Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) movie poster

(2004) dir. Brad Silberling
viewed: 07/09/2005

Unlike the Harry Potter books, I never read this series of children’s fare, though I thought that they looked fairly amusing and knew some people who liked them. So, when I watched this film, I saw it more as a singular thing, rather than a compilation of three novels’ worth of storytelling. It all hung together more or less, even with the vignette-nature of the narrative.

The art design was pretty nice, and Jim Carrey, of whom I am not overly fond, carries the film with his performance as the villan, Count Olaf. Overall, I pretty much enjoyed the film, though I don’t think that it was particularly memorable.

The thing that disturbed me the most was the Aflac duck sequence. Product placement is a bane of filmmaking. The sequence using the duck makes you think momentarily that you are back at home watching television suddenly and that the movie has stopped. It’s insidious and ridiculous.

War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Steven Spielberg
viewed: 06/30/05 at Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA

War of the Worlds, director Steven Spielberg’s latest foray into science fiction (his specialty, many would argue), is a heck of an entertaining flick. The design and execution of the adventure sequences, the overall trashing of the world by the giant tripod robots marching around a destroying everything, is incredibly well-done and really is quite engaging. I was a little surprised how much I liked it myself.

The devastation wrought by the invaders really calls to mind Mars Attacks (1996) in a sense, this bloody, heartless annihilation of all things human. The river full of corpses and the sucking out of human blood really characterize the campy and shocking violence of the bubble-gum cards that inspired Tim Burton’s comedic satire. It’s definitely effective here, played for shock and seriousness, rather than for laughs.

As is often commented about Spielberg films, I think a strong argument can be made that the villans in this film, the aliens, can be interpreted as representations of the Nazis. There is this idea that in all Spielberg films, the villans are the Nazis, even the shark in Jaws (1975).

In the case of War of the Worlds, there are things that reckon of the holocaust: people being vaporized and turned into light ash, while their clothing flutters emptily down to earth (the ash like the resultant burning of bodies in concentration camps and the clothing as the remnants of a race exterminated), the bodies in the river (the bulk of death), and the chilling coldness of the aliens extermination of the human race.

War of the Worlds also reckons heavily of post 9/11 world as well. The attack on New York city, the hand-made posters for missing persons plastered all over the city, the crashed airplane, and again the ash leftovers of the vaporization covering Tom Cruise as he returns from the heart of “ground zero” (here the ash is like the soot of the pulverized World Trade Centers rather than human remains). Spielberg touches nerves with these allusions, quickly and effectively reckoning great tragedies in brief images, giving some emotional scale to the destruction being shown.

Spielberg exemplifies his own directing style with the “family” moments, creating a “heart” of the film. The performance that he gets out of Dakota Fanning is remarkably typical of the way that he directs children, cute and telescoping emotions, incredibly shallow and pap-like. Cruise is part of this too, though interestingly, his natural cockiness that is usually portrayed as a deserved attitude in films in which he is an ace something (race car driver, jet pilot, pool shark) is played against itself here, as he is a man with a broken family and kids that don’t relate to him, too self-assured to doubt his place, until his humbling and heroic experience. This whole side of the film is really its greatest drag.

The ending, which more or less comes from the original source written at the turn of the century by H.G. Wells, is a whole lot of anti-climax after the adventure of the humans fighting back. But in other ways it’s quite an intentionally humbling climax, in that the humans were pretty much doomed and all their pluck and humanity wouldn’t have saved them. In essence they are saved by a plague that has exterminated many races with the globalization of European expansion across the globe.

I don’t know, I liked seeing this film on the big screen, and I would pretty much recommend it straight up.

Land of the Dead

Land of the Dead (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. George A. Romero
viewed: 07/13/05 at Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA

As a big fan of zombie films and of George A. Romero’s preceding Dead trilogy, I was pretty excited to see him get a shot a doing a new zombie film. Romero really had not done much since his last film in the series, 1985’s Day of the Dead, a time period spanning 20 years, and I was a little dubious that he could still pull off a good flick.

The idea in this film, that 20 years have passed since the original series’s narratives, was pretty clever. Not just picking up where the last ones left off, but evolving the whole world beyond its original universe. Romero has always used these films for social critique and certainly takes aim at contemporary socio-political realities with the criticisms here.

In the previous films, life is largely one of survival, though by Day of the Dead, former social structures have begun to take root. By Land of the Dead, living society has rebuilt its structures in a crude version of its former self. The rich live in a luxury tower, protected by a militia that is run by the corrupt leader of the society. The militia protects the haves from the have-nots, just as much from the zombies. The poorer class live on the streets of the protected city, virtually like homeless people, though peppered with much of the crime and ruthlessness in its underground as well. The pooer people have learned how to deal with the dead, stunning them with fireworks when raiding shops for food and supplies and knowing to aim for zombie’s heads to kill them. Overall, they are less frightened of zombies and accept the dangers as part of the natural world.

But one key component of this film is that the zombies, too, have evolved, regaining the instincts of their past lives, learning to use tools (though like using a lawn mower on a parking lot surface, than anything useful). The zombies evolve a leader, one who figures out that the living aren’t just food, but a threat. He learns to use guns and other tools as weapons and is able to rally other zombies to follow him, communicating with grunts and moans.

It’s interesting to note that in the previous trilogy that an African American male was usually the main heroic lead for the films. This was particularly notable in the original Night of the Living Dead (1968), as a significant choice in a period marked by the civil rights movement. In Land of the Dead, the African American lead is the leader of the zombies, a far more sympathetic zombie, one with whom the audience is meant to identify with more than revile. It seems clear that the zombies represent another strata of a social class, a growing and evolving group, struggling to find their place in the world. This is even commented on by the hero of the living group toward the end of the film.

At the end of the day, Land of the Dead is no masterpiece. It lacks some of the low-budget charms of the originals in having name actors, Dennis Hopper and John Leguizamo, where the early films had almost entirely unknown actors in the roles. Overall, it does stay true to its gruesome humor and social commentary, while still being a fairly fun adventure film. It is a solid effort, nothing to be ashamed of, for Romero, and actually quite promising for future sequels (already in development).

Seed of Chucky

Seed of Chucky (2004) movie poster

(2004) dir. Don Mancini
viewed: 07/04/2005

Don’t ask me why, but I actually caught the first Child’s Play (1988) in the theater on its initial release. One of the late 1980’s final twists on the slasher genre, it has amazed me that it has managed a life beyond its origins, quite frankly. I did enjoy some of the twisted aspects of the original, the fact that a child is blamed for heinous murders by a possessed doll (he keeps telling them “it’s the doll, it’s the doll” and they lock him right up), as strangely perverse and funny. I liked the ending when Chucky, locked in a fireplace, begs with his catch phrase, “I thought we would be friends til the end…” to the little boy with the lit matches who replies as he sets Chucky on fire, “This is the end friend.” Again, with the positioning of the child as killer, doler of justice. It was funny.

I haven’t seen it since, nor did I keep up with the two subsequent sequels, the kind that killed all of the horror franchises of the 1980’s…cheaply made and each less interesting and less inventive than the last.

I did find myself attracted and amused by the return of the murderous doll, in the campy, comedic 1998 Bride of Chucky. It wasn’t brilliantly funny, but it certainly tried to teach an old doll new tricks, to coin a phrase.

This time around I should have been more dubious that the schtick could be carried on another generation. It’s common that a film with enough of a following will garner a sequel and it’s even more common that the sequel, no matter how mediocre its predecessor, will be less interesting. And thus is the case with Seed of Chucky.

It’s not entirely unfunny, though much of it is. The self-reflexive Hollywood in-jokes are more than tired; they are exhausted. Not that any of the films have been scary, but it doesn’t really have that going for it either. It’s rather crass, with the doll masturbation sequence. Most of its humor is based in irony regarding cliches of family life. I guess that the ending is the only sort of interesting twist. Jennifer Tilly actually carries the film largely, playing herself as a vaguely overweight, out-of-the-limelight movie star. She pretty much saves the movie.

I doubt that I am saving anybody the trouble of seeing this, since most people wouldn’t bother anyways.