Monthly Archives

July 2010

Penguin Books 75th Anniversary Giveaway

When I was new in the U.S. and first started reading classics, I noticed the penguin logo was on every paperback I read (couldn’t afford hardcovers back then) and assumed it was on all paperbacks. Of course, I found out later this wasn’t true but my little black and white friend was certainly the symbol of a good book.

Today Penguin Books officially turns 75 but all summer, the Penguin Mobile has been touring the country and driving its authors to celebrations at bookstores in their hometown. The final event will take place in September in New York City, where the Mini Cooper will be auctioned off with proceeds going to the New York Public Library. If I had the cash, I would bid on it in a heartbeat. I’d then take it on a car chase like in The Bourne Identity but that’s another story.

Since I can’t get to NYC, I’m celebrating here by giving away a paperback of Tana French’s In the Woods, which won the 2007 Edgar for best first novel. I haven’t read it but intend to very soon due to all the good reviews her books have received (check out this one by Picky Girl).

Here’s the synopsis from French’s website:

As dusk approaches a small Dublin suburb in the summer of 1984, mothers begin to call their children home. But on this warm evening, three children do not return from the dark and silent woods. When the police arrive, they find only one of the children, gripping a tree trunk in terror, wearing blood-filled shoes, and unable to recall a single detail of the previous hours.

Twenty years later, the found boy, Rob Ryan, is a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad and keeps his past a secret. But when a twelve-year-old girl is found murdered in the same woods, he and Detective Cassie Maddox – his partner and closest friend – find themselves investigating a case with chilling links to that long-ago disappearance. Now, with only snippets of buried memories to guide him, Rob has the chance to unravel both the mystery of the case before him and that of his own shadowy past.

To enter:

  • be a subscriber or Twitter follower (tell me which)
  • leave a comment telling me which author you’d like to spend some time with in that cozy little car (perhaps while parked in the woods?)
  • have a U.S. address

Giveaway ends next Wednesday, August 4, 5 p.m. PST. A winner will be randomly chosen via and only announced here and on Twitter. I won’t contact you personally so please check back to see if you win. The winner will have 48 hours to claim the prize before an alternate name is chosen.

Now, let’s party in the car and start fogging up the windows!


The Right Girl

As announced earlier this week, Daniel Craig is confirmed as Mikael Blomkvist in David Fincher’s version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the two sequels in Stieg Larsson’s Millenium trilogy. I whooped for joy at this news because I think there’s no better choice for Blomkvist. Craig has the intelligence to portray the journalist and the sex appeal to convince us Blomkvist is a ladies’ man.

But now the focus turns towards the casting of Lisbeth Salander, which is more crucial to the success of the franchise. According to numerous sources, Fincher has narrowed his choices to the following four actresses:

  1. Léa Seydoux
  2. Sarah Snook
  3. Rooney Mara
  4. Sophie Lowe

I’m excited that three out of four are foreigners—Snook and Lowe are Australians, Leydoux is French—and all are unknown here. When I watch the movie I’ll want to see only Lisbeth up there, not thinking, “Oh, that’s Ellen Page /Natalie Portman/Carey Mulligan in punk makeup.”

What do you think? Do you want an unknown or more established actress as Lisbeth? Judging only from their photos, do any of these give off a Lisbeth vibe to you? How do you feel about Craig as Blomkvist?


Book Review: John Verdon’s THINK OF A NUMBER

John Verdon’s Think of a Number hooked me quickly with an intriguing premise, but its need for editing prevents it from being more enjoyable.

Retired NYPD detective Dave Gurney is contacted by an old acquaintance, Mark Mellery, who says he’s being stalked by someone sending sinister notes. The note writer seems to be able to read Mellery’s mind, telling him to think of random numbers and correctly predicting them in previously sealed envelopes. Before Gurney can figure out the motive, Mellery is murdered, with baffling clues left behind for the cops to find. When other bodies start piling up, the police bring in Gurney as a consultant to help beat the killer at his own twisted game.

For the first quarter of the book, Verdon had me flipping the pages because I couldn’t figure out how the killer was pulling off the mind-reading scheme. Eventually, though, the author’s tendency to overwrite everything became problematic. Witness the following:

For a moment he was distracted by the awareness of his own dissembling presentation of his emotional reaction.

That confusing sentence aside, Verdon often states the obvious. Gurney is told by another cop not to remove and touch evidence from a plastic bag when the brilliant veteran detective would know this. Adverbs are overused, both in dialogue tags—e.g. “he whispered gratingly”—and in descriptions: A cop gives Gurney a “professionally neutral” look. As opposed to a casually neutral look? Neutral is neutral.

We’re also told several times within a scene how a character resembles Sigourney Weaver, and the androgynous quality of another’s voice is mentioned every time she speaks. These details have no importance, making their repetition curious. And perhaps to heighten Gurney’s expertise, Verdon piles the stupidity onto almost every other law enforcement character, having them ask inane questions befitting a rookie instead of a DA, police captain or twenty-four-year veteran on the force.

The emotionally distant Gurney is hard to like; even he admits he’s more cerebral than emotive. For all his thinking, his wife Madeleine is the one who figures out some of the most perplexing aspects of the case. He also makes an incredibly careless move to bait the killer that puts Madeleine’s life at risk then doesn’t warn her of the danger she’s in.

The book’s flaws are frustrating because the unique central puzzle could have been turned into a more thrilling story. I wish Gurney, the supposedly astute detective, and his creator had discovered that sometimes less is more.

Nerd verdict: Faulty Number

This post is part of the TLC blog tour for Think of a Number. Click here to see other participating blogs and reviews.



With the title Dinner for Schmucks and Paul Rudd and Steve Carell as leads, you might think the movie (opening July 30) would be a laugh riot. Turns out, I barely cracked a smile.

Rudd plays Tim, an executive after a big promotion who must first pass muster by bringing the biggest idiot to a monthly dinner hosted by his boss (Bruce Greenwood). Though he’s indecisive about attending the event after his girlfriend disapproves, Tim finds the perfect candidate when he hits Barry (Carell) with his car. Barry builds mice dioramas, is socially inept and seems to be Tim’s perfect ticket to that promotion. Eventually, of course, Tim discovers who the real schmucks are.

The most amusing thing about the movie, based on the French film Le Diner de Cons, is the opening credits, when we see Barry creating his delightful dioramas with meticulously dressed mice set in charming scenery. Then it’s all downhill from there, a head-scratching turn of events considering the cast, which also includes Lucy Punch and Flight of the Conchords‘ Jemaine Clement and Kristen Schaal, all capable of being very funny. They’re hampered by a script by David Guion and Michael Handelman that seems to think outrageousness equals hilarity, which it doesn’t, at least not here. Clement used to make me laugh out loud on Conchords because the humor (which he wrote with Bret McKenzie) was rooted in reality. Here, he’s forced to wear crazy outfits and do weird things just for shock value, resulting in scenes that are simply ridiculous.

I was also dismayed by director Jay Roach having Rudd in his movie and not allowing him to be funny, not even once. Rudd plays the straight man and mostly has to act exasperated at everyone’s antics. The squandered opportunity for inspired riffing with his co-star is frustrating. Carell, who is just as good a dramatic actor as a comedic one, makes Barry sympathetic but we’ve seen this performance before. Barry’s innocence is reminiscent of Andy’s in The 40-Year-Old Virgin and his inappropriate comments are similar to what comes out of Michael Scott’s mouth every week on The Office. Barry does provide some heart but I wish the movie had more of a funny bone.

Nerd verdict: Dinner‘s an empty dish

Photos: Merie Weismiller Wallace


Best Pre-SALT Female Action Heroes

My parents are in town so I probably won’t get a chance to see Salt this weekend, but I’ve been reading about how amazing Angelina Jolie is in the movie. I’m a big fan of her in action mode, but some articles make it sound as if a woman has never convincingly played an action hero. So, I thought I’d pop out this quick reminder list of some of the most bad-ass female performances in the last 25 years.

  1. Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. When I saw her in that movie, every ounce in my 98-lb. body wanted to be as strong as she. I kept thinking, How do I get arms like that?? Arnold may have had bigger muscles but to me, Hamilton was the most powerful presence on screen. (UPDATE: Chuck producers announced today that Hamilton will be Chuck’s mom this coming season! That’s nine kinds of awesome because she was our first choice when my husband and I were armchair-casting the role.)
  2. Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Aliens. She was so fierce protecting Newt, the alien had nothing on her.
  3. Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity in The Matrix. She wasn’t all shades and black vinyl; she had the butt-kicking skill to back up her ‘tude.
  4. Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series. Besides her formidable slayer-ness,  she was armed with a valuable weapon—her quick wit.
  5. Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She looks like a waif but bad guys learned the painful way not to mess with her. In The Girl Who Played with Fire, Lisbeth experiences things which would destroy the average person, but her fierce resilience proves she’s the Girl Who Won’t Stay Down.
  6. Anne Parillaud as Nikita in La Femme Nikita. There have been two other Nikitas (Bridget Fonda and Peta Wilson) and Maggie Q is about to debut as the third incarnation on CW but Parillaud remains the best and most convincing as the reluctant assassin.
  7. Geena Davis as Samantha/Charly in The Long Kiss Goodnight. At first, her character can’t remember her past, believing she’s a housewife. But from the moment she throws that kitchen knife across the room with deadly accuracy, you know her dangerous side is taking over and she doesn’t disappoint.
  8. Michelle Yeoh in Supercop or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Tomorrow Never Dies. I can’t pick just one when Yeoh is one of the most incredible stunt actresses out there. It was almost insulting when she was cast as a Bond girl because it was clear she would save his ass in a fight, not the other way around.
  9. Zhang Ziyi as Xiao Mei in House of Flying Daggers. The movie has gorgeously choreographed and photographed fight scenes—the ones in the bamboo forest and in the field stand out—all elevated by Zhang’s agility and grace.
  10. Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow in Alias. She kicked butt with such ferocity and conviction, she made us believe that sweet dimpled college girl was a lethal spy.

Who would be on your list?


Winners of Aimee Bender’s THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE selected the following winners:

  • A Bookshelf Monstrosity
  • jenn (aka picky_girl)

Please click on my contact form and let me know where you’d like Doubleday to ship your book. If I don’t hear from you by 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 21, I’ll select alternate winner(s).

Thanks to all who entered and shared your answers. I loved hearing about all the hope and joy you’d taste in your own cooking. If we can only get the whole world to eat it…

Buy The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake from Amazon
Buy from Barnes & Nobles
Buy from Powell’s Books


Writing Tics That Bug Me

While reading, I’m willing to overlook many minor flaws if what I’m reading is interesting enough. But lately, I’ve come across the following issues so often, they’re beginning to feel like a shiv in my eye every time I encounter them. I’m not talking about blatant grammatical errors (also painful) but writing quirks that take me out of the story. Do any of these annoy you or am I just being bitchy?

  1. Unnecessary dialogue tags. The best writers know how to keep tags invisible and let dialogue speak for itself. It’s distracting when every line of dialogue is marked with adverbs or adverbial phrases. Examples from books I recently read: “he demanded angrily,” “she whispered mysteriously,” “he said inanely,” and “she announced confidently.” In all these instances, it was clear the characters were angry, mysterious, inane and confident, based on what they said. I think all those verbs were superfluous, too; “he/she said” should suffice if the dialogue is strong enough. I like it when a writer is so good, he/she omits the tags altogether because it’s clear who’s saying what and how. (Charlie Huston is a master at this.)
  2. Characters addressing each other too much in conversation. Paraphrased example from a recent novel: “Are you sure, Charles?” “Yes, I am, Jan.” “Be careful, Charles.” “Jan, don’t worry. I’ll call you, Jan.” Every conversation in the book was like this, which made me scratch my own nails on a chalkboard to relieve frustration. I’ve often talked to someone at a party or on a plane for hours and realized later I never got that person’s name because we just don’t address each other that much in real-life conversations.
  3. Overuse of “that.” As in, “I don’t think that he knows that I’m in love with him, but he might soon realize that I am the best friend that he’s ever had.” None of those “that”s is necessary. I don’t think that it’s needed ninety percent of the time that it’s used.
  4. Expository dialogue. Conversation between two sisters: “Have you talked to our grumpy, seventy-year-old dad lately?” “Well, now that he’s moved to the country and his cancer is gone due to his chemo last year, he’s in a better mood.” “How’s Troy?” “You mean my handsome, workaholic attorney husband who somehow managed to plan a surprise 40th birthday party for me last month? He’s great.” “Wow, I wish I had your glamorous life, with your perfect husband, two kids and New York City apartment overlooking Central Park.” Make it stop or I’ll throw myself out that apartment window.
  5. Omission of one of the five “W”s to indicate tough-guy ‘tude. Examples: “The hell you mean?” “The f*ck you think you are?” “The hell didn’t you say so?” Years ago, some writer decided cops and goombahs are too tough to use the five Ws. It didn’t bother me when I occasionally came across it but nowadays, the rampant use of this gimmick as a shortcut to denote surly characters has made it tiresome. The hell did this happen?

What tics tick you off?


I Want to Go to There

It’s been 9000 degrees here in L.A. and my A/C has been running around the clock just so I can breathe and not look like I’ve been hit by Super Soakers loaded with sweat. Terrified I’d get an $800 electric bill next month, I fled my home for the nearby Barnes & Noble because 1) it’s cold enough for penguins to live there and 2) it has books, food and bathrooms. What else do you need? (OK, maybe showers and a butler.)

I strolled the aisles, fondling books inappropriately, and these covers caught my eye:

Can you tell where my head was? I don’t know what these books are about or if I want to read them, but just looking at the covers has taken my body temp down about 60 degrees.

What book covers would represent your current state of mind?


INCEPTION’s Inception: Review and Conversation with Christopher Nolan & Creative Team

From L.: Rao, Hardy, Gordon-Levitt, DiCaprio, Page, Watanabe

Watching Christopher Nolan’s Inception (opening July 16), I thought of my college Japanese instructor during my second year of studying the language, the hardest I’ve ever learned. The teacher had just transferred from Yale and spoke to us in Japanese as if we were natives, refusing to stop and explain things even if most of us just gaped at him, hopelessly lost. Finally, a frustrated classmate whined, “C’mon, give us a break. We’re not Yale.” (For the record, we were at the University of Virginia, a perfectly good school, thanks very much.) Our teacher stopped and said, in perfect English, “I will not come down to your level. I want you to come up to mine.”

With his latest movie, Nolan seems to be saying the same thing to audiences. Inception is a complex maze, one that will require lots of brain power and concentration to understand. Even though I didn’t get all of it (I’ll need to re-watch it on DVD with subtitles), I enjoyed trying to grasp the movie’s concepts and was grateful Nolan didn’t make it easy for us.

I’ll do only a vague plot summary since the less you know about it, the better. But there will be mild spoilers in the Q & A section below where I recap some behind-the-scenes tidbits Nolan and his creative team shared when they showed up after the screening to discuss their process. You might want to come back and read that after you see the movie to learn how they pulled off some of the eye teasers.


Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an expert extractor, someone who enters people’s dreams to steal their most valuable secrets. He has a team of assistants consisting of characters played by Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dileep Rao and the charismatic Tom Hardy, each of whom has a special skill. Cobb also has the talent of inception, the power to plant an idea in someone’s mind and make the dreamer think it’s his own. It’s this ability he must use to finish one last job for a powerful client, Saito (Ken Watanabe), who can help Cobb return to a life from which he has been exiled.


Because Inception takes place mostly in dreams, it contains some eye-popping imagery. One sequence is reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey and a fight scene involving Gordon-Levitt calls to mind not Batman, but Spider-Man. And lest you think it’s mostly CGI, it isn’t (see Q & A).

DiCaprio, doing solid work in his second movie this year featuring altered reality, heads an impressive cast, though most of the actors are underused. Page doesn’t get to whip out any of her sass as Ariadne, our exposition facilitator; Michael Caine’s part could’ve have been done by any number of actors; and Cillian Murphy, with his unsettling blue eyes, plays it straight when he’s more interesting as characters who are creepy and freaky.


The two standouts are Marion Cotillard as Mal and Hardy as Eames. Cotillard is a divine presence, gorgeous and menacing and vulnerable all at once. The British Hardy, whom I’d never seen before (his credits include RocknRolla and the next Mad Max movie, in which he’ll take over the titular role) has the kind of magnetism that signals future stardom on these shores.

And then there’s Nolan. I’m just going to call him the next Best Original Screenplay Oscar winner right now because I doubt any other script this year will beat Inception in originality. Watching the movie was a little like dreaming for me—experiencing it in the dark, submerged in fantastical imagery, having uneasy sensations but not wanting things to end right away because I wanted to see what happens. When it was over, I wasn’t sure I could explain everything. There are curious plot holes but as with a lot of sci-fi, I can’t argue much about real-world logic. Perhaps to balance out the movie’s more bizarre aspects, Nolan gets quite literal with the names (Mal’s is a big clue and in Greek mythology, Ariadne helps Theseus escape from a labyrinth) and a couple of chess references (because it’s a mind game?). The emotional impact is lightweight but still, I hope Nolan uses his power of inception to plant in the minds of Hollywood studio executives the idea that we need more smart, creative entertainment like this.

Nerd verdict: Open your mind to Inception

Q & A

*Mild Spoilers*

After the screening, Pete Hammond moderated a session with Nolan, his producer/wife Emma Thomas, cinematographer Wally Pfister, composer Hans Zimmer, production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas and casting director John Papsidera. Except for Dyas, everyone had previously worked with Nolan before this movie, most going all the way back to Memento.

I couldn’t transcribe everything but here are some highlights:

  • Nolan had wanted to do something about dreams since he was a kid but it wasn’t until 10 years ago that he zeroed in on the idea of doing a heist film that takes place within dreams. Despite his clout after the success of the Batman reboot, he finished the entire script before pitching it to Warner Bros. because he wanted them to see his whole concept.
  • Heist films are usually methodical but Nolan decided to make this an emotional love story because that’s what keeps him passionate about what he does.
  • The biggest challenge for producer Thomas was shooting in six countries, including Morocco, France and England. When she read the first 80 pages of Nolan’s script many years ago, she had no idea how it could be brought to the screen. By the time the script was completed, she had the Batman movies under her belt and was more equipped to take on a big project like this.
  • Pfister said Nolan made clear there would be no strange color palettes to indicate when someone’s in a dream. He wanted all scenes to look real so audiences would never be sure where they are. Pfister and Nolan do very little pre-planning when it comes to lighting, keeping it natural and allowing the locations to dictate how they should light them. There was never any scheme to use lighting to delineate between the dream levels.
  • Dyas spoke about creating duplicates of the same sets—a horizontal version,  a vertical one, etc. During the pivotal gravity-free scene with Gordon-Levitt, the hotel corridor was set inside a gimbal then rotated with Gordon-Levitt inside and a camera mounted to one wall. Because the actor was on wires, Nolan had to direct him like a puppeteer.
  • Papsidera was so adamant about Cotillard playing Mal, he pushed Nolan to travel to the Moroccan desert to meet with her (she was filming another movie). Somehow they missed each other there and ended up meeting in Paris. Coincidentally, an Edith Piaf song plays an important part in the movie but Nolan had written that in the script 10 years ago. He considered changing it after Cotillard came on board but then decided he liked having that connection.
  • During the sequence when the team is skiing, Pfister had to hire Chris Patterson, an experienced skier, to shoot footage while going downhill. Nolan really wanted the handheld effect to put viewers inside the action but it was something Pfister couldn’t do. Patterson had to capture every shot while skiing and they’re not sure how he did it without slamming into trees.
  • Nolan looked at different formats to shoot the movie. It was mostly shot in 35mm, some 65mm, up to 360 frames per second. Nolan tested 3D conversion in post-production and got good results but didn’t have enough time to do it in the scientific way he wanted.
  • When asked if any images from his subconscious are in the movie, Nolan said he had no idea.

Photos: Warner Bros.



Courtesy TNT

It’s hard for me to review something I neither love nor hate, which is how I feel about the pilot for this new TNT series (Mondays, 10 p.m.) starring Angie Harmon as tough-talking homicide detective Jane Rizzoli and Sasha Alexander as fashion-conscious medical examiner Maura Isles. I always welcome the chance to watch Harmon but the show, after a tense opening, turned out to be average, offering no fresh take on the cop drama. It might not be fair to ask for something original since cop dramas saturate the tube and have done so since TV went color, but all you have to do is look at its lead-in, The Closer, to see how that features a unique character in Kyra Sedgwick’s Brenda Leigh Johnson.

The premiere introduces us to Rizzoli’s family and colleagues and we learn that a murderer who once almost killed her is back, hell bent on finishing what he started with Rizzoli. Rizzoli says she’s not scared, won’t be intimidated into staying at Mom’s house, “I’m a homicide detective!” etc., until of course she gets into a bad situation with her nemesis. Do I have to tell you who prevails during the confrontation?

I haven’t read Tess Gerritsen’s novels on which the show is based but think Harmon is a great choice for the Boston detective, doing her tomboy spitfire thing, similar to what she did on ABC’s short-lived, underrated Women’s Murder Club (another series based on popular novels). I’ve always liked how she never plays dumb, pretty girls despite being gorgeous. Alexander doesn’t have much to do yet; she mostly spouts some medical info and looks fabulous in expensive designer clothes and perfectly highlighted hair. I do not understand why both women drool over Billy Burke (Bella’s dad in the Twilight movies) as an FBI agent because he just ain’t hot. Burke is an impressive actor but his character is dull, gloomy and generates zero sparks with either Rizzoli or Isles. Lorraine Bracco is annoying as Rizzoli’s mother but I guess if my daughter were a cop being hunted by a serial killer, I’d worry and fuss over her safety, too.

I might tune in again next week strictly because of Harmon. Or I may just pick up the books and see her in my head.

Have you read the novels and seen the show? What did you think?

Nerd verdict: Rizzoli & Isles not a total bust, elevated by attractive leads

Buy Ice Cold: A Rizzoli & Isles Novel from Amazon
Buy from Barnes & Noble
Buy from Powell’s Books



Aimee Bender‘s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a bittersweet piece of literature that is both filling and light, with a satisfying secret ingredient I’m not sure I can identify but am happy to consume.

Right before her ninth birthday, Rose discovers she can taste her mother’s despair in the lemon cake she made. Besides the shock of realizing she now has this strange ability to taste people’s true emotions in the food they create, Rose is surprised to learn how her mother really feels beneath her always sunny facade. Turns out everyone in her family has secrets—her genius brother who often seems to disappear into thin air, her father who has a strange aversion to hospitals—and Rose just isn’t prepared to know them. She goes out of her way to consume only factory-processed foods, e.g. snacks from the school vending machine, as she tries to navigate life while knowing—and feeling—too much about the people around her. The most important revelation comes when she finally eats a meal she cooks herself.

I feel as if I didn’t just read this book; I absorbed it. It washed over me in a lovely, melancholy way that left me moved but not sad. It deals with unrequited love, unfulfilled potential and imperfect family dynamics, but all are ingredients of life and I could only nod and think, It happens. Though it contains magical realism, many scenes and emotions ring very true. Bender has a way of stringing ordinary words together to form enchanting sentences that made me envy her skill. In Rose, she has a vulnerable yet resilient character who may have an extraordinary power but is absolutely relatable in her struggles to find her way and place in the world.

Thanks to Doubleday, I’m giving away two copies of this book. That’s right, it can be yours for the incredible price of FREE.

To enter:

  • be a subscriber or Twitter follower (tell me which—new subscribers/followers get 1 entry, current ones get 2, you get 3 if you tweet about this)
  • leave a comment about what emotions you’d taste if you had Rose’s power and ate your own cooking right now (I’d taste wanton lust for a beautiful house I just saw that’s way out of my price range)
  • have U.S. address, no P.O. Box, per Doubleday’s request

Giveaway ends Monday, July 19, 5 p.m. PST. Winners will be randomly chosen via and only announced here and on Twitter. I will not contact you personally so please check back to see if you win. Winners have 48 hours to claim the prize before alternate names are chosen.

Now, let’s hear how tasty your cooking is!



I loved this book, thought it was better than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because there was no opening exposition; it just hit the ground running. Since the Tattoo movie blew my pants off, I was expecting big things for the Fire adaptation.

Hate to say it—I was a little disappointed. Though the story remained mostly faithful to Stieg Larsson’s novel, which moved like a flame on a trail of gasoline, the movie’s pacing was oddly plodding. It’s as if some scenes were held a beat too long when a quicker cutaway was needed to maintain the urgency of the situation. After seeing it, I remembered reading last year that this movie and the next, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, had been intended for TV, which explains the rhythm and by-the-book procedural feel. Some scenes were probably meant to fade out into commercials while others were intended to come back from them. This impeded the movie’s overall momentum.

It probably didn’t help that there’s a lot of ground to cover here. After Lisbeth becomes the number one suspect in three brutal murders, she goes on the run while Blomkvist tries to find her and clear her name, unearthing secrets about her past, including why she was committed to an asylum when she was twelve. Whereas the revelations are shocking in the book, they lose their punch when disclosed via long, static conversations between characters. Since cinema is a visual medium, I wish director Daniel Alfredson (taking over from Niels Arden Oplev) had found a way to show, not tell.

But it’s not all bad because the electrifying Noomi Rapace returns as Lisbeth Salander and truly, there’s no one better for this role. Lisbeth experiences hell and Rapace goes there. Her performance is devoid of vanity; she does whatever it takes to bring Lisbeth to life. There’s a long stretch when she doesn’t talk but you can read all her thoughts through her eyes, a sign of a smart actress. Lisbeth is softer this time around; she’s often makeup-free (I’m so glad she didn’t get a boob job as she does in the novel) and has a tender scene with her former guardian, Holger Palmgren (Per Oscarsson), showing that our girl is perfectly capable of caring for someone as long as that person isn’t a sadistic rapist pig.

Michael Nyqvist is also back as Mikael Blomkvist, looking even less believable as a handsome ladies’ man than in the previous film (keeping my fingers crossed for Daniel Craig in the American version). He gets Blomkvist’s doggedness across, but doesn’t have the journalist’s fire-in-the-belly righteousness. The rest of the cast is serviceable, with Micke Spreitz credible as the giant monster Ronald Niedermann.

The last quarter of the movie is the strongest, breathholdingly suspenseful despite my knowing what would happen. I jumped as much as the couple next to me in the theater, who probably haven’t read the books since they gasped at every revelation, especially about Zalachenko and Niedermann. The ending differs from the novel’s in several small details and is a little less abrupt, wrapping up with a scene that’s actually the opening of the third book. It’s still open-ended but that’s not why I left the theater feeling dissatisfied.

Nerd verdict: Fire doesn’t quite ignite

Photos © Music Box Films