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Lemony Snicket not so fresh

By Lady Liberty
web posted December 20, 2004

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events

* 1/2 out of ****

Jim Carry in a scene from Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate EventsThe Lemony Snicket books weren't around when I was a child. In fact, I'd never heard of them until word came out that a movie was being made. I often prefer to read a book before seeing the movie made from it, so I hurried to get my hands on the first three volumes of about a dozen Lemony Snicket books before the movie was released. It was just a week ago when I sat down to read the volumes and found myself both enchanted and amused by them. As a result, I was more than ever looking forward to seeing the film. Having left the theatre earlier this afternoon, I now find myself considering just the right words to sum up my thoughts at the moment. "Disappointing" comes to mind. So does "let down." Lemony Snicket himself might even call it "horrendous," which in this case means "all the money and marketing in the world can't help good actors overcome a truly awful script."

The general story told by the movie is relatively true to the one you'll find in the books, up to and including narration by Lemony Snicket (Jude Law) himself. In the story, the Beaudelaire orphans (Violent, played by Emily Browning; Klaus, played by Liam Aiken; and Sunny, played in turns by Kara and Shelby Hoffman) lose their parents in a terrible fire. Mr. Poe (Timothy Spall), a bank and the executor of their wealthy parents' estate, places the children in the care of a distant relative who calls himself Count Olaf (Jim Carrey). The Count is not surprisingly more interested in the fortune the children will inherit than in the children themselves.

The Count uses the children as virtual slaves even as he schemes to get the money. As his efforts become fraught with danger for his three wards, Mr. Poe is finally convinced they might be better off elsewhere. The children then move to live with their herpetologist Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly), and later still reside briefly with their Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep). Any hope of happiness for the orphans is, however, dashed as Count Olaf continues his machinations to get his hands on the Beaudelaire fortune by getting rid of the Beaudelaire children once and for all.

Though the acting is mostly of high caliber (publicists have been touting Jim Carrey's performance as Oscar®-worthy -- and it is very good), the script is abysmal. And though the sets are largely spectacular and with liberal doses of perfectly rendered surrealism, that doesn't make up for bad editing and far too much advantage being taken of "poetic license."

Along with Jim Carrey, both Billy Connolly and Meryl Streep are excellent, and Emily Browning likely has a successful future ahead of her. Dustin Hoffman, in a minor uncredited cameo, was amusing less for his performance than his presence alone. Also putting in an appearance are SCTV alum Catherine O'Hara and Jennifer Coolidge. I am, however, at a loss to explain how anyone had the lack of sense to cast Cedric the Entertainer. He's a terrible actor, and he spoke his lines with a strong urban flavor and even occasionally the language to match in jarring contrast to the "feel" of the rest of the film (that the director either thought that was okay or let him get away with it is indicative of the fact the director wasn't much better at directing than Cedric is at acting).

My advice: The books are so well written and offer such an able assist to the imagination that even a good movie would have been mere icing on the cake. This bad movie actually took away from the delight of the books, and that may be its worst trait of all.

POLITICAL NOTES: One theme running throughout the story of the Beaudelaire orphans is so obvious and integral a part of the plot that it's almost easy to overlook. From the moment the children are orphaned, the authorities insist that they know best in spite of the childrens' fervent complaints. In fact, the children are all too often dismissed as lying or at least exaggerating. It seems melodramatic onscreen, but you need look no further than the papers to see child welfare services failing children everywhere. In some cases, authorities refuse to remove children from danger (sometimes failing to investigate at all), and in others insist children be returned to abusive homes.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events is rated PG for "thematic elements, scary situations, [and] brief language." The plot (death and murder feature prominently) is too adult for little ones, and the fact that most of the rare good lines are subtitled gibberish uttered by a baby means anyone seeing the movie had best be able to read. But frankly, those old enough to read the subtitles should stay home and read the books. They really are that good and the movie is, I'm sorry to say, that bad.


*** out of ****

The cast of CloserIt took a little while for this film to make its way from the larger theatrical venues to my smaller town. But the critical word on the movie was such that I was just about ready to make the sacrifice of a road trip to head for a larger city to see it. Thankfully, it showed up in a local theatre this weekend. There was little fanfare and even less advertising for the movie, but I suspect that any area movie buff who has been paying attention was in the audience this weekend for their first chance to see Closer. I was no exception.

Closer tells the story of four people who become intertwined through a series of mischances, accidents, betrayals, love, and lust in modern day London. First, Dan (Jude Law) meets Alice (Natalie Portman) when he is passing by as she is struck by a cab. Captivated by what he calls her "disarming" charm, the two become lovers. Then Dan meets Anna (Julia Roberts) when she is hired to photograph him for a book jacket. The attraction there, too, is instant at least from Dan's side. Feeling rebuffed by Anna's disinclination to involve herself in a relationship with a man who is living with another woman, he wreaks a subtle vengeance against Anna that eventually leads to her meeting Larry (Clive Owen), a lonely dermatologist. As each character loves and loses, is betrayed and betrays, the four are bound more tightly and ever increasingly against their will into a painful quadrangle of mingled relationships. Larry insists forgiveness is the only way love can survive, but is unable to forgive; Dan confesses he's an idiot. Anna masters a mask of happiness to cover her lack of fulfillment, and Alice has a story of her own that simmers far beneath the surface of the emotional Bohemian others find so fascinating.

The plot is both deceptively simple and complex, much as relationships themselves can be. Originally a stage play (Clive Owen played Dan in the live production, but has graduated to the more mature Larry here), many of the lines still resound with the flavor of the boardwalk. If there's a flaw in Closer, it's that the dialogue -- which would have been perfectly suitable in a live stage setting -- echoes of the stage here, and "stagey" isn't a compliment when it's describing character interactions in a movie setting. But even in light of lines that really don't work well onscreen, the actors pull it off. In fact, Closer is a tour de force of acting. Astonishingly, none of the actors overwhelms the others or the production by emoting too much or instilling melodrama into roles that are already dramatic enough. Julia Roberts shows that her Oscar® was no fluke; Jude Law may find himself nominated again for an Oscar® of his own (the studio is pushing nominations for both as leads). But the Golden Globe nominations just released may herald a more likely result when the organization skipped over Roberts and Law while nominating Clive Owen and Natalie Portman for their supporting roles. Owen and Portman are both astounding, and in the company of performances like those given here by Roberts and Law, that's really saying something. Portman in particular is nothing less than brilliant.

The direction -- ably handled by award-winning director Mike Nichols -- and the editing do a fine job of adapting the stage play for the big screen. Although the early moments of the film seem a bit slow, and there is some confusion when scenes change, everything is tied together nicely and the early moments make sense in later, more fully fleshed context. The confusion really only lasts until your brain catches up with the idea that there are gaps in time between some of the scenes that you don't know about until the characters start talking about past events that have obviously occurred between the scene you're watching now and the one that just ended. In truth, I wondered for about 15 minutes if I was watching yet another much-touted and deeply disappointing film. As it turns out, those 15 minutes were set-up for what proved to be a movie that I found very effective -- and more than a little affecting.

I recognized parts of myself and my own past relationships in brief snippets of each character, and found myself wounded at times right along with the hurting people onscreen. I imagine the same will prove true for most people. Closer is very much the story of how much love can hurt, not only in the ways we can be hurt by those we love or the manner in which we can hurt them, but most painfully of all in the way we can sometimes choose to rub salt into our own bleeding wounds. Closer hurts at times to watch, but it's also cathartic in some ways. To leave a theatre drained by the pain of others is testament to just how real those others have become and how much you care about them, warts and all. That's something that only the most well made films are capable of doing, and Closer falls neatly into that category of movie.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: Closer is rated R for "sequences of graphic sexual dialogue, nudity/sexuality, [and] language." This is not a movie for children. That sexual dialogue is explicit, and the language no less so. In fact, even teenagers who could handle the language simply don't have enough life experience to appreciate much of the story that Closer tries to tell. Frankly, without the ability to relate to at least one of the characters, Closer would lose a great deal of its impact. But for anyone old enough to have loved and lost, or even more importantly to have loved and overcome loss, Closer will prove a bittersweet and perhaps haunting tribute to what so many of us have suffered in our own lives.

Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.


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