Lemony Snicket/Bad Education

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The most pleasant surprise of the holiday movie season turns out to be Brad Silberling’s film Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. I laughed almost throughout the entire movie, and (as my readers know) that isn’t a claim I can often make. Silberling, who was all thumbs in his previous work Moonlight Mile, here shifts tones–fanciful, comic, tragic–masterfully. A Series of Unfortunate Events may be fakery and manipulation, but what fakery and manipulation! After sitting through advance screenings of such inept “serious” films as The Aviator, The Woodsman, and yes, even The Life Aquatic (none of which will be reviewed here), encountering Jim Carrey as the ruthless, murderous Count Olaf amidst Rick Heinrich’s predominantly black and gray production design (with costumes to match by the flawless Colleen Atwood) gave me the same euphoric consumerist high as walking into a mall and hearing Andy Williams bellow “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” on the jingle bell’d Muzak.

The movie begins with an affectionate parody of the cartoons some of us grew up watching at Christmas. A tousled, cherubic elf wanders through a forest (animated in the same primitive style as the “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” yuletide perennial); birds chirp, and a heavenly choir croons in bright, major keys. Silberling and the scenarist Robert Gordon yank this innocence away from us to alight on the mist-shrouded gray surface of a vast lake: on this dismal shore, a banker informs the three Baudelaire children, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, that they are now orphans, that their family mansion lies in cinders. (Near the end of the movie, the children will wander through fantasy shots of an illusory restoration—the ashes restored to gleaming white—a stunning visual metaphor for dreams of innocence regained.)

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The horrors that follow the banker’s tidings matter less than the gleeful abandon in which the actors revel. I’ve never liked Jim Carrey, nor do I care much for Billy Connolly (who was an unbearably oafish Aussie Jesus in the horrid comedy The Man Who Sued God) or Meryl Streep (who has never really recovered from losing herself in She Devil). Yet all three are marvelous, and Carrey has moments that can hold their own with the acting heights of 2004. When Count Olaf greets the 15-year-old Violet (Emily Browning) with a single word, “Enchanté,” his exaggerated French accent left me giggling at the mere thought of it even a week afterwards. Olaf’s impersonation of “Mr. Stefano,” a wildlife expert who overenunciates each dry syllable is a dead-on send-up of the self-possessed science nerd who’s utterly lacking in social grace.

lemonystreepConnolly, as a snake-bedizened herpetologist, manages in a naturalistic, sinister method to seem more of a creep than Olaf, although he’s ostensibly a “good guy” as the children’s Uncle Monty. I never quite knew whether to trust Monty’s intentions for his nieces and nephew, and Silberling uses the snakes (and one CGI viper) for maximum visceral jolts. As the meticulously neurotic Aunt Josephine, a woman who states, “Grammar is the greatest joy in life,” Streep turns her usual irritating mannerisms inside out. She’s just right in this role, and Atwood costumes her in a Victorian black dress that has enormous shoulder ruffles, the perfect accoutrement to a fairy tale ninny who fears that doorknobs will shatter and pierce the eyes.

Browning as the resourceful Violet and Liam Aiken as her bookish brother Klaus both convey the requisite sense of timelessness essential to making childhood fantasies work on film. The twin toddlers Kara and Shelby Hoffman are effectively used as the infant Sunny. Jude Law’s lazy, unlifted tongue doesn’t hurt the film’s voice-over narration, but Dustin Hoffman embarrassingly overplays his cameo as a theatre critic. And if you see the movie, stay all the way until the very end of the ending credits: I wish I knew whom to thank for these mesmeric, Edward Gorey-esque images of puppet theatre, kaleidoscopic cylinders in hues of gray, black, and peacock blue. I can tell you that Thomas Newman composed the tintinnabular music, which with its metallic clank of the vibraphone appositely fits Lemony Snicket’s psychological terrain without overdoing so.

So much care went into crafting the look of the movie that the crux of the story—a group of adventurers, who may or may not be members of the same family, have died mysterious deaths while investigating arsonists—isn’t untangled. Yet what’s unelaborated also gives this movie its beautiful dark heartbeat. “No one ever listens to children,” Olaf sneers at the authorities who would stop him from bilking the orphans of their inherited money. Too true, I’m afraid.

ggb10A choirboy sexually abused by a priest grows up to be a drag queen: Gael Garcia Bernal in Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

The aesthetic pinnacle, the most emotionally affecting, and the most cinematically self-conscious moment in Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education occurs when a young school boy, who possesses a pure treble voice of bewitching beauty, sings the Mancini-Mercer chestnut “Moon River,” a song made famous, of course, by Blake Edwards’ film of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. As the boy, aged about 11, sings (the actor is a perfectly fine Nacho Pérez, but the incandescent voice belongs to Pedro José Sanchez Martinez), a Catholic priest, the boy’s teacher, plaintively strums a guitar while the two of them idle amidst a bamboo outcropping. Overcome with desire, the homosexual priest violates the boy (or attempts to—the advance takes place off screen, in the shelter of the reeds) and a single drop of blood courses down the center of the child’s forehead. As the blood divides, so does the screen itself: Almodóvar tears the bleeding image in two just as surely as the innocence of the boy wrests away.

The boy’s confusion and misery shook me to my core, yet when the little boy grows into adulthood, he becomes a junkie, and an overbearing, demanding one at that. Almodóvar, although he empathizes with the child victim, shows no sympathy at all for the adult failure. The writer-director seems oblivious to cause-and-effect, and I was fully prepared to take Almodóvar to task for this hypocrisy…but then I remembered: Do any of us have a trace of compassion for the drug-addicted leeches in our own families, and wouldn’t we like to kill them without caring a whisker for their past suffering? Also, think of Capote—a clever talent seduced, then ruined by fame. Almodóvar must intend us to make such an association, in the choice of “Moon River.” (Recall, if you may, the teenaged boy in All About My Mother, who was delighted with a birthday gift of Capote short stories.)

Unfortunately, another writer, one infinitely less talented than the author of “Handcarved Coffins,” comes to mind in the second half of Bad Education. Although Almodóvar was himself educated by Catholic priests and knows (perhaps too well) the sins of the Padres, the filmmaker uses the tragedy of child molestation as grist for a sleazy, not very interesting, though eminently watchable homage to film noir pulp. Almodóvar could have done anything with this material, and he chooses to be a Spanish John Grisham. The film’s first hour tingles with mystery, and the second is just as vanilla-bland as any crime scenario’s explication scene.

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Helping Bad Education to seem immensely better than it really is, Fele Martinez and Gael Garcia Bernal are superb in the lead roles, a pair of school chums reunited years after an ignominious priest separated them. Enrique (Martinez) has become a film director of modest renown, and Ignacio (Garcia Bernal), who adopts “Angel” as a stage name, has become an actor. Both men are gay, and in Bad Education’s most refreshing twist, Enrique and Angel waste neither their time nor ours by talking or wondering about their sexuality: they know who they are, and they take their sexual orientation for granted. I can’t tell you what a welcome change this represents from American “gay/lesbian” cinema, where a sizable portion of narratives de-evolve around laborious displays of willed faggotry. Both Martinez and Garcia Bernal are extraordinarily handsome (when the latter makes his first entrance sporting a scruffy beard, he’s a follicly perfect hippie Jesus); a poolside sequence wherein Enrique guardedly lusts for Angel, who’s aware of his friend’s watchful, expectant gaze, may be the most palpably sultry moment at the movies in more months than I can or will count.

I hated Garcia Bernal in Y Tu Mama Tambien, and I found him insufferably virtuous in The Motorcycle Diaries; here, he has a role of tremendous range, and he hits every note. Whether he’s in full drag or on the floor naked but for gym shorts, crying in grief or torridly humping a much older man, Garcia Bernal makes every permutation credible. In one moment, Angel visits a drag bar to study the routines. Wearing dark-framed glasses, he’s taken for a journalist, and the actor succeeds equally at breathing life into the part of a supposedly disinterested spectator.

Alberto Iglesias composed the music, which includes a not inconsiderable amount of soft, swoony jazz; the unassumingly named saxophonist Bob Sands delivers delicious chiaroscuros of Getz-inspired soloing—reason enough to soak in Almodóvar’s subterfuge. – NPT

December 18-19, 2004

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