 70’s), the film was critically panned on its initial released (going as far as to receive three nominations at the first-ever Razzies). I’d be lying if I said that certain moments don’t come off as a little stereotypical of the gay community, but the movie doesn’t delve too long in this aspect and wisely puts the cat-and-mouse game first.

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Steve Burns is a cop bearing a striking resemblance to the victims of a depraved serial killer at large. Sent undercover by his captain, Burns assumes the identity of a homosexual man in the nightclub scene to become the next target of the madman. Burns goes into the extreme side of sexuality (S&M) in order to hopefully attract the killer. Making friends with his next-door neighbor, Burns finds himself going in too deep as the darkness of what he’s seeing begins to consume him. The killer may have taken an interest in him and the real struggle comes with bringing down the lunatic, while also being able to get back to a normal life after all this is over.

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CRUISING was far from the first serial killer thriller, but there’s a gritty nature around it that is distinctly echoed in things like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and SE7EN. There are a moments of graphic violence (one stabbing in the beginning is horrifying), but Friedkin also keeps things remarkably restrained for a good portion of the film. Apparently, the original cut was even more disturbing with about 40 minutes being cut out to secure an R rating from the MPAA. Most of those cuts probably wound up involving graphic sexuality (something that the MPAA seems more concerned over than bloody violence). Regardless of extensive cuts to the running time, the movie runs at a deliberate pace that slows to a crawl in the middle which may put some viewers to sleep. Besides this lull in the storytelling, the film does pick up very quickly in the final third. If the entire movie had maintained the high level of suspense so thick you could cut it with a knife that’s shown in quiet scenes near the ending, then I’d say CRUISING was a forgotten masterpiece.

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There are a few too many scenes of Pacino diving into the gay nightclub lifestyle, including a couple of silly dance scenes. The movie is first and foremost a serial killer mystery, but it also focuses a little too much on the natural 80’s cheese that comes with this time period. That may not make total sense when you read that sentence, but if you do wind up seeing this movie, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. The movie also takes a subtle and disturbing road in its conclusion. Lots of questions go unanswered (Friedkin admits this himself) and the result is made even more disturbing for certain plot threads not being tied up with a nice little bow on top. The final scenes of CRUISING are something that can be debated and analyzed in many different ways with varying conclusions. The truth is that nobody absolutely knows what it all means, but everybody can get their own interpretation of what they take away from it. I found the ambiguous ending to be rather haunting in a lot of ways and the final shot (added up with my interpretation up to that point) was blood-chilling.

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CRUISING is a dark and disturbing film. Friedkin has said in interviews that his wife hated him for making it, but he can understand why. This is a tough movie that leaves you with a little something to chew on. Al Pacino does a good job, which we’ve all come to expect from him as a talented actor. Friedkin directs a majority of the film in masterful fashion, even though the middle does drag. I liked the way the conclusion played out which is part of the reason I’m recommending this one so highly. It’s a divisive film that some will love and others will hate, but everybody can take something away from the ending that might result in a heated conversation on what it all means. William Friedkin has had spectacular ups and disappointing downs in his career, but CRUISING is a little-known flick that deserves more attention. It’s dated and the pacing gets a little wonky for the middle section, but it still comes very much recommended for fans of serial killer thrillers.

Grade: B+

GOODFELLAS (1990)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 26 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Written by: Martin Scorsese, Nicholas Pileggi

(based on the book WISEGUY by Nicholas Pileggi)

Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Lorraine Bracco, Paul Sorvino, Frank Sivero, Frank Vincent, Samuel L. Jackson

“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” Henry Hill (Liotta) reminisces in the opening of GOODFELLAS. The criminals Hill refers to are REAL gangsters as in organized crime, as in the mafia, as in pay them for protection or you get shot without a moment of regret from anybody in their inner circle. GOODFELLAS is a 2+ hour look at life inside the mafia as told by Henry Hill (who was a real person and most of this stuff really happened). It also happens to be the best piece of cinema that Scorsese has delivered in his entire career. The man makes phenomenal films, but unless something unexpected comes along, GOODFELLAS will remain his crowning achievement.

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The broad timeline of the film is 1955 to 1980. About 95% of the story is also narrated from Henry Hill. Starting off as a young worker for the higher-ups, Henry works his way into the mob from childhood and matures into adulthood surrounded by this corrupt lifestyle. He steals. He cheats. He commits some violent acts and finds love in a young woman named Karen. She acts as a secondary narrator for certain points (hence the other 5% narration of the film). This seems like it could have made for a mistake, but Scorsese knew exactly what he was doing from this decision. We see that Karen is a complex individual too and she damn well knows what her boyfriend/fiancé/husband does for a living. It’s just happens to be a turn on for her. Other memorable characters include Paul Cicero (Sorvino), the mob boss who acts as a sort of would-be father towards Henry, and the duo of Jimmy The Gent (De Niro) and Tommy (Pesci), Henry’s two best friends and partners in crime.

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Both De Niro and Pesci characters outshine Ray Liotta’s protagonist, which could be seen as a tad ironic. Their characters seem far more interesting for a variety of reasons. We never see Henry Hill kill anybody (though I have no doubt that he probably did off at least one person in real life and it wasn’t shown in this film), but De Niro and Pesci seem to flip at the drop of a hat. In fact, Pesci borders from being funny to frightening in a matter of seconds (one memorable scene is his reaction to being called “a funny guy”). Even though they’re violent criminals, Scorsese does an incredible job of bringing these people to life in an enjoyable way. They feel like old friends and Liotta’s narration makes them seem like great stand-up guys. This is especially impressive after a scene of Pesci shooting a guy for no good reason and De Niro going crazy. This is where the true genius of GOODFELLAS comes in…

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The story doesn’t glamorize life in organized crime, but the character of Henry Hill sure seems to. In fact, the viewer is seduced into his way of thinking right along with him. Even a few prison scenes seem like Henry is spending an extended vacation in a 5-star-hotel room. This all makes for a brutal wake-up call as his real downward spiral begins. People who were once his friends are now not be trusted at all, while past actions have severe consequences. The subject matter of the film is about the mafia and the camera doesn’t shy away from showing graphic violence, some of which is seen as it happens and others are after the fact (e.g. a haunting montage of many different corpses who bit the big one in horrific ways). The film never gets unpleasant to watch though, because Liotta’s narration accompanies most of it. This technique keeps the viewer at ease even if he is watching the Billy Batts scene (you’ll know it when you see it and for the record, it’s one of my favorite movie scenes ever).

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GOODFELLAS also has an amazing use of soundtrack. I can’t recall more than one piece of original music for the film, because songs set in the time period that each scene takes place in are used. This encompasses the entire film with a sort of realistic authenticity of being there. The compilation of songs is one of the all-time best soundtracks of its kind. The film never has time to drag, because there’s so much ground to cover. Some parts are more necessary than others, but every scene is enjoyable and important in its own way. As far as the running time itself is considered, I wish this film could have gone on for a GODFATHER length. I would still have been enthralled, because it’s so well-done and interesting.

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With GOODFELLAS, Scorsese works magic on many different layers. He lets Henry Hill seduce the viewer in loving this dangerous illegal lifestyle right along with him, but is sure to remind them that things don’t usually work out too well for these gangsters (as we see on many occasions throughout). He makes a mob boss and two hardened killers feel like a fatherly figure and two old friends, which makes them seem that much more dangerous when their “business” sides come out. The use of songs is absolutely phenomenal and there isn’t a single wasted minute. Scorsese has since gone on to tackle the mob in two of his later works (CASINO and THE DEPARTED). As amazing as those films are, I feel that GOODFELLAS is one that he left his mark with. This is the film I’ll remember Scorsese for!

Grade: A+

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