Tag Archives: Emily Browning

CASPULE: LEMONY SNICKET’S A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS (2004)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Liam Aiken, Kara Hoffman, Shelby Hoffman, , , ,

Still from Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Incidents (2004)
PLOT: After the brainy Baudelaire children—Violet (Browning), Klaus (Aiken) and Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman)—are orphaned, they move in with their closest living relative, the sinister ham actor Count Olaf (Carrey). Soon after turning the kids into his servants, Cinderella-style, Olaf simply decides to kill them so that he can inherit their parents’ enormous wealth. Will the children’s kindly, snake-loving Uncle Monty (Connolly) and severely phobic Aunt Josephine (Streep) come to their aid? Or are their lives fated to be a series of unfortunate events?

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While highly enjoyable in a -esque sort of way (more on that later), this black comedy for kids is all too reminiscent of earlier, similar tales from the likes of Roald Dahl, Charles Addams, and Edward Gorey. It’s definitely quirky, but not really all that weird.

 COMMENTS: After the staggering success of the Harry Potter franchise, every movie studio in town was looking for a series of fantastical young adult novels that could profitably be filmed. One of the most artistically and commercially successful films of this period was Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, which is a delightfully mean-spirited good time but also a terribly episodic 107 minutes. This movie is based on Daniel Handler’s first three “Snicket” novels—“The Bad Beginning” (1999), “The Reptile Room” (1999) and “The Wide Window” (1999)—and therein lies the problem. The film, written by Robert Gordon (responsible for the great Galaxy Quest), and narrated in the dulcet tones of Jude Law, is all too clearly an adaptation of three separate books, so that the story seems to resolve itself, than starts up again, than resolves itself again and so forth. There were eventually 13 novels in the series, so sequels to this movie could have been made, but never were. As it is, the film’s curiously stop-and-start pacing is its one great flaw, but almost everything else about it is stellar, particularly the art direction. The movie is set in an indeterminate era; the cars are from the 1950’s, but Meryl Streep dresses like a Dickensian matron. Lemony Snicket features eye-catchingly monochromatic cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki, impressive costumes by Colleen Atwood and stunning production design from Rick Heinrichs (indeed, the film was shot entirely on soundstages, like The Wizard of Oz). This is the same cinematographer/costume designer/production designer team that did Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, and the movie, with its decidedly Grimm sense of humor, is definitely an imitation of Burton’s style— even has an unbilled cameo—but it’s a highly skilful imitation. (Casper’s Brad Silberling was the actual director.) In fact, Silberling’s movie is more “Burton-esque,” and superior to, some actual Burton films like Planet of the Apes and Alice in Wonderland.

The deadpan performances from the kids, whose characters are constantly threatened with death by train, snake, fire and hurricane, and the delightfully over-the-top turns from Carrey (at his manic best), Streep (who matches his nuttiness), and the always delightful Connolly make the pitiful waste of the all-star supporting cast (including Timothy Spall, Catherine O’Hara, Cedric the Entertainer, Luis Guzman, Jane Adams, Jennifer Coolidge, Dustin Hoffman, Daniel Handler, Jane Lynch, and the voice of Gilbert Gottfried) easier to take. (As recently as 2014, Craig Ferguson used his talk show to good-naturedly grouse about how his “Person of Indeterminate Gender” character was practically cut out of the film). There is also some extremely impressive animation over both the opening and closing credits, which makes the movie worth sitting through in its entirety. It’s all good, dark, unpleasant fun, but not all that much weirder than the average episode of “The Addams Family.” In fact, director Barry Sonnenfeld, who made the film Addams Family Values, was originally supposed to direct Unfortunate Events. He later criticized Silberling’s movie for spending too much time on Carrey’s scenery-devouring Count Olaf and not concentrating enough on the Baudelaires.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Director Brad Silberling has essentially made a Tim Burton movie, but without the weird shafts of adolescent pain.”—Ty Burr, “The Boston Globe” (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: MAGIC MAGIC (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Sebastián Silva

FEATURING: , , Agustín Silva, Catalina Sandino Moreno,

PLOT: An emotionally fragile American girl is trapped with four strangers in a vacation home in Chile when her friend ditches her to deal with personal issues.

Still from Magic Magic (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The movie is good at creating a subtly unnerving atmosphere, but it doesn’t quite push far enough into eldritch realms earn a single Magic in its title, much less two.

COMMENTS: Magic Magic‘s scenario is a little like Repulsion-lite. Juno Temple plays the repressed girl with the disintegrating mind, with the major difference being that it is other people, not solitude, that makes her crack up. It’s also not clear that Temple’s Alicia fears men in general, although she certainly shudders at the touch of Michael Cera’s Brink (which is actually pretty rational behavior, given Brink’s awkwardly sleazy passes at her). Abandoned among strangers in a foreign country, Alicia comes off as merely shy, at first; but, she seems to be having difficulty sleeping, as well as relating to her fellows. She loves animals, but they don’t reciprocate, unless it’s to hump her leg. As the vacation goes on her paranoid behavior gets worse. She begins recalling conversations others don’t remember. The camera sometimes inhabits her subjectivity; when out of focus, her companions’ faces seem to be staring at her, studying her, but a more objective view shows them to be minding their own business. Most of the movie consists of a string of scenes that are very good at creating a subtle, unsettling atmosphere of social and sexual anxiety. The individual pieces are carefully detailed and observed, but the movie as a whole lacks the narrative hooks to draw you into the story, either emotionally, or as a psychological mystery play. The roots of Alicia’s problems, even her basic backstory, are barely hinted at, leaving this unsatisfying as a character study. The movie’s climax invokes Chilean voodoo, a left-field gambit that’s fairly intense and spooky on its own; but, like a potentially interesting and emotionally resonant subplot involving Browning’s character, it doesn’t seem to belong to the main narrative in a meaningful way. The overall result is a slightly unsatisfying movie with parts that are better than the whole. On the plus side, the performances by Temple and Cera are very good. Cera’s character is the socially inept inversion of Temple; overcompensating for his inadequacies with obnoxiousness, he talks a big game, but he may be even more repressed than Alicia.

Michael Cera made two movies back-to-back with director Silva while on a visit to Chile. In Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus, the somewhat better of the two films, he plays a neurotic American drug tourist foiled by a free-spirited hippie girl.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“To be sure, the movie isn’t much more than its atmosphere of clammy discomfort and a gonzo performance from Juno Temple, but those open to the experience will enjoy its gleeful strangeness.”–Tim Grierson, Screen Daily (contemporaneous)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: SLEEPING BEAUTY (2011)

DIRECTED BY:  Julia Leigh

FEATURING, Rachael Blake, Ewen Leslie

PLOT:  A quiet but reprobate student blindly contracts for unconventional assignments with an

Still from Sleeping Beauty (2011)

enigmatic madam, to cater to the peculiar perversions of the ultra-rich.

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LISTSleeping Beauty is not a sex-movie, but rather a tense, eerie multiple character study. The focused, unadorned manner in which it is shot, without a musical score, combines with the bizarre nature of its story to set an unusual mood which demands that we take it seriously. This atmosphere, and the choices the writer and director made in deciding what elements of its story to show us, to make Sleeping Beauty a weird and unusual viewing experience.

(Ignore the website and DVD jacket descriptions of this slick Aussie thriller; because US distributors don’t know how to present unusual efforts to a general audience, the synopses grossly mischaracterize this effort as some sort of racy potboiler. Sleeping Beauty is not a sex piece, even though Emily Browning looks just like a Real Doll sex doll in the trailer. Sleeping Beauty is not another Eyes Wide Shut. It is not designed to be racy or titillating. Nor is it a murky, confusing David Lynch-style movie, although fans of Lynch’s works will surely love it. Sleeping Beauty is in no way what I expected. It is unpredictable and although it declines to utilize a demented twist ending, I assure the reader he will never guess where it is heading).

For additional fun, be sure to look for an appearance by actor Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the crazed “Toecutter” in 1979’s Mad Max.

COMMENTS: Wow! What a gem! I was hoping for something different and creepy from the trailer. I was not disappointed! Yet I was surprised. I was expecting something sci-fi or horror, about turning girls into living sex dolls. Sleeping Beauty turns out to be so much more unsettling, sophisticated and subtle. From its opening frames, the somber cinematography and unabashed, close-in concentration on its characters makes it clear that you are watching a serious, high-quality effort crafted by a writer and director who know exactly what to do. There’s a controlling sensation that your impressions are being skillfully manipulated by the filmmakers. Continue reading RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: SLEEPING BEAUTY (2011)

CAPSULE: SUCKER PUNCH (2011)

DIRECTED BY: Zach Snyder

FEATURING: , Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, , Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac,

PLOT: After accidentally killing her sister in an attempt to save her from their evil step-father, Baby Doll is locked away in a horrific mental institution and condemned to a lobotomy. She invents two separate fantasy worlds in which she and her fellow inmates can attain freedom through a video-game-like epic quest.
Still from Sucker Punch (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While some of Snyder’s visual tactics and musical cues are interesting, most of Sucker Punch is a highly referential, poorly written adventure whose stranger elements only recall better, weirder movies.

COMMENTS: Set in a dark, tall-tale version of the 1950’s, Sucker Punch’s plot is just a mess. The dank mental asylum is shown for no more than 5-10 minutes, with Baby Doll’s cohorts popping up briefly in the beginning.  Her first mental escape—a glitzy brothel in which she and the other inmates are imprisoned sex workers—provides another set of challenges for our boring protagonist to meet.  This leads to a second imaginary escape, prompted by the madame (Carla Gugino) forcing Baby Doll to dance for everyone.  She slips into a trance involving an epic journey to secure five mystical items that will set her free, and her dance is apparently so sultry she practically hypnotizes everyone in the room.  The script flits between these two fantasies for most of the film, mixing the made-up quests into one metaphorical goal: freedom.

The trailers for this film made me think Sucker Punch could go either way: it could be an imaginative, high-flying action flick with strong women characters at the center, or it could be a teenage boy’s sexual fantasy thinly disguising itself as a feminist steampunk adventure.  To very little surprise, it turned out to be more of the latter.  The story is almost offensively dumbed-down while somehow remaining unnecessarily convoluted thanks to the pointless fantasy-within-a-fantasy conceit.  The barely-written characters are flat as can be, with most of the actors putting in dull-faced performances.  The battle scenes, while large in scale and generally exciting, feature so many familiar set pieces and villains that it’s hard to be genuinely swept up in Snyder’s world.  Oversize metal samurai?  Mother dragon fighting to protect her baby?  Nazi zombies?  It’s been done.

The fact that almost the entire proceedings—all of which are meant to be the conscious projection of an independent 20-year-old woman, mind you—involve scantily-clad twentysomething hotties with heavy fake eyelashes fighting evil in egregiously high heels while their male tormenters ogle them, well… that just gives Mr Snyder a chance to incorporate as much exploitation and fetishization as he can.  The overabundance of slow-motion is the cherry on top of this very indulgent and overloaded psycho-sexy sundae.

Admittedly, there are some positive aspects to the film.  Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, and Carla Gugino—arguably the most talented actors present—do their best with the shoddy material, adding just a dash of emotional weight to the proceedings amidst the clunky dialogue and overblown electronica soundtrack.  Malone especially stands out: with her adorable spiky haircut and acute expressiveness she is a welcome relief from Emily Browning’s infantalizing pigtails and ever-present look of worried, victimized Barbie doll.  Many of the visuals, too, are quite intriguing, with Snyder utilizing his usual dulled color palette and sped-up/slowed-down battle sequences. Several of the action scenes feel like an anime in real life (Baby Doll’s ridiculous schoolgirl outfit and katana and Amber’s giant mech certainly help), which is a nice thought.

It’s always nice to see confident, independent women kicking butt onscreen, and it’s a thing that doesn’t happen as often as it should, but Sucker Punch is not a good example of this genre.  While on the surface it features some memorable fantasy images, sexy babes in killer costumes, and exciting gunplay, it’s neither fun nor smart enough to make up for the uninspired script, bad acting, and wanton exploitation.  In the end, the weirdest thing about it is that it seems to take itself seriously.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Spastic, bombastic, and incoherent, Zach Snyder’s Sucker Punch is a baroque, highly polished chunk of pop culture vomit. A nonsensical mash-up of Shutter Island, The Lord of the Rings, I, Robot and Kill Bill, it doesn’t even have the decency to have fun with its cartoonish obsessions, instead delivering a somber, moody, metafictional melodrama that that thinks it’s about female empowerment but instead has all the philosophical heft of Maxim Magazine.”–Jeff Meyers, Detroit Metro Times (contemporaneous)