The Good German (US - DVD R1)
Gabe catches Steven Soderbergh playing in the movie sandbox again...
While in post-war Berlin to cover the Potsdam Conference, American military journalist Jake Geismer (George Clooney) is drawn into a murder investigation involving his former mistress (Cate Blanchett) and his shady driver (Tobey Maguire). As he peels away the layers of the mystery, Jake uncovers a much deeper and more menacing conspiracy.
I'm a sucker for homage. A big, paper-wrapped, cherry flavoured, bubblegum filled sucker. I enjoying recognizing a scene or set up taken from a film I love when it's taken with the best intentions. I like listening to DVD commentaries and hearing directors admit to their robbery of other filmmaker's shots and ideas. I don't really know why, but the re-appropriation of visuals has always appealed to me. The problem is that homage only works within the confines of its particular context, and story is almost always king. The story doesn't have to be original, it too can be a re-appropriation (as in the case of pretty much all of Tarantino's work, Star Wars, The Devil's Rejects), but there's a fine line between restructuring old ideas on a modern stage, and simply being a boring filmmaker.
I liked The Good German overall, but have to agree with the majority of film critics and say that it is lacking in the character and story departments.
Casablanca is tossed around a lot (and I'll admit the finale is a huge reference), but the film reminded me more of Carol Reed's The Third Man, which also took place in a post-war divide city (Vienna rather than Berlin), and features a character taking advantage of chaos for monetary gain. Though both The Third Man and Casablanca are reasonably dark films thematically, they both have a wit and humour to them that is very much lacking in Soderbergh's film. The best films of the era—the film's Soderbergh is trying to emulate here—never took themselves too seriously, and that charm is what insured that they lasted.
The story itself is just more window dressing. I understand that the whole point of the exercise was to make an old fashion feature, but even as far back as 1974, Robert Towne and Roman Polanski were finding ways of redeveloping the tired noir genre for modern times without losing any of its most important elements when they made Chinatown (factually, there are two distinct references to Chinatown in Soderbergh's film). The Good German is a 1940s noir, rather than being a comment on a 1940s noir. Because video stores are already filled with great films from the genre and era, the exercise seems moot, and frankly shallow.
But Soderbergh has always been an experimental filmmaker. Since he found his safety niche in the always profitable Oceans series, he's pretty much free to do whatever he wants. I have to respect this, as does anyone else with an appreciation for maverick artists. I don't see any pretension in this film, I see experimentation, and even when it doesn't work, experimentation is a great thing to come out of a major motion picture studio like Warner Bros. This isn't a film about plot or actors. It's like a first year film student's final reel, or a High School re-enactment of classic text, and I mean this in the most positive way possible.
I'm confused as to what the 'real' aspect ratio of this film is, or at least wondering what ratio Soderbergh prefers. The imdb.com listing is 1.66:1, which is what I'm told it was shown in theatres at. The box art says that the 1.33:1 full-frame is preserving ‘the original theatrical presentation’, but then the DVD opens with ‘this film has been modified from its original ratio’.
Regardless, the films of the 40s that The Good German emulates were made before widescreen was commonplace, and the frame never appears cramped. The film's greatest strength is its look. Even harsh critics have to concede that the cinematography, though unoriginal, is gorgeous. The DVD is clean and crisp, with deep blacks and bright highlights. The film stock is purposefully grainy, but compression noise and artefacting is very minimal. The black hue is slightly blue, not a true black, but this is a minor nitpick.
In keeping with the classic style, the film's soundtrack is mostly allocated to the centre channel, even though the track itself is of the 5.1 Dolby Digital variety. I listened pretty closely, and it seems to me that only the score ever escapes to the surround and stereo channels. The score is, in turn, very warm and dramatic (some might even say overdramatic, but that's the point), and clean as whistle (you do know how to whistle, right?). Dialogue and sound effects are thinner, but sound as if they could genuinely come from the era. Soderbergh hasn't gone so far as to include pops and distortion on the soundtrack to further emulate the feel of watching an old movie (ala Grindhouse), and though not sonically impressive the track is clear.
Ab-so- lute-ly nothing.
Not the massive misstep so many critics seem to have dubbed it, The Good German is nonetheless an exercise in form over content. It requires patience and understanding to really enjoy, and those that love experimental filmmaking should be happy enough with a rental. I should note that Criterion is re-releasing a suped up version of The Third Man the same day, and those unfamiliar with either film might want to start at the beginning. That, and The Third Man really is one of the best films ever made. Period.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Release Date: 22nd May 2007
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Easter Egg: No
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: George Clooney, Tobey Maguire, Cate Blanchett
Length: 107 minutes
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