March brings us the video release of a top-notch thriller, David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [Sony]. Here is the case of a best-selling Swedish novel — the first installment of Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy, published in 2005 — which became a worldwide best-seller, followed by the English language edition published in 2008; a smashingly successful Swedish film in 2009; and an even more successful American film in 2011. All of which is a testament to the power of creating compelling characters. And none of which warmed the heart or filled the pockets of the author; he died of a heart attack at the age of 50 in 2004, before the first section of the trilogy was published.
Daniel Craig stars as journalist Mikael Blomkvist, but it is Rooney Mara — as the computer-hacking genius Lisbeth Salander who dominates the movie. Mara, last seen in Fincher's "The Social Network," is very good indeed. (To look at her you wouldn't necessarily think pro football, but great-grandfathers Rooney and Mara were founders of the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants.) Also on hand is Christopher Plummer, who just supplemented his two Tonys and two Emmys with an Oscar — not for "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" but for his other big 2011 movie, "Beginners." Not a bad year for an 80-something.
Look for film version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" to be followed by "The Girl Who Played with Fire" and "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest," as quickly as the producers can make 'em. If the first in the series is any indication, these will be high-grossing, spellbinding thrillers as well.
Arriving the day of my deadline — and thus too late to watch again — is the engrossing The Descendants [Fox], one of the best and most satisfying movies of 2011. This from director Alexander Payne, who also gave us "Sideways" in 2004. (Payne shared Oscars — and deservedly so — for the screenplays of both "Sideways" and "The Descendants"). George Clooney is especially impressive here, as a father coping with an assortment of problems. All set against the backdrop of Kaua'i, in Hawaii, which makes a mighty fine backdrop. This family comedy-drama is likely to pull you in for repeated viewings.
The Blu-ray comes with a DVD and digital copy. Special features include "Everybody Loves George" [Clooney], "Working with Alexander" [Payne], a piece on "The Real Descendants," and some deleted scenes that fans will want to watch.
If it's a startlingly good courtroom drama you want — one that isn't anything like a standard courtroom drama, or a standard anything — you can turn to Otto Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder [Criterion]. Preminger was a director/producer who tended to do things differently and stir things up cinematically. Best known for the 1944 "Laura," he helmed a long list of provocative films including "The Moon Is Blue," "Carmen Jones," "The Man with the Golden Arm," "Exodus" and "Advise and Consent."
"Anatomy of a Murder," from 1959, is one of his finest. James Stewart stars as a somewhat shaky attorney representing a murderer; the defense is that the victim had raped the man's wife. (The detailed discussion of rape and the repeated use of the word "panties," in Eisenhower America, was enough to cause moralists and some politicians to blanch.) There are many shades of ambiguity here, and an array of enjoyable performances from interesting actors. Like Ben Gazzara (who died in February), who in 1955 had created the role of Brick in the Tennessee Williams play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Gazzara is the defendant, and not an admirable one; Lee Remick is his wife, and not an admirable one. Both performances are fascinating. Stewart's office staff consists of Arthur O'Connell and Eve Arden, and you can hardly find two better character actors.
Most watchable, perhaps, is George C. Scott as the prosecuting attorney. This is the relatively young Scott — already past thirty, but just becoming established. (He picked up his first Oscar nomination in the process, joined by Stewart and O'Connell). Stewart v. Scott is quite a battle of lawyers, and actors. History enthusiasts will note a special gift from Preminger: that judge up there — and it's a very good performance — is Joseph N. Welch, head counsel of the Army in the Army-McCarthy Hearings in 1954. (This was the folk hero who in real life shot the poisoned arrow at Senator Joseph McCarthy and helped bring down the blacklist, with the words "Have you no sense of decency, sir?")
"Anatomy of a Murder" is further enhanced by the jazz score, true jazz from Duke Ellington. Even the title sequence is memorably good, coming from Saul Bass. The Blu-ray from Criterion looks and sounds wonderful, a significant improvement from the prior DVD release. Special features on the second disc include a new interview with Preminger's biographer, Foster Hirsch; critic Gary Giddens on Ellington's score; a piece on the relationship between Preminger and Saul Bass; excerpts from Preminger's 1967 appearance on "Firing Line" with William G. Buckley, Jr.; and more.
Also from Criterion: Louis Malle's film version of Andre Gregory's Vanya on 42nd Street on Blu-ray, which will be discussed in our next column.
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Another ambiguous murder mystery comes in The Killing [Fox]. This is the first season of the series that AMC gave us last year as consolation for no "Mad Men." "The Killing" — based on the 2007 Danish series "Forbrydelsen" — might be hard to follow if you don't follow it carefully. I can see how a missed episode or two would make it impossible to catch up. That's not a problem, of course, if you are watching it on DVD or Blu-ray. The time invested is well worth it if you like puzzles, and intrigue, and atmosphere. This is a Seattle murder, with a slippery set of facts that keeps the detectives — and the audience — shifting. Let's describe it as a not-so-quirky "Twin Peaks" with a dash of "Fargo," drenched by Seattle weather and a Scandinavian malaise. Dark, wet, enigmatic and captivating. Mireille Enos, as Detective Sarah Linden, makes the thing work as well as it does; she is arrestingly good. She is supported by Billy Campbell as the city council president with a load of baggage running for mayor, and Joel Kinnaman as an ex-narc with his own load of baggage. Standing out among the regulars are Michelle Forbes, who gives a harrowing performance as the mother of the murder victim, and Brent Sexton as the father of the girl.
The murder of teenager Rosie Larsen is solved in the final episode of the season. Or is it? Seems like there's a lot more to come, with plenty of twists left still to turn. (The Blu-ray/DVD comes with a slightly extended final episode.) Season Two of "The Killing" starts April 1, on AMC. First, though, you really ought to try to fit in Season One.
Rhapsody in Blue [Warner Archive] is a biopicture of. . . Well, you wouldn't guess if you didn't know the songs. Oh, and if they didn't keep calling Robert Alda "George Gershwin." Is this the life of Gershwin? Well, I suppose it's as close as Cole Porter's biopicture "Night and Day." But there it is in black and white — or red, actually — built into the artwork on the cover: "the jubilant story of George Gershwin."
On the plus side, you get a little bit of Al Jolson (at 60) singing "Swanee," a little bit of Paul Whiteman conducting the "Rhapsody," a little bit of Anne Brown — Gershwin's authentic and original Bess — singing "Summertime"; and Oscar Levant as himself and also dubbing the "Concerto in F" while Alda pretends to play. And lots of Gershwin tunes. Lots. Some famous, some obscure. (The Brothers Warner bought the publisher of Gershwin's early catalogue, so this film — like "Night and Day" — was a case of the studio plugging their own property.) We also get Alexis Smith as the girl, 'cause every '40s biopic of a famous composer needs to have a girl. As for Mr. Alda — also known as the father of Alan — he isn't all that impressive here. He ultimately got the last laugh, starring five years later as the dashing Sky Masterson in the original Broadway company of Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls.
The folks at Warner Archive simultaneously sent along two items. You Can't Get Away with Murder — the artwork calls it "a dramatic bombshell!" — is a 1939 Humphrey Bogart prison pic, based on a 1937 melodrama that ran a mere 12 performances at the Morosco. (This was directed by Antoinette Perry, of all people. Co-author was one Lewis E. Lawes, warden of — yes!!! — Sing-Sing.) More interesting is the 1932 Thirteen Women, in part because the main woman is Irene Dunne and the villainess is an unusual but entertaining Myrna Loy. Among the other women are Florence Eldridge, wife of Fredric March and the creator of the role of Mary Tyrone in the original Broadway production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night; and Jill Esmond, who had just appeared as the quibbling Sybil opposite Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in the Broadway production of Private Lives. And who at the time of "Thirteen Women" was married to the Victor of that production, Laurence Olivier.
A horror film from Pedro Almodovar? The Skin I Live In [Sony Pictures Classics] sounds different, and is different. Antonio Banderas stars as a plastic surgeon who is seemingly grafted from Frankenstein. The good doctor Frankenstein, that is, not his monster. There's also a bit of Fritz Lang in the mix.
This marks the reunion of director and star. Banderas started his film career in 1982, at the age of 22, in Almovador's "Labyrinth of Passion." He achieved stardom and a proverbial passport to Hollywood in the director's "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" (1988) and "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" (1990).
Almodovar weaves a compelling spell, although the less said the better for prospective viewers. This is one of those films which you really don't want to know too much about when you sit down to view it. But it's just the thing if you like hypnotic, foreign-language thrillers.
From the BBC comes the powerful 1976 series I, Claudius [Acorn]. Here is Derek Jacobi in all his glory, in the role which thrust him to stardom. Based on the 1934 novel and its 1935 sequel ("Claudius the God," both by Robert Graves), the series is graced with a compelling adaptation by Jack Pulman.
Jacobi is well matched by Sian Phillips as Livia (the packaging calls her "lethal Livia," which fits nicely); and by John Hurt as Caligula ("the depraved Caligula," and he is). The cast is filled out with all sorts of watchable actors, not the least of whom are Maggie Tyzack and Patrick Stewart. "I, Claudius" is altogether a Roman holiday, with Derek as our stammering guide.
Twelve episodes are spread across four discs, running some 11 hours. This was top television making of its day, although nowadays it does look somewhat studio-bound. Picture and sound are significantly better in this 35th Anniversary set from Acorn than in the 2000 video release. Bonuses include alternate, extended versions of episodes 1 and 2; "I, Claudius: A Television Epic," a documentary about the making of the series; and an interview with Jacobi.
Of special interest is "The Epic That Never Was," a 71-minute piece about Alexander Korda's unfinished 1937 adaptation of the Graves work. Charles Laughton as Claudius? Sounds perfect, no? With direction by Josef von Sternberg? What a film, had they ultimately been able to come up with one. Here — on the DVD set of this very different version of "I, Claudius"--we get to see the footage that survives.
Roman Polanski's Carnage [Sony Pictures Classics], based on Yasmina Reza's comedy God of Carnage, is pretty much all right. As someone who found God of Carnage a magical slugfest on the stage of the Jacobs in 2009 with James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden, I unfortunately can't help finding the 2011 film not quite so magical without James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis and Marcia Gay Harden.
The vast majority of movie viewers, of course, never got to see or even contemplate seeing Reza's play with Gandolfini, Daniels, Davis and Harden. So those coming to "Carnage" fresh don't have that disadvantage going in. Even so, the film — starring Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz and John C. Reilly — did not seem to do especially well on its theatrical release. Perhaps this slugfest simply worked better when the actors were there, violently duking it out in front of you?
(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released Updated and Expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and On the Record columns. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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