Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Studios shouldn't sulk when screenings don't go their way

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I finally saw the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on Monday. If you've been keeping track of the controversy surrounding New Yorker critic David Denby, that's exactly four weeks after Denby saw his press screening in New York on Nov. 28.

In case you missed it: In exchange for the opportunity to see it early, Denby agreed to hold his review of the film until Dec. 13, but broke the studio-imposed embargo and ran his review in the New Yorker issue one week early. This prompted an email exchange in which the film's producer Scott Rudin rebuked the critic thus: "You've very badly damaged the movie by doing this, and I could not in good conscience invite you to see another movie of mine again."

The review was positive, mind you; it's mostly a mash note to Rooney Mara, who is indeed very impressive as the feral, punk-hacker heroine Lisbeth Salander.

But it's difficult for me to take sides on the issue. I think Denby was wrong to break his agreement. I think Rudin was wrong to suggest Denby "damaged the movie." It did no such thing. Studios like to exercise as much control as possible over media when they can, in exchange for advance screenings. But if anything, Denby's lapse of judgment only resulted in what studios might call "positive early buzz."

Of course, my perspective is one of the remote, regional movie critic who could only fantasize about month-long lead times between a screening and the writing of a review.

We too enjoy advance screenings of films. Not all films. A few. Some studios, 20th Century Fox and its boutique division Fox Searchlight, for example, never pre-screen movies in Winnipeg, ever -- except for the good folks at the Manitoba Film Classification Board. (Alas, the board doesn't allow non-board members into their screenings. I've asked.) If you've read a review of a Fox film in the Free Press the last few years, it was probably written by a critic stationed in Toronto, Los Angeles or New York, where that studio still does advance screenings.

I didn't bother filing a review of Sony's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because the movie had its sole Winnipeg screening on Dec. 19 and the studio had, on short notice, bumped up the release date a day to Dec. 20. On those occasions, I must relinquish my opinion to a wire review, as any review I submitted would never make deadline.

I must emphasize the date change wasn't because the studio was feeling suddenly prickly towards critics. This kind of thing happens more and more frequently these days, and it is largely due to the studios attempting to beef up their opening-weekend box office numbers by stretching out the weekend itself. In fact, it happened the previous week with the opening of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. The Guy Ritchie-directed franchise entry previewed the evening of Wednesday, Dec. 14, but the studio fudged the release date on that one, too. Its official release date was Friday, Dec. 16, but of course, it really opened on Dec. 15 at 10 p.m. We ran a wire review that day. As much as I was looking forward to Sherlock, I saw Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol on Wednesday evening instead. The folks at Paramount, bless 'em, were holding firm to their Friday release date.

Warner Bros. didn't do themselves any favours on Sherlock, it turned out. We ran a two-and-a-half star review in which Miami Herald critic Connie Ogle termed it "an overlong, overblown, disorganized mess" boasting "a convoluted plot, more explosions than a Transformers movie and fisticuffs that aren't half as exciting as Ritchie seems to think they are."

With respect to Ms. Ogle, I enjoyed it much more. I especially appreciated the film's sexual undertone, which culminates when Holmes -- dressed in drag, mind you -- tosses Watson's new bride off their honeymoon train and entreats him to duck an anticipated hail of bullets with the line: "Lie with me, Watson." Holmes's relationship with the fiendish Moriarty (Jared Harris) adds still another dimension to the movie's landscape of sublimated Victorian sexuality, hinted at in the title. As for Moriarty's scheme to become a war profiteer, I'll buy Game of Shadows' take on the industrialization of combat at the turn of the 20th century over anything in Steven Spielberg's too-pretty Second World War drama War Horse.

On the other hand, I was not quite as enamoured of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as Postmedia's excellent critic Katherine Monk, who suggested the original Swedish version of the film by Niels Arden Oplev was more sexually exploitative, especially with reference to the rape scene, which Ms. Monk said was geared towards titillation. To understate: I disagree.

In fact, I hold that the original Swedish language movie was superior right down the line, though it was undoubtedly less expensive and less laden with A-list movie stars along the lines of Daniel Craig. It may have lacked Fincher's amped-up directing style. But its casting was dead on. Michael Nyqvist nails cock-of-the-walk journalist Mikael Blomkvist better than Craig. The nicest thing you could possibly say about Mara's interpretation of Salander is that she comes close to matching Noomi Rapace's work in the original. Secondary characters, especially Blomkvist's editor/lover Erika Berger, were better served by Swedish actors than they were American actors pretending to be Swedish. Finally, the film itself is enriched by the simple fact that it is authentically Swedish, though this is undoubtedly the reason the film was remade in the first place: North American audiences don't like having to read subtitles.

Of course, I don't think my opinion will damage the movie any more than David Denby's too-early review. After all, I am just a simple regional critic at a daily newspaper in Winnipeg. Nevertheless, Mr. Rudin, I look forward to your angry rebuke. My email address is below.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 29, 2011 D4

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About Randall King

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

His dad was Winnipeg musician Jimmy King, a one-time columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press. One of his brothers is a playwright. Another is a singer-songwriter.

Randall has been content to cover the entertainment beat in one capacity or another since 1990.

His beat is film, and the job has placed him in the same room as diverse talents, from Martin Scorsese to Martin Short, from Julie Christie to Julia Styles. He has met three James Bonds (four if you count Woody Allen), and director Russ Meyer once told him: "I like your style."

He really likes his job.

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