Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Good German

Apart from my brief attack of cineaste-ism in college I've never spent a lot of time with film noir. I know this is a big mistake on my part, classic genre and all that, but I was always foolishly content to take my Bogart straight heroic (Casablanca) or as a delusional eccentric (African Queen, The Caine Mutiny). The dramatic contrast of the cinematography seemed to have less impact on me growing up in what was essentially a black, white, and grey country. Again, I apologize for my Philistine ways.

Perhaps this lack of familiarity with the noir genre made it easier for me to enjoy Steven Soderbergh's The Good German. I may not know noir, but I know Soderbergh and while I might not always dig the results of some of his more cutting edge experimentation, I have always admired the way he approaches projects.

This time out Soderbergh set himself the challenge of filming a 40s style film, not only in black and white but also on old equipment and film stock with a genuine feel and look. He was not making a pastiche or a homage but rather the real thing. Did he succeed, and did he make a good film in the process?

Let's start with what I liked. Despite sounding like a Teutonic drag queen, Cate Blanchett has rarely looked better or moved through the world in a more intriguing manner than in this film. One of things I like most about Blanchett is the way she manages to look almost completely different in every role she takes without much more than posture, facial expressions, and the judicious application of hair dye. It is a testament to her work that I could have watched a whole movie with her walking around Berlin alternately full of fear and confidence.

I thought Soderbergh blended the newsreel footage he found with his shots well, and succeeded in making the film appear vintage in most aspects. His shot selections were spot on, as was almost all of the lighting. I suppose the biggest compliment I can give him is that I kept expecting Orson Welles to round the corner and steal at least half the scenes. I also liked the winks at the audience I was able to pick up on, and I'm a sucker for a well-lit DC3 Dakota on a wet runway.

I also thought the story was good- the "twist" was never in doubt, but its exact nature did keep me guessing. The reveal didn't have me sharply breathing in, but I didn't spend half the movie in a state of abject boredom either.

OK, now the bad.

George Clooney is one of my favorite actors, but I'm beginning to think he's taking those Cary Grant comparisons too seriously. In this film, poor George got socked in the jaw so many times I feared for his brain- were we going to get a noir version of Regarding Henry? Clooney's performance in this film was less Cary Grant and more Jimmy Stewart- too "gee shucks" for a supposed tough-as-nails reporter who'd seen it all. Perhaps his work was too subtle for me, but the novelty of Clooney playing an unwitting patsy soon wore off and I spent a fair amount of time hoping that the next time he got cold-cocked on the chin it would be with a plank with a nail sticking out of it.

Tobey Maguire isn't even a good Spiderman, let alone a good amoral chancer on the make. Was Giovanni Ribisi not available?

You set a film in Berlin in 1945, try to make it to the standards of the period, and you lose interest in involving the Russians after about half an hour? Next time, more shaven headed, cynical Soviets in unbuttoned tunics, nursing neat liquor please.

Soderbergh should have decided if he was setting out to make a version of The Third Man or the counter-Casablanca. He tried to make both and ended up falling short.

Finally, if you are going to set strict rules about film stock, equipment, lighting, even the theatrical poster, then make sure the dialogue and imagery jibes with the period. I know people in the forties cursed like troopers and were at it like rabbits, but the movies Soderbergh was so painstakingly trying to recreate with The Good German couldn't show simulated sex or get away with more f-bombs than a Dick Cheney muttered aside. Soderbergh should have shown more discipline. You can't colour outside the lines of self-imposed strictures.

On balance though, I did enjoy this movie. Don't be put off by my carping, go see it or get it on Netflix. Me on the other hand; I'm off to rent a stack of original noir.

The Good German: 7/10

No comments: