The King and Four Queens (1956, Raoul Walsh)

Clark Gable is an exceptional movie star. I’m not sure how good of an actor he is–his performance in The King and Four Queens is not, for instance, nuanced and textured, but he carries it from the first minute. Movie stars today–the ones who can act–rarely carry their “fluff” roles (I’m thinking of Nicolas Cage in particular). Gable does such a good job carrying the film, entertaining the audience, it’s very easy to overlook all the problems with King and Four Queens.

He’s not alone… both Eleanor Parker and Jo Van Fleet are great too. Van Fleet is given a fuller character to work with but Parker and Gable’s scenes are nice too. Parker holds up against him in these scenes, which are quite good. The film’s pacing is completely off–it’s a small story (and a short film, eighty-two minutes)–mostly because the other three actresses are light. None of them, except maybe Jean Willes, are bad, they just don’t hold up against Gable and Van Fleet. Even so, some of those scenes are very entertaining. On the scene-level, The King and Four Queens has a great script… it’s just in the whole package, there are significant pacing problems.

I know a little about the making of the film–there were significant cut scenes and it’s the only production from Gable’s company, Gabco. Even with the unsatisfying conclusion, it’s an enjoyable experience. I haven’t seen a post-war Gable film since the last time I saw this one (maybe six years ago) and it’s incredible how well he carries the film. The title–probably giving away his role as producer–refers to MGM’s title for Gable in the 1930s, “The King of Hollywood.”

The film comes on TCM every once in a while in a watchable, but visibly unrestored print. This print’s widescreen, however, and I can’t imagine seeing it pan and scan (though I once did). Raoul Walsh likes to move his camera and hold his shots. He’s another of the film’s pleasant surprises.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Raoul Walsh; screenplay by Margaret Fitts and Richard Alan Simmons, based on a story by Fitts; director of photography, Lucien Ballard; edited by Howard Bretherton; music by Alex North; production designer, Wiard Ihnen; produced by David Hempstead; released by United Artists.

Starring Clark Gable (Dan Kehoe), Eleanor Parker (Sabina McDade), Jean Willes (Ruby McDade), Barbara Nichols (Birdie McDade), Sara Shane (Oralie McDade), Roy Roberts (Sheriff Tom Larrabee), Arthur Shields (Padre), Jay C. Flippen (Bartender) and Jo Van Fleet (Ma McDade).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | ELEANOR PARKER, PART 2: TECHNICOLOR.

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The Ice Storm (1997, Ang Lee)

When I was a wee lad, I loved Ang Lee. I loved him only for The Ice Storm, never having seen Sense and Sensibility or his Chinese language films. I avoided Ride With the Devil after the reviews (both professional and from peers) and Hidden Tiger, Crouching Dragon was a truly sleep-inducing experience. I gave up my Lee love after that one, though, and when I came across The Ice Storm on Netflix, I realized I’d forgotten it. I hadn’t forgotten the book, of course, since I started reading Rick Moody about the same time I stopped seeing Ang Lee films. After reading the book, I recognized the differences, but now, watching the movie again, I can’t specifically remember them. The novel is a novel and the film is a film. The Ice Storm is the best example of a great book being adapted into a great film that I can think of….

Maybe what Lee needs is a subject as confining as The Ice Storm. Most of the shots are inside and his work there is amazing. I can’t remember a film where the focus effected me as much as this one. The story moves between 8 characters and–sometimes, not always–Lee uses the focus to signify which character’s POV we’re in. There’s a lot of juxtaposing and rhyming, but the film maintains a lyric sense about it. The music is used in an interesting way, because sometimes it does something, other times it does something similar, but entirely different. Half of the film takes place during the titular ice storm, but the film manages not to de-emphasize the first hour. The pacing makes the second hour feel like a (somewhat longer) third act, which it isn’t.

All of the acting is good, with Jamey Sheridan probably turning in the most unexpectedly excellent performance. Elijah Wood is really good too. But, it’s just such a dreary film, it’s hard enough to experience without talking about. The film–with its sudden exterior shots, just as encroaching and constrictive as its interior ones–is probably drearier than the novel even. There’s maybe five of these exterior shots–wooded path, daytime, but they resonate so strongly. They do work that the written medium cannot do, which is a hell of compliment.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ang Lee; screenplay by James Schamus, based on the novel by Rick Moody; director of photography, Frederick Elmes; edited by Tim Squyres; music by Mychael Danna; production designer, Mark Friedberg; produced by Ted Hope, Schamus and Lee; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Starring Kevin Kline (Ben Hood), Joan Allen (Elena Hood), Sigourney Weaver (Janey Carver), Henry Czerny (George Clair), Tobey Maguire (Paul Hood), Christina Ricci (Wendy Hood), Elijah Wood (Mikey Carver), Adam Hann-Byrd (Sandy Carver), David Krumholtz (Francis Davenport), Jamey Sheridan (Jim Carver) and Katie Holmes (Libbets Casey).


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Groundhog Day (1993, Harold Ramis)

Groundhog Day falls under my rewatch category–the films I used to love (or like), but haven’t seen in five or six years. These films are ones that I saw multiple times, back when I used to see things multiple times. I think that practice disappeared when I discovered AMC in 1996 or so.

I was a little worried. I’ve seen Multiplicity, which I never thought was as good, more recently than not and it had me doubting the power of Harold Ramis. I hadn’t checked until now, but Movielens predicts a three and a half for Groundhog Day, which is damn close. Groundhog Day wasn’t just a pleasant surprise, it was a pleasant experience. I could skim over the philosophy of the film, its thesis, but imagine if Frank Capra had made a movie with Humphrey Bogart. It probably would have been close to Groundhog Day (except Bogart would have worked for a newspaper). I’ve never used the term Capraesque and haven’t particularly liked the usage of it I have read, but I think Groundhog Day is definitely Capraesque. I think he would have appreciated its thesis.

The film’s structure kept impressing me and I kept wondering where I was on time–a similar experience to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Groundhog Day is particularly nice in its intensity, it never shows or tells too much, just enough to inform the viewer and move the story along. The film’s flow is very important and there are a few mistakes–the most glaring is Chris Elliot’s character becoming a buffoon, which the mean Bill Murray always thought he was anyway. I remembered, watching it, that I’d made that observation before.

Groundhog Day Murray is probably Murray at his best, or near it. While he’s developed into a good dramatic actor, there’s an air of desperation that he hasn’t been able to shake since Rushmore. With the possible exception of The Royal Tenenbaums, it’s impossible to ignore it–it’s a sign on his back that says “I Want an Oscar.” Groundhog Day is before any such aspiration and it’s a sad reminder of how nice it was not to have to see it.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Harold Ramis; screenplay by Danny Rubin and Ramis, based on a story by Rubin; director of photography, John Bailey; edited by Pembroke J. Herring; music by George Fenton; production designer, David Nichols; produced by Trevor Albert and Ramis; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Bill Murray (Phil Connors), Andie MacDowell (Rita), Chris Elliott (Larry), Stephen Tobolowsky (Ned Ryerson), Brian Doyle-Murray (Buster Green), Marita Geraghty (Nancy Taylor), Angela Paton (Mrs. Lancaster), Rick Ducommun (Gus), Rick Overton (Ralph), Robin Duke (Doris, the waitress), Carol Bivins (Anchorwoman) and Willie Garson (Kenny).


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Sin City (2005, Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez), the extended version

When Sin City came out in the theater, three people told me to go see it. One of them had an opinion of film I respect, one had an opinion of it I–at the time–had no argument with, and one had an opinion I most definitely did not respect. But I’d read interviews with Robert Rodriguez where he said he intended the films to be viewed as separate stories (much like Pulp Fiction, which is Sin City‘s obvious inspiration–at least in terms of casting). One of the Weinstein Brothers, I believe, convinced Rodriguez the film’s audience were essentially dumb and couldn’t handle the stories separate, so spliced together they went. So I waited for the special edition DVD, which has all three films in their entirety….

Unlike Pulp Fiction, which has three stories and shared characters, Sin City isn’t the same movie from part to part. Rodriguez was never a particularly intelligent filmmaker, something Tarantino always has been. In fact, reading on IMDb that it was Tarantino’s idea for Clive Owen to talk his monologue–truly the best moment in the film–makes a lot of sense now. I thought it was just a moment of the comic book that wasn’t tripe.

I actually have a bunch of notes on Sin City, because some of the acting was so awful I had to make a list. Here’s the list, with some comments.

Elijah Wood. He doesn’t have any lines, but he doesn’t have a bad-ass, or even psycho scare. His casting is a goofy, poor choice. All Sin City proved was that he shouldn’t have made it past child acting, which Ash Wednesday already did.

Rosario Dawson is AWFUL.

So is Rutger Hauer.

So is Jessica Alba (in the cameo during Marv’s story).

Benicio Del Toro was laughingly bad. So was Brittany Murphy, but she was irritating. Watching Del Toro in Sin City is like… try to imagine Robert DeNiro as Robin (as an eleven year-old). It’s embarrassing. The Del Toro/Murphy scene is actually painful. A lot of the acting in Sin City is like it–it’s unbelievable that Rodriguez expects it to be taken seriously and not as a bad imitation of a car commercial.

Alexis Bledel–awful. She might give the worst female performance.

Michael Madsen is astoundingly bad. I always used to–when I was a teenager–confuse him with Tom Sizemore. The difference is not that Sizemore is good (he’s better than good), but that he’s actually capable of acting. Madsen isn’t.

Now, on to the good performances. Anyone turning in a good performance in this film must be amazing. The dialogue is so piss poor, they have to be.

Both Josh Hartnett and Marley Shelton are good in their little intro sequence (Hartnett probably has the easiest time with the narration, because his is the shortest and, therefore, the best).

Mickey Rourke is fantastic, but the makeup is a bad idea. The whole “translation” of the comic book idea is stupid (and certainly testifies to Rodriguez’s inherent limitations). The comic book is not perfect–the writing is occasionally all right, but most of the dialogue and narration is awful. Miller simply isn’t very good, on page or screen. Rourke manages to convey real emotion, even with his face in plastic.

Clive Owen is excellent.

Tommy Flanagan (the guy with the scar) or Nick Stahl give the best performances in the film.

Jaime King is actually all right. Maybe even good.

The Willis narration ruins the sequence, because it doesn’t give him a chance to act. Jessica Alba was nowhere near as bad (just mediocre really) as I was lead to believe, mostly because her character does absolutely nothing. Some of the Willis stuff looks real good, but that narration just kills it. Miller’s narration makes an attempt at Chandler, but it’s a poor one. He misses Chandler’s point. Its characterizations are from a B film noir–a bad one–not Chandler. Not even Hammett. It’s like he’s heard some hackneyed detective narration on a sitcom….

The special effects–the “sets” and “locations”–occasionally work, but they mimic reality, but don’t seem to intend to–so when something is incredibly unreal, it sticks out. Like cars. Amusingly, the visual design (from Miller’s comic) has cops out of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, with full body armor, driving old cop cars to fit in with the 1950s motif.

I actually didn’t dislike Sin City. It’s certainly the best comic book movie in the last few years (since Hellboy, I suppose, then all the way back to Batman Returns or something). It’s just not very good–it’s like Pulp Fiction, but with a bunch of actors from the WB. There’s rarely any real human emotion to it and there’s a constant attempt to be “cool.” Pulp Fiction had some similar aspirations, but it was also about wanting to screw your boss’s wife, which is a layer Sin City doesn’t have. All of its characters, for the “noirish” dialogue (out of the missing Don Knotts adaptation–sorry, translation–of The Big Sleep), all of them talk straight from id. There’s no nuance. But it’s hard to dislike just because it isn’t a real movie. It’s not a serious attempt at anything. American Pie 2 is a more serious study of the human heart in conflict with itself.

Sin City is a comic book movie and I’m using comic book as a pejorative there….

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez; special guest director, Quentin Tarantino; screenplay by Frank Miller, based on his comic book; director of photography, Rodriguez; edited by Rodriguez; music by Rodriguez, John Debney and Graeme Revell; produced by Elizabeth Avellán, Rodriguez and Miller; released by Dimension Films.

Starring Jessica Alba (Nancy), Devon Aoki (Miho), Alexis Bledel (Becky), Powers Boothe (Senator Roark), Rosario Dawson (Gail), Benicio Del Toro (Jackie Boy), Michael Clarke Duncan (Manute), Carla Gugino (Lucille), Josh Hartnett (The Man), Rutger Hauer (Cardinal Roark), Jaime King (Goldie/Wendy), Michael Madsen (Bob), Brittany Murphy (Shellie), Clive Owen (Dwight), Mickey Rourke (Marv), Nick Stahl (Roark Jr./Yellow Bastard), Bruce Willis (Hartigan) and Elijah Wood (Kevin).


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