(In French, On TV, February 2019) If you were around at the time, 1992 was peak-Madonna year. Sold to the masses as an aggressive sex goddess, 1992 saw the near-simultaneous release of an album called Erotica, a coffee-table book of nudes called Sex and a ridiculously over-the-top film tilted Body of Evidence perhaps only because the two previous titles were already taken. Aiming for a neo-noir but settling for trashy thriller, this film took place in familiar territory by featuring Willem Dafoe as a lawyer asked to take on the case of a woman (guess who?) accused of murdering her husband. Before the first act is even over, erotic scenes grind the action down to a halt, rudely interrupting a few adults cosplaying noir archetypes and making for a much simpler plot given that the movie would barely make it to feature-film length without the nudity. Despite Madonna being Madonna, I’m not complaining: After all, Julianne Moore and Anne Archer are also involved. (Plus Defoe, playing a suitably slimy lawyer in between numerous trysts.) Body of Evidence is about atmosphere rather than narrative and it features one of the least surprising “not guilty” decisions in a while—after all, we’re in a noir and this is what happens in a noir. The incredibly familiar story is perversely meant to be comforting, as we have a sense that this is just a big game updated to early-1990s aesthetics. I still haven’t decided where I stand about it. Candid depictions of lust have their place in cinema and Hollywood could make a few more movies in that subgenre. On the other hand, Body of Evidence may not be the example to follow. At its best, it’s mildly enjoyable as a trashy thriller blessed with far bigger names than it deserves. At its worst, however, it’s not just boring but actively irritating in how it insists that it’s hot despite often missing the mark. But, hey, surely peak-Madonna was a thing because some people liked it, right?
(Second Viewing, In French, On Cable TV, January 2019) Back in 1990, Hollywood really wanted audiences to go see Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. After the success of Batman in 1989, it had been designated as the most likely contender for the Summer Box-Office crown. I remember the overwhelming marketing push. It didn’t quite work out that way: While Dick Tracy did decent business, movies such as Ghost and Die Hard 2 did much better. Still, the film had its qualities (it did get nominated for seven Academy Awards) and even today it does remain a bit of a curio. Much of its interest comes from a conscious intention to replicate the primary colours of the film’s 1930s comic-book pulp origins: the atmosphere of the film is gorgeous and equally steeped in Depression-era gangster movies and comic-book excess. A tremendous amount of often-grotesque prosthetics were used to transform a surprising ensemble cast of known names (Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, James Caan … geez) into the caricatures of Tracy’s world. Beatty himself shows up as Tracy, square-jawed and willing to give his best to a film he also directed and produced. Madonna also shows up, but she ends up being more adequate than anything else. Dick Tracy’s big twist is very easy to guess, but this isn’t a film that you watch for the overarching plot: it’s far more interesting when it lingers in the nooks and corner of its heightened vision of 1930s cops-vs-gangsters cartoons. Visually, the film holds its own by virtue of being one of the last big-budget productions without CGI: the matte paintings are spectacular, and you can feel the effort that went into physically creating the film’s off-kilter reality. The question here remains whether the film would have been better had it focused either on a more realistic gangster film, or an even more cartoonish film. Considering the original inspiration, there was probably no other option than an uncomfortable middle ground. In some ways, I’m more impressed by Dick Tracy now than I was when I saw it in 1990 (at the drive-in!)—I wasn’t expecting as much, and I’m now more thankful than ever that it lives on as how big budget 1990 Hollywood rendered the gangster 1930s.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) There’s a good-natured quality to A League of Their Own that makes it hard to dislike, but that doesn’t mean the film is a solid home run. As a look inside all-women baseball leagues during World War II, it manages to thread a fine line between social concern and outright entertainment. You do have to be a baseball-loving American to get the most out of it, though, as the script quickly takes the familiar route of making baseball a national prism rather than a simple sport. At least Geena Davis is a good lead, with able supporting performances from Tom Hanks (in an out-of-persona turn as a boozy has-been) and (believe it or not) Madonna back when she was trying to be taken seriously as an actor. Jon Lovitz also shows up in a surprisingly non-annoying role. Much of the story will feel familiar, but the epilogue stretches our affection for the film by trying too hard for instant nostalgia for characters we’ve barely met. Thanks to Penny Marshall’s no-nonsense direction, A League of their Own is an effective, basic movie. Not too challenging, not too dry—just good enough to leave everyone happy but not bowled over.