TBT: Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)

books, fucking awful, fucking beautiful, Jim Carrey, Meryl Streep, Netflix, TBT

I know I always tend to upload these things quite late in the day but today I have a genuine excuse for my rush job. Namely that I fell asleep at around half 8 and didn’t wake up until about an hour later. Okay it’s not a great excuse but it’s the truth. Work has just been so exhausting this week and I’ve been rubbish at getting to bed on time. Still, I’m here now, I’ve got the Les Mis soundtrack on full blast, and I’m ready to crank this out. It’s my day off tomorrow so I was always planning to sleep all day anyway. On my last day off, I decided to start watching the new Netflix adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events. I’d seen all the stuff about it but hadn’t thought I’d watch it. I’ve not read the books and I wasn’t a huge fan of the Jim Carrey film so I didn’t really care. On Monday, though, something told me to watch it and I fucking love it. I’m only about 3/4 of the way through but it’s so good. Patrick Warburton and Neil Patrick Harris are absolutely amazing and the baby is so fucking adorable. I’m obsessed. The show works so well because it gives each book enough time. Each book is given two episodes so the plot can move along quickly enough whilst still staying true to the book. As I’m at the point where I’ve just watched book 3 I decided it was time to rewatch the film, which also deals with the first 3 books in the series. It only seemed fair to compare the two.

I had something of a personal crisis on my way home from work tonight when I remembered that this film came out 12 years ago. It makes me feel fucking ancient. I was a youthful 16 year old back then and really wasn’t that interested in it release. I remember it being a huge deal, though, because it was another series of books that were deemed unfilmable or something. Plus, Jim Carrey was still something of a big deal back then and there are some huge names in the cast. In the months prior to its release, it’s safe to say people were excited about this. It’s difficult to look back now we have the knowledge that everyone much prefers the Netflix show. It makes me assume that people hated the film but I don’t think that was true. There are lot of favourable reviews from that time and, aside from book fans who obviously felt a bit hard done by, I think it did quite well.

It tackles the story of the three Baudelaire children after their parents die in a mysterious fire. Violet (Emily Browning), Klaus (Liam Aiken), and Sunny are put into the care of their relative Count Olaf (Jim Carrey). Olaf is an eccentric actor who lives in a rundown old mansion with his creepy acting troupe. Olaf accepts guardianship of the children in order to get his hands on the huge Baudelaire fortune, which the children won’t get their hands on until Violet turns 18. Count Olaf, it turns out, is also incredibly evil and spends the rest of the film attempting to dispose of the children to get to the money. When his plans fail to succeed the children are moved into other accommodation with their Uncle Monty (Billy Connolly) and Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep). However, the evil Olaf won’t let the money get too far away from him.

I guess, in all honesty, that the film isn’t that bad for what it’s trying to be. It’s a children’s film that is trying to be both dark and incredibly silly. It never really dwells on the awful nature of the narrative and kind of side steps some of the more depressing aspects (something the Netflix show seems to be trying to embrace a bit more) but it isn’t afraid to amp up the dark humour. The problem it mainly faces is that Jim Carrey completely dominates everything. He was such a huge star that he was allowed to just do whatever he wanted and goes wild in the role. This isn’t so much the story of the Baudelaire orphans but the story of Count Olaf. He never quite feels right and, now that we’ve seen Neil Patrick Harris in the role, feels like a massive miscast.

The film also ruins the narrative by trying to cram too much in. It smushes together the plot of 3 books and messes with the running order so we’re going round in circles. There is never any time to dwell on anything so you can’t really connect with what’s going on. You never really feel anything for the orphans because you don’t have time to share their grief. You don’t really feel afraid of Count Olaf because you don’t really feel the weight of his scheming. Characters are introduced and dispatched in a matter of minutes meaning you don’t really give a shit of they’re alive or dead. It just feels rushed.

Which is a shame because, I have to say, I really liked the actors playing the children. I mean the 3 kids from the Netflix show are incredible but the casting of the children is the film’s only real win aside from it’s visual elements. They just feel more natural in the roles and fit better with the characters. It’s just a shame they’re not given the chance to develop on screen. If this had been cut down to just one or two books then we might have been able to understand the children more and empathise with their plight. However, we don’t ever really get to know them outside of the annoying voice-over provided by Jude Law’s Lemony Snicket, who is not a patch on Patrick Warburton’s incredible turn in the show.

Now that Netflix have provided lovers of the book at better adaptation of these novels, it seems as though this film is going to fall even deeper into oblivion. Except when someone needs to make an unfavourable comparison with the TV show, obviously. It’s fair though. This film wanted to be something for everyone but in keeping it family friendly it diluted the books’ tone. It placed the focus in the wrong areas and just wasn’t faithful enough. It just about beats Netflix on its visuals, set design, and the three children. Other than that it just feels like a sad and rather lifeless copy. Like all those shitty parody movies from the makers of Scary Movie. It’s trying desperately to be funny but all it’s doing is making you cringe.

TBT – Mamma Mia! (2008)

Amanda Seyfried, Colin Firth, fucking awful, Meryl Streep, review, TBT

I went to university in Lancaster with the Lake District basically on my doorstep. I love the Lakes and, as a steadfast Romanticist, should have spent every weekend exploring the part of the world beloved by William Wordsworth. As it happens, I only went there once because I was too fucking lazy and probably drunk. That one time I stayed one night at a campsite full of awful teenagers whilst sharing a three man tent with three of my flatmates. I got absolutely no sleep and, because I like in the UK, the second day was a complete fucking washout. Probably the reason I never ventured back that way. Anyway, the reason I bring it up now is because our trip’s soundtrack was provided by the big Hollywood sensation that I’m about to discuss. As the only person in the car who hated the film, I was forced to listen to the great Meryl Streep and the almighty Bronhom murder ABBA songs for hours on end. I think the fact that I’ve watched the film so many times since is more than enough evidence of Stokholm syndrome.

Mamma Mia! is the hit stage musical written by Catherine Johnson. It genuinely boggles my mind that a musical based around the musical stylings of ABBA has grossed over $2 billion worldwide since 1999. Who the fuck is so desperate to see this shit? People lap it up though, which is why the show made its way to the big screen back in 2008. Getting the inimitable Meryl Streep on board was a stroke of fucking genius and the film easily became the highest grossing musical of all time.

It’s fucking insane. The plot is at best irrelevant; at worst insultingly contrived. Donna (Meryl Streep) lived a wild youth and slept with so many men that she simply has no idea who fathered her daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried). Although, actually there are only three real candidates and they’re played by the least likely musical stars ever. Pierce Brosnan plays Sam, Colin First is Harry, and Stellan Skarsgard is Bill. All three of these gentlemen had wild pasts with Donna but have set those lives aside.

For some fucking stupid reason, Sophie invites her three potential fathers to her wedding on the family’s Greek island and, for an even more ludicrous reason, they all fucking turn up. Sophie goes all Sherlock Holmes to try and work out who she shared DNA with but learns absolutely fuck all of any use. In the end she doesn’t even find out who the father is?! The entire narrative is fucking pointless!

Whilst this is happening, Donna and her old chums Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters) are catching up on old times. Not only is this trio the least likely group of friends I’ve ever seen on film, they are highly irritating. Their entire purpose is to talk about their lost youth and lament they bad luck in love. Of course, by the end of the film all three desperate woman have been successfully paired off in a suitably dancey manner. This menopausal pursuit of love is the closest thing we have here to an actual purposeful plot. How fucking depressing is that?

Even more depressing when you consider all of these nonsense narrative strands are all crammed full of every ABBA song the writer could remember. I’m not saying that I mind the music so much: I mean there’s a time and a place for a good ABBA boogie. I just take umbrage with the shitty ways they’ve been shoehorned into the plot. It’s pathetic.

There’s just not much skill on show in the film. The writing is abysmal; the singing is either mediocre or laughably bad; the choreography is even worse than my Taylor Swift inspired awkward dance parties; and the love stories are anything but romantic. Before Mamma Mia, director Phyllida Lloyd was more used to directing stage productions and not Hollywood movies. She really does nothing inspiring with the material and offers very little to help her actors flourish.

There’s something so rage inducing about watching Meryl Streep flounder during the ‘The Winner Takes It All’ scene; I know she’s Meryl fucking Streep but at least help her out a little bit. She looks so lost that I sort of hate the fact she ended up in that position. Mamma Mia is, without a doubt, one of my least favourite film experiences. It’s a film that just gets everything so wrong, except the location. Although, to me, there’s something comforting about that. It’s nice to know that in an age of such great talent in this industry, there are still some people out there that are fucking it up.

Into the Woods (2015)

Anna Kendrick, boring, Chris Pine, fairy tale, meh, Meryl Streep, musical, review
When it comes to this blog I think I’m starting to come across as a bit of a grump when it comes to musicals. I don’t really understand why as I’m a not so secret lover of the genre. Whilst writing my postgraduate dissertation I listened to Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat soundtrack on repeat. I have been known to portray my feelings through the songs of Andrew Lloyd Webber (especially when I’d finished the aforementioned dissertation). However, most modern musicals just don’t get me as excited. I see trailers and just get angry. Especially if they star Meryl Streep. Thankfully I have the good sense not to associate with anybody who responded to the release of Into The Woodswith any other attitude than “who the fuck cast Meryl Streep in another musical?” Don’t get me wrong I love the Streep but, you have to admit, it’s a bloody good question. After the travesty that was Mamma Miait’s difficult to see who would have decided casting big names was better than talented singers.

Into the Woodsis a weird fairytale mash-up of the stories of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel. These many strands are tied together through the tale of a baker and hid wife who embark on a quest to lift a curse that has left them childless. In order to get their angry neighbourhood witch to reverse her spell, the pair must enter the titular woods and track down four very specific items from each of the four tales.
The problem with cutting and pasting bits of these existing stories together is that each one ultimately loses a lot of the excitement and become a lot more complicated. Taken singly you can accept the crazy decisions that the characters make but torn into bite size pieces it becomes harder to go along with everything. The mixing of the narratives only succeeds in watering them down without adding any fresh perspectives or humour. It’s all a bit dull and unnecessary.
And fucking repetitive. The problem with musicals as a whole is the needless desire to tell the audience what is happening over and over again. Almost as soon as the baker has rescued Red Riding Hood from the belly of the wolf, she feels the need to sing about it and provide us with a flashback. Clearly targeted at the stupid or those with non-existent short-terms memories, Into the Woodsis a 2+ hour film that probably only has about an hours worth of material in it.
Which considering there has still been something of a narrative cull seems even more ridiculous. The whole plot feels as though it’s full of holes and never feels complete. Take for example the relationship between Cinderella and her Prince Charming: in the stage show Prince Charming tires of Cinders and falls for the sleeping Snow White. In the film, their relationship goes from being happily ever after to soul destroying in the blink of an eye. Despite still being pretty fucking dark compared to Disney’s big hitting musicals, Into the Woods has traded narrative integrity for being family friendly.
There is just not subtlety at work here, which, if we’re honest, is the fucking great thing about stage musicals. They are limited in how they can present their material and so can’t distract from the music and the performances. Into the Woodsis the opposite of this who steamrollers over everything else with its massive production values. The epic sets, costumes and orchestration make it almost impossible to enjoy the witty and clever work of both Sondheim and writer James Lapine, who also wrote the book for the original production.
Into the Woodsis a musical that takes itself too fucking seriously and, considering the general air of the show, is just the most ridiculous decision. I was so bored during the whole film and I say that as someone who’s natural reaction to people singing instead of talking is to jump for joy. That’s not to say that the cast don’t try their hardest and obviously many of them try too hard. Into the Woodsis full to bursting with huge names to the extent that great actors like Simon Russell Beale are mere afterthoughts. With a mix of Hollywood A-listers, musical theatre brats and classical actors, it’s exhausting.
Meryl Streep, despite the fact that I’ll never warm to her as a singer, is fabulous as the desperate witch and Anna Kendrick adds some real legitimacy to proceedings as Cinderella. Emily Blunt and James Corden make a good duo as the Baker and his wife but get sort of lost in the confusion and musical numbers. Most memorable is Chris Pine as the sleazy but charming Prince who wins Cinders’ heart. Pine, who will now forever be Captain Kirk 2.0, channels his best William Shatner for his performance. It’s a role that is a fantastic parody but never really finds its feet on the big screen.
I’m not entirely sure who Into the Woodswas made for. It doesn’t quite work for the lovers of Frozenor the faithful Sondheim audience. It’s simultaneously dumbed-down and over-complicated. The watered down script is still too edgy for children but not dark enough for an older audience. Into the Woods is all pomp and no circumstance. Getting too carried away in the spectacle that it didn’t really think about the content that they were trying to introduce people to. The whole thing just left me cold.

August: Osage County (2013)

Benedict Cumberbatch, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, review

I love Meryl Streep. She’s a fantastic actress, she’s an awesome human being and she just doesn’t give a fuck. However, I find myself liking Meryl Streep films less and less as time goes by. She has an increasingly strange habit of choosing to star in really odd and terrible films, particularly ones involving the ridiculous Phyllida Lloyd. Streep is always a reliable and amazing performer but she just doesn’t seem to picking the productions worthy of her brilliance. However, I have been excited about August: Osage County for a while now because of its amazing cast and the potential brilliance from adapting Tracy Lett’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning play. Casting Meryl Streep as the unstable head of a fractured and eccentric family and surrounding her with other great actors could only be a recipe for success. Plus, as I’m sure you’re aware by now, I’ll happily embrace anything involving Benedict Cumberbatch’s cheekbones (especially when there’s singing involved).

August: Osage County boasts a screenplay written by Letts that stays as loyal to the original play as a dramatically reduced script (to cut the running time down by 1 hour) possibly can. We are introduced to Beverly (Sam Shepard) and Violet Weston (Streep), a husband and wife who have supposedly struck a balance between their respective addictions: in his case alcohol and in hers a cocktail of drugs originally prescribed for her mouth cancer. When Beverly goes missing, Violet’s extended family assemble in support: her three daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis) and their partners; her sister and brother-in-law (Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper); and her shy nephew Little Charles (Cumberbatch).

The narrative takes some time to find its feet and the initial set-up feels a little flat. However, once the key turning point has been reached the drama is turned up to 11 and the volume reaches insane levels. August: Osage County boast an incredible cast, who bring with them a combination of five Oscar wins and 24 nominations, which goes all out to act their socks off in a narrative full of barbed insults, dramatic confrontations and a sweltering intensity. Everything really comes to a head during the 25 minute long dinner scene where Violet’s anger explodes over her unsuspecting family. It’s one of those scenes that just leaves you utterly engrossed yet horrified by the dialogue being thrown across the potatoes.
There is an exhausting amount of acting on display here that continually threatens to spill over the narrative and self-destruct. Each character has their own hidden turmoil which comes out in their individual big moment of shouting, verbal abuse and fist-clenching emotions. Thanks to the shortening of the script some of the quieter characters and scenes are less developed than they should have been: being shunned in favour of the more overwhelming moments of family melodrama.
Dramatic scenes that are dominated by Violet during her drug-fuelled moment of ferocity. Streep is clearly in her element playing Violet and completely indulges in the role of the vicious, pill-popping matriarch. It’s the kind of performance that staggers along the line between perfectly judged and uncomfortably hammy. She soars during Violet’s most heinous moments but falls flat in her more understated moments.
Streep finds herself a more than willing sparring partner in Julia Roberts who plays her angry eldest daughter. I have never been entirely convinced by Roberts but there were several scenes in August: Osage County where I saw hints of greatness. The subtle but powerful scene when Barbara is travelling with her daughter (Abigail Breslin) where they conduct an uncomfortable but emotional exchange was one such standout. This is one of Roberts’ greatest roles for a while and she spends her time moving between exhausted aggravation and uncontrollable anger.
Taking their place in the background are some fine but hardly dazzling performances. Juliette Lewis makes a mark as the younger and brassy daughter when she is allowed to do something more than react to other people’s arguments. Julianne Nicholson has been underrated and, along with an understated yet still measured Benedict Cumberbatch, gives the film a sympathetic point. Then we have Chris Cooper who, after a lifetime of accepting his wife’s criticism, finally comes into his own whilst defending his put-upon son.
There is a great deal of talent on display but all of these careful performances get lost thanks to the timid man at the helm. Director John Wells clearly holds the original stage productions in such high regard that he isn’t willing to go far enough to turn this into a film rather than simply a film version of a play. His direction just seems uninspired and his thematic vision is nothing but annoyingly clichéd. Everything Wells does he does out of respect but he certainly sacrifices style for loyalty. There was a great deal of potential to come from adapting this well-received play using some of the finest actors working at the moment. However, in the hands of John Wells the film just reeks of a lack of imagination. You can’t help but feel that in the hands of a more adventurous filmmaker that the real genius of Lett’s work would have shown through. 

Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)

animation, Bill Murray, family, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, review, stop motion, Wes Anderson

Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox remains one of the most loved books of my childhood. My twin and our friend would demand to listen to the audio cassette whenever we were driven anywhere. I still have incredibly fond memories of this book so it was with a certain amount of apprehension that I sat down to watch Wes Anderson’s adaptation. His quirky style and fondness for more unique characters should be the perfect accompaniment to Dahl’s own style of writing but things don’t always work out the way they should. So how would one of my favourite directors fair with this significant piece of my childhood?

Fantastic Mr Fox is hardly an epic tale so Anderson and Noah Baumbach have had to flesh out the narrative a bit but all of the key points are there. After a pretty close-call, Mr Fox promises his wife that he will stop stealing birds and instead settle down into family life. He finds his subsequent work as a journalist dull so comes up with a three-part assault on the farms of his vicious neighbours, Boggis, Bunce and Bean. As Mr Fox goes all Ocean’s 11 on us, his son, Ash, struggles to live up to family name and gain his father’s respect. When his impressive cousin Kristofferson joins the family, the young fox finds himself even more removed from his fantastic parent.

This type of sub-plot, packed with troubled father/son relationships, is nothing new for either Anderson or Baumbach, which is perhaps why it feels a little stale and unnecessary. The angst of the teenage Ash and jealousy towards his cousin is such an overworked cliché that even placing animals at the centre of the drama cannot make it seem fresh. Unfortunately, the theft is over in the blink of an eye and the resulting conflict is pushed into the background once the familial plot takes over. Once the animals find themselves seeking refuge underground, the plot has worn so thin that the audience is simply faced with an unoriginal soap opera style plot.

Although at least a soap opera would be able to provide terrifying enemies. Dahl is not afraid to place his characters and his young readers in the presence of a real and terrifying danger. The main disappointment of this film is the farmers themselves. They are not the grotesque images of evil that the original text summons up. They are instead rather pathetic individuals finding themselves in a, frankly, utterly petty war. The farmers are presented as so pathetic and witless that there never appears to be any real danger for the animals. It is only in the form of the vicious Rat, voiced expertly by Willem Defoe, and a terrifying rabid dog that any real tension is created.

As with all Anderson’s film you get the sense that every detail has been thought out. The look of the characters, the backgrounds and the colour scheme. The film primarily makes use of autumnal colours and is littered with various yellows, oranges, and browns. It is only in Kristofferson that we see a rare glimpse at the colour blue so the audience is fully aware that he is an outsider.

The animation is much more traditional and looks much less polished than contemporary animated offerings. The stop-motion animation brings to mind the works of animators like Oliver Postgate and is truly astounding, despite it’s potentially outdated feel. The detail on the puppets is breathtaking; just look at the way the foxes fur moves during the close-ups. We are not left with the brash and hectic Disney universe but with an understated world in keeping with Dahl’s own, very British, setting.

As you would expect, music plays an important part within the narrative and both the original scores and well-known pop songs fit into the ensemble perfectly. It is Jarvis Cocker’s Petey and his campfire song that leads to one of the film’s best scenes. Cocker’s ditty is played beneath images of Fox and his animal friends dancing in celebration. Watching as the crude puppets perform such adorable dance moves is a sight to behold complemented expertly by Cocker‘s performance. At least Fantastic Mr Fox is a constant treat for the eyes even when the narrative proves a little disappointing.

Although I did like Anderson’s film. I think it had a lot to live up to and it’s entirely possible that I’m just being a bit too stubborn because of my vested interest. The narrative, though nothing ground-breaking, is still a pretty decent script and enjoyable for a mixed audience. Were is a film not grounded in both literary and personal history then I’d probably have been jumping for joy. The wonderful story of Dahl’s original novel may have been lost in translation somewhat but when it is presented in such a charming and beautiful way, with such an amazing array of voices and a tremendous soundtrack, I’m not really sure how much that actually matters.