Friday, December 22, 2006

The Good German (2006)

Sex, Lies, and Videotape was Steven Soderbergh's first breakthough. After a fallow period, Out of Sight was his second. If he keeps this up, he's going to need a third and if I had any advice for Mr. Soderbergh — a filmmaker I admire greatly and like most of the time — it would be to look at what he did in Out of Sight and compare it to his latest film, the unsatisfying curiosity The Good German.

Out of Sight was Soderbergh's adaptation of Elmore Leonard's novel of the same name. The novel's good; the movie's great. I saw the movie in the theater as a teenager in the summer of 1998. It hit me like a punch in the gut: the film was so smart, so well edited, written, acted, shot, and damnit it was so friggin cool I could barely catch my breath watching it. It's about George Clooney — and let me say with my unblemished record of staunch heterosexuality, he's fabulous — and Jennifer Lopez, as a pair of doomed lovers on opposite sides of the law. They have a couple scenes so sexy they could have gotten the film an NC-17 rating even though they don't contain any nudity and little to no humping.

The Good German has Clooney (still good, but not quite fabulous) but no Lopez; Cate Blanchett's the female lead. She's a German living in Berlin just after WWII. She had an affair with Clooney years ago and now he's back, but she's now with Tobey Maguire's amoral black market dealer. Soderbergh's going concern with the film is to make an homage on a large scale to the Warner Bros. pictures of the post-war era, stuff like Casablanca, and to do so using the techniques (sound, camera, acting) of that era. Of course, even though he's using old lenses and more theatrical acting, he's also got Tobey Maguire cursing up a storm and banging Cate Blanchett with an evil grin on his face — material I have to assume was cut of Casablanca before it's theatrical release.

Here's the thing: The Good German, fine experiment in form and style that it is, is totally cold and emotionless, while the movies Soderbergh is supposedly paying tribute to are bursting with sentiment and life and humor and sadness. In his Out of Sight days, Soderbergh married experimentalism with entertainment — the disjointed narrative and messy camera work including zooms, pans, and lens flares all utilized techniques previously frowned upon to give them film an unusual texture. Soderbergh's extreme use of color filters to distinguish the film's settings (as a means of easing confusion in that twisty story) is now a very popular Hollywood trope.

Out of Sight was fun and smart — perfect pop. But now Soderbergh is like a nerdy director version of Jekyll and Hyde director: breezy fun one moment, cold and unpenetrable the next. Arguments that The Good German are intentionally distant (like Graham Fuller's on indieWIRE's film poll) are interesting but are, at best, making lemonade out of some very dry lemons.

For more on this topic, I recommend Manohla Dargis' fine piece about the film from The New York Times.

Next up: Rocky Balboa.

By the way: next Wednesday is Termite Art's 1 year anniversary. Get your noise makers ready boys.


Blogger R. Emmet Sweeney said...

I haven't seen this yet - but your take seems to be the consensus. Bummer. I would list Solaris as another of Soderbergh's high points, and what about the Ocean's 11 films - I don't think I've had more fun at any Hollywood films in quite a long time.

And yes - one year of Termite Art, I'll bring the scotch and a worn copy of Negative Space.

7:44 PM  

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