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.

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August 13, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , ,

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