Netflix Review – A Series of Unfortunate Events (Spoiler-Free)

Netflix spent three seasons adapting one of the most dark and interesting children’s series ever written.

SUMMARY

A Series of Unfortunate Events follows the lives of the three Baudelaire Orphans: Violet, Klaus, and Sunny (Malina Weissman, Louis Hynes, Presley Smith/Tara Strong). Violet is a brilliant inventor and engineer, Klaus is a polymath with a love of reading, and Sunny… is a baby that bites things hard. After their parents are killed in a fire, the three are sent to live with their distant relative, the evil Count Olaf (Neil Patrick Harris), a terrible actor who would never have been allowed to play Doogie Howser. Throughout the series, the Baudelaires try to find a place to hide safely from Count Olaf and his troupe of evil actors while making their way through the macabre world in which the series is set. All of the events are narrated from the future by Lemony Snicket (Patrick Warburton).

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Real talk: Why is it so hard to get cast photos lately?

END SUMMARY

The series is basically divided into two types of adventures: Either the children are taken in by an eccentric/flat-out insane caretaker and attacked by a disguised Olaf or they’re on the run from Olaf and forced to hide in some insane location. The key is that nothing in this world quite operates on real logic, instead operating on the principle that basically everyone is off-kilter and, in most cases, anachronistic. The main characters are often the only sane people within any situation, pointing out that what most of the supporting characters are doing is either stupid or crazy, but, being children, they’re constantly ignored.

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Running gag is that these disguises actually fool people.

The setting for the series is intensely gothic, much in the style of Tim Burton or Barry Sonnenfeld… but more the latter because he’s the one that produces the show. Colors are largely muted, buildings tend to be in the gothic style, and the music often is best described as “eerie as hell.” The time-period for the series is completely nonsensical, with black-and-white movies and telegraph lines being commonplace, while also having jokes about streaming internet services.

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Every building in the show was designed by Edgar Allen Poe.

The tone is one of the darkest forms of comedy that you can put in a show ostensibly for children. People die frequently in this show, often in horrifying ways, and yet the spin on their deaths is usually very comical, because most of the characters refuse to react to death rationally. It also helps that Lemony Snicket is constantly adding levity and sarcasm into the series by addressing the audience directly with some off-the-cuff and off-the-wall observation. Since Snicket’s observations were one of the signature elements of the book series, it’s nice that they managed to work it into the show fairly organically.

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He’s basically riffing on his own show.

The acting in the show is phenomenal, although the way that the dialogue is presented will turn some people off. Neil Patrick Harris is a standout, matching Jim Carrey’s fabulous performance from the film adaptation, while still managing not to duplicate it too much. Harris sings the great theme song to the series “Look Away” which he sings in a different voice whenever he portrays a character in the episode, with the lyrics changing from book to book. They also find some excuses for Harris to let out his broadway side, something that, while it does make it harder to believe Olaf is a terrible actor, is too entertaining to pass up.

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Out-of-Character? A little. Out-Freaking-Standing? Definitely.

The downsides, if they are downsides, of the show are that, because of the nature of the medium, there are fewer of the wonderful ambiguities and hidden messages that permeated the books. Things that in the book series were left up to the reader to deduce are almost all made explicit. Additionally, some of the added scenes and characters are actually more positive than the rest of the tone of the show, possibly because it’s just so depressing to watch something that’s absurdist and, largely, hopeless. Frankly, it didn’t bother me, but I have heard a few fans of the books complaining.

However, there are two things this show does differently than most series that I really hope lead to its success. First, the villains are the ones shunning knowledge, while the heroes are the ones who seek it. A problem with the recurring trope of a criminal mastermind is that you have to make the villain the smart one, which often results in them making the hero a brawny dumbass. Think Lex Luthor versus Superman or Loki versus Thor (though neither Superman nor Thor are stupid, they’re not as smart as their opponents). This show 100% goes the other way, saying that the act of reading, learning, and exploring inherently makes someone more empathetic and therefore more ethical. Btw, studies suggest that this is generally true, reading makes you more empathetic (though not always as everyone thinks).

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Scientist bad. Big Muscled Guy good. 

Second, the show ends up pointing out one of the most difficult truths in the world: People aren’t all good or all bad. People are almost all morally ambiguous, falling somewhere on the scale between “hero” and “villain” or, within the series, between “volunteer” and “villain.” Everyone tends to think they’re a hero of their own story, but that’s likely the product of their own moral relativism: we define good as what we do, rather than defining good as good and then doing it. The show does a great job of exploring this concept.

Overall, I loved this series and I’m sad that it’s over. It’s only 25 episodes, total, so you should take a weekend or a week to watch it.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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Batman Ninja: When Crazy Meets Brilliant (Spoiler-Free)

Since this movie just came out, I’m going to do something I usually don’t do, and I’m going to provide a brief spoiler-free review of this movie before the actual review below.

SpoilerFree

Regular readers of this blog will remember one of my general rules for movies: A movie can do anything, as long as it is consistent in the amount of disbelief it asks the audience to suspend. This movie follows that principle by telling the audience right from the beginning that this movie is going to be insane, and you just need to strap in, hang on, and love it more than your pets or children.

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Afro Samurai

Everything about this movie is borderline insane, from the premise and the plot to the dialogue and the characters. It operates on a logic that is basically akin to a Muppet movie, and that is in no way an insult. It tells you right from the start that this movie is going to be different from any Batman film you’ve ever seen, and it delivers on that promise. The character designs are amazing, as expected from Takashi Okazaki, the creator of Afro Samurai. Each Batman villain and sidekick gets a Japanese re-design, each of which is an homage to an anime trope or Japanese stock character. My favorite small element is that Harley Quinn’s giant hammer now is decorated to be a Den-den Daiko drum (just look at the picture). It’s a detail that I really love. Even better, each character gets an over-the-top intro screen like a video game cut-scene.  Batman himself gets, I think, 4, and if you are a Batman fan, you will be cheering loudly at each of them, for they are all magical.

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A Den-Den Daiko Drum

The art style is one of the most interesting things in the movie, because it varies wildly. Sometimes it’s done more in the traditional comic-book style, sometimes in a more manga style, and at one point it flat out becomes a series of Ukiyo-e drawings (including famous ones like the Great Wave Off Kanagawa, seen below). The movie itself is basically a three-penny tour of Japanese art styles and motifs, which is probably exactly what it wanted to be, since this movie is a great opportunity to pull in some of the people who are only comfortable with Western art.

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Batman himself is pretty interesting within the movie. I don’t think it’s spoiling much to say that the movie starts with him basically attempting to defy space-time being  warped around him through sheer force of will. This both serves to confirm that yes, this is Batman, and yes, his will is indomitable. Then, when brought back to Feudal Japan, he’s immediately confronted with the harsh reality that he can’t really be “Batman” here, hilariously exemplified by him attempting to grapple to a skyscraper only to be confronted with the fact that Sengoku-era Japan didn’t have skyscrapers. The movie is about Batman trying to play by his usual rules in this new world and failing repeatedly, until he learns to play by the new rules.

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The fight sequences are great, as are the action sequences, and all of them are really unique, though they’re all tributes to other series and Japanese motifs.

Oh yeah, one other big thing for this movie: It is not slow. At all. If this were collected as an actual comic book, it would be years’ worth of plot progression. If you’re a Batman fan, I’d compare it to the “No Man’s Land” arc, which lasted 80 freaking issues. Despite this, the movie also never feels rushed. It finishes in 80 minutes, and you’re really seeing a ton of stuff. Maybe not all of it is fully clarified, but, again, the movie told you 3 minutes in that you’re watching a movie with Batman fighting samurai after being transported to the past along with Arkham Asylum. Just watch and love it.

Also, it’s great in either English (Tony Hale plays the Joker!) or in Japanese (Koichi Yamadera, who voiced Spike in Cowboy Bebop, plays Batman!), so take your pick. Actually, I recommend watching both, because the English script is not really a translation of the Japanese, so it appears to be two different movies.

That’s all I can say without spoilers, so go see the damned movie (you can buy it on Amazon for $20 bucks right now), then read below.

Continue reading Batman Ninja: When Crazy Meets Brilliant (Spoiler-Free)