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The Good German

review by Zach B.

 

 

Running Time: 108 Minutes

MPAA Rating: R (Language, Violence and Some Sexual Content)

Starring: George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Tobey Maguire

Screenplay by: Paul Attanasio
Based on the novel by: Joseph Kanon

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

 

Studio: Warner Bros.

Retail Price: $27.98

Features: None

Specs: 1.33:1 Full Screen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Surround, English Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, French Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scenes (21 Scenes)

Released: May 22nd, 2007

 

Based on the book by Joseph Kanon, "The Good German" follows three different souls in Berlin, following the German surrender in 1945. There's the journalist Jake Geismer (George Clooney), who is in the city to cover a story, but who is also looking for his former love, Lena (Cate Blanchett). Lena is actually currently involved with Jake's driver, the short-tempered Tully (Tobey Maguire). Slowly but surely, each of them are linked in a much bigger mystery involving the Russians, and Lena's husband, a scientist who is presumed dead. As Jake seeks some answers of his own, he gradually becomes embroiled with his former flame... something that may cost him his life.

In an age where movies run rampant with an overload of CGI effects, "The Good German" is pretty refreshing: director Steven Soderbergh opted to create a film noir in the year 2006, only using film equipment from the 1940s during production (however, apparently there were some digital post-production techniques to help center the noir look). Certainly, Soderbergh's method helped gain the film a lot of attention, and given the pedigree of its talent, the movie seemed to be on track to be one of the bigger contenders for the 2006 awards season. But the buzz quickly soured when the reviews came pouring in. Just where does "The Good German" fit on the cultural radar?

Personally, when it comes to its characters and storyline, I think "The Good German" holds up decently - and isn't the mess a lot of critics made it out to be. I'm glad that this is a pretty thoughtful movie, seemingly made with an adult audience in mind. However, as tight as the movie seems at times, it does feel oddly constructed, uneven and also condensed.

Part of the problem is that 100 minutes, way too many things happen in the movie. There is plenty of overplotting, as the film attempts to juggle a commentary on different nations following the war, the characters' allegiances to specific countries and each other, as well as other mysteries. To get a good grip in what is transpiring, you need to pay close attention to the dialogue and the subtext of the scenes.

Most disappointing though is that the movie is not as heavy as it thinks it is: the film's ethical questions concerning guilt and loyalty are raised, but are not as handled or discussed in any remarkable fashion. The film's emotional core, the relationship between Lena and Jake, comes off way too broad and puffy. The two lack intensity concerning their dire situations and their supposed past, and Jake is ultimately a pretty passive character. I respect in what seems to be Soderbergh's goal for minimalism, but the implications that he and screenwriter Paul Attanasio make are too small. All the characters only show hints of dynamism; and are not really that memorable or worth caring for. For the most part, they are pretty stock. Which is a shame, given the opportunities the filmmakers had in paying respect to famed noirs and classic films.

Still, Soderbergh's visual techniques help compensate for the flaws of the story and characters, and in a sense, gives a bit more depth to the illusion of what is and isn't there. The framing, the lighting and the camera movement is quite stellar - there are plenty of parts to this movie that look as if they really came out of a 1940s film, and if you caught a few glimpses of the film while channel-surfing, you would probably think you stumbled across an authentic noir.

Yet despite all the fanfare for the movie's production values, I wouldn't call "The Good German" a vanity project or even a novelty, but it is definitely one of those movies where the style seemingly overtakes the substance. But is that such a bad thing in this case? Given that we are so used to contemporary cinema techniques, it is hard not to pay attention to Soderbergh's eagerness to reach into the past, and then for the inevitable comparison to see if his creation holds up to what came long before him. Truthfully, that's part of the fun. Also helping to set the mood is Thomas Newman's brooding score. With its full orchestrations and emphasis on lush strings, Newman's compositions sound like they could have come right out of the noir of yesteryears (Newman received an Academy Award nomination for his work).

As far as the acting, I am a bit mixed on in it. The central actors do strong work, but at the same time, their varying styles did pull me out of the film. In keeping with the noir theme, I was really hoping that a lot of the acting would be a throwback to how it was decades ago - where the banter was a bit more sharp, and the performances were often a bit more subtle and inward. George Clooney's performance overall is interesting and certainly watchable, but at the same time, is uneven. There is a bit of depth to his performance, and he plays well off against the other actors, but at the same time, I felt Clooney's performance was pretty contemporary. Though there are times in the film when Clooney does take a step back - if he had only done that more.

On the supporting side, I did like Tobey Maguire's performance. While the story does not exactly call for it, I wish there was more of Maguire. Eagerly shedding his spider-skin, Maguire plays the anti-thesis of Peter Parker here, and certainly reminds viewers who may have forgotten that he has remarkable range as an actor. Despite his youthful presence, Maguire is pretty seething and tough as Tully, and really holds his own. Here's hoping Maguire does more challenging roles in different kinds of films, just like in the good old days.

The only one who really nails the more refined acting style is the ever-talented Cate Blanchett, who I suspect really "got" what Soderbergh was going for. Blanchett is a chameleon of the highest order, and here she easily transforms into the smoky and seductive Lena (who is probably the most complex and developed character), making her an intriguing femme fatale. Blanchett plays it pretty soft, but knows when to press on the energy, adding to the buoyancy and even unpredictability of performance. The smallest details - such as the way Blanchett bats her eyes and curves her lips - really add a lot. Blanchett really gives Lena that extra "oomph," and pulls off the finest performance in the film, and certainly gives one of her most intriguing ones. Other than Soderbergh's filmmaking style, Blanchett is the best part of the movie.

In all, "The Good German" is a pretty compelling experiment - but the story and themes the movie oozes feel more like an imitation of noir, or a homage - and not like an actual noir itself. While the film has all the pieces and the movie was made with the best of intentions, the end result doesn't gel completely. Still, I get the feeling the movie may improve with repeated viewings, given that there is an overstuffing in plot... but I also get the feeling it is the type of movie viewers may grow impatient with. Nonetheless, the film is still worth checking out, as it's an interesting entry in Soderbergh's canon: it may not be as memorable as some of his other films, but it only further cements his ingenunity as a filmmaker.

 

What's this? A recent movie in full screen? That's right folks - "The Good German" is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1, which helps Soderbergh accurately capture the framing of films from decades ago (though the film's theatrical release used the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.66:1). The stark black and white cinematography looks pretty lovely on disc, and it is a testament to Soderbergh's skills not just with the cameras he used, but lighting as well - this movie easily looks and feels like a film noir of yesteryear. The print used is rather clean and the transfer itself is pretty sharp, filled with fine saturation and detail. The only complaints are that there are some edge halos and noise to contend with - too much for my taste. Still, this is a pretty great transfer that shows off Soderbergh's vision.

 

The English Dolby Digital 5.1 track is pretty robust, too (hmm, I wonder why the movie isn't mono...). I guess the audio being spread out makes the movie a bit more "modern," especially since everything is so well recorded and how discrete it all sounds. Thomas Newman's brooding score is mixed well through the channels, and exudes a lot of power throughout the course of the movie. The dialogue is very clear and quite easy to hear, and the film's sound effects - while not entirely bombastic - do provide some punch to help set the mood, and at times make you feel like you are with the characters.

5.1 Dolby Digital tracks in French and Spanish are included too, as well as an English Dolby Surround track. You also have a selection of English, French and Spanish subtitles, plus English closed captions.

 

Nothing. And no, the previews before the main menu don't count. One can only hope there will be a special edition eventually, that explains the film's unique production process. Hopefully Soderbergh will do a commentary, too.

 

Unless you are a big fan of the movie, it's hard to muster up a strong recommendation because of the high retail price and lack of extras. With that stated, at least give the movie a rental, if only for something different - Soderbergh's creating a movie in the style of the 1940's is admirable. The transfer isn't perfect, but is good and gives you a flavor of his visual stylings, and the 5.1 track is pretty strong too (what? no mono?). Given that the film didn't generate much buzz toward the end of 2006 (or an audience, for tha matter), hopefully Soderbergh's "experiment" will gain more a life on the DVD market.