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"The Good German"

Directed by Steven Soderbergh.
Written by Paul Attanasio ("Quiz Show", "Donnie Brasco").  Based on the novel by Joseph Kanon.
Starring George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Tobey Maguire and Ravil Isaynov.
Release Year:  2006
Review Date:  12/14/06


For Steven Soderbergh, it's got to feel like a lifetime since he directed "Out of Sight", "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic" over the course of two years.  He has been producing a number of hits and in holding the reins on the "Ocean's Eleven" remakes, he has definitely been a part of some good things...but, nothing he has worked on has been quite the creative & commercial success that he had when he broke out with "sex, lies & videotape" about 200 years ago.

With "The Good German", you're excited to see that the film is shot in black & white, features his good buddy George Clooney in their fifth film collaboration, has a familiar setting (World War II) in the hands of a certified film nut, and on and on.  But, during my freebie tonight at the AFI Silver in downtown Silver Spring (a lovely theater that I wish more folks would hit!), it struck me that Soderbergh needs to go back to what got him here...but, I have ZERO idea of how he would do it.

Based on a novel, "The Good German" gives us Captain Jacob Geismer (Clooney), a war correspondent who comes into Berlin in 1945 to cover a couple of stories stemming from a post-war peace conference featuring the various Allied leadership of the time.  The man that picks Geismer up at the airport, an Army pool driver named Tully (Tobey Maguire), is involved with a German prostitute named Lena (Cate Blanchett), who used to be married to an SS officer named Emil...before Emil was killed in a rocket attack.  Then we find out that Geismer has a past with this Lena...and, then, bodies start turning up dead.  Why does everyone from a U.S. general (Beau Bridges) to a Russian lieutenant (Ravil Isaynov) want to confirm that this Emil is really dead?  And, why are Emil's former SS logbooks so important?

Many questions arise, and thankfully, all of them get answered by the end of the day.  But, the character development in "The Good German" is poor, and with its faux-film-noir stylings and heavy-handed musical score, all you really want to do is ride this puppy out as fluffy entertainment with the occasional commentary on American and German ideals and behaviors during the war.  Naturally, the film looks great because we only get one or two black-and-white productions a year nowadays, and Soderbergh--who normally does all of his own camerawork and editing but for some reason is credited as "Peter Andrews" here--has a great-looking work on his hands.  Of course, having your leads look good and look good in uniform make things easier, yes?  The score is a mix of perfect for the genre and hilarious for the way it always appears just as something kind of important happens; it works, but it doesn't, if you know what I mean.

But, take away the look of the film, and "The Good German" isn't as interesting any more.  The Tobey Maguire character as written is loud, profane, violent, sadist and downright other words, every single character trait that you would NOT associate with Tobey Maguire.  As such, I got the feeling a few folks nearby were going to giggle by the time they were watching Tobey serve up a female character doggystyle, or by the time he had dropped his fifteenth-consecutive f-bomb (impressive, given the screen time).  To say that Peter Parker/Spider-Man was a mismatch for this part is like saying that the New York Knicks are gonna suck this year--it's a statistical certainty that isn't even worth talking about.  Clooney and Blanchett are better in their parts but as Clooney guides his character through the investigation into Lena's past, I found myself strangely unattached to the outcome, because the mysterious Lena doesn't seem to lend herself to any kind of sway one way or another; if she had been shot immediately, it would have been the same as if we followed her around for 90 minutes to determine how she might be involved with the Russians and/or the Americans, it just didn't really matter to me.

And, I think the ending of "The Good German"--where we find out if this Emil guy is dead or not, and what the hell The Good German means in the first place--reflects this:  it just kind of ends, you go about your business, and quickly, the film flies out of your memory and into the ether.  I can't imagine this one making too many waves in theaters, during awards season or on DVD; it's very average, given the talent in front of and behind the camera.  But, you can't deny that it looks really good.

Rating:  Matinee


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Bellview Rating System:

"Opening Weekend":  This is the highest rating a movie can receive.  Reserved for movies that exhibit the highest level of acting, plot, character development, setting...or Salma Hayek.  Not necessarily in that order. 

"$X.XX Show":  This price changes each year due to the inflation of movie prices; currently, it is the $9.50 Show.  While not technically perfect, this is a movie that will still entertain you at a very high level.  "Undercover Brother" falls into this category; it's no "Casablanca", but you'll have a great time watching.  The $9.50 Show won't win any Oscars, but you'll be quoting lines from the thing for ages (see "Office Space"). 

"Matinee":  An average movie that merits no more than a $6.50 viewing at your local theater.  Seeing it for less than $9.50 will make you feel a lot better about yourself.  A movie like "Blue Crush" fits this category; you leave the theater saying "That wasn't too, did you see that Lakers game last night?" 

"Rental":  This rating indicates a movie that you see in the previews and say to your friend, "I'll be sure to miss that one."  Mostly forgettable, you couldn't lose too much by going to Hollywood Video and paying $3 to watch it with your sig other, but you would only do that if the video store was out of copies of "Ronin."  If you can, see this movie for free.  This is what your TV Guide would give "one and a half stars." 

"Hard Vice":  This rating is the bottom of the barrel.  A movie that only six other human beings have witnessed, this is the worst movie I have ever seen.  A Shannon Tweed "thriller," it is so bad as to be funny during almost every one of its 84 minutes, and includes the worst ending ever put into a movie.  Marginally worse than "Cabin Boy", "The Avengers" or "Leonard, Part 6", this rating means that you should avoid this movie at all costs, or no costs, EVEN IF YOU CAN SEE IT FOR FREE!  (Warning:  strong profanity will be used in all reviews of "Hard Vice"-rated movies.)

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All material by Justin Elliot Bell for SMR/Bellview/ except where noted
1999-2009 Justin Elliot Bell This site was last updated 01/08/09