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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

It's a Clooney-bration!

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

As much as I love movies, I'm not a big fan of movie stars. There are quite a few directors whose work I'll follow no matter what. But it's much less common for me to go see a movie simply on the strength of its star. There's a few, I'll admit. For instance, I've been a Tom Hanks fan since Bosom Buddies. This is not a joke. Ask anyone who's known me a long time. I basically helped build the Tom Hanks bandwagon that the rest of America eventually leapt aboard. I'm still a fan but I've been one for so long now I see his movies out of habit as much as anything else. I'll also go see anything with Kate Winslet, although in some ways this is simply research because I assume I will one day be stepfather to her children.

George Clooney is, in many ways, an odd star for me to be a fan of. He's a paparazzi target, a frequent visitor to tabloids like Star, and one of those celebrities who thinks he's helping by going on TV and talking about Big Issues. I tend to hate that kind of thing. But I don't mind it with Clooney. As a personality, he seems to have a sense of humor about himself and that's important to me. He paid his dues and then some before becoming a star in stuff like The Facts of Life and Return of the Killer Tomatoes but judging from the interviews I've read, he doesn't try to run away from his schlock past. As an actor, he's an almost perfect blend of old-fashioned Hollywood movie star looks and charm with new Hollywood attitude and style. He's his own worst critic. The worst reviews of his performance as Batman came from Clooney himself. And as a director, he's so far delivered two extremely good movies: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, And Good Luck.

But most importantly, since he hit the big leagues he's been smart enough to work with some of the most talented and interesting filmmakers around, including Joel & Ethan Coen and longtime buddy Steven Soderbergh. Not every movie has been a home run. Ocean's Twelve was a particular chore to sit through. But so far, the good has outweighed the bad just enough to keep me buying tickets. So tonight, I celebrate my man-love for George Clooney with a look at two of his recent-to-DVD pics.

Fail Safe
Fail Safe
2000 (2007) - Warner Bros.

Clooney has long had a soft spot for the golden age of television. In 1997, he convinced his bosses at ER to shoot an episode live (in fact, they shot it twice... once for the east coast and again for the west). A few years later, he got more ambitious, producing and co-starring in this live all-star remake of the 1964 semi-classic Fail-Safe.

The original is a solid, entertaining movie that never quite achieves greatness. Its reputation has always been in the shadow of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, released the same year with a very similar plot. Clooney's Fail Safe, directed by Stephen Frears, also fails to achieve greatness but it's still a pretty riveting piece of entertainment.

The story focuses on the threat of nuclear war between the US and the USSR when a bomber piloted by Clooney and Don Cheadle fails to return from its fail safe point due to a technical error. While every effort is made to retrieve them, the President (Richard Dreyfuss) and his translator (Noah Wyle) hunker in a bunker and attempt to placate the Russians. Meanwhile, debates rage in the war room between a hawkish military theorist (Hank Azaria) and a high-ranking general (Harvey Keitel).

As expected, Fail Safe is heavy on talk and short on action. And when I watched it during its original broadcast, I was too focused on the live aspect to appreciate the film for what it had to offer. On DVD, Fail Safe is a unique experience. Live television is the closest any camera-based medium can come to capturing the electricity of live theatre. The combination of that energy with the technical possibilities opened up by the camera makes for something that isn't quite a movie and isn't exactly a play. In some ways, it's less satisfying than either one. But it's exciting to see these actors at work in something closer to a raw form than we're used to. If anything is a let-down here, it's the story. Clooney and company attempt to make it relevant but in reality, it's so dated that it automatically renders the experiment more of a curiosity than a fully-formed drama. It would have been more interesting to see a better, more contemporary script given this treatment.

Warner's DVD looks decent enough in non-anamorphic widescreen and the sound is rudimentary but fine. Extras amount to a whole lot of nothing. That's unfortunate but not unexpected considering the relatively obscure nature of the project and the big names involved in it. Nevertheless, Fail Safe is a compelling, watchable movie, particularly if you're a fan of someone in the cast. And with a cast like this, odds are pretty good you're a fan of somebody in it.

Program Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B-/F

The Good German

The Good German
2006 (2007) - Warner Bros.

Ocean's Twelve not withstanding, I've enjoyed George Clooney's collaborations with Steven Soderbergh. Out of Sight was the movie that turned me into a full-fledged fan and I still think it's both of their best work to date. I also had a good time at the odd-numbered Ocean movies and even found much to admire in their version of Solaris. So my hopes were mildly high for The Good German, their tribute to such disparate wartime films as Casablanca and The Third Man. Those hopes, sadly, were dashed upon watching the movie.

Clooney plays war correspondent Jake Geismer, in Berlin to cover the Potsdam Conference. He's surprised to encounter an old flame there (played by Cate Blanchett) and even more surprised to learn that she's hooked up with the soldier assigned to drive him around (Tobey Maguire). Before long, someone ends up killed and Jake starts digging to find out what secrets his former lover has been keeping from him.

As a technical achievement, The Good German is fairly breathtaking. Soderbergh insisted on shooting the film exactly as it would have been shot in the late 40s, from the rear-screen projection in driving sequences to the noir-inspired shafts of light that shoot through the frame. That attention to detail pays off and the movie looks absolutely gorgeous. The story, unfortunately, is less compelling. Clooney, Blanchett and Maguire are all fine but they seem to be uncertain how to approach the material. The result is an uncomfortable mash-up of old-fashioned and modern acting styles. Worse yet, the story is often hard to follow. Not because it's particularly complex, simply because it's awkwardly told. Soderbergh seems so obsessed with the fetishistic details of the period that he drops the ball at developing the characters into people we care about.

The period details extend to the DVD itself. The picture is presented in full-frame, Soderbergh's preferred ratio for the film, although it was matted into a slightly more widescreen image for theatrical release. It looks very, very good, although if you're not aware of what Soderbergh is going for, it would be easy to see this as either a mistake or an odd lapse in judgment from a studio that usually knows better. The audio has been given an all-out 5.1 treatment. It sounds just fine although it's somewhat at odds with the 40s aesthetic of the film. Once again, we are spared the burden of any special features. Not even a commentary, particularly unusual considering that usually you can hardly get Soderbergh to shut up, even on other people's DVDs.

For the Soderbergh/Clooney faithful, The Good German is worth checking out but in the end, it remains a failed experiment. I salute Soderbergh's continued attempts to play with the form. I just hope that next time he finds a story to match it.

Film Rating: C+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B+/F

Adam Jahnke

Adam Jahnke - Main Page
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