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A scene from "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"
A scene from "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"

Liam Lacey: Behind the Screens

The critic who kicked the hornets' nest Add to ...

Many critics, including me, have already seen The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, a movie that won’t be released to the public until Dec. 21. Though I’ve been embargoed from tweeting, blogging or writing about it, I say to heck with it. Here goes: The two-and-a-half hour movie stars Rooney Mara as Swedish punk computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, and Daniel Craig as disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist, who team up to solve a crime.

Previous columns by Liam Lacey

The reason I feel so free to speak out is because David Denby, like the feisty Salander, decided to break the rules. After agreeing to the same embargo, he went ahead and reviewed the film in this week’s New Yorker, an event which has raised a considerable kerfuffle in the movie world. A heated e-mail exchange between Denby and Dragon Tattoo’s producer Scott Rudin was obtained by Indiewire’s Playlist blog. Rudin called the New Yorker’s early review a “very, very damaging move” and a “a deeply lousy and immoral thing to have done,” concluding that “I could not in good conscience invite you to see another movie of mine again.”

Sony’s head of publicity, Andre Caraco, followed up with an e-mail to critics, asserting: “As a matter of principle, the New Yorker’s breach violates a trust and undermines a system designed to help journalists do their job and serve their readers.”

What exactly did Denby do that was so damaging? As he pointed out, he wrote a pretty positive review, calling David Fincher’s film “mesmerizing.”

But even if he had called the movie a steaming pile of rancid Swedish meatballs, his transgression would be no less. He broke a deal: With one review out, other publications could justifiably run their reviews, upsetting Sony’s entire marketing plan. More importantly, breaking promises is an act for which journalists routinely excoriate politicians and other public figures. The core of good criticism is good judgment. This time Denby didn’t show it.

Sony’s talk of “principle” and “serving readers” might be taken with a grain of salt (in 2005, the same company had to pay out $1.5-million in a class-action settlement after inventing a fake critic to provide positive quotes for movies). But the movie is the company’s property, and you can understand they want to avoid making Dragon Tattoo sound like old news.

At the same time, this high-profile conflict exposes the anachronistic film-reviewing system. As Patrick Goldstein, writing in the Los Angeles Times, noted: “In the age of Twitter and iPhones, where there is such an uninterrupted stream of information scooting around every minute, it's haplessly old-fashioned to argue that you broke an embargo because you needed to get your copy into print two weeks early.”

At the same time, Goldstein added, “it’s almost equally hard to believe that movie studios still rigidly try to dictate when top-notch publications can run informed analyses of their films.”

In fact, it’s ridiculous. John Anderson, the president of the New York Critics’ Circle, which arranged the embargoed screening that Denby attended, told The Hollywood Reporter: “Perhaps the whole process should be abolished – if everyone had to go to the theatre to see everything, it would level the playing field, and no one would have to ‘play ball’ in order to maintain their access.”

Director David Fincher told The Miami Herald he would prefer just three screenings one day in advance of a film’s wide release, to keep the film experience as fresh as possible. It would be more honest: Let's see the movies together and let the pans and raves fall where they may. The current system of sneaks, leaks and embargoes is phony, with fan mash notes passing as critiques, and ratings that can be easily manipulated by anonymous posters. By the time the professional critics arrive, the job often seems less about reviewing a new film that trying to offer a correction to an already-formed consensus.

OPENING NEXT WEEK

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked The helium-voiced singing chipmunks – and their female counterparts – go on an ocean cruise and end up shipwrecked on a tropical island. With Jason Lee and David Cross.

Dragonslayer Winner of Grand Jury and cinematography awards at this year’s SXSW festival, Dragonslayer is an impressionistic documentary that follows a turbulent year in the life of journeyman California skateboarder Josh "Skreech" Sandoval.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol The fourth in this Mission: Impossible series, after a five-year gap, sees Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) going rogue. The Impossible Mission Force has been disbanded after being blamed for a terrorist attack on the Kremlin. Jeremy Renner ( The Hurt Locker) co-stars, with director Brad Bird ( The Incredibles) making his live-action debut. This is the IMAX-only version. The conventional theatre opening is on Dec. 21.

Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows This sequel to director Guy Ritchie’s global hit again pairs Robert Downey Jr. as the cerebral sleuth with Jude Law as Dr. Watson, chasing the evil Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) across Europe. With Noomi Rapace and Rachel McAdams.

Young Adult Reuniting for the first time since Juno, director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody forged this black comedy starring Charlize Theron as a narcissistic “young adult” fiction writer who decides to reclaim her high-school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) in spite of his marriage and recent baby.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy There’s a return to a Cold War chill in Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John LeCarre’s spy novel, with Gary Oldman as the enigmatic George Smiley. The film features Colin Firth, Ciarin Hinds and Toby Jones as Smiley’s MI6 cohorts, one of whom is leaking secrets to the Soviets.

Follow on Twitter: @liamlacey

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