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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: New. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Muppets

THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (Also Three Disc Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Combo) (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: David Fincher, 2011 (Sony Pictures Entertainment)

Rooney Mara is no Noomi Rapace. At least when it comes to playing superpunk, black-jacketed, neo-noir heroines with burning eyes, pierced eyelids and deadly temperaments. But she’s close.

In David Fincher‘s version of Steig Larsson’s Swedish thriller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the tart-tongued American actress (Mara) who put down Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, proves surprisingly adept, and very entertaining, at putting down (and messing up) chauvinist pigs, and uncovering serial killers in Noomi‘s old role of supreme hacker/heroine Lisbeth Salander.

This new Tattoo is an effective Hollywood movie thriller as well, even if it’s one that — at least for Dragon Tattoo veterans — has few surprises. Director Fincher (Se7en) and screenwriter Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) stay so faithful (so far) to the plot, characters and parameters of the original novel and the hit Swedish movie, that a sense of neo-noir déjà vu permeates the whole show.

Lisbeth was the astonishingly anti-social but utterly compelling heroine of the movies made from the late Swedish journalist/novelist Stieg Larsson‘s world wide bestsellers, the trio that comprised The Millennium Trilogy: She was the “Girl” in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Those Millennium novels, all published posthumously, followed the dangerous investigations of the fictional Swedish leftie journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (a character many feel was modeled on leftie journalist Larsson himself), into the mysterious disappearance, 40 years earlier, of Harriet Vanger, beloved great-niece of Mikael’s employer, Henrik Vanger.

Henrik is a strange bedfellow, or employer, for Mikael. He’s the elderly but still determined patriarch of a famous Swedish corporate family, an elite clan who prove to have numerous skeletons (possibly Harriet’s) rattling around in their mansion closets. Mikael (played in the original Swedish films by Michael Nyqvist), was hired by Vanger (and ensconced in a cottage on the Vanger private estate-island) to solve the Harriet mystery after losing (wrongly) a huge libel case filed by the corrupt business magnate, Wennerstrom, against Mikael‘s magazine, Millennium. And Mikael, in turn, hires the unorthodox Lisbeth as his researcher, because of her incredible skills at digging facts out of the Internet — and because he isn’t put off by her wardrobe.

Soon the two of them are swimming in a whirlpool of family secrets, scandal, and spiralling dread — a multi-plotted terror trap that the late Larsson kept up though all of the three Larsson novels.

They’re wildly popular in many forms, but are they that good? Well, for me (and I think the first book was a little overrated, though it was full of the kind of telling detail that Raymond Chander or Ian Fleming specialized in), it’s a smashing job. It’s been smartly and deftly adapted, extremely well cast and beautifully, excitingly filmed. It has serious themes and engaging characters and an intricately assembled and finely crafted plot, as well as a strong social/political dimension, and a pulpily lurid grabber of a storyline.

Overall, it’s the sort of intelligent adult entertainment we keep asking for and don’t usually get from our blockbuster movies, but that both Dragon Tattoo and the recent John le Carré adaptation, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (also out on DVD this week) try to give us.

Adding greatly to that intelligence, and to that entertainment value, is the excellent cast: Rooney Mara as Lisbeth; Daniel Craig as Mikael; Robin Wright as Mikael’s editor-lover Erika (Lena Endre in the original), that very active octogenarian Christopher Plummer as Mikael’s new employer, Henrik Vanger, the usually superb Stellan Skarsgård as genial Vanger company head Martin, Joely Richardson and Geraldine James as Vanger family members Anita and Cecilia, Steven Berkoff as the dour family attorney Dirch Frode, and Yorick Van Wageningen, as Bjurman, Lisbeth‘s amoral legal nemesis and subject of the trilogy’s most shocking and notorious scenes: the rape and anti-rape.

Mara has the hardest task: reprising a very popular role in which the original actress — Noomi Rapace, with her semi-goth outfits, spiky hairdo, “screw you” attitude and killer stare — already made into something richly memorable in the original Swedish movie directed by Niels Arden Oplev. Noomi was one of the major reasons the Swedish films were so successful and so well-regarded, and Rooney doesn’t fumble the shot.

A bit more shy of the mark, I think, is Bondsman Daniel Craig, who gives a good performance by any normal definitions, but doesn’t look or seem as vulnerable as his Swedish counterpart Nyqvist — or as, say, Leo DiCaprio or Colin Firth or Daniel Day-Lewis or Matt Damon or even George Clooney might have made him.

On the other hand, it’d be hard to top either Plummer, Skarsgard, Van Wageningen or Berkoff in their juicy archetypal thriller roles,  despite the memory of the very talented Swedish cast and their performances — especially all the irony and bottled rage and despair Sven-Bertil Taube put into the Swedish Henrik.

This isn’t the first serial killer thriller Fincher has tackled — he had an audience hit with the horrific Se7en (1995) and a critical favorite with the fact-based Zodiac (2007) — and here, he‘s somewhere between the two.  The images, thanks to production designer Donald Graham Burt and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, are chilly and mesmerizing; the convoluted plot unfolds with deadly clarity. Fincher is great at creating moods of nightmare and mounting dread, and that’s what Larsson’s plots require.

So why do murder mysteries and detective yarns, film noirs and neo-noirs, still captivate audiences — and usually the smarter audiences — so much and so intensely? Perhaps it’s because most of us enjoy unraveling puzzles and identifying with the sleuths who can unravel them — and because the best of these stories imply that the world in all its mysterious tangles, can be fathomed, and that justice, in all its vagaries, is not as fragile as it sometimes seems, and that the confusion and chaos and horrors of life may sometimes, somehow, be finally straightened out, or at least understood.

That’s the appeal of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in all its forms: as an addictive “good-read” novel, as an arty foreign film, and, now, as a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s a movie that works for lots of people and that doesn’t really need Noomi to survive — even though it’s nice to know that she’s still around, and that Lisbeth has still got her tattoo.

THE MUPPETS (Also Three Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo) (Three Stars)

U.S.: James Bobin, 2011 (Walt Disney)

It’s good to have them back.

Jim Henson’s Muppets — among the most delightful puppets and most engaging fuzzy-furry fictional beasties to ever pop out of a TV or movie screen — haven’t been around much in recent years. Oh, once in a while we’ve seen them: a snatch of Fozzy, a smidgen of Gonzo, an eentsy-weensy hunk of Miss Piggy, and a dash of Kermit.

But the last Muppet movie was Muppets from Space, which came out in 1999, and the long-running TV “Muppet Show” is long gone, and was never quite replaced, despite several attempts. Henson himself, the Muppets’ witty, good-hearted, highly gifted creator, studio head and puppet master (and the puppet master for “Sesame Street”), died (too young) at 53, in 1990. and it’s safe to say the gaNg has never been quite the same since his death — not even when the Disney Studio purchased them and their studio in 2004.

But I have good news for everyone who’s missed the Muppets — and though we’re older than the usual demographic for puppet shows, there are quite a lot of us. Their new movie, The Muppets, which brings back almost all of them (including Rowlf the Dog, oldest active Henson creation of all), has been made by people who clearly love the Muppets, understand their humor, and want to be as faithful as they can to Henson‘s vision — making it as cracked and sweet and bravely schmaltzy and very funny as it was in its prime.

Mostly they succeed. We’re held and charmed, moved and amused, by this affecting tale of a little boy named Walter in Smalltown, U.S.A., who is really a Muppet and is also the Muppets’ biggest fan, and who travels to Hollywood with his best friend Gary (Jason Segel, about whom more later) and Jason’s best gal Mary (the delectable Amy Adams, about whom there’s never enough) to the surviving but bedraggled Muppet Studio (located near a disheveled replica of Disney’s real life crown jewel the El Capitan), to meet his puppet idols. But Little Walter finds (alas!) that their home studio is bankrupt, that Kermit has run out of ideas, and that an evil biz-whiz named Tex Richman (played by Chris Cooper with all the meanness he can muster), plans to buy the studio, destroy it and drill for oil.

What’s to be done? Well, the munificently talented and ever-enthusiastic Mickey Rooney is one of this movie’s cameo as-themselves or small-part guests, along with Whoopi Goldberg, Alan Arkin, Zach Galifianakis, Selena Gomez, Neil Patrick Harris, John Krasinki, Ken Jeong and Sarah Silverman — and I honestly think I just heard somebody, maybe the Mick himself, yell “Hey kids, lets put on a show!” Or maybe it was “Hey Kids, let’s put on a telethon to raise ten million dollars to pay off the Muppet mortgage and save the day and send Tex Richman back to the tanning studio, where he belongs. And if the TV executive played by Rashida Jones nixes a new TV show and says that we’re old stuff and off the demographics chart, we’ll just stand behind Kermit and shout “Hey, lady, you’ll be old some day too. Ya dig?“

Trust me. Unless you just plain hate the Muppets, and hate Jiri Trnka and Kukla, Fran and Ollie and want to stomp every puppet you see, or plan to vote for Tex Richman for President (the guy may be fictitious but he has everything he needs to be a candidate this season but the smile), this one will work for you. And that‘s even though it’s a show probably even more geared for the adults who remember and love the old Muppets than it is for their children who will now be introduced to Kermit and the crew — many of whom will love them as well.

Among the heroes who have rescued our old friends are director James Bobin (whose directorial credits include, of all things, Sacha Baron Cohen’s hip, irreverent comedy “Da Ali G. Show“), and co-writer Nicholas Stoller (whose credits include, of all things, the raunchy rock n’ roll comedy Get Him To the Greek). Then there are the original Muppets (I assume they‘re the original Muppets, they certainly look like the original Muppets, but, if they aren’t, they’re first rate replicas), the surviving or new Muppet voice actors (Steve Whitmire as the great green frog Kermit and others, Dave Goelz as Gonzo and others, Bill Barretta as Rowlf, Fozzie and others, Eric Jacobsen as everyone‘s favorite porky prima donna Miss Piggy and others, and David Rudman and Matt Vogel as whatever others are left). But not here sadly, except in spirit, is the late Jim Henson, who did the unmistakably wistful voice of Kermit. Nor the not-present Frank Oz, who was the unmistakably overbearing voice of Miss Piggy.

Well, you can’t have everything, and the movie offers as compensation for the absence of the wizard Henson and Oz, Emily Blunt as the secretary in this Miss Piggy’s Paris fashion house.

The main hero in all this — besides the spirit of Henson — is Jason Segel, who stars as Gary and who also co-wrote the script with Stoller, and who obviously must count this movie among his real labors of love (and maybe a little money too). Segel is best known in movies as Paul Rudd‘s raffishly macho scene-stealing buddy in I Love You Man. But here, even though he co-wrote the script, including his own star part (handing himself a big showstopper song number, “Am I a Man or a Muppet?”), he keeps handing scenes and big moments over to his fellow cast members, whether human or muppet. (One of the beneficiaries is Jack Black, who plays himself in something more than a cameo, as the telethon’s kidnapped and fuming guest host.)

Segel’s Gary may seem to some a somewhat sappy character. (He’s the lifelong friend of a puppet with whom he shares a bedroom, he‘s kept his marriage to Mary on hold for ten years, and he‘s almost always smiling, perhaps to make up in the movie for Cooper’s taciturn Tex.) It’s true that Gary lacks the edge of cynicism and knowing satire that made the original Muppets appealing for adults. (After all, the gang started on TV with the Hipness Mob on the original Saturday Night Live.) But it seemed to me that Segel (and Adams) were pitching their performances directly to the kids in the audience, as the two nice adults whom you could trust. Their “sappiness” didn’t bother me.

Jim Henson was in many ways a quintessential son of the ’60s. (I still remember with some affection his early pre-Muppets experimental short film Time Piece, which used to play regularly as an art house or film society short subject.) And he had a sensibility formed partly by Burr Tillstrom’s old Kukla, Fran and Ollie TV puppet show, and also by Walt Kelly’s great comic strip, “Pogo”  worlds were very clearly pitched simultaneously to children and adults. They were also progressive in their politics, Pogo almost defiantly so. So, in a gentler way, was Henson, and so is this new movie, which is another reason it should please people from all age groups.

Popular movies give the audiences what they want, but in a clever enough way that the audiences who want something else, won’t be alienated. I must admit: I really wanted to see another good Muppets movie. I wanted to see Kermit wrinkling his little face, and Miss Piggy going starry eyed, and Fozzie and Gonzo and the whole happy crew doing their hilarious stuff.  I was very pleased by the movie, The Muppets.

Perhaps , in the end, that’s because John Lasseter and his people at Disney seem to be experts at giving us what we want, without alienating the smart-alecks and sophisticates, among us or in us. Giving us what we want is what the new Muppetmasters have also done here, while hitting enough popular chords to keep the big bad wolves (and the Richmans) from the door. Good show. Profitable show, I bet. And take it from the “demographics” boys: It’s not easy being green.

Extras: Commentary by Bobin, Segel and Stoller; Deleted scenes; Spoof trailers; Documentary; The Full Tex Richman song;  The longest blooper reel in Muppet History.

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2 Responses to “Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: New. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Muppets”

  1. Jeanne Gomoll says:

    Sadly, many people are skipping The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because they’ve already seen the Swedish film and liked it and don’t see the point in seeing an American version of it. And that’s really too bad (especially if it means that plans will be scuttled for the next two movies!). I read all 3 of Stieg Larsson’s books this year and shortly afterward rented all 3 Swedish movies. I liked the first Swedish movie better than the 2 sequels.

    But the Hollywood version is surprisingly, amazingly, far and away, dramatically, better than the Swedish version. It is, I think, one of the best movie versions of any book I’ve ever read. So obviously I highly recommend and hope that word-of-mouth convinces enough people to go see it and assure a continuation of the franchise.

    The actors are absolutely perfect. I was especially impressed by Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander. Though I thought Noomi Rapace (the star of the Swedish movie) was very cool and an excellent actress, she didn’t come off at all as someone with Asperger’s. Especially in the first book, other people perceive Lisbeth to be unintelligent, possibly retarded. She is tiny. She rarely meets other people’s eyes. She is perceived as a victim. Mara captures this Lisbeth in a way that Rapace did not. The character-development arc for Lisbeth through the trilogy is one of dramatic personal development and beginning where she does with Lisbeth in the American film, Mara’s character development will be spectacular. (I thought Rapace, of the Swedish film, started out cool rather than becoming the strong, self confident woman of the third novel.) And Daniel Craig makes a surprisingly perfect Blomkvist. I was nervous about him making the character too much of an action hero a la James Bond, which Blomkvist most definitely is not (He runs away when people shoot at him. He is a researcher not a fighter.). But Craig was great; he was funny too. And Robin White’s Erica makes me salivate for her role in the 3rd book when she becomes editor-in-chief of a major Swedish newspaper. Same for Goran Visnijic as Armansky; I can’t wait to see him in movie 2, when his character becomes more important.

    And best of all, the US movie gets in far more detail from the book than the Swedish version did. And credit for that goes to director David Fincher whose ability to dramatize the techie details in The Social Network was equally utilized in his dramatization of Blomkvist and Salander’s research in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. SO MUCH that got edited out of the story in the Swedish movie was included in the US version.

    The books and the movies are violent, no getting around that. Anyone who avoids violent books or movies should probably skip these. But I was really shocked after I read the books that of all the reviews I’d read, that not one of them mentioned that these are also distinctly feminist novels. In the book people casually refer to others as feminists — in the way we might say “he’s a Republican or Democrat.” Attitude towards women is central. The original Swedish title for the books translates as “Men Who Hate Women,” and that is the main, not-at-all-subtle theme of all 3 books. The spectrum of violence, verbal to physical, waged against strong, smart women, and the triumph of those women and their male friends makes up the fabric of the novels. So, when I saw a review of the movie in which someone said that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo wasn’t about anything, I disagreed.

  2. Jeanne Gomoll says:

    Sorry, I forgot to add a postscript or introduction telling you, Mike, that I’m glad to have found your movie reviews again. I’ve missed seeing them since you left Madison so many years ago. The comments I just posted about Girl with the Dragon Tattoo aren’t really reactions to your review, but something I wrote in an email to a friend after I saw the movie.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon