A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 166 – Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events – August 13th, 2010

I regret to inform you of this evening’s movie. Truly, I wish I could say that we had put in a lively and cheerful film. Something by Disney, perhaps, or David Lynch. Something to lift the spirits and fill one with a sense that all is well in the world. If that, dear reader, is what you would like most to read about, then I would direct you to last night’s Center Stage review, or maybe Solarbabies. Or you could go and find The Littlest Elf! I hear that’s perfectly charming and not depressing or sad in the least. This movie, on the other hand, is quite something else. This movie does not have a happy ending. Tentative and hesitant would be the best words to describe it. If you’ve read the books then I suppose you know those words are, unfortunately, not quite accurate. More accurate would be the word “ominous,” but if you’ve read the books, I’m sure you know why. If not, then it’s likely best that you simply accept the ending as it is and go on your way. After all, it is a terribly sad story.

Right, that’s enough of that. The narration in this movie, performed by Jude Law, is very much in line with the books the movie is based on. The entire conceit of the series, and thus the movie, is that it’s the tragic tale of the three Baudelaire children, orphaned and pursued by the dastardly Count Olaf. And the entire story is being recounted by a man named Lemony Snicket, and he is frightfully sorry to have to be the one to tell you how incredibly horrible it all is. It’s a series of books that delights in the misfortunes of its main characters, but even more so in revealing them in a sort of semi-mock-regret. The narrator of the books repeatedly exhorts the reader to put the book down and read something happier. Hence the introduction of the movie, with The Littlest Elf and a few bits of misdirection where the narrator leads the viewer to believe that all is going to be happily ever after, before revealing that no, really, it’s not.

There’s a bizarrely Victorian feel to this series, communicated through the style and the language, that’s contradicted by things like mentions of fax machines and uses of remote car locks. I got it in the books as well. The feel reminds me very much of things like The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken, or A Little Princess by Frances Hodgeson Burnett. Clearly the movie took cues from that, playing up the Victorian flavor with the wardrobe and general look to the buildings. It plays out well, I think. What with the whole tragic orphans thing the story has going on, Victorian seems right, even if it is somewhat anachronistic. The story seems to take place in an alternate world to our own, a few steps away where things are slightly skewed. And, of course, so very sad.

Now, the books aren’t to everyone’s taste. My boss found the narrative style to be intensely grating, whereas I quite liked it. At least for the first few. The trouble with it is that it ends up filling a lot of space with a really quite short story, so when making a movie they took the first three books and slotted them together into a single piece. In this, the episodic (and eventually somewhat formulaic) nature of the books works out well. As each story follows the Baudelaire orphans – Violet, Klaus and Sunny – as they meet a new guardian, find themselves imperiled by the devious Count Olaf, and eventually escape only to be sent off to a new guardian, it makes for a good multi-act movie.

We begin with the mysterious fire that destroys the Baudelaire mansion, killing the children’s parents and leaving them homeless. The family solicitor, Mr. Poe, takes them to their closest relative, Count Olaf. Except he’s only close in physical proximity. The children have never met him. He’s played by Jim Carrey, who is clearly having a blast in the role, hamming it up as an overacting villain who somehow manages to fool every other adult in the film. He’s keen on getting his hands on the Baudelaire fortune and tries to kill the kids off. He fails – or it would have been a short movie – and the children are shipped off to their Uncle Monty, a herpetologist who knew their parents. Olaf shows up in disguise, fools Monty long enough to gain entrance to the house and access to the children – not to mention some nasty snake venom – and that’s the end of Monty. The children are then sent to Aunt Josephine, a terribly nervous woman who lives in a teetering house overlooking Lake Lachrymose. Olaf again shows up, fools Josephine long enough to force her to write out a letter handing the children over to him, then leaves her to the Lachrymose leeches. And that’s the end of Josephine. Leaving the children with Olaf once more as he conducts a sinister plan to marry Violet and claim the fortune.

The children are the smartest people in the film, and I have to say I was pleased with the performances of both of the older children. Liam Aiken and Emily Browning did marvelously as Klaus and Violet. These are children who, despite their misfortunes, are resourceful and intelligent throughout the story. They remain determined in the face of hideous odds, and I always liked that about them. Regardless of what the story puts them through. These are children who know that the adults around them, while often well-meaning, are simply too caught up in their own views of the world to see the plots and schemes of the evil-doers. Where the books are somewhat circumspect at first in regards to the more overarching plot of how their parents died and what all is really going on with all the eye symbolism and the connections between everything, the movie is far clearer. I like this decision. It gives the adults more of a reason to like them, even when they’re being obtuse (and it doesn’t hurt that Meryl Streep as Josephine and Billy Connolly as Monty both give great performances), and it weaves a common thread through the three stories. I also like the decision to take the Count Olaf story and split it into two parts, bookending the other two. It makes the whole thing feel more cohesive than it otherwise would. And more hopeless.

This is one of those movies I highly recommend sitting through much of the end credits for. For once not for a stinger at the end, but for the credits themselves. They showcase stylized moments and scenes of the Baudelaire children and Count Olaf, done in a sort of cut paper animation style that is truly beautiful to watch. It’s almost like watching a particularly lovely and creepy shadow puppet show and makes me wish it was a picture book in its own right.

All in all, I wish I could say something pleasant and upbeat at the end of this review. Certainly, it’s an enjoyable movie, if you enjoy the sort of movie where children find themselves in dangerous situations with little hope of survival. If you do enjoy that sort of movie, then perhaps this is upbeat and pleasant, as this is precisely that sort of movie. If not, well, there’s always The Littlest Elf.

August 13, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events

August 13, 2010

Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events

We explore yet another literary adaptation tonight. One which I find to be particularly spectacular. A word which here means “it so well captures the spirit of the books that it is really quite astonishing.” I’m not sure that reading the books is a necessity to enjoy this movie, but it certainly enhances the experience.

It’s actually kind of appropriate that we watched this on Friday the thirteenth. (I only thought about that after the movie was already over and I had started my review. It was not a conscious thing when we chose to watch this… I would feel more clever if it had been.) There are thirteen books in Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events. Each of them is a tiny thing that could be read in an afternoon, and I wouldn’t recommend reading them all at once. For one thing they get a little repetitive. For another they are unapologeticly bleak and upsetting. The books tell the lengthy and unfortunate tale of the three Boudlaire orphans. Violet, who likes to invent things. Klaus who likes to read, and remembers every book he has ever read. And young Sunny, who bites things with her four sharp teeth. In the first book their parents die in a horrible and unexplained fire and they are given into the care of the nefarious Count Olaf, who desires only to get his hands on the vast fortune that is their inheritance. Eventually they escape from his clutches and are delivered by their clueless lawyer Mr. Poe to some relative or other. For a while they feel that they might be able to start a new life in this new home, then Olaf shows up in disguise and ruins their new life, and they must somehow defeat him. Rinse and repeat.

I will admit that I never had the mental fortitude to complete the entire series. The whole angle of the books is that life is sometimes bleak and terrible, and awful things continually happen all around us. At first it’s refreshing and amusing to have the narrator of the books, Lemony Snicket, telling us that this is not a series where you can expect a happy ending or a life of peace and tranquility for the Boudlaires. It’s a sort of balm against the unrelentingly cheerful and colorful Disney world. The world of the Boudlaires is a grim, gothic and unhappy place, and it’s kind of fun to visit. But it’s not much fun to be stuck there for thirteen entire books.

Luckily this movie chooses to concentrate on just the first three books of the series, and it does a spectacular job of capturing both the humor and the bleak feel of the books. It’s also fairly faithful to the books. It does take the conclusion from the first book and stick it at the end of the movie (inventing a different climax to the first adventure involving the children being trapped in a car on some train tracks) and it tacks on a fairly hopeful ending and ties up loose ends, which is something that never happened in the books which I read. Maybe there are answers in the last book, entitled simply The End, but I never made it that far. But aside from those little tweaks the movie cleaves very close to what I remember reading.

The movie, like the books before it, is a triumph of style over substance. The story being told is secondary to the tone created, the humor and the themes presented. Right from the beginning the movie hits the right notes. It starts out with a sickeningly saccharine musical number about a happy little elf, accompanied by animated woodland creatures and such. Then it stops and tells us that this is NOT the story of the littlest elf. If we want a happy sunny cheerful movie then we are watching the wrong movie. Instead, Lemony Snicket informs us (played here by the velvet tones and handsome silhouette of Jude Law) that this is a story of awful, sad, horrible events, which to his great sorrow he has sworn to investigate and report.

There are three stars to this movie, and they are not the Boudlaire children (although all three actors do a wonderful job. Emily Browning as Violet wonderfully carries the weight of the dire circumstances that plague the children. Liam Aiken as Klaus is the sort of relatable life-line for the modern viewer. Only his character wears modern clothes and his reaction shots do a great job of cuing the audience into the notion that these children understand perfectly well how ludicrous their story is. Then there’s Kara and Shelby Hoffman as Sunny – how on Earth did the film makers get such an expressive performance out of such young children… it must have taken herculean patience.) No – the stars of the movie are the art direction, the costume department and the absolutely astonishing performance of Jim Carrey.

Every frame of this movie (once you get past the littlest elf) is filled with lush, brilliant, and creative looks. It’s like and Edward Gorey illustration come to life. The costumes are inspired by eighteenth century garb, all spats and tales and lacy bodices. Looking at the sets, such as Olaf’s decrepit mansion for example, you can instantly see that an enormous amount of effort has gone into creating this world. And don’t even get me started on the jaw-dropping animation of the closing credits. They alone are worth the price of admission.

On top of all that you have Jim Carrey. He was clearly given permission to ham it up just as much as ever he could want to as Olaf, and because Olaf is meant to be not just nefarious but also a notoriously bad actor the wild flights of fancy that Jim comes up with really work for the character. Jim also has a great feel for how to use the extreme make-up and look of Olaf. When he leers into the camera with his pointy beard and his great bushy eyebrows, well it’s as though Count Olaf has stepped right out of the pages of the book and is standing in front of you. There could have been no more perfect casting. In addition to that Jim gets to perform as Olaf in his various disguises, which allows him to show of his astonishing ability to morph completely into somebody else. Altogether it’s an astonishing performance, and it raises the movie from being great, which is would have been anyhow, into being an absolute wonder to behold.

It was so much fun to watch this movie again tonight. Even if the subject matter is grim and unfortunate, it’s still witty and clever. Much of the humor of the books is preserved absolutely intact, and the entire production is a wonder to behold. They have so deftly captured everything about the books that was great, and because the movie only concerns itself with three books it doesn’t allow itself to get bogged down or too depressing. Besides – I got to watch those closing credits again. Happy Friday the thirteenth, everybody!

August 13, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment