The Girl With the Adaptation Fatigue

A few words today on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, b-rollers (and beware, spoilers hence). I’ve been dragging my heels a bit because if I’m being honest, I don’t know how I feel about it. Truly. Not “I think I liked it” or “I’m on the fence” but I genuinely have no idea if I like this movie or not. Since I’m rarely without an opinion, this is a profoundly jarring experience.

Let me unspool this.

I read Stieg Larsson’s novel when it became popular here in the US, and it hooked me. In fact, related story: While I was reading it a friend visited, and I wasn’t feeling well so I stayed home and gave her my keys so she could go out; I became so engrossed in the book that I was still reading at 3am, just in the middle of the climactic “torture chamber” scene when my front door opened. (Advice: Don’t ever do that.)

Now that I was officially on the Dragon Tattoo bandwagon (with a newly-minted heart condition), I anxiously awaited the Swedish film adaptation, and not just because it felt terribly artsy to say I was attending a Swedish film (hey, I didn’t have to specify which one). That version was taut and dramatic, carefully following the novel’s blueprint; it was fascinating to see the characters brought to life in such a vivid way, as it always is when a good book is adapted really well.

Then came the news that an American version was in the works, because God forbid Hollywood pass up a blockbuster remake (or people read subtitles), but it was promising: David Fincher (perfect). Daniel Craig (ditto). Appropriately creepy trailers. And the movie is just what we thought it would be – darkly atmospheric, violent, twisty.

But not a moment of it surprised me, because I know those twists, intimately. I envied the friend I saw it with who had no idea what would happen, and gasped in shock. There were a few tweaks, one pretty big one in particular, but I saw it coming because, well, duh – if you know the story, that is.

It just feels rather like a paint-by-numbers exercise: A little darker here, maybe, a little bolder there, but the same picture. Maybe it was just one version too many; when a movie hinges on suspense, what happens when you know way too much?

I guess if I have to compare/critique, I did think that Rooney Mara was an excellent Lisbeth Salander, fairly equal to the wonderful Noomi Rapace of the original film. But I actually preferred the Swedish actor Michael Nyqvist, whose Blomkvist was a little less handsome and a little more flawed than Daniel Craig’s steely hero (who, incidentally, is the only main character without a Swedish accent – why, again?). But in plot and tone, Fincher’s adaptation is just as faithful to the novel as the last.

So, bottom line: As this new, improved? Dragon Tattoo appears to pick up steam heading into Oscar season (in a surprise, David Fincher received a Directors’ Guild nomination today over Steven Spielberg), should you see it?

Well, sure. You’ll like it, I think. Have you read the books? You should, they were great. And the Swedish movies are good, too, and they’re streaming on Netflix. But if you haven’t read the books, maybe see this one. Or just read it, then see it. Or the Swedish one.

Oh, hell. I don’t know.

Help me out, b-rollers. Any Dragon Tattoo fans out there – movie(s), book or otherwise? What did you think? And how do you judge a thriller when you know exactly what’s coming?

Movie Rundown: “My Week With Marilyn” and, um, “Twilight: Breaking Dawn”

Total honesty: My roommate gave me the idea for this post.

You see, we saw two movies together this weekend: My Week With Marilyn and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part One, Holy Crap This Series Will Never End. I sat down to write about them – and, no lie, the first words I typed were “Twilight: Oh dear God, you guys” – and my roommate said, “Are you writing about Twilight? And comparing Bella and Marilyn Monroe?” And I laughed and then realized…actually, that’s an amazing point.

(Reviews-ish and spoilers for both films below; fair warning.)

My Week With Marilyn was an interesting (not exhilarating) film worth seeing for Michelle Williams’ stunning performance. Sure, she pulled off the remarkable trick of inhabiting the Marilyn Monroe persona so completely that you just can’t see the seams. But more than that, she captured a fascinating, bewildering complexity: her desperation to be loved beyond her celebrity, yet her calculated use of the Marilyn caricature to charm men into falling for her; the overwhelming insecurity that could cripple her vast talent. It’s a tour-de-force portrayal of a deeply complicated woman, and the movie – like the “movie-within-the-movie,” The Prince and the Showgirl – is a hit-or-miss film that comes alive when Michelle/Marilyn is onscreen.

Speaking of paralyzing insecurity, let’s talk about Bella Swan, the central figure of The Twilight Saga (and boy, has the word “saga” ever been more aptly used). Like Marilyn, Bella also has men – well, boys/vampires/werewolves – falling at her feet, and also like Marilyn, this attention does little to soothe her anxiety and self-doubt; in Breaking Dawn, she is so delighted to be marrying the gorgeous vampire of her dreams that she stumbles down the aisle looking like she wants to vomit all over her wedding guests. (If Robert Pattinson was desperate to marry you, wouldn’t you hire a skywriter and televise your wedding on a live satellite feed? Just asking.) Wedding jitters are understandable, but this scene was kind of the culmination of her character’s “I’m a mess and I don’t know why this guy loves me but apparently he does, so whatever, I’ll just follow him into eternity” character arc; and since “angsty and nervous” seem to be Kristen Stewart’s primary palette, her Bella is exactly as scowly and miserable as on the page. (In one scene, Bella scolds her new husband Edward for not being able to recognize how happy she was, which was an easy mistake since she never cracked a smile.)

Does it seem like I hate Bella? Because I deeply do, and it’s not (simply) Kristen Stewart’s fault; I have ever since I first read the books. She – in the exact same way as Marilyn – projects such vulnerability that she all but demands to be rescued, then makes her self-worth completely dependent upon the guy in nearest proximity. And neither handles the thought of abandonment well; Marilyn turns to pills and booze (predictably), and Bella (in New Moon, an earlier installment of the series) devolves into a catatonic state so infuriating that you want to slap her back into reality: You don’t exist solely to be a girlfriend. For God’s sake, do something with your life.

The difference between them is that these flaws (and the sad knowledge of how her story ends) present Marilyn Monroe as an achingly tragic figure. But Bella? She’s supposed to be the hero of our epic saga, its strong moral backbone, and as a woman, I just can’t stand it. We deserve to be loved, but we shouldn’t need to be saved.

Also worth noting: Breaking Dawn is a pretty terrible movie with a borderline-traumatic birth scene and an awesome message (don’t have sex, kids, but if you really want to, make sure you rush into a marriage you’re uncomfortable with first, and then be prepared to get ripped apart in childbirth, because that’s what happens). Two important points, though: I can report that Taylor Lautner is shirtless within the first fifteen seconds of the film, and if I’m not mistaken, I believe that’s a new record for the franchise; and also, I hope that you are lucky enough to see the film, as I did, with a woman who forgot that she wasn’t in her own living room and served as a Waldorf & Statler-type presence throughout the movie. When Bella mentioned that if her vampire spawn was a girl she wanted to name it some combination of its grandmothers’ names, Renee and Esme, the woman piped up (in all seriousness), “She’s going to name it Résumé?!”

And that, dear b-rollers, was the best part of the movie.

It’s The Muppet Show!

Hi ho, everybody! At long last, it’s the Muppet post…

What a brilliant move by Disney to open The Muppets over Thanksgiving, because I, for one, am thankful for Jim Henson. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it, but I am a Muppet diehard. I just adore their sublime blend of sweet, clever and absurd, and like many members of my generation, having grown up with the whole gang – Kermit and Miss Piggy, the Fraggles, Big Bird and Grover – I am a lifelong, unabashed fan. (Anyone else still get the warm fuzzies when the Muppets, Fraggles and Sesame Street crew come together in Muppet Family Christmas? Anyone else own that on DVD? Don’t judge me.)

The early buzz on The Muppets was encouraging, from the inspired marketing campaign to the rumored Pixar involvement in polishing the story, and I was thrilled at the prospect of a Muppet movie that really “got” the Muppets again, in the way that Jim Henson envisioned. And thankfully, it delivered. The Muppets was nostalgic – in the least grating possible sense – and full of catchy songs and “wasn’t that awesome?” recappable moments. It also firmly displayed that Muppet truth(iness) that puppets make stupid gags much funnier than they have any right to be; if you don’t crack up at the sequined headpiece-wearing chickens squawking “F*** You,” then we need to start seeing other people. (The poster child for this – and, not coincidentally, my favorite Muppet – is the Swedish Chef. He appears onscreen and I laugh; he starts talking and I’m howling. He’s never not funny.)

Short form: The movie was pure Jim Henson. I loved it.

Here’s the thing, though: in rebooting the Muppets, Disney wanted not just to engage those who grew up with them, but to introduce them to a whole new generation of fans. This was pretty evident in the cross-section of people that I saw it with: lots of twenty- and thirty-something Muppet-lovers excitedly bringing their small children, older folks with grandkids, and, in the case of two parents with extraordinarily poor decision-making skills, infants.

And the adults were enthralled, loving every minute. The kids? Kinda. I’m not sure The Muppets is enough of a “kids” movie to keep wee ones focused; too reliant on existing Muppet knowledge at times, too clever at others (not belittling the intelligence of children, but the humor can be surprisingly subtle). Not as ADD or as 3D as the G-rated movies we’re conditioned to nowadays. Take the kids in the row in front of me: the Muppets were reaching out to them, but they were too busy playing with glo-sticks and cell phones to reach back.

I’m sure that there are lots of kids who walked out of the movie with a newfound love of the Muppets. But as I watched it with this group of kids who just didn’t seem to get it – through no fault of their own, but still – I realized that, no offense to the youngins, but I wanted to see this movie with just my fellow twenty- and thirty-somethings, and our parents; those who felt like the Muppets were already ours. When “Rainbow Connection” started, I wanted to be in a theater full of people swaying and singing along, and maybe tearing up a little, together.

Maybe the best way to introduce kids to the Muppets is the way that my four-year-old nephew is growing to love them, by watching the original The Muppet Show on DVD. (And who gave that to his parents for Christmas one year? Need you ask?) Maybe those zany old skits and their modern heirs, the brilliant YouTube videos from The Muppets Studio, are the way to bring young kids into the fold – four or five minutes at a time. And in 25 years, they’ll be introducing their kids to the Muppets in some format we haven’t even dreamed of yet.

Because the Muppets are for everyone. But The Muppets? This was for us – the lovers, the dreamers.

Anyway, if any of the above gave you nostalgic pangs, see The Muppets. And as an appetizer, here’s one of the aforementioned YouTube videos – featuring the immortal Swedish Chef – for your enjoyment. Watch it with the closed captioning on; it makes the video 60% funnier.

Adventures in Wonderland

I headed off to Wonderland exceptionally curious about what I would find. As previously stated, I’m quite a fan of most Burton-Depp collaborations, but the critical reception made me wonder. (Ha ha, get it? Okay, that was lame. The Oscars decreased my brain function by about 28%. I apologize.) Whereas most films seem to achieve a critical consensus, save for a few random outliers, the reviews for Alice were rather polarizing: It was either “wonderful” or “a total mess.”

And in my opinion? It’s, well…both. Almost wonderful. Kind of a mess.

Let’s be honest: the Alice in Wonderland stories aren’t exactly logical. They are wildly fantastic, and the basic story could be summarized as, “Young girl wanders aimlessly through bizarre hallucination.” So, yes, it’s a mess – by design. I can’t fault the filmmakers for repackaging the story is as a sequel so that they could recreate the characters and construct something that resembles a plot.

And the (new-ish) plot is entertaining enough, although the film admittedly becomes Alice in Narnia towards the end. The graphics are, of course, spectacular; by all means, see this in 3D. But the real joy of Burton’s Alice (and each preceding version) is the outlandish characters – and those don’t disappoint.

Helena Bonham Carter – who will inevitably play Sarah Palin in my dream Burton/Depp Going Rogue adaptation – makes a hilariously wicked queen, and Anne Hathaway is suitably Cinderella-esque as her counterpoint. Mia Wasikowska is a fine Alice – a touch boring, but then she’s basically the film’s straight wo/man – and the voice actors are all quite good (official b-roll position: Alan Rickman should be in every movie). And Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter is completely insane, in the best way. He occasionally slips from his lispy-British accent into a Scottish brogue, which I think is meant to represent the disconnect between, um…okay, I have no idea why. I sort of envision Johnny (I’m going to pretend we’re on a first-name basis, because we are in my head) turning thoughtfully to Burton halfway through shooting and saying, “You know, I’ve never done a Scottish accent before…” and Burton shrugging and replying, “Sure, what the hell. The Hatter’s nuts anyway.”

So yes, I liked the film. But here’s my one caveat, and it’s a big one: Alice just doesn’t have the emotional core of some of my favorite Burton films. Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish leave me in tatters, even after several viewings; but even his more upbeat movies (say, Beetlejuice) have a pinch more heart. Alice doesn’t have quite the same – to quote the Mad Hatter – “muchness.”

But Alice in Wonderland is worth seeing – or, more appropriately, experiencing. Let the weirdness wash over you and you’ll be fine. It’s not quite wonderful. But it’s close.

Off to Wonderland

It’s a glorious weekend to be alive/a movie fan. The sun is shining, the Oscars are tomorrow, and in two hours, I’m seeing Alice in Wonderland.

I’ll post my thoughts on it early next week, but I should probably share the following caveat: I love Tim Burton’s films. Loved Ed Wood, loved Edward ScissorhandsSleepy Hollow, Sweeney Todd, Beetlejuice. I even liked Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which put me in a minority. And Big Fish is one of my all-time favorites – beautiful, emotional, wildly underrated.

Like most breathing humans, I also worship Johnny Depp, particularly in Tim Burton’s films. If Depp signed on to play Todd Palin in the Burton-directed film adaptation of Going Rogue, I would drag my liberal butt through a blizzard to see the movie on opening weekend. That film should definitely happen, by the way.

So, in summation: I have been excited about Alice for a while, and today, when I put on my awkward, Elvis Costello-like 3D glasses (when did those stop being cardboard?), they will be distinctly rose-colored. And if I rave unabashedly, you should take that with a Jabberwocky-sized grain of salt.

I hope to see you back here tomorrow night for the Oscar live-blog. Until then – see you in Wonderland.