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Josh Reviews Inglourious Basterds

September 2nd, 2009
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I still remember the first time I saw Pulp Fiction.  I didn’t know anything about this guy Quentin Tarantino, and I hadn’t yet seen Reservoir Dogs.  But in reading about the film in advance of its release, it looked like it had a pretty spectacular cast, and I thought the trailers looked pretty cool.  So, when the film came out in theatres, I corralled a bunch of my high school buddies to go see the flick with me.  Boy, were we totally unprepared for what we were about to experience in that darkened theatre in Milford, CT!  We pretty much had our brains blown right out of our heads.  When the film was over, none of us could really speak — or even move!  My friends and I just sat silently through all of the credits, slowly absorbing everything that we had just seen.  What a movie!  Walking out of that theatre it was pretty much assured that, from then on, I’d buy a ticket to any movie that Quentin Tarantino ever directed.

And, well, I have, and he hasn’t let me down since.  Jackie Brown, Kill Bill (volumes I and II) and Death Proof (Tarantino’s half of Grindhouse — and please lord, can we someday get the complete theatrical version of Grindhouse released on DVD???) all proved to be relentlessly entertaining.  What has really impressed me, though, is that while all retain the distinct signature of Tarantino’s style of movie-making, those four films are all quite different from one another in terms of content and tone.  I am happy to report that I can say exactly the same of Mr. Tarantino’s latest work, Inglourious Basterds.

This is a spectacular film, one of my very favorites of this mediocre summer of movies.  (My other favorite would be Pixar’s Up — see my review here — and two more different movies I could scarcely imagine!)

As with most of Tarantino’s movies, Inglourious Basterds kicks off with a powerhouse of a first scene.  In Nazi-occupied France, dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet, looking quite a lot like Gerard Butler in 300) is paid a visit by “the Jew Hunter,” S.S. officer Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), who is seeking to determine if Monsieur LaPadite or any of the other local farmers are hiding a family of Jews who have disappeared.  Tarantino is a genius at being able to craft exquisite tension from scenes of simple conversation, and this opening sequence is a master class in this skill (rivaling, in my mind, the deservedly famous “say what again!” interrogation scene from Pulp Fiction).

By the end of this prologue, only young Shosanna (and why her name is spelled that way, rather than Shoshanna, which is how it’s pronounced and how this Hebrew name is usually spelled in English, is a question even more perplexing than the purposeful mis-spelling of the film’s title) is able to escape Landa.  Cut to several years later, with WWII in full swing, when we are introduced to Aldo Raines (Brad Pitt) and his group of Basterds, mostly-Jewish soldiers dropped behind enemy lines with the sole purpose of brutally dispatching as many Nazis as possible.  The exploits of the Basterds is but one the several storylines we follow through the film, including that of Shosanna’s, until everything converges at a theatre in France in which Joseph Goebbels is premiering the new Nazi propaganda movie, Stolz der Nation (Nation’s Pride).

Inglourious Basterds is quite unlike any WWII movie that I’ve ever seen before.  While it is consistently tense and incredibly engaging, it also has an entertainingly tongue-in-cheek tone.  The film is filled with purposefully anachronistic Tarantino stylistic touches, such as dramatic freeze-frames in which a character’s name is emblazoned on-screen in bright 1970’s fonts, or the sudden appearance of a voice-over by Samuel L. Jackson to explain a plot point about the flammability of a certain type of film stock.  Some might find these sorts of things distracting, but I loved every one of them.  They help give the film a sense of anything-can-happen and you-never-know-what’s-around-the-next-corner that kept me constantly on the edge of my seat.  (Though even that did not quite prepare me for the astounding ending, which, to put it mildly, is not quite historically accurate.)

Once again, Tarantino has assembled a marvelous ensemble of actors.  In film after film I remain impressed by Brad Pitt’s ability to bury himself in a variety of bizarre characters, and his Aldo Raines is a marvelous creation.  The man’s distinct, slow drawl doesn’t quite hide a keen mind for tactics and a terrible brutality.  Melanie Laurent is extraordinarily compelling as Shosanna, a scarred woman whose fierce intellect enables her to always keep her head despite the remarkable circumstances in which she finds herself caught up.  Diane Kruger is also quite wonderful as German movie-star and turncoat Bridget von Hammersmark.  We don’t get to spend too much time with most of the Basterds, unfortunately, but I must comment that despite the criticism that Eli Roth seems to be drawing in some quarters as “the Bear Jew” (in her review for the New York Times, Manohla Dargis used just one word to describe his performance: “dreadful”), I thought that he was quite perfect in the role.  I only wish he’d had a bit MORE to do in the film!

But as good as all of the above actors and actresses are (as well as the many other fine performers in the film who I have not mentioned), the success of Inglourious Basterds rests on the astounding performance of Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa.  This is a remarkable addition to Tarantino’s already enormous stable of dangerous and frightening bad-guys.  Waltz’s Landa is cultured and refined, speaking many languages fluently and displaying great brilliance in the effective way he carries out his brutal work.  He is also, most notably, incredibly jovial as he goes about his business — and whether that is Landa’s natural disposition or just a facade to put his enemies at ease and trick them into making a mistake, the result is a frighteningly ruthless figure.  Tarantino told Empire Magazine (in March, 2009), that if he had not found the perfect actor for the role, he might have pulled the plug on the entire movie.  That might be an exaggeration, but luckily for us all it seems that he did find his perfect actor.  This is a career-defining role for Mr. Waltz.

There are some flaws in the film.  I was disappointed that, in a movie called Inglourious Basterds, we didn’t really get to know most of the Basterds that well.  Some of them don’t even get a single line of dialogue!!  (I was particularly disappointed that Samm Levine, who I loved so much from Freaks and Geeks, fits into this category.)   Interestingly enough, I have long-since had the same complaint about Reservoir Dogs, another Tarantino film that draws its title from the name of a group of dangerous tough-guys.  In both films, the focus seems to be on several “lead” members of the team, while we learn almost nothing about the rest of the gang.  In both films, I find that to be a bit of a disappointment.

I must also admit to being a bit unsettled by something pointed out by Daniel Mendelsohn in his review for Newsweek.  He writes: “In Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino indulges this taste for vengeful violence by—well, by turning Jews into Nazis. In history, Jews were repeatedly herded into buildings and burned alive (a barbarism on which the plot of another recent film, The Reader, hangs); in Inglourious Basterds, it’s the Jews who orchestrate this horror. In history, the Nazis and their local collaborators made sport of human suffering; here, it’s the Jews who take whacks at Nazi skulls with baseball bats, complete with mock sports-announcer commentary, turning murder into a parodic “game.” And in history, Nazis carved Stars of David into the chests of rabbis before killing them; here, the “basterds” carve swastikas into the foreheads of those victims whom they leave alive.  Tarantino, the master of the obsessively paced revenge flick, invites his audiences to applaud this odd inversion—to take, as his films often invite them to take, a deep, emotional satisfaction in turning the tables on the bad guys. (“The Germans will be sickened by us,” Raine tells his corps of Jewish savages early on.) But these bad guys were real, this history was real, and the feelings we have about them and what they did are real and have real-world consequences and implications. Do you really want audiences cheering for a revenge that turns Jews into carbon copies of Nazis, that makes Jews into “sickening” perpetrators? I’m not so sure.”

That’s a valid point, and consideration of this idea does take some of the fun out of the proceedings, in retrospect.  But it’s interesting that Mr. Mendelsohn mentions The Reader.  As I wrote in my review of the film, that is a film in which I was much more troubled by the inversion upon which the film rests: the idea that the  young German with whom Kate Winslet’s character had an affair had his life ruined by her, a Nazi, in an equivalent way to how the lives of countless Jews were destroyed by the Holocaust.  Perhaps I was far more troubled by The Reader because that film was clearly setting out to be a SERIOUS and IMPORTANT drama, while Inglourious Basterds is, despite the intensity and dramatic stakes of the film, really more of a romp.

The other major criticism that has been made against Inglourious Basterds is that it is too long; that it is overly-indulgent.  I can see that.  The film IS very long!  But when I see a Quentin Tarantino film, I WANT him to be indulgent!  I’m not going in looking for a standard type of film — I’m looking for a film that is boiling over with all of Mr. Tarantino’s particular interests and influences.  That’s part of what makes his films so unique, and so enjoyable.  Those who complain about the way many conversation scenes in the film seem to go on and on are, to me, sort of missing the point.  As I noted towards the beginning of this piece, it this through conversation that Mr. Tanatino is able to slowly build the amazing suspense to be found in so much of his work — and it’s also how he reveals to us, slowly, the nature of the characters we’re watching.  I just don’t know what to say to someone who wishes there was more action and less talking in this movie.  Well, actually, I do:  You can go right on down to your local video store to find plenty of movies like that.  Me, I can’t wait to enjoy, for a second time, Quentin Tarantino’s version of World War II: Inglourious Basterds.

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