Archive | June, 2016

A Little Something for Dad OR Weather Man Appreciation Day

18 Jun

I come to praise Nicolas Cage, not to bury him or to throw milk shakes at him.

with regards to William Shakespeare

On Father’s Day, maybe we can reflect on the career of Oscar winner Nicolas Cage. His reputation anymore is that he’s something of a hack, a money-grubber who latches on to big paycheck jobs in over-the-top action flicks.  I can’t–or don’t–relate.

The_Weather_Man_Widescreen-front [1600x1200]

In its original 2005 domestic run, The Weather Man earned a paltry 12.5 million,  a drought given its relatively meager 22 million budget. I wouldn’t begin to guess how many people have viewed it on TV, DVD, or online though I don’t think it’s yet regarded as a cult classic. But that could change. To that end, and if  you’re genuinely curious, it might help to make connections with other films, starting with Jerry Maguire (1996) or In Good Company (2004). The former famously stars Tom Cruise, Texan Renee Zellweger, and Oscar winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. (directed by Cameron Crowe); the latter features Dennis Quaid and Topher  Grace (directed by Paul Weitz). Like The Weather Man, both films veer between comedy and drama and examine masculine identity in the face of evolving professional and familial dynamics. Continuing, Weitz actually co-wrote 2002’s About a Boy with his brother Chris (adapted from Nick Hornby’s novel), who also directed. This one features Hugh Grant in one of his most compelling performances as a cad-turned-reluctant-father-figure to young Nicholas Hoult who, coincidentally, plays Cage’s son in The Weather Man.  About a Boy evinces a well honed appreciation for life’s awkward moments, as does The Weather Man, whether such moments elicit laughs–or cut to the quick so that any of us want to go hide; it co-stars Toni Collette and Rachel Weisz. Additionally, Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (2011), starring Brad Pitt, Sean Pitt, and Jessica Chastain, is at least as visually interesting as The Weather Man, and definitely charts the tug of war between father and son though laughs are scarce. I would also put The Weather Man in the same league with arguably lesser known, and perhaps more female-centric, films such as Men Don’t Leave (1990) and Unstrung Heroes (1995). Jessica Lange stars as a widow with two sons in Paul Brickman’s Men Don’t Leave; meanwhile, Diane Keaton directs John Turturro and Andie MacDowell in a true gem of a film that, like Men Don’t Leave and The Weather Man, is keen on the fabric of every day life (with sly touches of humor) and the way families sometimes fall apart and come back together in unexpected ways. Stretching a bit, I can see a link to the fantastical Frequency starring Dennis Quaid (yet again) and Jim Caviezel as a father and son reunited across the time-space continuum (directed by Gregory Hoblit, 2000).  Also, because of its black humor and  exciting use of Chicago as cinematic playground, The Weather Man definitely has a thing or two in common with Stranger than Fiction (2006), with Will Ferrell toplining a cast that includes Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Linda Hunt, Queen Latifah, and Emma Thompson (directed by Marc Forster). If you enjoyed any of films included here, chances are you are also the target viewer for The Weather Man.

Once upon a time, he dazzled audiences with genius performances in quirky films–or is that quirky performances in genius films? You know, Raising Arizona (once again, GENIUS!!!), Moonstruck (that incredibly impassioned speech to Cher late at night during the snowfall–a triumph of acting OVER writing), Vampire’s Kiss, Wild at Heart, and Honeymoon in Vegas. I also liked  Guarding Tess (somewhat subdued opposite formidable Shirley MacLaine) and even Snake Eyes (lesser De Palma but not without its intriguing elements). I even think his often criticized performance in Peggy Sue Got Married makes all kinds of sense in context–but that’s for another day.  I also confess to somehow missing 2000’s Family Man, a riff on It’s a Wonderful Life–but, then, I’m one of the few people I know that has always had difficulty embracing the original 1946 Christmas classic. Oh, and I once knew a woman who couldn’t praise Matchstick Men enough.

During 1995/96 awards season, Cage achieved what many of most ardent admirers had long hoped to see. He  won an Oscar for playing a suicidal, alcoholic, burn-out writer in Leaving Las Vegas. By the time he walked onstage to accept his golden statuette that March evening, he had collected virtually every major award to be had, including but not limited to:  Golden Globe, SAG, and National Board of Review, along with NY, LA, and DFW critics. The Oscar was his to lose–but, of course, he didn’t. Was I glad he won? Yeah, maybe. Of course, he’s a good actor, but I wasn’t a fan of the film, and frankly, I thought he tried too hard. For this viewer, Leaving Las Vegas–including Cage–was uneven, all over the place. I thought Sean Penn (Dead Man Walking) gave a much more compelling performance–in spite of that damned pompadour. I was also very much moved by Richard Dreyfuss’s popular Mr. Holland’s Opus, a comeback of sorts for the previous Oscar winner (1977’s The Goodbye Girl), but Dreyfuss and Penn were there mainly for the ride. It was Cage’s time. (Oh, and please don’t ask me to comment on either Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon or the late Massimo Troissi and El Postino.)

So, Cage wins the Oscar, and then something happens. We start seeing him in a whole different light, what with The Rock, Con-Air, and Face/Off in rapid succession. This was high octane Cage, and the public did nothing but buy tickets. As time passed, we saw fewer City of Angels (an American update of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, co-starring Meg Ryan) and more Gone in Sixty Seconds. Oh sure, he paused long enough for a relatively restrained World Trade Center (directed by no less than Oliver Stone) and even earned a second Best Actor nomination for 2002’s Adaptation though that one, a take off on Susan Orlean’s non-fiction The Orchid Thief with Cage playing twins (both obnoxious), is definitely an acquired taste. Most of his latest offerings tend to invite scorn and snickers.

All that brings us to 2004 and National Treasure, a huge hit that was actually a lot of fun with Cage cast as a modern Indiana Jones type historian and cryptologist on a thrilling quest involving, among others, the Declaration of Independence. Released in November, just ahead of the Thanksgiving crunch, the movie scored generally enthusiastic reviews and spent three weeks at the top of the box office charts.  The flick was such a success that Paramount quaked. Originally, the studio had intended to release its Cage offering, The Weather Man, during the same time, no doubt for Oscar consideration, but apparently the consensus was that the market could not bear competing Cage vehicles, and that the less thrilling, more character-driven Cage film would be the loser. With that in mind, Paramount pulled all advertising and looked to spring of 2005.

^ That little ditty featured in The Weather Man‘s trailer is “The Passenger” by Iggy Pop. Miraculously, it is also heard in the film. 

Based on  its appealing trailer, one that appeared to show Cage back in fine form, I was super-stoked to see The Weather Man even if I had to wait a few more weeks, or months, to see it. Nothing happened though. Later rather than sooner, Paramount announced that The Weather Man was back on its release schedule–for fall of 2005, again, no doubt as a potential Oscar contender. (Btw, I can find little or no documentation of any of this on the Internet, but I had friends working at the then Paramount branch office at the time, keeping me posted. That office subsequently closed after Paramount and DreamWorks struck some kind of production deal, the details of which escape me.)

Anyway, I saw The Weather Man the very day it opened, probably at the old Keystone theatre (formerly Loews, formerly AMC, formerly Regal), now a Studio Movie Grill.  I loved it, finding it quite moving, unexpectedly so. The trailer promotes it as, yes, a quirky comedy, and it definitely has its comedic moments, but it’s also dramatic and goes to some dark and dare I say tender places, hitting a raw nerve or two along the way.

Cage’s David Spritz is a Chicago based TV weatherman with aspirations of moving to one of the major networks. He’s fine enough at his job though it’s a dice-y occupation given how personally many viewers receive the message, blaming their resulting frustration on the messenger, thus the occasional milkshake or other fast food item in the face. Yeah. As successful as David is at his job, he’s a mess as a father. His marriage has fallen apart–his ex-wife (the always game Hope Davis) is already seriously involved with someone else–and Dave simply does not know how to be a good father any more than he knew how to be a good husband. His two school-age kids aren’t doing well. His daughter smokes and can no longer fit into her clothes to the point that she’s being taunted by her classmates in an especially cruel, vulgar way; meanwhile, his teenage son is being groomed by a potential pedophile. Dave tries, maybe too hard, even, but he keeps tripping over his own good intentions–or what he believes are good intentions.

Part of Dave’s issue is that he doesn’t know how to be a good father likely because his own father failed him. In this case, dad is portrayed by no less than Michael Caine (a curious casting choice) as a Pulitzer winning author–and buddy of no less than President Jimmy Carter. Caine’s elder Spritzel is a regal, powerful man–a dry academic who believes he’s always right, and he can barely hide the disappointment in his son. Mostly, he doesn’t understand his son’s occupation or interests and never really took the time to learn or to empathize.  How can David ever hope to be a positive force in his own children’s lives if he has only ever disappointed his own father?

What goes on between these two men is a particularly tortured dynamic, and watching it play out is not easy, but that’s what I like about this movie: its complexity. Aside from the aforementioned pedophile (and believe me, that’s not a spoiler–you’ll recognize the what-what the minute he utters his first line), characters  are not necessarily painted as either good or bad, and the reward is watching these works in progress  (all of them have their differences). David Spritz isn’t always likable, or smart, but in Cage’s capable hands, I root for him anyway. I can’t even say it’s because I see his innate goodness…let’s say not entirely innate, but I like that he keeps trying. That’s what comes across, a sincere effort to be better–that, and the way he wanders through the movie with a continually baffled look on his face, astonished that he can be so wrong,  so misunderstood, at almost every turn.

I think if The Weather Man had been a bigger hit, if the studio had understood what it had, and marketed it more effectively, Cage might have swung some year-end awards cred. Do I mean an Oscar or even an Oscar nod? Maybe not; after all, 2005 also saw Philip Seymour Hoffman (Capote), Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), David Strathairn (as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck), Terrence Howard (Hustle and Flow), and, my personal fave, Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line–the whole lineup hailed at the time by many Oscar analysts as one of the strongest ever for Best Actor, not a weak link in the bunch. Simply, competition was too tough that year for a movie that was not even a marginal success  to gain a foothold.

What if Paramount had released The Weather Man in 2004 as originally planned? Well, that was pretty much an open shut and case the minute critics and audiences gasped at Jamie Foxx’s magnificent portrayal of Ray Charles in, what else, Ray. Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby) and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Aviator) had their champions as did Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda) and Johnny Depp (Neverland), but no deal.

Still, I do think Cage’s performance was at least worth consideration among other groups, even if that meant “only” a Golden Globe nomination. Something. A film festival trinket?  Cage didnt’t even rate a shout-out from the Chicago Film Critics Association even though it apparently earned “Thumbs Up” from respected Chicago based  critic Roger Ebert and his onscreen partner Richard Roeper. Next to the comedic gold on display in Raising Arizona, which defies awards consideration because it really is just TOO good, too special, for such categorization, this is my favorite Cage performance (with Moonstruck a close third), and quite possibly his most underrated. This is a fully rounded characterization, rich with nuance. What it’s not rich in, mercifully, is bluster. In other roles, when Cage’s characters feel the heat, the actor often cuts loose, crazed, maniacal, but the effect is almost always cartoony, hardly resembling real-life. Not so as The Weatherman. Instead, David Spritz is waging war with himself, trying to keep that rage in check, a struggle he mostly wins with one understandable exception. I also like the way he underplays a potentially awkward conversation with his daughter. Exhale.

Meanwhile, one of my contacts at Paramount was certain that Michael Caine was a sure thing for Best Supporting Actor, so let that be a heads up, Caine fans. As noted, Caine would not have been my first choice for the role though he brings considerable presence to the screen, but somehow, I just don’t quite buy him as Cage’s dad. Something is off. On the other hand, maybe that’s the point. That noted, I think these many years later, either Donald Sutherland or Clint Eastwood might have made a better match. Yes, Clint Eastwood. I can easily see him playing this eloquent, detached individual who doesn’t suffer fools.

This isn’t a one man show, mind you, or even a two-man show. This is also a spectacular manifestation of director Gore Verbinski’s vision–riding on the smash success of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie at the time–in conjunction with a team of first-rate team of designers and technicians: Phedon Papamichael (cinematographer), Tom Duffield (production designer), Patrick M. Sullivan Jr. (art-director), Rosemary Brandenburg (set decoration), and  John David Wolfe (location scout). This team has worked ever so skillfully to recreate Chicago as a richly textured, wet and wintry wonderland full of blues and grays, not a lot of warmth, but every surface is so exquisitely lit as to appear eminently touchable. Of course, Chicago, already architecturally interesting, presents a spectacular canvas. Dig that animal statuary and the way it’s utilized as a kind of unlikely emotional touchstone. Everything is seemingly bursting with life, yet it’s not, and the rain functions as free-flowing tears. What a moment.

As pointed out on the DVD, Chicago makes a great location for a movie about a weather man because the elements are so extreme. For example, the weather in Los Angeles is unchanging. New York, on the other hand, has varying weather, sure, but it’s also familiar to moviegoers. The point being made in this movie is that even a TV weather man cannot control the weather any more than he, or any of us, can control one another; therefore, the weather has to be working against the characters, keeping them unsettled. The movie’s opening shot, Lake Michigan at its iciest, establishes the dynamic beautifully, followed within seconds by the spectacular view from Spritz’s high rise apartment overlooking the Chicago river. It’s all about perspective.

Again, this is a technically stunning movie, and Cage wasn’t the only party to be overlooked for awards consideration. My second biggest complaint would be saved for cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. What an artist, but, again, nothing. No Oscar nod, and not even a scrap from the American Society of Cinematographers. Really? I mean, not to overwork a metaphor, but this movie is just dripping with gorgeous imagery.

Also, credit goes to Verbinski and his team of producers as well as, of course, screenwriter Steven Conrad. He, Verbinski, and Cage benefitted from the expertise of meteorological advisor Tom Skilling, who appears briefly as one of Cage’s weather station colleagues. Shout out, as well, to Bryant Gumble as himself. Additionally, composer Hans Zimmer contributes another fitting score, and dig Cage’s camera ready coif, styled by Larry Waggoner. Spot on. Every day is a good hair day for this dude.

Maybe, just maybe, this doesn’t sound like such an appealing movie for Father’s Day viewing, all things considered. Understood. That noted, I’m glad I finally wrote about it because this is actually one of a handful of movies that inspired me to launch this blog–it along with InfamousDrugstore Cowboy, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Citizen Ruth, and a few others. I really do think that while it’s not entirely a neglected masterpiece, it is definitely and undeservedly neglected. So skip it for now if you think it will cast a dark cloud on you and your dad’s bonding time. Instead, think about it like this: here we are in mid-to-late June in Dallas, TX, and it’s been raining off and on, mostly on, for days and weeks, but it appears to have stopped for the time being, so that can only mean one thing. Summer is coming to Texas, and that  entails a heck of a lot of heat and very little precipitation. Soon, we’ll all be parched and miserable,  clamoring for relief, and that might very well take the form of a movie holiday, something cool, windy, and, yes, wet. That will be your cue to stay indoors, chill, and give The Weather Man his shot.

Thanks for your consideration…

As indicated my the image of the DVD box in the sidebar, Ebert and Roeper gave The Weather Man “Two Thumbs Up.” You can read Ebert’s review by clicking here:



“Find Your Strength in Love”

5 Jun

Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing. – Muhammad Ali

Well, if anyone had ask me when I began this blog back in 2011 if I ever thought I’d be writing about boxer Muhammad Ali, I would have answered, “Not likely.” Yet, here we are. The man himself passed away Friday evening, June 3, 2016, at age 74 and after a decades long battle with Parkinson’s disease–a legend, an icon in both sports and popular culture arenas, so to speak. What a life. I am not in a position to make sweeping claims about the life of the man once known as Cassius Clay–how many of us first remember him–nor am I a sports expert with enough background to write about his accomplishments in the ring though the evidence speaks for itself.

What I know, and what I write about, are movies.

Back in 2001, the late Mr. Ali was accorded the big screen biopic treatment, courtesy of writer-director Michael Mann, then riding high on widespread critical acclaim and Oscar nominations for c0-producing, directing, and co-writing 1999’s tobacco industry takedown The Insider, an expose framed as a suspense story as seen from the perspective of a real-life 60 Minutes producer (played by Al Pacino). Stepping into the role of Ali in Mann’s film was none other than box office contender Will Smith, a hugely popular actor who had risen through the ranks to top box office status thanks to such smash hits as Bad Boys and Men in Black. We played Ali at the theater where I worked. I didn’t love it, and I don’t remember it being an especially impressive crowd pleaser during its run. That noted, Smith earned his first Oscar nomination for his efforts, so good for him. The movie also helped co-star Jon Voight–embodying no less than blustery, high profile sports announcer Howard Cosell–snare a supporting actor nod, so good for him as well.

IMAGE: Columbia Pictures/Wikipedia:

Reviewing The Greatest in a New York Times piece entitled, “Ali’s Latest Victory is ‘The Greatest,'” Vincent Canby wrote, ” You might call Muhammad Ali a natural actor, but that would be to deny his wit, sensibility, drive, ability, enthusiasm, poise and common sense, all of which are the conscious achievements of an ambitious man who has known exactly what he has wanted for a long time.”  IMAGE: Columbia Pictures/Wikipedia:

Truthfully, I always thought the Mann-Smith production was a bit redundant since no less than Muhammad Ali himself had already dramatized his own life story with 1977’s The Greatest in which he, to clarify, portrayed himself. Why watch Smith act Ali’s life story when Ali had already committed the story to celluloid more than a decade earlier? That, and the fact that Ali had also already been the subject of an Oscar winning documentary, When We Were Kings, in 1996?

But I digress.

Released in the spring of ’77, literally days ahead of the Star Wars juggernaut, and based on Ali’s book (co-authored by Herbert Muhammad and Richard Durham and adapted by Ring Lardner, Jr.), The Greatest also featured such talent as Lloyd Haynes, Roger E. Mosley, Paul Winfield, and James Earl Jones–the latter cast as Malcolm X.

My guess is that most moviegoers either don’t know or have forgotten about this film. I didn’t see it when I was a kid, but, then, I didn’t see that many first-run flicks at that point; however,  I did catch up with it years and years later, sometime in the 1990s, well before Mann’s take.  I remember most vividly watching the opening credits, and the song that played over footage of Ali jogging. That song was and is “The Greatest Love of All,” recorded by George Benson, and composed by Michael Masser and Linda Creed. By all accounts, Benson–a top recording artist of the times with such hits as “Masquerade” and a cover of The Drifters’ “On Broadway”–enjoyed considerable success with this tune, but I, for the life of me, don’t ever remember hearing it on the radio, but I recognized it right away when I watched the movie that morning.

^Opening of 1977’s The Greatest: AMC via YouTube

Of course, the song’s relative obscurity took a wild turn with the emergence of Whitney Houston, who belted out the song, full-throttle anthem style, on her 1985 debut album–released on the Arista label, the same as The Greatest soundtrack. Houston’s is the version that most of us know and love, and why not? It’s freakin’ gorgeous with the singer’s impassioned delivery, a stirring arrangement, and powerfully inspirational lyrics. It even earned a Grammy nomination for Record of the Year two years after the album’s release, a feat, that. Yet, for all of Houston and her mentor Clive Davis’s savvy, we must remember that they didn’t invent the song–in the same way that they also didn’t invent the singer’s mega-smash “I Will Always Love You,” a Dolly Parton original made even more famous by Houston’s bravura cover for 1992’s The Bodyguard soundtrack…but I digress.

The point is that “The Greatest Love of All,” shortened to “Greatest Love of All” for Houston’s rendition, is a classic, a triumphant entry in the so-called Great American Songbook. We’ve heard it so many times that it has beome a part of us, a part of our collective consciousness. It’s been performed and parodied hither and yon, but we need to remember its source. The overall effect is much different when seen in its original context, the story of a man on a journey to be his authentic self–and winning against considerable odds. It bespeaks a kind of poignancy.

It probably comes as no surprise to find that the song was overlooked for Best Song consideration by the Academy back in the day. Of course, as I have noted in a previous column, which I always intended to extend to a second edition, the 1977/78 Oscars represented a disconnect in Uncle Oscar’s music branch. Again, also overlooked for Academy consideration were any and all songs from both Saturday Night Fever (an indisputable pop culture landmark) and New York, New York. Of course, the race pretty much began and ended with “You Light Up My Life” from the film of the same name. The song, covered by Debby Boone, was everywhere, racking up stratospheric sales and soaring to the top of Oscar’s “Most Wanted” list. No doubt coming in a close second would have to be Carly Simon’s radio-friendly “Nobody Does It Better” from The Spy Who Loved Me, yet another entry in the popular James Bond series. In that context, “The Greatest Love of All” probably didn’t seem like a significant achievement. On the other hand, what about the other three nominees? Hmmmm…hard to find fault with Disney contenders, “Candle on the Water” (Pete’s Dragon) and “Someone’s Waiting for You” (The Rescuers). The former certainly had its fans and was performed in the film by no less that ever-reliable Helen Reddy; the latter appeared in one of the studio’s best received films–both critically and commercially–in several years. To further clarify, the former was combination of live action and animation (per Mary Poppins) while the latter was an animated delight. Again, who would complain? Of course, the fifth nominee, “The Cinderella Waltz” from The Slipper and The Rose has always been a head scratcher. Simply, there were better choices, “The Greatest Love of All” being just one of them.

Of course, an Academy nod isn’t the end-all, be-all, and we know this better than ever, thanks to Houston’s magnificent recording. Besides the subsequent Grammy nomination, other accolades include–belated–recognition from the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers as one of the Most Performed Feature Film Standards. And it all began in a film about the incredible life and times of Muhammad Ali.

There are amazing stories to be found about this song and its creators, but they have almost nothing to do with Ali or even Whitney Houston, so save those for another time. You can google to your heart’s content.

In the period around 1987-1989, “Greatest Love of All” kept me going through some dark times. I especially embraced it after the soloist performed it one Sunday morning at the church I attended. Suddenly, everything made sense, and I kept coming back, and keep coming back, to the last line: “Find your strength in love.”

Ever since I first heard those words, I’ve held on to the hope that it is indeed  possible for all of us to find our strengths in love.

Thanks for your consideration…

^ This clip includes the lyrics and the full version of George Benson’s version of “The Greatest Love of All”

Vincent Canby’s review of The Greatest in The New York Times (21 May 1977):

Memo to Mr. Beatty: Sooner not Later. Please.

1 Jun

Dear Warren Beatty, Disney Honchos, and Criterion Personnel: Dick Tracy (1990) deserves a super-deluxe, collectible, two-disc edition DVD. Thank you.

We live in the age of the comic-book super-hero movie, witness the boffo–to borrow vintage Variety-speak–grosses of Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. For example, the former netted 179 million in its opening weekend and is now up to to 377 million and counting; meanwhile, the latter opened with 166 million and has earned 328 million so far (per Box Office Mojo).  These mega-budgeted, action-packed, effects laden spectacles run the business anymore, and the end is nowhere in sight. The question is:  how did this happen–and when?

Screen shot 2016-05-23 at 10.46.32 PM

Once upon a time, the “two-way radio wristwatch” Chester Gould designed for Dick Tracy, later supplanted by the two-way TV wristwatch, seemed novel and futuristic. Today, we take for granted the convenience of smart phones, specifically Apple’s iPhone, and the newest member of the family: the smart watch.

Clearly, the movie industry’s confusion of the 1960s, with studios throwing money at musical extravaganzas such as The Sound of Music (1965), Oliver! (1968), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), Hello, Dolly! (1969),  and Paint Your Wagon (1969), and moviegoers lining up for the likes of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Easy Rider (1969), and Midnight Cowboy (1969),  gave way to the fertile period of the 1970s, the period that made the likes of The Last Picture Show (1971), The Godfather (1972), Chinatown (1974), Nashville (1975), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and a host of other auteur classics and near classics possible. At the same time, the post-Kennedy assassination, post-Watergate era gave way to cynicism and paranoia, reflected in the likes of The Conversation (1974), The Parallax View (1974), Three Days of the Condor (1975), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Taxi Driver (1976), Network (1976), Marathon Man (1976), and, of course, All the President’s Men (1976). At the same time, Hollywood never forgot the value of escapist fare, and in the midst of all that gloom and audience fatigue, a few crowd-pleasers pointed the way to a sunnier, re-energized tomorrow: The Sting (1973), Rocky (1976), Star Wars (1977), and Superman (1978). Of course, somewhere in the middle of those bon-bons, Stephen Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) also set a new standard for thrills, chills, and box office oomph.

With the 1980s came a new model of business, motivated by the thirst for “popcorn” flicks, high-concept package deals brokered by the hot-shots at Creative Artists Agency (led by Mike Ovitz), and an increasingly corporatized atmosphere at the studios as media conglomerates became the norm. The early-to-mid 1980s gave us the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982),  48 Hours (1982), Tootsie (1982), Flashdance (1983), Ghostbusters (1984), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Rambo (1985), Back to the Future (1985), Top Gun (1986), a string of highly lucrative teen comedies from writer-director-producer John Hughes,  and dozens more. Then, in 1989, Warner Bros and Tim Burton, known at the time for idiosyncratic titles such as Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1988), upped their game with Batman, an edgier alternative to the campy similarly titled TV show of the 1960s with its goofy effects, cut-out sets, puns, and cavalcade of guest stars–both in and past their prime–playing increasingly over-the-top villains.

Instead, Burton’s film, as has oft been reported, took its cue from graphic novels The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and The Killing Joke by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. The line between good and bad seemed murkier than ever.  In the role of millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne and his crime-fighting alter-ego, director Burton generated a wave of controversy by casting Michael Keaton, mostly known at the time for comedies such as Night Shift (1982), Mr. Mom (1983), and Burton’s own Beetlejuice; however, Burton countered by explaining that he cast Keaton because he needed an actor who could effectively play the nuances of the Wayne character, an otherwise phenomenally successful man haunted by the murder of his parents, a murder he witnessed. Fortunately, Keaton proved himself the right man for the job, but he did not emerge the star of the show.

No, that distinction went to no less than (then) two-time Oscar winner Jack Nicholson, who played “The Joker,” Batman’s nemesis, a shade more sinister, but no less hammy, than his TV predecessor Cesar Romero (but not as darkly as he would eventually be portrayed by Oscar winner Heath Ledger in 2008’s The Dark Knight). Audiences savored Nicholson’s every lip-smacking move. The actor also made headlines by inking a then-unprecedented deal that entitled him to a cut of everything, meaning not only the film’s box office take (presumably from the first ticket sold) but also merchandising and sequels. He even demanded and was granted top billing. That’s right, over Keaton, the titular hero.

Burton’s grandly scaled film was unquestionably darker and even more violent than similar superhero fare. The soundtrack featured a breakthrough score by Danny Elfman, an obvious departure from audience fave John Williams, who had so memorably composed anthemic themes for the likes of Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, and Raiders of the Lost Ark (again, among many others). Warner execs also engineered a way to incorporate music of reigning pop superstar Prince, the addition of which upped the film’s “cool” quotient. Production designer Anton Furst won an Oscar for creating an imposing Gotham City and all its environs, including Wayne Manor and the Batcave, marked by industrial, Art Deco, and Gothic influences.

Batman arrived amid a flurry of relentless hype, the likes of which I had never witnessed at that point in my theater exhibitor career (going on 7 years when it happened). Oh, I’m not naive. Of course, I understood very well that so-called ballyhoo was always essential to the Hollywood game, going all the way back to at least 1939’s Gone with the Wind with stops along the way up to Cleopatra (1963), with ample fanfare in between and well-beyond. Sure, I knew all about the marketing game, but, remember, even Star Wars and Ghostbusters, and oh so many others, were word of mouth hits, bolstered as they were by smart publicity blitzes. They did NOT hit the screens with pre-sold audiences. Batman was different. The buildup was almost unavoidable. Batman was everywhere: TV talk shows, TV commercials, magazines, whatever–and remember, this was before the Internet had the same utility as it does today. As I recall, this was the first time, outside of a radio station sponsored advance screening, that theaters sold tickets to Thursday night showings prior to the official Friday opening. Also, as I recall, our screening filled up three auditoriums. Unprecedented. Those first few days were grueling, grueling in a way that even 1983’s Return of the Jedi, which did benefit from a pre-sold audience, could not compare.

The result of all this masterful media manipulation is that Batman became the first movie to earn 100 million dollars in a mere 10 days [1]. Historic. Sounds much ado about nothing now, measured against Captain America‘s recent 179 million haul in only one weekend–but that’s kind of the point. Blockbusters are ever becoming the norm, and the stakes are getting higher.

So, what does any of this have to do with Dick Tracy, you might ask.

Released in June of 1990 by Disney subsidiary Touchstone Pictures and based on Chester Gould’s decades running comic strip (1931-1977)  Dick Tracy is superstar actor-turned-producer-and-Oscar-winning-director Warren Beatty’s long-laboured dream project about a big city, square-jawed detective battling a cast of colorful hoodlums–with such names as Big Boy, Eighty-eight Keys, Flattop, Little Face, and Mumbles. Add to the mix a scruffy street urchin and the affections of two polar opposite females: no-nonsense Tess Trueheart and vampy torch singer–and sometime gangster’s moll–Breathless Mahoney. The former portrayed by Glenn Headley; the latter personified by no less than pop royalty Madonna, Beatty’s then romantic flame.

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Madonna’s Dick Tracy-inspired I’m Breathless album netted a  #1 hit single, “Vogue” with its landmark music video directed by then relative unknown David Fincher, and an Oscar victor, “Sooner or Later” with music and lyrics by veteran Tony, Grammy, and Pulitzer winning tunesmith Stephen Sondheim. To quote Ira Gershwin, “Nice work if you can get it.” We’ll assume that’s Beatty, face obscured, sporting the fedora.

No doubt inspired by Batman‘s smashing success, the Disney brass launched Dick Tracy in June of 1990 with a tidal wave of publicity, the likes of which had scarcely been seen since, well, you know, the Bat guy from one year earlier.  Merchandising tie-ins galore, not the least of which was Madonna’s wall-to-wall, chart-topping radio smash, “Vogue,” which, technically, did not appear in the film but was instead featured on the singer’s Dick Tracy companion record album, I’m Breathless: Music From and Inspired by the Film Dick Tracy.  The album also featured contributions composed by legendary Stephen Sondheim, including future Oscar winner “Sooner or Later” and “More.” The Blonde One was everywhere that summer, garnering mucho media attention thanks to her globe-trotting Blonde Ambition tour, footage of which eventually formed the basis for 1991’s Truth or Dare documentary.

The Disney Store had just opened at NorthPark around that time (give or take a few months), and Dick Tracy merchandise lined the shelves, including a snazzy Madonna as Breathless Mahoney wristwatch which a friend gifted me with for my birthday–and which I still own.

Make no mistake, Madonna was hardly the whole show. Of course, aside from the rare misstep known as Ishtar (1987), Beatty had a reputation as a Hollywood power-player with a knack for assembling top-flight talent and working to exacting standards on ambitious projects, often to dazzling effect, including the aforementioned Bonnie and Clyde (1967), as well as Shampoo (1975), Heaven Can Wait (1978), and Reds (1981), serving as producer and actor in all of the above, earning Oscar nominations in as many as four categories–Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Screenplay–for both Heaven Can Wait and Reds.

Joining Beatty in supporting and/or cameo roles was a panoply of stars and character greats such as Al Pacino, straight from his sizzling comeback in Sea of Love, as nemesis Big Boy Caprice, Mandy Patinkin, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Sorvino, James Caan, Kathy Bates, Catherine O’Hara,  Charles Durning, William Forsythe, Dick Van Dyke, and Estelle Parsons (who, of course, had won Best Supporting Actress for her role in Bonnie & Clyde decades earlier), and several more.  The cast also included young Charlie Korsmo, who’d earned raves earlier in the year as widowed Jessica Lange’s youngest son in Men Don’t Leave. The script, incidentally, was penned by the hotshot team of Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., the duo behind such hits as Top Gun and The Secret of My Success. (These writers were part of the aforementioned CAA stable where package deals were the name of the game.)

With all that fanfare, all that pedigree, Dick Tracy easily opened at the top of the box office charts, a position it maintained through two weekends (per Box Office Mojo), dipping only 31% from week 1 to week 2–and only 35% from week 2 to week 3.  More than respectable numbers, as anything less than 40% is considered within an acceptable range. (Falling more than 60% is grounds for disaster.) To clarify, Dick Tracy actually yielded the year’s third biggest opening haul. A hit is a hit is a hit, right?

Everything you need to know about Dick Tracy in one shot. That's ever-reliable character actor William Forsythe as "Flattop" with Oscar winning makeup effects by John Caglione, Jr. and Doug Drexler. The pair won in a year in which the competition included, among others, the heavyweight team of Ve Neill and Stan Winston, in the race for the celebrated Edward Scissorhands. (IMAGE: Touchstone Pictures/

Everything you need to know about Dick Tracy in one shot. That’s ever-reliable character actor William Forsythe as “Flattop” with Oscar winning makeup effects by John Caglione, Jr. and Doug Drexler. The pair won in a year in which the competition included, among others, the heavyweight team of Ve Neill and Stan Winston,  for the celebrated Edward Scissorhands. This shot also provides a peek at Milena Canonero’s Oscar nominated costumes and director Warren Beatty’s vision of saturating each frame with blue, red, yellow, and green. Canonero, already a two-time winner, lost for Dick Tracy but has since gone on to triumph with 2006’s Marie Antoinette and 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. (IMAGE: Touchstone Pictures/

Generally, the critics responded favorably. Popular TV and print critic Roger Ebert gave it 4 stars and deemed it “visionary.” The New York Times‘ Vincent Canby lavished praise as well [2-3]. Much of the applause was in response to the top-notch cast as well as the movie’s incredible look, mainly the cartoony production design, festooned as it was from frame to frame in a palette dominated by primary colors: red, blue, yellow, and, okay, green (technically not a primary color) with other hues, mainly black and silver, used selectively. The stunning effect was part of Beatty’s vision to make this final product evoke a child’s sense of wonder–especially when reading the Sunday funnies. Because, remember, Dick Tracy was a comic strip rather than a comic book. Moreover, he was hardly a super-hero on the order of Batman or Superman. By the way, the film’s much ballyhooed “look” extended to the literal interpretations of the characters’ outrageous mugs and coifs.

At year’s end, as corroborated by Box Office Mojo, Dick Tracy held the number nine spot among the year’s top ten box-office hits, earning as much as 103 million (domestically), again, in an era in which 100 mil was considered the proverbial gold standard for achieving blockbuster status [4]. For all that, however, Beatty and his film could not quite escape being labelled a failure. Was it because, even with its robust box office take, it failed to recoup its cost? Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Certainly, filmmaker Beatty is not known for producing on the cheap. His flick had a reported price tag of 47 million, a lot for a Disney picture for the time–the studio being known as mostly tight-fisted; after all, the following year’s comic book extravaganza, The Rocketeer (also Disney),  cost a relatively meager 35 million, about the same as Batman. Still, Dick Tracy‘s returns–again, 100 million+ on a budget of 47 mil–might have looked better if not for what were surely exorbitant marketing costs. On the other hand, ticket sales are not the only measure of success. What about overseas markets, home video sales and rentals, cable and network TV rights, and all those merchandising tie-ins?

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Oscar winning art direction by Richard Sylbert and Rick Simpson; cinematography by famed Vittorio Storaro. Everything works. Sylbert was a true giant in his field with six nominations for the likes of Chinatown, Shampoo, and Reds (the latter pair under the eye of Beatty as either producer, director, or both). His credits also include Frances and Carlito’s Way. In 1990, he also collaborated on Brian De Palma’s infamous adaptation of Bonfire of the Vanities. His twin brother Paul also worked in films, also as a production designer. He earned an Oscar for Beatty’s  1978 update of Here Comes Mr. Jordan, retitled Heaven Can Wait.

Mainly, Dick Tracy was deemed a failure, a misfire, because it wasn’t Batman. Hardly an unqualified disaster, its success paled in comparison to its super-hero predecessor’s colossal cultural impact. Did it ever occur to anyone that maybe marketing it as something it really wasn’t might have been a bad idea? Batman‘s effect was emphatically dark and majestically gloomy while Dick Tracy was colorful and comedic around the edges, practically a romp. A romp with sassy singing and dancing, to be specific.

No matter. In early 1991, Disney chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg drafted a memo, more like a mission statement, leaked to the press almost instantaneously, in which he expressed disappointment that the company he loved so much, a once rock-solid brand, if you will, unmatchable in its ability to deliver quality product–on a thrifty budget–to a welcoming audience, had lost its way in pursuit of big stars and blockbuster mentality [5]. Katzenberg further notes that Disney was actually in last place among the big studios when he came aboard in 1984, the same year the Touchstone subsidiary launched, and was top of the heap six years later.  Of course, the point of Touchstone was to reposition the struggling studio (reeling from a series of expensive, not to mention confusing, duds) by expanding the Disney market beyond the familiar family-friendly fare and branching out to more sophisticated titles along the lines of Splash, Country, Three Men and a Baby, Good Morning, VietnamDead Poets Society, and Down and Out in Beverly Hills, the film that launched bawdy Bette Midler’s comeback–and her reign as one of the biggest box office draws of the mid-to-late 1980s.

Katzenberg directed much of his frustration at the relative success (or failure) of Dick Tracy in particular, making special note that three of the year’s biggest hits, Home Alone, Ghost, and Pretty Woman (the latter also from Disney’s Touchstone subsidiary), had seemingly come out of nowhere to capture the public’s imagination in a way that Dick Tracy had not. “The idea is king,” he infamously exclaimed. What does that mean, anyway? Not all ideas are created equally, but almost every movie ever made surely began with what someone somewhere thought was a good idea. Even a bad idea still qualifies as an idea, right? On the other hand, again, the finished product (Dick Tracy, that is) was less a problem than the expectations and hype that preceded it

Of course, Katzneberg’s memo also revealed his sometimes fuzzy logic; after all, I always wondered what Uncle Walt, Disney, that is, would have thought of super-successful Pretty Woman and its leggy hooker waving his company’s once family-friendly banner. Of the three movies Katzenberg fawned over, only Home Alone, the year’s biggest hit, came close to qualifying as a genuine surprise hit since it really didn’t boast a “name” cast though it still came from a big studio–20th Century Fox–and with the proven clout of the aforementioned money machine John Hughes as writer and producer. In many ways, kid friendly Home Alone also seemed more Disneyesque at the time than actual Disney product; moreover, 1990 also saw the creation of yet another Disney subsidiary, Hollywood Pictures which premiered with creepy-fx driven comedy Arachnophobia.

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Designer Richard Sylbert and his team transformed the Universal backlot into Warren Beatty’s vision of a city splashed with lots of reds and yellows.

The saga took another twist about a month after Katzenberg’s missive made headlines, and that occurred when Dick Tracy earned a healthy 7 Oscar nods, mostly in the technical categories though Al Pacino earned a spot among the Best Supporting Actor finalists for his boorish buffoonery. That strong showing also heralded a nomination for Stephen Sondheim. The film’s nominees extended to such luminaries as production designer Richard Sylbert (a winner for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in his sixth race), costumer Milena Canonero (already a two-time winner for Barry Lyndon and Chariots of Fire), and renown cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (3 for 3 with the Academy at the time: Apocalypse Now, Reds, and The Last Emperor).

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What Sylbert and his team could not create outright on the Universal lot, a crew of visual effects artists made possible with stylized matte paintings used as augmentation. Total Recall won the Visual Effects Oscar that year, reconfigured as a “Special Achievement Award” rather than competitive award due to that film’s for the times unparalleled technical triumphs.  IMAGE: A.V.

Come Oscar night, Dick Tracy triumphed in three categories: Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Makeup, and Best Original Song. Madonna performed the latter during the telecast, seemingly battling a case of nerves while channeling the ghosts of Blonde Bombshells Past. In an Oscar race dominated by Kevin Costner’s wildly popular Dances with Wolves, in which Costner–in true Beatty style–starred, directed, and co-produced, Dick Tracy‘s full tally put it second in the final count, Costner’s film going 7 for 12. Backing up, Dick Tracy‘s seven nods tied with Godfather III for second place in the nominations account, again, second to only Dances with Wolves. Isn’t this an achievement worth celebrating in a deluxe DVD rather than ignoring, as is the case with the current shabby offering?

So what happened next?

Clearly, Katzenberg’s memo did nothing to endear him to Beatty, and, actually, Katzenberg was more or less relieved of his duties a few short years later. He has since gone on to co-found, with Stephen Spielberg and David Geffen, the popular Dreamworks SKG production outfit. Beatty, meanwhile, returned to fine form just the very next year with the lavish Bugsy, a slick biopic about notorious–and reportedly handsome–gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, including his exploits in Hollywood and Las Vegas, not the least of which involved an illicit fling with Hollywood starlet Virginia Hill (played in the film by Annette Bening, later Mrs. Warren Beatty; Hill was reportedly the model for the character Joan Crawford once played in The Damned Don’t Cry). In one noteworthy departure for multi-faceted Beatty, he turned the directing reins over to Rain Man‘s Oscar winner Barry Levinson.  Beatty’s last brush with Oscar was for co-writing 1998’s controversial political satire Bulworth, which, yes, he also directed, co-produced, and starred.

A number of years ago, I began looking for Dick Tracy on DVD. I found it in the bins at my local Movie Trading Company. Easy enough,  but the edition offered no extras. Nothing. Really? Every so often I would check there, and on Amazon, for updates. I was holding out for a big splashy edition, to no avail. To clarify, even the Blu-ray is reportedly no-frills. Finally, I broke down and bought the only copy I could find. I watched it once. Maybe twice. Then, just a few weeks ago, I turned on the TV, and the movie was playing, and right during one of Dustin Hoffman’s big scenes (as “Mumbles”), I happened upon an online article about a Criterion edition of what? Tootsie. Starring whom? Dustin Hoffman. Then, it hit me. Why not a Criterion edition of Dick Tracy, for cryin’ out loud? Okay, maybe not Criterion, but why not something, some edition with loads of extras, commemorating one of the most ambitious movies of its time? Believe me, I’ve seen movies far less successful with DVD bonus features. I’ve also been surprised by some of Criterion’s titles.

At first, I thought there must still be bad blood between Beatty and the Disney people. Surely that could be a major factor. Of course, since Beatty and Madonna’s relationship soon fizzled, perhaps neither feels compelled to rehash that particular moment in their lives for the sake of a DVD featurette. Just a thought. While researching this piece, I discovered an article about a lawsuit between Beatty and the Chester Gould estate, which Beatty ultimately won. Is that the reason for the shabby DVD? Part of the lawsuit involved a 2009 “Making of…” TV special hosted by Leonard Maltin, featuring Beatty in character as Tracy. The special can be found on YouTube, but it’s mostly an overly scripted snoozer. Don’t look to it for anything resembling depth.

No, we the fans are still waiting for an awesome DVD edition though, of course, some of the principals, such as Sylbert, are no longer with us. Meanwhile, 86 year old Stephen Sondheim likely does not have much time to spare. Still, am I the only one who longs to see and hear a mind-bogglingly talented group of actors and artisans reflect this many years later on the full intricacies of such a celebrated if misunderstood production?

Even so, I hang on to hope. After all, once upon a time, Beatty held hope of a lavish biopic based on the life of Howard Hughes. That project never happened. Indeed, he was beat to the punch by Martin Scorsese’s heralded The Aviator (2004) starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Still, we now know that Beatty’s upcoming Rules Don’t Apply, his first directorial effort since Bulworth, features him in a supporting role as no less than Hughes. Better late than never. I have also seen a few headlines lately in which Beatty hints that he’s considering a Dick Tracy sequel [6] . I don’t know how that might work, but if an update of the current DVD is part of the pre-release push, I’ll play along. Mr. Beatty, please take note.

Thanks for your consideration…

[1] Link redirects to July 4, 1989, archived New York Times article by Aljean Harmetz, “Batman Sets Sales Record: 100 Million in 10 Days”:

[2-3] Ebert’s review: New York Times review:

[4] Dick Tracy at Box Office Mojo:  Of course, context is everything. Contrast the 1990 numbers with those from 2015. In 1990, only two movies earned over 200 million, and one movie in the top 10 didn’t even break 100 mil, the difference between being a hit, even a runway hit, and a blockbuster. In 2015, not a single top 10 hit earned LESS than 200 million. Movie budgets have skyrocketed–we all know that–as have ticket prices, thereby accounting for today’s NEED for mammoth box office dollars…though, of course, we have ample evidence to suggest, as well, that increased ticket prices mask decline in the number of actual tickets sold…the latest Star Wars movie being an exception:

[5] This link redirects to the Letters of Note website and purports to include the full text of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s 1991 memo, or mission statement, in which he questions Disney’s involvement in Dick Tracy among other things. As an aside, this very memo reportedly served as writer-director Cameron Crowe’s inspiration for the “mission statement” that functions as the catalyst for Jerry Maguire’s career game-changer in the popular 1996 film:

[6] Variety item, dated April 13, 216,  describing new Hughes film, Gould lawsuit, and possible Dick Tracy sequel: