Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Soderbergh's admirable disappointment

“Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney’s production company Section Eight (which is closing down this year as Clooney starts his own company, Smoke House) put out films that went against the Hollywood grain with subject matter or style that was often challenging or unique.

The most mainstream fare the company produced was the “Ocean’s” movies, which were more or less done on a whim to support the more experimental projects Soderbergh and Clooney wanted to take on.

Soderbergh is a filmmaker who balances Hollywood productions (“Traffic, “Erin Brockovich”) with smaller, risky projects that may have little appeal. “The Good German” falls into the latter category. It is a film authentically shot in the style of 1940s film noir using only cameras, sound and lighting equipment from that time period.

“The Good German” gets the look of the era down perfectly. Lighting, shot composition, editing and the beautiful black and white cinematography all come together to recreate a bygone time. In terms of sheer filmmaking gusto it is quite an achievement. It looks like it was made then not now.

It is wonderful to see the actors, Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire, in this style of filmmaking. Blanchett and Clooney have a classic movie star quality that is captured here. Everyone plays the stylized acting of the time well, especially Blanchett who fits so well into this world she seems almost more suited for that time period than our own.

Maguire has a lot of fun getting in touch with his dark side playing a character who is scheming and cold. It is a small, but memorable role that is a nice counterpoint to his current big screen escapades in “Spider-Man 3.”

The film’s problem is by directly recreating a portion of film history, the movie collapses under the weight of that history. So much time was put into reconstructing a look and feel that the film doesn’t have much personality of its own.

The plot, which takes place in the chaotic weeks after Germany surrendered in World War II, centers on a war journalist (Clooney) trying to solve a murder that no one wants solved. He is also trying to rekindle a romance with a former lover (Blanchett), who is desperately trying to get out of Berlin.

The comparisons to “Casablanca” are unavoidable – Soderbergh even visually lifts the end nearly verbatim – and it only makes “The Good German’s” story and dialogue problems more glaring.

“Casablanca” was a film that was impeccably scripted, with colorful characters and snappy dialogue. “The Good German’s” dialogue on the other hand feels pieced together from 1940s espionage and noir films and lacks zest.

The screenplay by Paul Attanasio adds the profanity that the production code in place during the 1940s prohibited, but it doesn’t anything to the proceedings. Not being able to do or say certain things on screen forced writers and directors to develop creative ways to get what they wanted across. It is often why the dialogue of that era is so rich.

For fans of film history, “The Good German” is equal parts admirable and disappointing. The look, the feel, the acting is all there and it is watchable, but if all those element had been in the employ of sharper writing the film could’ve been great in its own right instead of being a reconfiguration of other great films of the past.

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