[Screen It]

(2006) (George Clooney, Cate Blanchett) (R)

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Drama/Thriller: An American military correspondent tries to get to the bottom of a post WWII murder mystery when his former lover's boyfriend ends up dead at the onset of a peace conference.
It's 1945 and American military correspondent Jake Geismer (GEORGE CLOONEY) has arrived in post WWII Berlin to cover the upcoming Potsdam Peace Conference. With motor pool driver Tully (TOBEY MAGUIRE) assigned as his escort, Jake makes the rounds of his old reporting haunts.

During that, he discovers that Tully, who's actively involved in the black market including trying to sell hot goods to General Sikorsky (RAVIL ISYANOV) over in the Russian occupied zone, is also with Lena Brandt (CATE BLANCHETT), Jake's former lover. She's a prostitute who rooms with fellow hooker and burlesque dancer Hannelore (ROBIN WEIGERT) and desperately wants out of Berlin.

Unfortunately for her, but piquing Jake's interest, others don't want her to leave as both American and Russian forces are interested in finding her husband, Emil (CHRISTIAN OLIVER), who she claims is dead. Things get more complicated following a murder, thus getting Jake's investigative juices going, all of which leads him into hot water with American Colonel Muller (BEAU BRIDGES) as he tries to get info out of various sources, including American Bernie Teitel (LELAND ORSER) who's there trying to round up former Nazis guilty of war crimes.

As Jake continues to rock the boat by digging deeper for answers regarding the murder and finding out more about Emil, his investigation endangers both his and Lena's lives.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Many a movie reviewer -- including yours truly -- not to mention film fans in general have oft lamented that they don't make them like they used to ("they" being filmmakers and "them" their movies of old). Of course, also being in the movie content reporting business has similarly led this reviewer to wonder if they could make a movie like the old days before rampant profanity, sexual content, and graphic violence, and whether that would fly, so to speak, with contemporary audiences now accustomed to such graphic content.

Upon hearing about director Steven Soderbergh's "The Good German," I thought perhaps both cinematic fowl would be knocked out with one proverbial stone. After all, in brining Joseph Kanon's novel to the big screen, the innovative director was reportedly going to make the film as if it was shot in the 1940s, using much of the same technology, as well as acting and directorial styles from that period.

The result is an interesting experiment in retro filmmaking that answers the first question in the affirmative (at least technically), but bails on the second by allowing the R-rated material to flow forth without constraint. That aside, and when viewed as a standalone movie, it's just a mediocre experience overshadowed by the look, sound and feel of what's been created, not to mention its obvious and only partially successful effort to be something of the second coming of "Casablanca" meets "The Third Man."

Working from former movie reviewer turned screenwriter Paul Attanasio's adaptation of Kanon's work, Soderbergh tells the tale of an American war correspondent (George Clooney) arriving in post-WWII Berlin to cover the Potsdam Peace Conference. There, he discovers that his motor pool driver (a miscast Tobey Maguire) is seeing his former lover (a terrific Cate Blanchett). When the former ends up dead over in the Russian zone with quite the pocketful of change, the reporter obviously can't keep his nose out of things and starts sniffing around for answers that obviously will lead to intrigue, danger and more.

Notwithstanding the not-so-subtle similarities to the aforementioned classics, there's obviously compelling potential present, especially when the eventual explanations of what everyone's really after are revealed in the film's third act. Yet, the filmmakers fail to take advantage of that thanks to some slow pacing, a running time that's too long, and the constant distraction of the filmmaking experiment.

It certainly stands out from most anything else released this year, but the retro effort can't help but consistently remind viewers of what it's trying to do and be. Utilizing vintage camera lenses, Soderbergh shoots the film in the style of the '40s, with dramatic shadows, rear projection for driving scenes, and camera movement and scene transitions that were common way back when.

It doesn't stop there, however, with the actors and actresses performing in a similar old school fashion. They emote in what can best be described as more of a theatrical rather than contemporary or realistic fashion, thus making them and their dialogue seem a tad melodramatic.

While the voice over narration is thankfully kept to something of a minimum (although it does rotate from one character to the next without returning -- if I remember correctly), the acting style borders on that of parody (akin to what the improv performers used to do on the noir skits of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?").

Not surprisingly, that and the all too obvious aspects of the old style film direction, period-sounding score and more end up serving as something a bit more than a minor distraction to the story that's trying to be told. As a result, we're not afforded the opportunity to care much about the characters, their motivations, or goals, something those previous films of old often effortlessly managed to do.

Of course, we cut them slack for the same "faults" this film experiences simply because they were a product of their era and its filmmaking and acting styles. Perhaps in years to come, this one will blend in better once the old novelty has worn off.

As it stands, it's a visually handsome experiment, but in an industry where story is king no matter when the film's been made, this one is -- appropriately enough considering the title -- just good rather than great. "The Good German" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 28, 2006 / Posted December 22, 2006

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