Nov 11 2009

Four Rooms

Film Duel is our written review format in which Benn and James each review a film, and then comment on each others’ reviews to give a proper balance and really fill out the commentary as well as possible. This week’s film is the fractured Four Rooms, the result of four indie darling nineties directors working together to create one film. Can the film carry a unified tone and story?

Four Rooms
Year: 1995
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell
Written by: Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell
Starring: Tim Roth, Bruce Willis, Quentin Tarantino, Ione Skye, Marissa Tomei
Genre: Comedy

Benn and James’ reviews and rebuttals follow after the jump.

James says:

In 1995, Quentin Tarantino, having just released Pulp Fiction, and before that Reservoir Dogs, was at the top of his game. He, along with Steven Soderbergh essentially invented the indie film market and brought Miramax to prominence as a company. It makes sense that Quentin Tarantino would want to share the wealth with a few of us friends. So he, Robert Rodriguez, Alexandre Rockwell, and Allison Anders, all darlings of the indie world at the time, came together to make Four Rooms.

While certainly there must have been a lot of collaboration on the film, it does split pretty firmly into four segments for each creator to write and direct individually. And yet, it still makes sense as a single feature about Ted the bell hop who has about as bad (or good) a work night as you can imagine trying to run an entire hotel by himself on New Year’s Eve. The four segments reference each other relatively sparingly, and there are a few bridging scenes to make sure everything flows okay, but for the most part you can look at these as four short films built upon the same main character.

The first is relatively simple, a coven of witches gathers in the honeymoon suite to cast a spell which will bring back their god. Much is made over the slow reveal of who these people are, but the hints are direct enough that most audience members will understand pretty quickly. Therefore this short, which builds its first half primarily on this mystery, doesn’t have a whole lot to offer in terms of complexities. Fortunately there are some laughable jokes and some sharp dialogue, especially within the witch’s chanting spell. The director, Allsion Anders’ voice is pretty present in this dialogue and also in the visuals which include cartoon hearts and birds to compliment the emotions of the characters on screen. It’s the kind of filmmaking that feels slightly dated, but it’s still enjoyable to see Tim Roth’s Ted, who you can immediately tell is a somewhat bumbling loser, get the benefit of a witch’s blunder. It’s a fun introduction to the film and the main character, though certainly not the strongest segment in the film.

The second is along the same lines in quality, but vastly different in tone. As soon as Ted steps into the hotel room in the second chapter, you can see that it’s going to be much darker. The room is pitch black and the character speaks in mysterious Mamet-like dialogue. From there on the chapter becomes a twisted game of sex, betrayal, and murder threats. It’s all fueled by a mistaken identity case, which can be an excellent but extremely easy way to get into a story. For me, I often find mistaken identity stories to be overplayed and frustrating because they require you to believe that the person making the mistake is too stupid just to listen for two seconds to clear things up. But once you get into things it’s really just about the messed up things that Ted’s assaulter puts him through and reveling in the confusion. This is the least funny of the four chapters, and as a whole the most off tone as well. But as a short itself, it does work pretty well in its own way, if for nothing else but its punch line.

The third chapter is by Robert Rodriguez, the only director here other than Quentin Tarantino who’s made waves in mainstream film. You’d know him for things like Sin City, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and the Spy Kids franchise. His chapter gives hint of his affinity for children taking control by depicting two children wreaking havoc on Ted and their hotel room. Plot wise it’s pretty one note, with an expected but entertaining finale, but it’s good to see the way it builds up throughout the chapter. This is another reminder that this is not the kind of film that’s really going to gather its threads for a final climax, but rather work as four very individual films with their own arcs. Ted is the most out of character here, as his defining feature seems to be rage and impatience. While this makes sense if you look at the progression of the last two chapters, it still feels like Tim Roth has been told to perform a different character here. Nonetheless you can tell that Rodriguez has fun with the kids and their antics, and it’s basically your classic Home Alone kids versus adults scenario. Overall I’d say it’s the second best of the segments.

Then it all comes down to the final segment, Quentin Tarantino’s. This final chapter is a marvel to watch. It features an excellently choreographed free roaming camera which always manages to nail some beautiful composition. It has by far the most diverse and interesting characters. It also features the most intriguing mystery of them all, as it drags out its reveal of what the residents are up to with delicacy and excitement. Quentin Tarantino even plays a role here, in fact he’s featured the level of vainness, but it still is a marvel to look at. A scene involving a stack of cash is particularly well executed. This also features the greatest cameo of the film in Bruce Willis. The hilariously drunk characters here work really well, and for once, we get to see Ted come out on top while simultaneously letting out all of his frustrations.

As with any anthological film, this movie has its ups and downs. But I’d say it’s more entertaining than not, and pretty much everything else is worth waiting for the Quentin Tarantino segment. He obviously doesn’t have as much room to weave the complex tales he normally does, but if you’re a fan of his work, there’s no reason to miss this one.

Benn says:

Four Rooms is a collection of four short films directed by four Gen-X VCR filmmakers per short. This concept might sound good on paper, since you’re getting four different visions working together within in film, but the film also runs the risk of being good one moment, and virtually unwatchable the next. Such is the case with Four Rooms.

The four directors of Four Rooms are Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. There is a reason only two of these directors have flourishing careers today and two of them don’t; Rodriguez and Tarantino’s shorts are well done, whereas the shorts by Anders and Rockwell were god awful.

The film takes place in a Los Angeles hotel, with Ted the bellhop (Tim Roth) being the only employee on duty. Throughout the night he is called to four different rooms, with each room setting the stage for each short film. The first is Allison Anders’ “The Missing Ingredient” which is, simply put, terrible, and starts the entire film off to a bad start. The short is about a cadre of witches (Madonna, Alicia Witt, Valeria Golino, Sammi Davis, Lily Taylor and Ione Skye) performing a ritual that will release their goddess from her slumber. The characters are flat caricatures, from leather-clad dominatrix to new age hippie, and not much happens in the thirty-minute film. Seriously, it’s just a bunch of witches chanting in a brightly colored room, Madonna occasionally says something profane, and the movie ends.

The second film is directed by Rockwell, and is hardly an improvement from its predecessor. “The Wrong Man” finds Ted walking into some kind of weird, sexual role playing game (its not very clear) between a gun wielding, jealous husband (David Proval) and his cheating wife (Jennifer Beals), who is gagged and bound to a chair. Ted is confused as “the other man”, and engages in an infuriating repartee with the husband. The film has better camera work than the last film, but that’s about it. There’s Italian accents and harsh language…. and that’s about it.

At that part of the film, you’re going to want to leave. I really don’t blame you. I watched this on DVD and I wanted some kind of compensation for my trouble. Luckily, Rodriguez’s “The Misbehaviors” swoops in to save the film from being a total mess, and finally provides the film with a real sense of madcap comedy. Spoofing his macho Latino badass role that defined his career in the Nineties, Antonio Banderas plays a father who leaves his two children with Ted while he and his wife go out partying. Both children are delightfully mischievous; they drink, they smoke, they fight, and annoy the piss out of Ted, who has been annoying us for the past hour at this point. The children are genuinely funny and have a fantastic chemistry, and Rodriguez’s kinetic visual style accentuates the slapstick, cartoonish violence between the siblings.

The best short in the film is Quentin Tarantino’s “The Man From Hollywood”, which stands out through its camera work and the dialogue. Although Ted is called for a very specific and bizarre reason, it takes hotshot Hollywood director Chester Rush (Quentin Tarantino) nearly the whole short to get to the point. The conversation topics range from Cristal to Jerry Lewis films; as Jennifer Beals’ character says (who reprises her role from “The Wrong Man”), “He’s been here fifteen minutes and you’ve talked about everything but”. True, but Tarantino’s eccentric, barely contained enthusiasm during the scene keeps us interested; I don’t think I would have cared if he had ever gotten to the point.

Tarantino’s camerawork, done by cinematographer Andrzej Sekula, is very Tarantinoesque: it adheres to very simple, stationary shots that go on for days. Honestly, I’d be shocked it there had been any more than ten cuts in the whole short. Most of the film shows Tarantino speaking directly into the camera, then the camera pans all the way around the room to capture other people’s reactions or responses, than slowly turns back to Tarantino. Unlike the fast paced editing and camera work of Rodriguez, Tarantino’s method of cinematography resembles Orson Welles or Howard Hawks in that it uses uninterrupted shots that let the actors really move the scene. It may not seem like a lot, and technically speaking it isn’t, but the visual narrative of this short stands out above the rest and proves to be the most masterful.

Alas, the one constant in this film is Tim Roth, and he does a pretty bad job. His voice changes, his facial expressions are too silly, he bumbles around needlessly; it’s as if he’s trying to emulate the movements of an old silent film star like Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, yet fails to do so greatly. He’s not the most obnoxious thing in this film (that would be Anders’ steaming pile of crap-of-a-film), but he remains a nuisance throughout the film.

Though it has its moments of flair and creativity, Four Rooms is hardly worth seeing. Watching four directors flaunt their styles back to back functions as a fascinating study of an auteur’s strengths and weaknesses in comparison to other filmmakers is a terrific idea, but doing do with two crap directors and a poor attempt at an overall madcap atmosphere ruins an otherwise clever concept.

Benn’s rebuttal:

James makes a really good point about Roth’s character completely changing half way through the film which I, personally, found a little infuriating (due to its inconsistency), yet refreshing (because I hated him the most during the first half of the film) at the same time.

Clearly we both loved Tarantino’s bit the most, with Rodriguez coming in second. However, it seems like James enjoyed the first two films on some kind of level, whereas I loathed them all together. I really didn’t give two shits about what was going on in the second short, and I found Anders’ attempt at a hip, Gen X’er Wiccan tale to be so unwatchable that I believe my television silently wept while it played.

James’s rebuttal:

“Tarantino’s camerawork is Tarantino-esque?”  Seriously?  I’m reminded of the film The Squid and the Whale in which the protagonist tries to sound smart by saying a piece written by Kafka is Kafkaesque.

Anyway I can see why you’d hate the first film seeing as pretty much nothing happens.  My roommate walked out of the room on a phone call during it and it took less than a sentence to explain what had happened in a good 20 minutes.  I must’ve found some enjoyment only from seeing Ione Skye again for the first (notable) time since seeing Say Anything.

You’re right, the first two are not great.  But I guess I just was interested in comparing the differences in film making.

Allison Anders (segment “The Missing Ingredient”)
Alexandre Rockwell (segment “The Wrong Man”)
Robert Rodriguez (segment “The Misbehavers”)
Quentin Tarantino

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