Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: Movie Review

A new Quentin Tarantino movie brings along a flood of questions in my inbox. Typically, "What'd you think of it?" "Where's your review?" "What'd it rip off?" I wrote a review of the script for Inglourious Basterds (sic) back in July, 2008. Like most Tarantino screenplays, little changes between final draft and finished film. Additionally, Tarantino always does a good job of painting a clear picture in the mind of the reader, leaving one feeling as if they've seen the film with their mind's eye. Thus, much of my review of the screenplay goes for my review of the film.

Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)

A group of Jewish soldiers goes after Nazis with a vengeance during WWII. Lead by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), his “Basterds” strike fear in the hearts of German soldiers due to their merciless tactics and their love of scalping victims. Sadly, there’s no “getting the team together” sequence (which makes movies like The Dirty Dozen so great) or even a montage of why these guys are “Basterds.” We only see them in action briefly, joining the team already in progress as they tear ass through enemy territory and terrorize soldiers. Like Mickey and Mallory Knox, they always leave someone alive to tell the tale, though they’re scarred with a swastika on their forehead.

The “Basterds” aren’t at the crux of the story (a mistake), rather, they’re unwitting foils of Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), the “one who got away” from Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), The “Jew Hunter”, in the film’s opening scene. Shoshanna runs a Parisian cinema where a Nazi propaganda film makes its premiere. She utilizes the former cinema owner’s extensive nitrate film collection to take out the Third Reich’s high command including Adolf Hitler! Operation Valkyrie? Not quite. It’s Operation Kino!

Tarantino does well to not stuff Inglourious Basterds with his usual group of stars (including some has-been looking for a career transfusion). Sure, Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel make cameo voice appearances but, apart from Brad Pitt (and, to an extent, Eli Roth), lesser-known actors comprise the cast. This feels reminiscent of Paul Verhoeven’s Dutch Resistance film, Black Book, in which story trumps stars. Rumor has Tarantino attempting to attach many other big name actors to his work. This would have proved distracting, if not disastrous. As it was, the stunt casting of Mike Myers as a British General provides the film’s weakest point. Despite (or perhaps due to) the layers of make-up, Myers stands out like a sore thumb. Chomping on a British accent, I kept expecting him to break out an “Oh, behave” or “Shall we shag now, or shag later?” Unfortunately, Myers scene mires the film.

For as bad Myers may be, Christoph Waltz shines as Colonel Landa. The opening scene (which brings to mind the introduction of Lee Van Cleef’s character in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) sets up how suave and ruthless his character can be, going from one to another in moments. It’s important to have this duality set up as he seems to make a rather out-of-character change late in the film.

Overall, the film neither thrilled nor appalled me. My ambivalence stems from what others may find endearing; the use of quirky moments that take the viewer out of the film’s overall narrative arc. These include oddities such as a title card over the introduction of one character, some on-screen titling that point out key Nazi players, and subtitles that leave in foreign words and phrases (rather than translating everything to English). Tarantino continues to use title cards, myriad fonts, and fake titles (the end credits run twice – once as if we were seeing an older film and once in the current contractually-obligated manner). This is perhaps Tarantino’s strongest narrative and he nearly succeeds in balancing three main characters. He falters on pacing (two longer scenes could be tightened up without loss of dramatic tension) and the “Basterds” arc. The audience doesn’t get to know most of the “Basterds” and several of them disappear from one scene to another.

It should be noted that this is the first time that Tarantino’s gotten close to creating a “remake” rather than just ripping off another film (or films) and calling it his own. Oddly, the similarities between this work and Enzo Castellari’s original Inglorious Bastards stop at the (English) title and WWII setting. The film seems more indebted to other Italians like Sergio Leone and Sergio Sollima. Like Kill Bill, the soundtrack brims with themes culled from other films, especially those scored by Ennio Morricone. The use of music from The Big Gundown ("La Condanna") in the opening scene may be clever but soon it feels like someone forgot to re-score Inglourious Basterds and left in a temp track by mistake.

1 comment:

Whetam Gnauckweirst said...

Excellent review! I was surprised by the extensive use of subtitles, knowing that North American audiences have a notoriously low threshold for them. Known for his snappy dialogue, Tarantino took a real gamble running his trademark through this filter. The performances were excellent, but some of the gratuitously long scenes could have been cut back in order to make room for development of the "basterds" whose moniker provides the film's title.

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