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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)

Quentin Tarantino's INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS was a movie I meant to see on the big screen but missed thanks to every single show I tried to get into being sold out, so I figured I'd wait until it hit DVD. Well, less than four months after its U.S. theatrical run it's out on disc and I sat through it the other night, fully expecting an R-rated, ultra-violent, cussing-riddled Q.T. version of SGT. FURY AND HIS HOWLING COMMANDOS, but what I got was something else entirely.

I read the film's script when it was leaked to the Internet (however long ago that was) and figured what I read was most likely going to see several revisions before it finally hit the screen, simply because the movie read more like some kind of WWII-set arthouse flick rather than the kind of non-stop violence-fest I would have expected from Tarantino. Let's face it: when evaluating the guy's filmography it's impossible not to realize that what he's succeeded in building his career on is crafting what are basically high-end exploitation movies. To some degree each of his films has taken the tropes of a given exploitation mainstay genre — crime thrillers, blaxploitation, revenge/chopsocky flicks — and stripped them of their low-budget rawness while infusing them with a "quality" Hollywood look and not losing an ounce of that signature exploitation visceral charge, and now Tarantino applies his grunge-film makeover skills to the brutal WWII "mission" genre, and the finished product did indeed undergo a number of tweaks from what I read in the script, including the loss of my favorite scene, but I'll be getting to that shortly.

WARNING: If you intend to read any further, keep in mind that here there be spoilers.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (a title whose spelling is at no point explained in the film) is ostensibly about a behind-enemy-lines mission undertaken by commanding officer Aldo "The Apache" Raine (Brad Pitt, chewing up the scenery in unashamed and ludicrous full-blown good ol' boy mode) in which he and his all-Jewish squad of American commandos wage a war of terror against their Nazi foes. Making a name for themselves as a deadly scourge of the Boche, Raine and his "Basterds" mercilessly exterminate all comers and mark any they chose to let live to spread the word of their terroristic activities with a swastika carved into their foreheads with the tip of Raine's Bowie knife, an act that strikes deep terror into the hearts of Nazi scum everywhere.

The Bear Jew (Eli Roth) and Aldo the Apache (Brad Pitt) do what they do best, and it sure ain't pretty.

When the Basterds are assigned to wipe out the German political/military hierarchy while said officials attend a film premiere in occupied France, their plans coincidentally collide with a similar agenda held by Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), a French Jew who escaped the massacre of the rest of her family at the hands of Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a Nazi whose renowned knack for tracking down Jews earned him the nickname of "the Jew Hunter." Escaping from Landa some four years before the real meat of the story takes place, Shoshanna inherited a movie theater in Paris (stocked with an impressive library of highly flammable reels of old film prints) and through various plot machinations ends up being forced to host the aforementioned premiere.

Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) steels herself for the premiere of "Nation's Pride."

Filled with a desire for righteous vengeance, Shoshanna, aided by her lover (Jacky Ido), aims to trap Hitler, Goebbels, Goering and other high-ranking officials within her cinema and burn the place to the ground. As the plans of the Batserds and Shoshanna converge, an apocalypse of carnage is guaranteed, but will the good guys prevail or will they end up just another statistic on the Third Reich's score card?

That's the basic setup and it sounds like fertile ground for a slam-bang WWII-era actioner, no? Well lemme tell ya, bunky, if you're looking for action, you've come to the wrong war movie. Rather than being the DIRTY DOZEN-style pic the trailers led one to believe it was, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is more of a somewhat-highbrow WWII epic with arthouse pretensions that is by no means a bad movie, but it is definitely not all that it's been cracked up to be. Let's break it down, both the good and the not-so-good (there's very little here that is outright bad):
  • The movie is over two-and-a-half hours long and there is perhaps a total of ten minutes of action/mayhem. Not good for a war movie that advertises itself as an action flick.
  • Despite being the title characters, the Basterds are given virtually no development and consequently register less as characters than as interchangeable plastic army men. The small exceptions to this interchangeable aspect are Lt. Raine, psychopathic German/former Nazi team member Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), and the menacing Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth), aka "the Bear Jew" who savagely beats Nazis to death with a baseball bat, but the minuscule development they receive is not sufficient to make us connect with them as heroes. The remaining Basterds are cannon fodder at best.
  • For all intents and purposes the film really belongs to Shoshanna and her plan for revenge, which is simultaneously given a boost and a thorn in her side when she catches the attention of young Nazi war hero Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl). Zoller stars in "Nation's Pride," a feature film dramatizing a battle in which he picked off scores of men while holed up in an unreachable tower, and he attempts to win over Shoshanna with his status as a star, not knowing he doesn't stand a chance with him thanks to her justifiable loathing of Nazis. Much of the film has to do with Shoshanna's futile and frustrating attempts to give the young soldier the brush-off, but his efforts to win her over include him convincing Goebbels to hold the film's premiere at her cinema, thus cementing the location for the grand finale.
  • While not as oppressive with his cinematic cherry-picking and references this time around, Tarantino did annoy the living shit out of me by using David Bowie's "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" as a would-be mood-setter as Shoshanna gets ready for the big premiere evening. That song is indelibly linked to Paul Schrader's (1982) remake of CAT PEOPLE, and those of us who've seen that film cannot hear that tune without having flashbacks to hallucinatory sandy dreamscapes, horny panthers and a sultry Nastassja Kinski, so finding it's dance floor-flavored throb juxtaposed against a WWII setting is both jarring and incongruous. Yeah, I get that Shoshanna is "putting out the fire" of the entire Nazi hierarchy by trapping them and immolating them, but the use of that song was just too on the nose.
  • Christoph Waltz's Hans Landa is a terrific villain and completely steals the movie whenever he's onscreen.
The superb Christoph Waltz as the vile yet utterly charming Hans Landa, aka "the Jew Hunter." No lie, this guy deserves the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Landa is smooth as greased otter shit, is an accomplished detective (albeit one who puts his considerable talents to highly questionable uses), is quite charming, is a polyglot with apparently native speaker fluency (which is a huge problem if you're trying to get disguised enemy operatives past him, as happens during the story) and is a pragmatic opportunist of the highest order. When it comes to bad guys, Hans Landa comes from out of nowhere to make my Top 10 list of the best villains of the past fifty years, so make of that what you will. In fact, I think Tarantino's biggest error was in not devoting a whole movie to the character, especially since Tarantino looooooooves characters who like a good conversation, but audiences may have suffered from the CLOCKWORK ORANGE effect had that been the case, and would probably have left the theater realizing they'd been made to care about a piece of human garbage. Very charming garbage, yes, but refuse nonetheless.
  • By far the worst thing in the film is the ill-advised inclusion of Mike "Austin Powers" Myers in the role of a high-ranking British military official. When he shows up in a uniform and makeup that renders him balding, bewhiskered and graying, the viewer cannot help by say, "Hey! That's Mike Myers! What the fuck is he doing in this film?" Seriously, when he appears he launches into more of his tired U.K.-accented schtick, although not (?) meant to be humorous in this context, and his miscast and intrusive presence brings the movie to a dead stop and completely removes the viewer from the "reality" that the film had thus far successfully set up.
  • In Tarantino's original script, there was a powerful explanation of why Donny Donowitz wields a baseball bat against Nazis, namely that he'd gone throughout his neighborhood and asked all the Jews who still had family in the old country to write the names of their loved ones on his bat, thus infusing it with power to be used against the enemies of their people. I dunno what you have to say about it, but that's some major mythic shit that I completely understand and feel would have gone a long way to give the Bear Jew a stance as a righteous avenger instead of just presenting him as some creepy thug with a bloodied Louisville Slugger. Do yourself the favor and track down the script online, then read the sequence where Donowitz explains his mission to an old lady in his neighborhood. Very strong narrative stuff that is nowhere to be found in the final product.
  • For those of you who hate sitting through films with subtitles, bear in mind that a good two-thirds or more of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is in French, German and a smattering of Italian, so have your reading glasses at the ready. I enjoyed this aspect of the film because the speaking of native languages only adds to the authenticity.
  • For me the film seemed less like a straight-flowing narrative and came off like a collection of well-shot and well-acted one act sequences, most of which were of interest and occasionally compelling and suspenseful as hell. That said, the movie did not work for me as a cohesive whole work. There was just...something missing, and I can't quite figure out what.
Bottom line, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS looks great and is definitely worth sitting through once, but I find it odd that the film fleshes out everybody except the guys who you'd think were supposed to be the main characters. Perhaps this was Tarantino's attempt to outgrow his more overt exploitation influences, but I found it to be a valiant near-miss. And for the record, out of Q.T.'s entire filmography, I would rate this admittedly opulent and well-acted work as last in my estimation of his work. Some of his other films are flawed, but this is the only one I would never sit through again (although I could be tempted back just to see Christoph Waltz again).

5 comments:

Satyrblade said...

With one exception, Steve, I totally agree with your appraisal of the film. Basterds struck me as a brilliant yet deeply flawed project of enormous personal investment and audacious inspiration. Tarantino has said that his various drafts would have resulted in a film four to six hours long. Know what? I wish he'd made that film. As it is, the theatrical release of Basterds feels like it's incomplete.

Maybe a director's cut will help. I'd felt the same way about Death Proof, and when I saw the full-length version of the film, I liked it considerably more than I'd liked the version shown in Grindhouse's theatrical run. Ditto that for Kill Bill - my vote for his second-best after Pulp Fiction(*); when I'd seen Part I, I was like "Eh - fun but not great." The second part made the first part snap into place. Now, I won't watch one without the other... and I've seen both four or five times together. So yeah - I hope there's a four-hour director's cut of Basterds coming out. The story and its characters deserve more than they got in the theatrical run.

That's both the near-fatal flaw in Basterds: It's three films trying to co-exist in one place. It has two protagonists of equal weight: Shosanna and Landa, both of whom provide the "antagonist" role for one another even though they never meet... which, by the way, I really liked. The film draws you in with the lure of seeing Brad Pitt and Co. get medieval on Nazis, but they almost never do - it's all tease, no payoff, which may be the first time that's ever happened in a Quentin Tarantino film! You're right - there's a HUGE mythic potential there, and it gets dropped right on its head. Seeing The Bear Jew and Stigliz and Aldo the Apache get their time in the sun would be worth another hour on my ass. Because what's there on the screen is so fucking good that I'd take that time to watch that movie.

Which is the one place we disagree. I really Want to watch Basterds again. I suspect that, like Jackie Brown and Death Proof, I'd see more and more stuff I loved about it in repeated viewings. The film is so blody rich, so packed in every frame with asides, details, inside jokes, cultural references that slide past you until you think about them, plays on words that get missed because of the different languages involved... that I think I'd need to watch Basterds three or four times just to get the full effect of it.

(That goes double for the speakeasy scene, which is one of the most incredible suspense sequences I've ever seen in any movie - doubly so for being in German and building for over 15 minutes of geometrical tension. That scene alone is on my "All Time Great Moments in Cinema Suspense" list. Take THAT, Roland Emmerich, you miserable hack!)

In my classes, I show scenes from Pulp fiction and Kill Bill to demonstrate various elements or principles of storytelling and film. Every time I watch those scenes - and in some cases, that's been a dozen times or more - I see new elements I hadn't seen before. Tarantino is a filmmaker of incredible complexity, and Inglorius Basterds may be his most complex work yet.

So to me, it's worth sitting through two or three more times, just to absorb what's there as it is. That goes double if there's a more complete cut of the film on the way.

MORE POWER TO THE BEAR JEW!




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* Resovior Dogs just doesn't do it for me. It's good, but too derivitive of other films to be brilliant in the way that, say Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill are brilliant. Maybe I just need to watch that one a few mmore times, as well.

Satyrblade said...

PS: Had you heard that Tarantino wanted to cast Leonardo Fucking DiCaprio as Landa? Talk about casting decisions that, thankfully, were never made! I agree with you - Christof Waltz deserves every male-actor Oscar they have for that role. The kid who couldn't correctly pronounce "D'Artagnon" when he had a French co-star standing right next to him would have butchered that part at birth.

(I have fond fantasies of the notoriously cantankerous GĂ©rard Depardieu beating the shit out of DiCaprio while shouting "Dar-Tan-YON, you stupid American trash!")

Tania said...

Satyrblade,
I've only seen IB once, but as I recall, Shoshanna and Landa do meet - at the dinner in the cafe where it's decided to use her cinema for the premiere. Or am I misremembering it, was that some other Nazi feeding her strudel?

Steve,
damn, now I want to see that scene explaining the bat! Let's hope it did get filmed and it turns up on a director's cut. I too felt short-changed by the lack of time given to most of the titular heroes, and it seemed to me that the Bear Jew needed a backstory.
I saw this in the cinema, and at the end I honestly couldn't say if I'd ever want to watch it again. But there were scenes I loved, so, maybe.
I actually had no problem with his use of 'Cat People'. But then I've never seen that movie, and I'm easily swayed by loud music in a movie... ;-)

Satyrblade said...

Tania: You're right - I had forgotten that scene. Thanks!

I did love, though, that as he meticulously tracked and tricked everyone else, his true nemesis was right there the whole time.

J.R. LeMar said...

Good review. Agreed on all counts.