By Rory L. Aronsky | May 8, 2005

Imagine the 1930s, 40s, and 50s laden with the DVD technology we have today, the ability to get further into films than just the standard trailer. A difficult scenario to be sure, but one that, if imagined widely, has so many wonderful fantasies. Imagine seeing Orson Welles bounding through the set of “Citizen Kane”, making sure that all changes are matched with his exact specifications, conferring with Gregg Toland on the now-classic lighting. Or how about Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen going over the shooting schedule for “Singin’ in the Rain”? While it’s all unfortunately impossible now, movies of today are at a distinct advantage. If studios wish, they can lavish endless amounts of attention on a production with intentions of putting it all out on DVD for the entire world to see. And if they are smart enough, they choose from a select number of DVD producers that not only know the format inside and out, but push the possibilities even further. Such names are Van Ling, Marc Ostrick (if you want a thorough behind-the-scenes featurette, that is) and the star of this review, David Prior. You know Prior by now. How many times have you eagerly lapped up your “Fight Club” 2-disc set? What about the “Blade II” DVD sitting in your collection? And did you have a strong stomach at all to re-approach “Pearl Harbor” through that massive 4-disc set? It’s all the work of Prior, whom has not only made DVDs more enjoyable, but given them such new life that current and future DVD producers should have no choice but to follow the work he has done and try to put their own stamp on whatever discs are in their care.

This “Lemony Snicket” 2-disc set is a marvel of home entertainment. Containing everything that could possibly be known about the movie inside and out, it’s an enormous journey that takes plenty of time to explore, but the trip is outstanding. First, however, there is the movie itself. “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” is charming and sly right at the beginning, introducing the Baudelaire children. Violet (Emily Browning) is a sharp-witted 14-year old inventor, basically MacGyver’s ancestor. When she ties her hair up with ribbon, an idea is taking shape, though she goes beyond MacGyver’s ways of inventing in the thick of danger. There’s times when she must do that, but she also takes time to invent whatever she has in mind, that is in the time before their upscale mansion residence burned down, also leading to the demise of their parents. Klaus (Liam Aiken) reads every kind of book available, especially in the mansion’s library. He remembers everything he reads. From cryptography to switches on train tracks, he’s got it all down well. Sunny (Kara and Shelby Hoffman) is the baby of the trio, with chompers that are probably as strong as the Jaws of Life. Of course, one of the big attractions of this movie is Jim Carrey in a number of guises, first as Count Olaf, the siblings’ new guardian, who is after their rich family fortune. Carrey mugs, growls, gripes, screams, grumbles, groans, guffaws, mutters, and squawks as he is expected. First as Olaf, then as “Italian” lab assistant Stephano, then Captain Sham, he at times looks like he’s rehearsing for a hosting stint on Saturday Night Live.

The settings look as if Tim Burton and Roald Dahl had both spat into a petrie dish and this civilization sprouted up. The distant trees at Briny Beach are of a much softer quality than how they’re usually used by Burton, which is all for the better here. But the film has trouble finding a mix of charm and darkness that suits what’s present throughout this picture. Thus, we find Catherine O’Hara in a brief role as Justice Strauss that contains that exact mix (she’s appropriately clueless, just like Timothy Spall as Mr. Poe, as regular adults seem to be in this movie), and Jennifer Coolidge in ghastly makeup as part of Olaf’s acting troupe. Silberling takes a few figures from the Christopher Guest cabinet to line his sets, and it feels a tad uncomfortable to watch them like this. Silbering does good on his locations for the story, such as the wide, wondrous Reptile Room and the downright claustrophobia of Aunt Josephine’s (Meryl Streep) teeter-totter abode. However, he almost recoils at the thought of taking the film just a bit further, a little more down that darkened road. Hopefully this is only a dry-run for further adventures that will take that risk.

Even with the side-to-side actions that the film takes in its unsure path, this “Special Collector’s Edition” lives up to those exact words. It is “special” in more ways than you could possibly fathom and it’s not only made for those who have seen the movie and love it enough to go even deeper into the filmmaking process, but also for those DVD collectors who love masterly extras. It starts with a few “Bad Beginnings”, profiling Jim Carrey as Count Olaf, in which the camera is trained on Carrey in the makeup chair for a few moments and right where the style of David Prior is made known, that which weaves itself throughout the rest of these extra features. Split-screens and on-screen text are his way of working. It is learned that 80% of Carrey’s performance is improv-driven, and footage-to-film comparisons show that which made it into the movie just by way of his improv, especially during his makeup and costume tests which have the added benefit of sound. Normally, makeup and costume tests only include a camera in the proceedings but Carrey being Carrey, Brad Silberling decided it best to see what else he could in his new wardrobes. Therefore, a four-way split-screen for “Interactive Olaf” spends nine minutes apiece with each of Carrey’s alter egos (two for Olaf), with the option to choose whatever audio track is desired to hear his improv. “Making the Baudelaire Children Miserable” is all about the casting of Liam Aiken and Emily Browning, which led to a mini-trailer being cut to see how the lighting and wardrobe looked on them.

These types of discs cannot exist without the requisite audio commentaries and there are two. The first is a solo track by Silberling whose pleasant tone adds more to this informative track that approaches all the nuts and bolts of making this movie. The second track doesn’t fare so well as it includes Silberling with Lemony Snicket himself (author Daniel Handler), who loves the opening of the film, but expresses shock and dismay once it turns dark. This doesn’t feel at all well-planned (in the case of Handler and his Snicket persona, it was not best to try an impromptu style), and Silberling is generally one-note in that he suddenly forgets what was shot, doesn’t quite remember the arrival of an unpleasant scene and numerous times, tells a somewhat relieved Snicket that the film is actually short, that the end credits will arrive soon. It’s only towards the end that he hits that note with Snicket that should have lasted throughout: Taking a slight sadistic pleasure in telling Snicket where the horrors lie and being amused by it.

“Orphaned Scenes” are a menu combo of “Dismal Deletions” (11 of them) and “Obnoxious Outtakes”. The deleted scenes actually bring more life to the film, especially with “Violet’s Rock Retriever”, another novel invention. As for the outtakes, a well-known actor playfully banters with Cedric the Entertainer, with Carrey providing more comedic energy in the workshop scenes. And now, the piece de resistance that cannot be refused. This is the reason that DVDs were created. This is why DVD reviewers do what they do (or at least I, in hoping for something as extraordinary as this). This……is disc 2!

This second disc makes any viewer an unofficial crew member. Massive amounts of footage have been whittled down into two and a half hours of material, beginning with “A Terrible Tragedy: Alarming Evidence from the Making of the Film”, which splits itself into a few featurettes. The first, “A Woeful World” does so much in 54 minutes. Silberling and others explain their intentions in making the worlds of the movies, harkening back to old Hollywood soundstages. The worst part of this featurette is producer Laurie MacDonald, whom director/producer/editor Prior is smart enough not to include any further. In speaking about the sets of production designer Rick Heinrichs, she injects a little bit of praise that renders her as useless as an electronic press kit. If members of Hollywood ever feel the absolute need to shower praise on their brethren, they should do it by personal answering machine, not by DVD. Jam up those and leave us out of it. Even more special to “A Woeful World” is a long sequence about Downey Studios in Downey, California, where time-lapse photography shows a water tank being built and the entire studio being transformed for the film. And to my memory, this is one of those rare DVDs that show logistical problems on the set. They’re relatively minor to the outsider’s eye (no raving producer or directorial ego if that’s what you may have been hoping for), but make for great viewing. Additional featurettes on the costumes, Violet’s invention designs, the live animals in the film, and Thomas Newman’s musical score are just as invaluable, especially the piece about Newman, whose footage is just as involved as the rest of this DVD.

“Volume. Frequency. Decibels” is a set of works to cherish for years to come. In it, a few sound crew members spend the night at a dump of a house in Burbank, smashing it, bashing it, whacking it, in order to get sounds of a house creaking in all directions, as well as floorboards breaking and even trees falling, evidenced by the tireless efforts of all men and microphones involved to capture the sound of a tree pulled down on to the roof of the house. All this under a tight deadline. And enjoy what may very well be the first test screening ever captured on DVD from everyone’s perspective. The employees of DreamWorks Animation and their families were invited to the very first screening of “Lemony Snicket”, a work-in-progress, but one that is very well-documented. Silberling muses over whether it’s now time to start, and clips are shown of the work-in-progress in a split-screen with Silberling talking about his feelings regarding this screening, which aren’t that worrisome. “You Probably Shouldn’t Listen to These” allows the opportunity to listen to how each microphone captured the sound of the falling tree. For those technophiles and filmmakers, each microphone’s type is labeled onscreen. Plus, there’s the train sounds for that sequence too. The “Sinister Special Effects” section gives us Sunny Baudelaire two ways: As an audio animatronic and as CGI. “An Alarming Conspiracy Involving Sunny” shows the construction of her as a little robot and “An Even More Alarming Conspiracy Involving Sunny” shows the CGI process needed for those sequences such as when Sunny is wrapped tight by the Incredibly Deadly Viper. On both sides of the technological scale, these are immensely devoted people working toward getting the job done right, so much so that some Sunny scenes are completely seamless, with no way to know if it’s CGI (save for the scene where she’s with the Viper, and has that computer-animated look). “The Terrible Fire” and “Trains, Leeches & Hurricanes” cover the rest of the special effects gamut with well-informed examinations of those sequences, including an entirely digitally-created train that propels the further expertise of the dozens of names who worked on this film.

Unfortunately, there is an end to this set and it comes by way of the “Gruesome Galleries”, which contain stills of many types, from costume drawings to artistic renderings of the sets, and on-set photography, 156 stills in all. In fact, many of the renderings in the “Woeful World” gallery should be made into prints and sold as artwork. Paramount Pictures could make another handsome profit by way of that, as if this disc set won’t already fill the coffers of the company.

This two-disc set is exactly why DVD players were created, why the technology exists today. Not only is this possibly the best DVD set of the year (if Warner Bros. hadn’t been doing what it’s doing this year with its archives of classic films and other titles, as well as the continuing efforts of Criterion Collection, I’d be more sure), but it’s undoubtedly one of the most outstanding sets ever created. No hyperbole here. Try it and see.

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