Review: The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947, Godfrey)

The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947, Godfrey)

Published on on March 29th, 2011

Sometimes ideas are better left unfulfilled. A case in point; taking two of the biggest studio stars of all time, Humphrey Bogart and Barbara Stanwyck, and putting them in a suspense noir with strong Gothic overtones. In concept, this is not a bad idea; it gives each star a new and unfamiliar angle to play with Bogart as a mentally unstable painter and Stanwyck playing a passive and helpless victim a year before her superior turn in Sorry, Wrong Number. When no aspect of the project is inspired, the result is a dud. Newly available on DVD from the Warner Brothers Archive, The Two Mrs. Carrolls is a sad and lackluster combination of elements fused together with an utter lack of spirit.

Geoffrey Carroll (Humphrey Bogart) is a painter who woos Sally (Barbara Stanwyck). Very early in the film, she discovers that he already has a wife and a daughter named Beatrice (Ann Carter). He tells her his wife is an invalid but she does not want to continue their romance. Shortly after returning from his trip with Sally, Geoffrey’s first wife mysteriously dies. Two years later, Geoffrey and Sally are married happily. Geoffrey uses Sally for inspiration for his paintings just as he did with his first wife. His inspiration is running dry and his gaze is straying towards Cecily Latham (Alexis Smith), a rich young woman who also has her eyes on Geoffrey. How far will he go to ensure his own artistic expression? Will Sally or the mature young Beatrice become privy to Geoffrey’s nefarious scheme?

The Two Mrs. Carrolls has nothing to say. As long as a film can work purely on a surface level, as a concise piece of storytelling, depth does not necessarily equal a detractor. When the film cannot tell a story with ease, then there is a problem. Bogart and Stanwyck do not feel like a couple. Their relationship and subsequent marriage is given no time to flourish. They do not have as many scenes together as they should and when they do, it never feels like any connection is established. It does not help that the two stars have no chemistry. In fact, there is no cohesive thread between the actors. They all seem to be operating on different planes; nobody looks like they are really connecting with anybody else. It also does not help that the film is predictable from the start, making it even harder to become in any way absorbed.

Bogart is completely miscast as painter lacking in sanity. It is impossible to buy him as a psychopath. He is always great in expressing inner torment, but not when it is used outside the persona of self-destruction he has plays so wonderfully. Bogart plays psychosis by staring off wide eyed and looking confused. He is out of his element, resulting in a stale and muddled performance.

It does not help that he is given little to work with. There is nothing to convey any reasoning or depth to Geoffrey’s madness. The only signifiers for his instability are the moments where he touches his head. It is silly and does nothing but funnel his illness into a quirk. Since is it meant to be taken seriously and the film never goes beyond the idea that he no longer gets any inspiration from his eventual victims, Geoffrey Carroll’s mental illness never becomes more than an abstract gimmick. Bogart is even forced to be embarrassingly self-referential by saying “I have the strangest feeling that this is the beginning of a beautiful hatred”.

Peter Godfrey’s direction is a hodgepodge of tropes from other genres and films thrown together with no clear understanding of how to use them effectively. This is a suspense film with no suspense. Melodrama as a sensibility is used through Franz Waxman’s excruciatingly present score and as an overall substitute for suspense. The few times suspense is employed it is poorly influenced from Hitchcock films, most strikingly in Suspicion, and the attempts falls flat.

The direction also strongly indicates a desire to use recognizable visual traits of the Gothic genre. Again, with no understanding of how to use these traits, they simply exist within the film and do nothing to enhance mood or atmosphere. The film is filled with blustery days. Wind and rain are always seen and heard. There are a lot of windows that bang open and church bells are often in the soundtrack. There is also the archetypal cranky housekeeper. There is some recognizably noir lighting, but nothing makes enough of an impact. All of this is recycled and brings nothing new to the table, feeling exhausted and dead on arrival. They become empty decorations.

It demands mention that the film is based on a play by Martin Vale. Either the source material was equally inert, or the adaptation by Thomas Job truncated so much of the play that nothing was left to work with. Either way, The Two Mrs. Carrolls has no idea how to put the previous work of other filmmakers and authors into action and is further dragged down by an indifferent performance by Stanwyck and an outright shoddy performance from Bogart. The transfer is iffy in parts, notably at the beginning but overall is sufficient with a trailer being the only special feature. For Bogart, Stanwyck or studio system era completists this will fit within their criteria; for everybody else, feel no shame in skipping this one.


Review: Jane Eyre (2011, Fukunaga)

The story of Jane Eyre shares several similarities with the phenomenon known as the teen romance, which has taken over young adult literature and film in recent years. A young inexperienced girl, a potentially dangerous and fiercely attractive male and a series of hurdles the two have to overcome before being together. Charlotte Brontë’s gothic novel was not written for teenagers, but many elements have been reconfigured in young adult stories. Cary Fukunaga’s new adaptation of an already much interpreted classic takes us back to basics, showing us how to really tell a romance with his compelling version of Jane Eyre.

Most people know Jane Eyre and her “tale of woe”, but here is a brief summary for those who are unfamiliar. Jane (Mia Wasikowska), an orphan whose childhood consisted of a cold aunt, an abusive nephew and an even more abusive education, is employed as a governess at Thornfield Hall by Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender) for his ward Adele (Romy Settbon Moore). As her relations with Rochester progress, it becomes increasingly clear that there is a dark secret he desperately wants to keep hidden.

Those who know the story will be interested to know that the film takes Jane’s encounters with Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his sisters and shuffles events. The film begins with her arrival at Rivers and then flashes back and progressing through her story from there. This was a very smart move from screenwriter Moira Buffini. In addition to writing an outstanding adaptation, all potential pacing issues are solved by spreading out the important but uncharged interactions with Rivers as opposed to tackling it in an entirely separate segment, which might have brought the film to a definite halt.

Many period films, especially those depicting the Victorian era, unsurprisingly and understandably tend to have the same look and feel. Fukunaga and cinematographer Adriano Goldman create a very precise atmosphere, making full use of the many conventions of the Gothic romance. The film feels naturally lit throughout, creating an often dark and gloomy look with muted grey and brown tones. The barren landscapes, wind and rain and foreboding manors are just a few conventions employed here with stunning effect. Dario Marianelli’s score fills the soundtrack with emotive violins that express the suppressed passion that Jane and Rochester keep below the surface. Fukunaga has a clear vision which he executes with conviction, making it stand out from many adaptations of classic Victorian era literature.

Mia Wasikowska, destined for an exciting lifetime of impressive performances, captures the essence of Jane Eyre. Her dignity, guardedness and centered unwavering morals are all perfectly portrayed. She is understated and powerful, conveying subtle transitions in her face at every turn. It might just be the perfect incarnation of the heroine. Another newly risen star, Michael Fassbender, gives Rochester the appropriate coldness and inner torment, proving with his presence exactly why he is getting the attention he fully deserves. It is when the two actors are brought together that magic happens. It is a rare thing when the two romantic leads have the chemistry the story demands them to have; these two do. The film is most engaging when the two are onscreen together, not just from of the power their scenes have, but because of the way they portray the evolution of their relationship. Buffini makes sure that different circumstances surround each scene they have together, making every single interaction between the two unique.

An aspect of Jane Eyre that disappoints is the dilution of several key themes of the novel, making this adaptation a bit more simplistic than it ultimately should be. In regards of Jane’s character, the novel makes it explicitly clear throughout that she has a fear of losing her freedom. Being locked in the Red Room is a literal example. Her romance with Rochester is a continual inner struggle because she fears losing her identity through marriage. She needs to be in control of her own freedom and identity and this aspect of her character is not explored enough. This specific gender issue would have been refreshing to examine, considering so few romance stories bother to do so. Thankfully, Wasikowska captures the rest of her character so perfectly, that one can only complain about this up to a point.

Similarly, Bertha Mason ceases to be relevant in any way whereas she is probably the most analyzed aspect of Brontë’s novel. Granted, she is in such a small portion of the book, it is hard to expect much. Here though, she is never given the chance to have a purpose, much less a symbol. Lastly, Jane and Rochester’s romance is more conventionally structured here. Their mutual affection for each other makes itself known sooner and in a more straightforward and obvious manner than the novel does. Whether this is a flaw is unclear. On the one hand, I admired the complexities of the novel more but on the other hand, I was more taken in by their romance in this film.

In the end though, the film should be taken as its own work. A film adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is impossible to discuss without addressing the source material, particularly when taking into account how many times this story has been adapted to the screen. Jane Eyre succeeds because what it does take on is executed with memorable specificity as well as containing some of the best chemistry between two romantic leads in years. For those who are sick of the kinds of romance films that come put today, whether comedy, drama or fantasy, Jane Eyre provides an opportunity to revisit a classic. Was yet another adaptation necessary? Probably not, but it is hard to imagine anyone complaining about it after seeing Fukunaga and Buffini’s splendid interpretation.

Poll: Favorite Elizabeth Taylor Performance?

The beautiful, iconic and gifted legend Elizabeth Taylor passed today at the age of 79. Film bloggers everywhere are writing tributes to an actress we will all miss very much. I will let everyone know the results to this in two weeks. Which performance of Taylor’s do you treasure most? If the performance you would choose is not listed, be sure to vote under Other.

Late Monthly Round-Up: February 2011

This is a list of the films I saw in February of this year for the first time. There will be another one at the end of March. Starting in April, I hope to start a screening log, which will briefly state my feelings on the films seen in a very simplistic and to the point way.  In bold are the films that stood out to me the most from the bunch, so much so that the bold films I now consider amongst my very long list of favorites.

44. Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987, Malle)
45. La jetée (1962, Marker)
46. Look Back in Anger (1959, Richardson)
47. Centre Stage (1992, Kwan)
48. Lord of the Flies (1963, Brook)
49. The Housemaid (2011, Im)
50. Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors (2000, Hong)
51. L’Eclisse (1962, Antonioni)
52. The Illusionist (2010, Chomet)
53. Flirting with Disaster (1996, Russell)
54. Greed (1924, von Stroheim)
55. Hunger (2008, McQueen)
56. A Short Film About Love (1988, Kieslowski)
57. Life is Beautiful (1998, Benigni)
58. Another Year (2010, Leigh)
59. Revanche (2009, Spielmann)
60. A Woman is a Woman (1961, Godard)
61. Bigger than Life (1956, Ray)
62. Dream Home (2011, Pang)
63. The Piano Teacher (2001, Haneke)
64. Summer Hours (2009, Assayas)
65. All the Real Girls (2001, Green)
66. Peppermint Candy (2000, Lee)
67. Violette Noziere (1978, Chabrol)
68. Oasis (2002, Lee)
69. Alien Space Avenger (1989, Haines)
70. Raise the Red Lantern (1991, Yimou)
71. Dogville (2003, von Trier)
72.  Mädchen in Uniform (1931, Sagan)
73. Homicide (1991, Mamet)
74.  La Cérémonie (1995, Chabrol)
75. To Live (1994, Yimou)
76. Shock Corridor (1963, Fuller)
77. Two-Faced Woman (1942, Cukor)
78. Two Weeks in Another Town (1962, Minnelli)

Poll: Favorite Kim Ji-woon film?

Review: I Saw the Devil (2011, Kim)

Review originally posted on on March 19th, 2011

Revenge films have been done plenty of times. Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy and Tarantino’s Kill Bill have reestablished the subgenre as the go-to subject matter for hip hyper-violent cinema. They allow the audience to actively justify their desire for onscreen violence because, well, the bad guys deserve it don’t they? Plus, the morality issues at hand can make for juicy thematic material. I Saw the Devil transcends all of this by taking revenge as far as it can go, thereby making itself automatically relevant. The film excels, managing to overcome its flaws because noted South Korean director Kim Ji-Woon knows how to tell a story with effectiveness and panache, unlike many others who venture down extremist territory.

The plot is purposely simplistic due to a reliance on repetition. The emphasis on immersing the audience in the utter brutality of Kyung-chul, (Choi Min-sik) and the incessant and questionable determination of Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun) is essential. Kyung-chul takes pleasure is assaulting and murdering women. The film starts out with his capture and murder of a young woman named Joo-yeon (Oh San-ha). Her fiancée Soo-hyun, a secret agent of some kind, immediately sets out to find the killer. When he finally confronts Kyung-chul, in what would function as the climax of a typical film of its kind, Soo-hyun beats his fiancée’s killer severely, but does not kill him; he lets him go. The rest of the film depicts a repetitious game of cat-and-mouse so Soo-hyun can carry out his revenge again and again and in increasingly merciless ways.

I Saw the Devil takes the revenge film as far as it can possibly go. It forces the audience to not only experience events from Kyung-chul’s perverse perspective, but it throws itself head-on into the pit of torture, pain and violence that the two men engage in. All that exists for Kyung-chul during the film is an unhinged sadistic desire and all that exists for Soo-hyun is a need for revenge that is impossible to deter.

Its examination of what revenge does to a person might not be an outstandingly complex one, but it does its job well and pulls no punches. The idea that one must become a monster to destroy a monster is familiar. The really wonderful study that takes place in the film are Soo-hyun’s craving to prolong the satisfying feeling revenge gives him, and the idea of revenge as a functioning stopgap between the actual mourning process. One of Kim Ji-woon’s strengths is his execution of specific moments that elevate the material. There are two moments where his study on revenge is fully realized. One is when you can actually see in Soo-hyun’s face that the feeling he has choking Kyung-chul is something he does not want to end. The second moment comes at the very end and is very affecting and adds a lot to our understanding of Soo-hyun. This is something Kim does with similarly excellent results in A Bittersweet Life, also starring Lee-Byung-hun.

Kim Ji-Woon is a filmmaker who knows how and when to use style. He chooses his moments carefully and infuses them with a trendy sensibility without allowing style to overwhelm his film. His always impeccably choreographed fight scenes are on display, riveting as ever. A confrontation in a greenhouse as well as a rather incredible scene that takes place in a taxi cab are two scenes where Kim’s penchant for building up tension and delivering action heavy scenes are on display. The pacing in I Saw the Devil is among the most accomplished in recent memory. Clocking in at almost two and a half hours, the film flies by, yet it never feels rushed. Kim takes his time letting the story unfold and allowing atmosphere and mood to sink in, without the running time ever imposing itself. It is fully engrossing throughout which is not an easy feat.

There are still weaknesses that cannot be ignored. The first is that Kim’s characterizations can be a bit too simplistic. It may be thematically understandable for the film to have a one track mind given the very succinct motives of the characters but Soo-hyun and Kyung-chul could have had more depth without losing the ferocity of their motives. This can be attributed to screenwriter Park Hoon-jung (this is Kim’s first film as director only), but characterization has never been Kim’s strong point. There are certainly moments that add quite a lot to our understanding of the two, but it is hard not to wish there had been a bit more.

This film is meant to be extreme and you will not see any arguments from me on the level of violence on display in relation to Kim’s vision. At a certain point though, seeing sexual assault after sexual assault on women adds nothing to the proceedings. This kind of violence is always a tricky subject and it is always going to be somewhat problematic. Aligning us with Kyung-chul and showing us his encounters with women is important to the story. The film is meant to be extremely disturbing but after a couple of these scenes, the audience full well understands the kind of person Kyung-chul is. Certain scenes could have been cut or shortened without losing any kind of its extremist point-of-view. It gets to a point where every time a woman walks onscreen, one can assume there will be an assault, and it becomes disconcerting and obnoxious.

It is impossible to give a blanket recommendation to I Saw the Devil because it is not for everyone’s tastes. Its problems cannot be ignored, and yet I cannot shake it. There is so much to admire here in the ferocity of its vision and execution. The performances are thoroughly strong but it is Choi Min-sik who is nothing less than captivating, giving one of the most memorable portrayals of a serial killer. Whether one thinks it is trussed up trash or a meaningful study on the nature of revenge, it makes no apology for what it is. Unlike many an empty-headed slasher film, I Saw the Devil shows that something meaningful can be said when it uses violence and its impeccable orchestration makes this a must-see for anyone up to the challenge.


Poll: Most Anticipated Limited April Release?