Friday, December 22, 2006

The Good German - Movie Review

The Good German 2006

Steven Soderbergh is one fascinated director. Despite his Oscar for “Traffic”, and the box-office franchise of the “Ocean’s 11” crew – he continually finds ways to stretch his talent and beguile his audiences. Already this year, he went all “student filmmaker” on us and directed “Bubble” with an amateur cast and almost zero budget to nice acclaim, including us. Now, he takes a spin back in time to the 1940s to helm the film adaptation of Joseph Kanon’s literary thriller, “The Good German”. While the book and film are set in post-war Berlin, that wasn’t enough for Steven. Oh no, he had to pretend he was Michael Curtiz or John Huston or Carol Reed, and direct the film to look amazingly like so many classic dramas of yesteryear.

As many have already noted, the film’s poster design is an obvious tribute to “Casablanca”, but we think the clear inspiration for this piece was Carol Reed’s masterpiece “The Third Man”. Stylistically, that is. For this plot while it may resonate with both earlier gems, has its own tale to tell. George Clooney stars as Captain Jacob “Jake” Geismer, who returns to Berlin ostensibly to be on hand for the famed meeting between President Truman, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill who are there to decide the fate of fallen Germany. He is coupled with a driver by the name of Patrick Tully, played by Tobey Maguire who we quickly learn is more interested in how much money there is to be made on the black market than in helping others. The only piece missing is the girl, and what a girl she is! Cate Blanchett portrays Lena Brandt, a fallen woman who will resort to anything to ensure her survival in a desperate city.

Certainly a set up that would have worked with Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre and Alida Valli back in the day. Or perhaps Gary Cooper, Dan Duryea and Marlene Dietrich! Wait, wait! We have it – how about John Wayne, Van Heflin and Hedy Lamarr! Okay, we’ll stop now. Back to the modern day tribute.

There were many things to enjoy about “The Good German”. First and foremost, the look of the film. Under his popular pen names of Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard, Steven Soderbergh has again opted to act as cinematographer, editor and director and he has done a bang up job! The movie is ravishing. The lighting, superb! For our money, this is the best looking film of the year, in glorious Black and White recalling some of the best shot films of classic Hollywood. As the two leads, George Clooney and Cate Blanchett provide the much needed star power and acting talents to sell the piece. The only real problems are with the less than engaging storyline and Tobey Maguire’s performance.

Now, let’s step back a minute to realize that the cast has spoken at length about their acting style for this movie. Apparently, having poured over various classics for inspiration, they opted to push their performances in a more theatrical manner that would recall the pre-Method acting of days gone by. Bullshit, we say. We have always believed in the power of great acting to transform a mundane storyline into a good filmgoing experience. While people may like to credit Marlon Brando and the Strasberg method for changing acting permanently, the argument for theatrical versus realistic acting goes back to the days of Sarah Bernhardt and Eleanora Duse! Some actors have always been instinctually natural in their carriage and delivery, some more arch and mannered. Nobody is going to tell us that Spencer Tracy or Humphrey Bogart were nothing less than real in their many great performances, and nobody will convince us that Marlene Dietrich or Paul Muni were unconvincing because of their theatrical delivery.

We think Clooney and Blanchett are perfectly cast, and completely plausible as lead actors of the 1940s – a greater compliment we couldn’t pay!

George Clooney has mastered the handsome cad bit to perfection. Here, he is less a cad and more of a man still searching for excitement once the war has ceased. His memories of Berlin and one German lass in particular propel him through a series of very unfortunate events. We think he is one of the very few actors to match the unquestionable masculinity and charisma of such greats as Bogart, Cooper and Wayne.

Cate Blanchett is simply ravishing as the despondent Lena Brandt. The not so secret life she is leading as a prostitute being her own version of penitence for the crimes committed during the war. Harboring more than a few secrets, and capable of far more than Jake gives her credit for, this woman is the most fascinating character in the piece. Watching the way Cate moves through the shots is intoxicating. Carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders, but defiant to the last she is truly a woman that would inspire a man to risk everything to gaze upon her one last time.

The supporting performances fare quite well, when placed in the capable hands of Beau Bridges, Jack Thompson and Robin Weigert. While the seasoned skills of Beau and Jack were familiar to us, we were pleasantly surprised with Robin Weigert as Hannelore, a very naughty German lass who can be had for mere pennies.

We had only been used to her very broadly played Calamity Jane on HBO’s “Deadwood”, which while it grew on us like a bad infection could hardly be called subtle. Here, she is appropriately blowsy, brazen and decidedly on the mark.

The one performance off the mark, belongs to Tobey Maguire. While we think he can be wonderful, such as his nice turn in the very underrated “Wonder Boys” – sigh, please go rent that RIGHT NOW!!! – here he is so overreaching and buggy eyed, that he seems to be acting out some kind of adolescent fantasy of what real acting is. We understand that the tone of the film is a bit elevated from naturalism, but please. If George and Cate can nail it exactly, Steven should have cast around for a more capable actor.

Sadly, for the tone and pace of the film Tobey’s performance is the focus throughout the first third of the storyline. It never quite recovers from this misstep, despite the best efforts of Soderbergh. We can feel the film reaching to regain its momentum before its overtly romantic tribute to Rick and Ilsa at the airport finale, but it never completely works. Which is indeed a shame. The twists and secrets revealed of the nature of the good German may have seemed like a good canvas to work with, but they remain cool and distant. The magic of the great dramas of the 1940s which inspired this flick managed to combine the visuals, casting, direction and production into one taut atmosphere that captivated our attention and earned our emotion.

The Good German” plays more like an interesting second string production from the Studio years. This is not “Casablanca” or “The Third Man”, hell it isn’t even as effective as Billy Wilder’s “A Foreign Affair – his own look at postwar Berlin. But with such strong lead players, a ravishing production design and excellent cinematography it seems disingenuous of us to dismiss the hard work from Steven Soderbergh and crew. We were definitely glad we spent time with them; we just wish the storyline were a bit more magical to reflect the glorious visuals. Still, it was a nice bullet ridden stroll down memory lane. Bless you all!

Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay by Paul Attanasio
Based on the novel by Joseph Kanon

George Clooney as Capt. Jacob “Jake” Geismer
Cate Blanchett as Lena Brandt
Tobey Maguire as Patrick Tully
Jack Thompson as Congressman Breimer
Beau Bridges as Colonel Muller
Robin Weigert as Hannelore
Christian Oliver as Emil Brandt

Cinematography by Steven Soderbergh as Peter Andrews
Film Editing by Steven Soderbergh as Mary Ann Bernard
Original Music by Thomas Newman
Costume Design by Louise Frogley
Production Design by Philip Messina
Art Direction by Doug J. Meerdink
Set Decoration by Kristen Toscano Messina



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