Friday, January 07, 2005

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events
Directed by: Brad Silberling
2004, rated PG
In Theaters Now
3 stars

Converting children’s books into feature films can be difficult. If the book is popular, a director must consider the backlash when the inevitable changes occur. If the book is a series, the director must choose whether to make a series of movies, or to make only one. And, of course, the director must create a movie that is appealing, not only to the specific age group for whom the books were intended, but to a wide range of audiences and children. Such adaptations have been attempted with C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, and more recently with J.K. Rawling’s Harry Potter best-sellers. Now Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket tales have joined the list, with Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, directed by Brad Silberling. The delightfully gloomy film has its ups and downs, while including a truly brilliant cast of well-known actors.

The film, which covers the first three books of the Snicket series, centers around the three Baudelaire orphans, Violet (Emily Browning), Klaus (Liam Aiken), and baby Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman). These three children are also rather extraordinary. Each has a special talent—Violet is the best 14 year-old inventor there is, her younger brother Klaus reads voraciously, and Sunny has a rapacious tendency to bite things. The lives of these three children are abruptly upset by sudden destruction of their home by a mysterious fire, which also took the lives of their parents. The adventure begins when the orphans are shuffled from guardian to guardian, all the while desperately trying to avoid the greedy and evil Count Olaf (Jim Carrey) and to uncover the mystery surrounding their parents’ demise. While the premise sounds promising, if morbid, the film leaves some rather large holes which the plot tends to fall through. Toward the end, especially, the flow seems to suffer, and eventually just trickles off into a weak attempt at mild cheerfulness. Up until that point, however, the film is captivating and interesting, and made all the more so because of its shady nature.

The film is narrated by the enigmatic figure of Lemony Snicket himself (Jude Law), in gloomy and depressing tones. In fitting with the title, the entire film is done in dark, ominous shades, with nearly every character dressed in black. When color is used, it either seems unnatural, or is used as a foreshadowing of dismal things to come. Fog and murky water nearly always surround the characters, and dark music in minor keys accompanies the children everywhere. A morbid fascination with strange deaths also haunts the film, adding to the overall darkness that shadows every scene.
Jim Carrey returns to his typical role of the comic character, contorting his features into strange positions for the brilliantly evil role of Count Olaf. As Olaf dons disguises in attempts to catch the children unawares, Carrey changes roles with marvelous hilarity, relatively convincing, but still maintaining the grim, ominous malice of the Count. His consistent malevolence is countered by the other guardians who attempt to care for the unfortunate children. Billy Connolly plays the snake-obsessed herpetologist Uncle Monty, a caring and wonderful, but sadly temporary, guardian. Meryl Streep plays the hyper-phobic Aunt Josephine, whose nervous habits conceal an astonishingly adventurous past. All of these good guardians leave clues as to the puzzling circumstances of the Baudelaire’s deaths. As the three children struggle to find happiness, battling the ever-present Count Olaf at every turn, they also decipher these clues in an attempt to unravel the mystery.

Lemony Snicket, as suggested by the title, and emphasized throughout the film, is not a particularly jolly tale. Very young children may find it too frightening and dark. Older children, however, as with the books, will find the film delightful in its shadowy gloom, and may also be charmed by the creativity of the Baudelaire children, who rely on their intellect instead of special super-human powers. For once it is useful, and even cool, to have read books, or to be at all intelligent. And as much fun as it is to watch Jim Carrey prance across the screen in all his foolishness, or to watch your favorite serious drama actors play ridiculously silly parts, it truly is the children who carry the film. Even if the series of events that they find themselves involved in do happen to be rather unfortunate.

Lemony Snicket official movie site

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Donnie Darko

Donnie Darko
Directed by: Richard Kelley
2001, rated R
5 stars

After seeing a film for the first time, most people have a strong first reaction. Sometimes the reaction can be favorable, and the audience is left feeling deeply satisfied. Other times this reaction is one of disappointment, or regret at having wasted viewer’s money. My first reaction after seeing Richard Kelley’s Donnie Darko was just “whoa.” By the time the credits started rolling I was still trying to sort out what had just happened, and what it all meant. Personally, for me this is a sign of excellence in films—when the audience is actually required to think about what has just been presented to them. In this respect, Donnie Darko is perfectly excellent.

As the film’s themes are rather complex, good acting is key. Jake Gyllenhaal takes the title lead of Donnie Darko, meshing perfectly with his troubled character. Gyllenhaal portrays Donnie’s moods flawlessly, easily jumping between the extremes necessary to the character; at times he appears slightly evil and lunatic, at others he’s just a goofy high schooler. His comic lines are delightfully placed, and handled with such natural ease that the audience is caught pleasantly by surprise. Gyllenhaal’s talent is complemented by the characters around him, especially that of Frank (James Duval), Donnie’s commanding imaginary friend in a giant demonic bunny suit. Frank has a powerfully frightening character, not just due to his appearance and voice, which are alarming by themselves, but also in his supernatural presence and knowledge of things to come—he prophetically predicts the end of the world, and orders Donnie to commit acts of vandalism to guide him through the labyrinth of Frank’s master plan. The other surrounding actors are equally talented, with Mary McDonnell as Donnie’s mother Rose Darko, Patrick Swayze as the ridiculous self-help guru Jim Cunningham, and Jena Malone as Donnie’s girlfriend Gretchen. These and other characters collide to create the kaleidoscope of Donnie’s surreal, but at the same time typical, teenage life.

Even before the stunning plotline is introduced, Donnie Darko is just enjoyable to watch. Interesting cameral angles and alteration of pace keep the movie flowing and provide insight to the jumble of images in Donnie’s world. Each new set of characters is introduced by means of a montage of sorts, where the different people and different aspects of each new setting are established. This technique is used to introduce Donnie’s home life and family, and again with his high school and life there. The music chosen to accompany these sequences, and the rest of the film for that matter, fits brilliantly, setting the tone of each scene with gentle, quiet melodies, dramatic operatic scores, or choice 80’s rock songs. Director Richard Kelley also makes some excellent editing decisions, with cuts and splices that add either to the darkly comic nature or to the more sinister aspect of the film. Donnie Darko also includes some interesting special effects, mostly as a demonstration of the odd theories regarding space and time travel.

Along with being an impressive film regarding cinematography and acting, Donnie Darko also raises some interesting philosophical and theological questions. Although in one scene Donnie insists that the spectrum of human emotions cannot be lumped into the two simple categories of Fear and Love, that is often what this film does. Each character and each action is shown as an extreme of one of the two emotions, and the closing sequence shows this perfectly, with shots moving from one character to the next, showing their emotions, each one in a state of extreme fear or extreme love. This philosophy of a fear-love trajectory is not the only thought-provoking issue addressed in the film, however. Christianity and the search for God is also a major theme, with Donnie emerging as a Christ-like figure. Along with raising questions about the necessity of the search for God, the film also raises questions about morality. When Donnie burns down the house belonging to a man who truly seems to deserve it, the question arises, was it then right or wrong to burn down the house? This act of arson exposes crimes which could otherwise have gone unpunished, but the act was still illegal and dangerous. These moral questions arise often throughout the film, keeping the audience actively involved in the development of the plot and storyline. Along with these theological and moral issues also appears the philosophical dilemma of time travel and the problems which arise from the choices that would be possible. All these questions weave together to create a perplexing story, with an excellently enlightening twist.

Donnie Darko has been hailed by many as the first cult film of the new generation. A low-budget film, and having been released shortly after 9/11, the movie received little attention from major audiences. It made its debut instead through midnight showings and word of mouth. Now that the film’s popularity has grown, a director’s cut is being re-released in theaters, and will be showing throughout the country this coming year. So if you appreciate a certain amount of the bizarre and weird, and also enjoy being able to think about a film after you have seen it, Donnie Darko is the perfect film. Donnie Darko—sounds like some sort of superhero… but then, how do you know he’s not?

Donnie Darko official site