August 21st, 2009
Amongst all the filmmakers working today, no one inspires more passionate discussion, debate and analysis than Quentin Tarantino. Thousands of would-be filmmakers wish they were him, while thousands more are thankful they never will be. Every new QT film is met with comparisons to high art and common trash. But do most of you really care if he was inspired by some Z-grade Italian-made war movie from thirty years ago?
Let's face it... when all is said and done, millions of people who are going to see "Inglourious Basterds" wouldn't know an Ennio Morricone score if someone slipped it on to their iPod, let alone chuckle with acknowledgement when Tarantino has one of the master composer's tracks from a long-forgotten 1960's Lee Van Cleef-starring spaghetti western play over the opening scene. They aren't going to care if Enzo G. Castellari, the director of the the late 1970's Fred Williamson film from which this film takes its title and some inspiration, has a cameo here. Sadly, it's possible some of them might not know the ending of this movie isn't really how World War II ended. What you all really want to know is whether or not "Basterds" is worth the time and effort and your hard-earned dollars. And, for this writer, for only the second time since "Reservoir Dogs," the answer is a qualified "yes."
Yes, Tarantino still has some issues with pacing. Yes, he still needs to learn his writing is not sacrosanct. Yes, this film, like every film he's made since his 1992 debut, is at least ten minutes longer than it truly needs to be. Yes, he takes some major liberties with reality, has a couple admitted anachronistic moments and makes one really boneheaded math mistake. But yes, it is his best film in a very long time, and the one that might actually make more than a few Tarantino detractors say "Okay, that wasn't so bad."
The movie gets off to a rousing start with its opening chapter, "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France," when we are introduced to Tarantino's single best character to date, the effusively charming Nazi Col. Hans Landa. As played by the amazing Christoph Waltz, who won the Best Actor award for this role at the Cannes Film Festival, Landa at first doesn't seem befitting of his nickname, "The Jew Hunter." During his talk with a local French dairy farmer, Landa is polite as can be, seemingly wanting to do little more than follow-up on a previous visit by another officer about a local Jewish family who may have fled, moving the conversation from German to French and finally to English. As they speak, we start to realize that moving to a language both Landa and the farmer know isn't just for the audience's benefit, giving them a moment's reprise from will be many subtitled sequences, but setting a trap for the farmer which will make many in the audience squirm as they realize what is about to happen.
Making audiences squirm seems to be what Tarantino wants to do most with "Basterds." You may be aware from the commercials and trailers that Brad Pitt leads a group of Jewish-American soldiers who are set upon terrorizing the Nazis, leaving their marks by scalping those they kill and carving swastikas into those they leave alive. You may also be aware one of the Basterds, Sgt. Donny Donowitz ("Hostel" filmmaker Eli Roth, who is good enough here to make one wish he'd give up making his unique brand of torture porn forever and just act in other people's films), has a special skill amongst the team by taking a baseball bat to those who, as his Lieutenant likes to say, want to die for their country. Knowing these things will probably still not keep most audiences from wriggling in their seats during these scenes, regardless of whether Tarantino's camera is observing in the distance or incredibly close-up. Many heads are scalped, a few are bashed in or carved up. Someone pokes their finger into a bullet wound to get to the truth of what just happened. Thousands of bullets fly, and a number of gallons of blood are splattered. It's quite gruesome at times.
Yet the film is also furiously funny at times, thanks to Pitt and his continually underrated skills as a comedic actor. From "True Romance" and "12 Monkeys" to "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" and the "Oceans" movies, Pitt is so sly with his line readings that you can't help but laugh at many of his actions and reactions, even when the scene might not naturally call for a light touch. I don't know if Tarantino specifically directed Pitt to know his Lt. Aldo Raine knowing he is just a character in a movie and have fun with it, but whatever it was, it works.
Pitt is the name that will get butts into seats, but it's not his movie. Along with Waltz, who is deserving of every accolade he'll get the rest of the year, "Basterds" belongs to Mélanie Laurent, the equally little known French actress who plays Shosanna Dreyfus, a survivor of one of Landa's hunts now operating a movie theatre in Paris under an assumed name, who devises a plan to take down the man who killed her family when an unexpected German movie premiere falls into her lap. Laurent, an unconventional beauty whose performance is aided greatly by the magnificent costume choices by Anna Sheppard (who, not so ironically, has been nominated for Oscars for two other Nazi-themed movies, "Schindler's List" and "The Pianist'), might disarm Daniel Brühl's young war hero with her charm, but this bitch means business when she decides to get her revenge.
Also of note in smaller roles are Brühl, the German actor Til Schweiger as a former Nazi who becomes a part of the Basterds after showing a special talent for killing his own kind, the lovely Diane Kruger (whose talents this reviewer has been celebrating since "Mon Idole") as a German movie star who is a double-agent for the Allieds, Michael Fassbender as a Scottish Lieutenant who makes the most of his two scenes, and, surprisingly, Mike Meyers, almost unrecognizable until massive amounts of makeup as a Scottish general... until, of course, he opens his mouth.
Tarantino enjoys taking several story lines, cutting them up, moving them around and trying to make them all collide together at the end. More often than not, it doesn't really work out as best as it could have. In "Basterds," it works and exceedingly well. How he gets Landa, Shosanna and the Basterds together for the fiery coda and unexpected denouement is nothing short of masterful. Maybe it's because he's been thinking about this story for more than a decade, making sure he didn't go into production until he knew he had it just right.
There is little doubt there will be some cineastes who will refuse to see "Basterds" out of some sense of loyalty to the cause, because they feel Tarantino represents the worst that comes out of the auteur theory. They feel he does nothing more than consume all these movies and regurgitate what he thinks he can use in his films. Call it an homage. Call it generous borrowing. Call it outright theft. What should matter is the individual film, and whether that film succeeds or fails on its own, regardless of influence. And "Inglourious Basterds," warts and all, represents what can be very good about cinema, and their failing to see it won't make it any lesser a film.
My rating: A-