Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events Review
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is based upon a series of successful children’s books by Daniel Handler, which I confess to having never read. The film spans the first three books: The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room and The Wide Window, which follow the adventures of the Baudelaire children; orphans forced to stay with their wicked old uncle. Why a serious of unfortunate events? Well at every turn there is always something in their way and no matter how hard they try there is no escaping from their predicament, as their troubles grow worse by the day.
When their parents are tragically and mysteriously killed in a fire, Violet (Emily Browning), Klaus (Liam Aiken) and Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) are left in the less than capable hands of the estate executor Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall), whose job it is to see that they’re placed in the custody of their next of kin. Enter Count Olaf (Jim Carrey), an eccentric man whose mannerisms, strange as they may be lend themselves toward the sympathetic plight of these poor children. However, no sooner does Mr. Poe leave that Olaf shows his true side - that of a wicked old man who wishes to use the siblings for his own gain. Olaf desires the family fortune and if he’s to ever see it then he’s going to have to dispatch of the children in the most sinister of ways, but when his first genial plan fails due to Violet’s smarts he sees the children being whisked off to their next guardian. Changing his plans slightly, Olaf, a master of disguise and actor extraordinaire follows the children each step of the way in a desperate attempt to have them back in his vile clutches.
The most refreshing thing about Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is its unflinching penchant for the gothic styling that we rarely see from screen tales designed for children, in addition to being at times a sad piece reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches and Danny DeVito’s Matilda - two adaptations based upon the writings of celebrated author, Roald Dahl. As an adaptation then one can only assume how close this feature is to the books, given the content here they can’t be far off as this has quite a depressing front that settles us in with Jude Law’s (as author Lemony Snicket) narration, preceding event after event of cruel design. Director, Brad Silberling works as if he’s taken a leaf out of the aforementioned directors’ books, as well as thrown in some Tim Burton-esque moments (with the help of cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki who had also worked on Sleepy Hollow) and even a hint of Robert Wiene to provide a suitably dark and desperate tale that by rights shouldn’t let go of its scary premise.
As far as the film’s aesthetics go it’s a gorgeous piece of work with tremendous sets and costume designs that reflect the often mentioned Victorian and Edwardian periods. Its production values are not cheap to say the least and its skewered buildings that look like they’ve come from an early expressionist era are quite a sight to behold. Silberling maintains a dank and gloomy look throughout, made up of a muted colour palette of shades of grey, yellows, blues and greens. Impressive still is that Silberling harks back to a time when studios were building exterior locations on sound stages, and as you'll see here every shot takes place in the same manner, yet the level of detail and scope maintained is amazing. At times you'll be hard pressed not to believe that Curdle Cave and the quaint little fishing village or railroad town have no place in the real world, and if that is the case then at least the construction team can be happy knowing that all of their hard work has paid off.
Assisting the superb set designs is some well controlled CG footage, which blends in perfectly to its environment. Even the incredibly deadly viper looks fantastic, courtesy of the folk over at Industrial Light & Magic and in light of recent films with animatronic/CG snakes this one stands out as one of the best. In addition to the wonderful use of computer generated technology the film goes an extra step further in conjunction with animated puppetry as it reaches new heights. In fact it wasn’t until seeing the extra features that I realised an animatronic Sunny was used for particular shots, that is how skilful it is. Couple all of this with Thomas Newman’s score, that is both beautiful and haunting; a tapestry of delightful sentiments that range from the horrific to the uplifting and you have quite a beautiful film to feast upon. So then watching this you can quite easily see Silberling’s enthusiasm for the material shine through but unfortunately for the film itself he comes across a few small hurdles along the way.
The Following will contain some slight spoilers
First and foremost the film begins with our narrator, Lemony Snicket. Now as an adaptation we must take into account what is and what isn’t necessary. As Jude Law’s ongoing presence demonstrates, we don’t need a narration as he’s merely playing a character designed to further the plot along and try to help us understand what each character is thinking. This would be fine if such things were not already present on screen and many a time he’s simply telling us what we’re watching. It soon becomes an uncomfortable addition to the frame work as not only does Jude sound a touch out of place here; his voice carrying little weight in a role that would benefit from a more commanding actor but also try as he might to unnerve the viewer the end result is something of a let down. The narrator tries to convince us that what we’re about to see is too shocking for words, that if we so desire we can switch off now and turn away and that he himself is now struggling to write about these sad events, building up what should then be a tragic ending. Granted there are moments of tragedy strung throughout but the narrator's over embellishment (such as the frightful scream that no-one would ever forget in the reptile room) takes away from the desired effect at times, thus feeling a little forceful and uneven, yet still I must commend the director for allowing a few deaths along the way. In the end Mr. Narrator goes back on his promise for you see Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events succumbs to sentimentalism, like suddenly we can see a little film about elves. Long did I wait for Olaf to return so that he could torment the kids once again but it never happened, instead we’re given the riding out in the sunset finale for what could have been a brilliantly bleak piece of work. In hindsight though should we really have expected anything more? In the end the finale is tidy enough and it still leaves open possibilities, even if we might not physically see them. Like Blade Runner though I can only imagine how much better this would work if Silberling went back and tidied up a few bits, taking out the narration along the way or at least trimming it considerably.
End of Spoilers
In order to balance out the film’s dark premise we have our little Sunny as a wisecracking child whose odd blurbs in fact spout lines of comedy dialogue (forced onto the screen via subtitles) for which we’re meant to be amused by, but this raises another problem as far as extended jokes go. Some may find it cute and adorable but it soon becomes a series of tired gags designed around a baby whose main function is the ability to chew on just about any object she can get her hands on. Sunny’s dialogue never matches the sheer brilliance of Carrey’s (though it was hardly ever meant to) and in the end she is an uncertain addition to the cast, though a naturally given one. During the times when Sunny isn’t left to quip she does have a few finer moments however. I don’t doubt that in the book the ability to allow Sunny to express herself becomes a far better realisation, but when it comes to onscreen actions this feat is somewhat of a failure.
This brings me to the man himself. Jim Carrey playing evil personified is in his element here, doing absolute wonders with the material he’s given, though not surprising that he’s improvising a hell of a lot, much to his credit. Jim Carrey does quite easily steal the show and if not for such eccentric performances from Billy Connolly and Meryl Streep (who is absolutely marvellous as Aunt Josephine) all the laughs would be his. As cruel as Olaf is he’s the main source of gags here and seeing Carrey go from character to character with such gusto is a real treat, an opportunity worth relishing for which Carrey most certainly does. As Jim Carrey continues to make movies he noticeably improves upon his performances year after year. Does this mean that one day he’ll be acknowledged at the Oscars? Probably not but his talents never go unnoticed and his hard work shows up on screen. Count Olaf is one of the past years’ most memorable figures and one of Carrey’s finest performances.
Finally on to the support, well that's perhaps a little unfair I should say. At just sixteen here, Emily Browning as young inventor, Violet impresses with her mature performance. The beautiful young actress elegantly carries her role with conviction and does well to lead her co-stars. Up against Carrey she reacts fittingly to his bizarre performance, likewise as does Liam Aiken as the troubled, intelligent brother. These moments of multi-cultural casting along with Timothy Spall and Olaf’s troupe (particularly Craig Ferguson as “Person of Indeterminate Gender” in a sorely underused part for which the deleted scenes show some hilarious moments) are truly inspired - an assortment of wonderful faces that inhabit this crazy world.
Two editions of the film are available, a standard 1-disc release or this lavish 2-disc presentation. A solid release if ever there was one.
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is presented in an anamorphic aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The image is striking throughout, with amazing levels of detail and very strong black levels, amidst some superb washes of deliberately muddy colours. A very fine grain is present, most notably on greyer outdoor scenes but it suggests a particular film stock. Edge Enhancement is present but minimal and overall there is very little to complain about, especially when quite a bit has been squeezed onto the disc.
For audio we have a choice of English, Spanish or French 5.1 Surround of which I experienced the former. The film sounds superb from start to finish, a very atmospheric track that uses every speaker to its fullest potential, separating music and dialogue splendidly and providing a great deal of spatial surrounds during some of the film’s unfortunate events, such as the aggressive hurricane that takes place at Aunt Josephine’s rickety old house or the earlier train sequence that threatens the lives of our children.
Paramount provides a wonderful array of extras for this 2-disc special edition. As an extra note, with the exception of the audio commentaries these features have optional English subtitles.
The studio has created some superb animated menus, which are actually fun to watch. Littered throughout are little gags and caricatures of the main cast as they try to escape from Olaf. Highlighting various pieces on the menus cause other things to happen, for example hitting the eye symbol on the main menu changes the background a couple of times so you can watch the kids make a quick getaway, or when highlighting a particular piece such as "play", "set-up" etc you'll find some funny little text warnings pop up. With Newman’s score they’re given a great sense of creepy atmosphere as they run on a seemingly endless loop that is never tiring to watch. It’s very nice to see such lovingly assembled menus, especially on this kind of scale.
“Building a Bad Actor” (12:46) - Brad Silberling takes us through this featurette as we look at several of Jim Carrey’s transitions. For the most part we’re taken behind the scenes, looking at Carrey in make up as he gets into character. Silberling goes on to discuss character tests, which involved heavy amounts of improv which were so good they were later written into the final script. We also see the original model for the character of Stephano as Carrey portrays some Spaniard-like pirate figure, which was abandoned late on in the production.
“Making the Baudelaire Children Miserable” (3:05) - Brad Silberling talks to us about the child actors and how he wanted to convey a strong sense of their maturity. Here we see test footage featuring Emily Browning and Liam Aiken in costume as Emily narrates their mini biographies and such. In addition the footage was shot to test various lighting effects as well as being shown to the film producers to convey how well grounded these characters are.
“Interactive Olaf” (9:18) - This piece looks at Jim Carrey’s wardrobe tests in more detail over a four-way split screen. In effect we actually have close to 40-minutes of footage here as each section has an individual audio track, all of which are recommended listening. We have Carrey in character as Olaf (look 1 & 2 and 2a), Captain Sham and Stephano. For fans of the actor this is wonderful stuff and Carrey never lets up, showing off some brilliant improvisational skills. The audio here is very low so it’s required that you turn the set volume up to enjoy these fully.
Alarming Audio Commentaries
Director Brad Silberling Commentary - The first of our commentaries has Silberling deliver a wealth of information with regards to production. Rarely does he pause for breath as he explains the entire process from its origins onward. He welcomes us in by talking about Daniel Handler’s books and how he came about directing the project, having never heard of them previously. From here he discusses much about the differences between book and film and how plenty of liberties were taken with the material, such as fleshing out characters and trying to visualise the world, much of which is apparently glossed over in the books, leaving the reader to use his/her imagination to fill in the blanks. He goes on to talk about how Jim Carrey’s interview sessions in character helped to form roughly 80% of the final onscreen product, as well as explaining the task of set design, Sunny’s realisation and much much more. This is further elaborated in many of the extras present on disc two but nevertheless the track is a worthy addition, if not a little too dry.
Brad Silberling and the Real Lemony Snicket Commentary - It seems of late that gimmicky commentaries are quite popular, so we have another one here. Brad Silberling is joined by 'the real Lemony Snicket', or Daniel Handler should I say, as they discuss the feature adaptation. It starts off amusingly as Lemony says “Hopefully in the Hollywood tradition they’ve altered it somewhat so that it will be a whole lot more cheerful than the books I’ve written”. From here there’s the occasional mocking of the film and Lemony throws in a series of doubts about it and Silberling’s feelings toward the characters, though obviously this is all very playful. This isn’t a technical commentary, we’ve had that already, but rather a playful one which despite Silberling and Snicket’s most quirky efforts soon becomes a little tiring.
“Dismal Deletions“ (14:21) - Here we have eleven deleted scenes that can be played back individually or as one piece. Some of these are a touch out of place, almost feeling like some of the aforementioned character tests, while others are extensions. There’s some very funny material from Carrey again with some wonderful lines. Some of these show Olaf at his meanest, particularly the scene where he leaves Aunt Josephine to the leeches - an extension of the final edit with an added darker tinge. The last scene is particularly interesting as it shows Olaf escaping, which would have been a better addition to the film in my opinion.
“Obnoxious Outtakes” (14:35) - Five outtakes are included here, which can be played individually or together. These include Working with Sunny, Olaf’s workshop, Odious Count Olaf, Moments in the Marvellous Marriage and The Critic & The Crop. Here we watch several scenes being filmed while various things happen in the background, such as Sunny falling asleep or Olaf and his gang rehearsing until crew and actors break out in laughter. In fact many of these involve Olaf’s troupe and they work very well, so it’s a shame most of these were eventually cut because Craig Ferguson shines. Finally Cedric the Entertainer and Dustin Hoffman share an amusing little scene.
Go to “Orphaned Scenes” and highlight “Special Features”, then press left to highlight a circle pattern. Press enter to see a 5-minute story called “Count Olaf’s Ghastly Ghost Story”. This looks like an outtake from the earlier character tests from which it doesn’t feature and is a fun little tale.
A Terrible Tragedy: Alarming Evidence from The Making of the Film
“A Woeful World” (54:30) - This is a superb look at the creation of Lemony Snicket’s world, taking us through several sound stages and providing us with plenty of information about particular aspects of construction. This is truly the magic of film making and here we learn to appreciate even more the amount of hard work that goes into creating such realistic environments. As well as Brad Silberling we get to meet the director of photography and prop designers, are treated to some amusing behind the scenes antics and see the eventual but sad destruction of the sets. Watching the feature makes you wish you were there, standing on those incredible stages that were so lovingly built.
“Costumes and Other Suspicious Disguises” (16:42) - Costume designer, Colleen Atwood takes us through the design process as we look at the wardrobe for the main cast. She talks about trying to find that perfect fit and matching character personalities, as well as mentioning the different actors own involvement during fittings. There are also some funny moments involving Jim Carrey and later Meryl Streep, where we learn a little about her strange bob that can never sit still.
“Violet’s Functional Designs” (10:40) - Here we take a look at the various contraptions that are littered throughout the film, in this case Violet’s odd inventions. We learn of several designs and their function within the film, although for many we only catch a mere glimpse in background shots. Each one is fully working and we go behind the scenes as they’re used for particular takes, sometimes not always going to plan.
“CAUTION! Incredibly Deadly Vipers” (8:48) - Animal coordinator, Jules Sylvester takes us on a little tour of the various creatures used in the film, from deadly snakes to Tank the tortoise. We watch as the reptile room scene is prepared in all seriousness, though Sylvester always maintains a great amount of enthusiasm for his work.
“The Sad Score” (13:35) - Composer, Thomas Newman and director, Brad Silberling talk us through the scoring process and the pressures involved. We get to see Newman at work with his orchestra as we watch scenes from the film in accordance. Newman explains how important it is to match the film’s tonality and in doing so trying to pick out little nuances. There’s an interesting philosophy here behind how one goes about scoring a film and he highlights just how important a piece of music can and should be.
Volume, Frequency, Decibels
“The Unsound Sound Designer” (30:01) - Sound designer/supervisor/editor, Richard King explains the work that goes into creating all the sounds for the film. Here they needed to record authentic noises of a house being demolished and after learning of an old house that was due to be torn down his crew were sent out to literally tear it apart over a one week period. It looks fun actually. The crew managed to get themselves into all kinds of places, including under the floor boards and just about anywhere you can imagine. We learn that in order to save valuable time each sound was recorded straight to a hard drive for easy cataloguing, then when the perfect sounds are chosen they are entered into a database. Later things get tougher when the crew try to crash a tree through the roof but fail miserably. From here we are then taken to the recording sessions where Silberling and co are running under a tight schedule, as they’re only a couple of days away from screening for a private audience.
“You Probably Shouldn’t Listen to These” - This piece consists of "Tree, Meet House" and "The Terrible Train". The first looks at seven microphones that were placed around the house mentioned above and how each one picks up a different sound. These can be played individually or as a whole mix. The second looks at the layering of particular sound effects. In this case the train scene and the individual sounds that make up a whole. For example we can listen to eight separate sounds that include the engine, horn, clacks, brakes, rattling, pass bys, rumble and spooky. When played together the train sequence is brought to life.
Sinister Special Effects
“An Alarming Conspiracy Involving Sunny” (6:20) - This piece shows us how an animatronic Sunny was created for the film’s more ambitious scenes that were too dangerous for a real child, namely the cage hanging sequence. We watch how the process starts from scanning to creating moulds and then the final product. On close inspection the model is one of the scariest things I’ve seen, moving freakishly but does an amazing job when viewed from a distance and ends up working very well in the final shoot.
“An Even More Alarming Conspiracy Involving Sunny” (20:20) - For this segment ILM talk about constructing a fully working CG model of Sunny. In the past creating life like characters, particularly human has been just about impossible and so the designers needed to look at what challenges they faced and just what was possible. Skin tones and clothing are discussed, which pose problems, as well as achieving realistic movement. We soon see the pros and cons of using such technology. If used sparingly or in conjunction with animatronics it works well enough but upon seeing a fully rendered CG model we can pick out the flaws. In the case of the final film some of the work is so good that you won’t notice it, certainly not first time around anyway, whereas other times, such as glaring close ups it doesn’t quite succeed. This feature may very well shatter the illusion as I defy anyone to not try and pick at the special effects on subsequent viewings.
“The Terrible Fire” (5:51) - This featurette looks at the moment when Violet and Klaus enter their burnt out house, where they remember how it used to look before the flames stripped it down to nothing. This panning shot posed a little difficulty at first as the sequence is a seamless shot, going from a fully decorated building to charred remains. Using CG footage and only half a set (due to budget constraints) we are given a little insight into several techniques employed, from mirror effects to blue screen tidy up.
“Trains, Leeches & Hurricanes” (9:20) - We look at what went on behind the scenes of the train sequence and how forced perspective is used predominantly for the shot. Due to the size of the set a model train could not be built so in order to capture the correct perspective a CG model was created that could match the telegraph poles and track lines. Next we look at the leeches’ sequence which posed even more difficulty. As well as being entirely CG rendered the set became victim to rope marks, caused by pushing against the painted skyline. This problem then had to be painstakingly corrected digitally. Finally we look at the techniques behind the hurricane sequence and how the crew had to continually take things up a notch to show off a larger scale of threat as the special effects kept on getting more impressive.
“Shadowy Stills” - A collection of 86 stills that cover various stages of production, from make up and special effects set up to behind the scenes shots and sets, model or otherwise.
“A Woeful World” - Here we get 45 brilliant pieces of conceptual artwork, most of which have been wonderfully recreated for the film.
“Costumes and Other Suspicious Disguises” - 25 costumes designs, some of which made it through, others seem to have been tweaked or discarded.
Go to Sinister Special Effects and then press right to highlight a swirly pattern. This takes you to a short interview with Brad Silberling as he discusses an idea for a teaser trailer that never worked out.
Go to Gruesome Galleries. Point to “A Woeful World” then press right, this will highlight Olaf’s silhouette in the mirror and take you to a featurette that talks about the recurring eye motif that graces a lot of the set design, as well as Olaf’s tattoo.
Still on the same menu highlight “Main Menu” then press right. This will take you to “Portrait of the Artist as a BAD Man”. This is a short interview with set decorator, Cheryl Carasik who talks about getting clearance to use several existing photographs so that they could be placed around Olaf’s mansion, albeit in his own likeness. Jim Carrey can be seen posing for shots that would later be added digitally to the original photographs of Russian opera singer, Chaliapin.
And after all that there are no theatrical trailers to be spotted, how disappointing.
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is largely an enjoyable film; it has just about all the right elements, but despite its flaws Jim Carrey is brilliant throughout and his co-stars give it their all. Brad Silberling shows some fine creative flair but it’s a shame that the film ultimately deviates from its promising tale of misery to provide something a whole lot less sinister in the end. One thing is for sure though, I shall certainly be checking out the books sometime soon.