No. 135 | July 22, 2010
Our theme this week
Chick flicks—one guy’s take
I decided the week needed Julia Roberts, the world’s preeminent female star over the past two decades. Then the choice was, Which film? Steel Magnolias (1988), with its cross-generational female ensemble? Pretty Woman (1990), with the hooker role that made her a star? One of her countless romantic comedies? I don’t think so. Let’s go with her Oscar-winning role as the single mom who takes on a big corporation and wins a legal settlement of more than $300 million.
Erin Brockovich is a populist hero for our times. She’s street smart, a former beauty queen who can use her good looks to get what she needs, except to be taken seriously. With no husband and three kids to feed, she finds work as a file clerk at her lawyer’s office. She gets curious about a real estate case involving California utility PG&E, then starts digging. She has no legal training but a sense of decency that won’t tolerate injustice, and eventually she uncovers evidence that the company contaminated the water supply of a small town, hid knowledge of the danger from residents, who suffered severe health problems. It’s a story of an average citizen who takes on big money interests and wins—an improbable tale but true, based on the real-life experience of the woman who helped bring the corporation to justice in 1996.
Roberts has one of her juiciest roles and gives one of her best performances. Albert Finney and Aaron Eckhart do good work in supporting roles. In a more perfect world, Roberts would have as many parts in films like this as she does in romantic comedies. Erin Brockovich has a serious side, but director Steven Soderbergh plays up the entertainment value too. The film offers audiences a good time, and without much ado, something substantial too.
No. 105 | May 27, 2010
Our theme this week
Black-and-white movies since 1990
Director of Photography: Steven Soderbergh (as Peter Andrews)
Watching The Good German made me wonder what Steven Soderbergh did to offend the critics. Did he forget to send them Christmas cards? Did he shoot spitballs at them from the back of the theater? Did he say something nasty about their mothers?
Surely he did something egregious to account for the reaction to his film. The critical response doesn’t seem entirely rational. I hesitate to use the word savage, but after reading another review just now, I’d say it might be the right word for describing the critical war party that was out to get the director when The Good German came out. “Off with his head!” is the approximate gist of many reviews, though as far as I can tell, those exact words didn’t make it into print. (It might have made for an engaging ad campaign.)
I won’t say that The Good German is an unqualified success. I’m not sure it’s even a qualified success. But I’d say at the very least it’s an interesting misfire, and probably even better than that. I’ve only seen the film a couple of times—once when it was first released, once recently—and I may need another viewing before making any firm assessments. Some films are like that. This one seems to be.
Set in 1945, in the aftermath of the Allied victory, The Good German follows Jake Geismer (George Clooney), a war correspondent (for The New Republic, no less), as he returns to Berlin to search for, among other things, his former lover, Lena Brandt (Cate Blanchett). Lena’s husband, Emil (Christian Oliver), is a mysterious figure and the “good German” of the title. Having been involved with the German rocket program during the war, Emil is a much-wanted man, sought by the Americans, the Soviets, and the British, all with their own motives. The war was hell, and even for those who made it through, there was a price paid for survival, secrets they’d rather not divulge. The end of the war is no end to the moral compromise, and in Soderbergh’s universe, there is not the usual clear line between the good guys and the bad guys. At least you can’t tell by the uniform.
The Good German is an adaptation of the 2001 novel by Joseph Kanon. The film version departs from the book, and Soderbergh borrows freely from films of the ’40s for story material, and more. One obvious influence is Casablanca, and perhaps this is where Soderbergh gets himself into hot water with the critics. It’s an unwise comparison to draw for any film, but more than that, the borrowing overshadows what’s onscreen, especially the final scene with the plane waiting at the airstrip, and it does get in the way of The Good German telling its own story. The divided-city milieu of The Third Man is also evident, as are echoes from Chinatown, though that isn’t a war film or in black-and-white.
Soderbergh has had an interesting career, hopping between entertainments and experiments. The Good German qualifies as one of his experimental works, though essentially it’s a genre film, an historical spy story/murder mystery, with a recognizable narrative. Soderbergh made a 1940s film in the 21st century. He did mimic the technology of the early era, at least, though the sensibility—not to mention the language and subject matter (the Hays Office would have had a field day with this one)—is more appropriate of our time.
The initial response was hardly receptive, though I do think it’s worth another view. The final word (as always) has yet to be written.
No. 99 | May 19, 2010
Our theme this week
Rat Packs, and other “Packs” that made movies
George Clooney said a wise thing in 2001 when the remake of Ocean’s Eleven was coming out. “We’re never going to be as cool as those guys.” On that he was right. But on the other hand, Clooney and his pack of thieves made a better movie.
Clooney was careful to downplay the parallels between the “eleven” in the remake and the Rat Pack of the original. But when you make a movie called Ocean’s Eleven, you invite people to make comparisons anyway. In media shorthand they were the ”new” Rat Pack, even if they steered clear of the label themselves.
The remake was another heist movie, also set in Vegas, with a slick cast featuring some of the hottest names in Hollywood, including Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Bernie Mac and Andy Garcia. Carl Reiner and Eliott Gould lent the production their veteran touch, and Julia Roberts, as Danny Ocean’s ex, added her million-dollar smile. Steven Soderbergh, in one of his lighter turns, directed the action with finesse. In short, the film is about movie stars having fun, and as a piece of juiced-up, pure entertainment, it was one of the decade’s more enjoyable pleasures.
Ocean’s Eleven was a hit with audiences, and Soderbergh, Clooney, and the pack made a couple of sequels, Ocean’s Twelve, in 2004, and Ocean’s Thirteen, in 2007.
Among the core team—Clooney, Pitt, Damon, Roberts, and Soderbergh—none is known for his or her singing prowess. But like the earlier Rat Pack, they are frequent collaborators in the moviemaking business, both onscreen and behind the scenes. Their work includes many popular and entertaining films from the past decade or more. Here, some in which at least two were associated: Out of Sight (1998), Erin Brockovich (2000), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), Syriana (2005), The Good German (2006), The Departed (2006), Michael Clayton (2007), Burn After Reading (2008), and The Informant! (2009).
“How did you get by the laser fields in the Great Hall?”
A scene that works in any language.