Justin does Inglourious Basterds

“So, gentlemen, let’s discuss the prospect of ending the war tonight.”

The Scoop: 2009, directed by Quentin Tarantino, starring Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, and Mélanie Laurent.

Tagline: Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France.

Summary Capsule: A wronged young woman and a guerilla squad of Jewish Americans follow converging paths of vengeance against the Nazis in France

Justin’s Rating: The title needs a spell check.

Justin’s Review: The recipe for a Quentin Tarantino film, as established and followed to the letter since Reservoir Dogs, is as such:

  • Unconventional structuring of the film’s acts (usually involving breaks in time and flashbacks/forwards)
  • Slavish adulation of the coolness of the main characters
  • Obscure film references as a throwback to the glorious days of pre-QT filmmaking
  • Loud and obnoxious music to highlight key scenes
  • Great camerawork and cinematography (hey, I give credit where credit is due)
  • Conversations that drag on about six times longer than they ever would in real life, to the point of burying the audience under mountains of dialogue and monologues
  • An odd and uncomfortable foot fetish

If I complain about Inglourious Basterds in any of these terms, you’d be right to say, “What did you expect, man? You knew what you were getting into from the start.” Which is true. I’ve had moments where I’ve really enjoyed QT’s repitoire – Kill Bill vol. 1 (not 2, which became a snoozefest) and Pulp Fiction, primarily – but the guy is so deeply devoted to his odd mix of old film worship and extensive conversations that I just can’t bring myself to like his newer enterprises.

What annoys me the most is that Quentin is a pretty smart and talented director. He knows his stuff. He has an eye for talent, a mind full of movie trivia that I could never attain, and is daring enough to do his own thing his own way without pandering to the blockbuster masses. But smart people, in my experience, come in two varieties. The first are the ones that are modest about their intelligence and let their work speak for itself. The second are the ones who are so desperate for ego injections that they constantly go around pointing out how very clever and terrific they are, which sets off a chain reaction in some others who agree once this is pointed out, and the ego feedback loop is sustained.

QT’s films reek of the second variety, as he can’t leave well enough alone, but must go the extra pretentious step of throwing in a narrator who has three lines but is there so he can namedrop Samuel L. Jackson, or pointless celebrity cameos, or long in-movie exposes on an obscure topic that sound as though someone is regurgitating a Wikipedia article. The more he throws in weird crap like David Bowie songs in a WWII setting or references to his older works, the more I get the mental image of a cock of the walk, strutting around and booming, “I’M COOL! LIKE ME!”*

So let’s push aside his ego and take IB as it is: a slow, plodding WWII revenge fantasy set in an alternate historical setting where there were more words flying over Europe in 1944 than bullets. In it, a Jewish woman becomes the sole survivor of the efforts of a particularly nasty Nazi. A few years later, chance and fate and heavy-handed screenwriting would put her in charge of a French cinema where Adolph Hitler and his buds want to come to watch the latest propaganda film. Off somewhere else, a group of Jewish-American guerilla fighters known as the Inglorious Basterds pick their way through France, terrorizing the Germans in cruel and bloody ways. These two tales culminate in a plan to assassinate all of the German high command in one fell swoop, sort of Valkyrie with less Tom Cruise and more lessons on how many fingers it takes to order whisky if you’re undercover as a German officer.

So take an hour from the 2 ½ hour running time and shift more focus on the Basterds, and you might have yourself a pretty dashing flick. I went into it expecting a Dirty Dozen experience, but found myself listlessly cleaning my entertainment room about midway through, as great amounts of nothing happened for long stretches at a time. As it is, this five-part movie strains your patience to the point of incredulity. Similar to a play, there’s very little movement between locations – actors stake out a room and start flinging words back and forth, often in a foreign language (so enjoy your QT subtitles). Brad Pitt, in particular, looks terribly bored and affects an accent that was probably created on a dare.

I’ve heard a lot of people praise the main villain, who is more or less like the bad guy in Schindler’s List, except he’s about as menacing as a cartoon villain and equally as predictable. He goes through the same act about three or four times in the movie, where he starts talking and talking and (you guessed it) talking like he’s a nice guy or something, but at the end of the conversation he calmly reveals that he’s read the script and knows what everyone’s trying to pull. Okay. Whatever.

Listen, I’m well aware that IB rose to the tops of many critics’ and personal “best of” lists for the year, and I’m pretty much spitting into the wind trying to penetrate this veil of hubris that QT’s erected to shield the fact – yes, fact – that this is a shoddy, plodding, mess of a film. But I won’t sleep well at night until I do, and now I can.

*Of course, he peaked with this attitude when he listed Kill Bill as a “U & Q Joint” or somesuch, which made me suspect he was pretending that Uma Thurman was his girlfriend.

Kyle’s Rating: If there were an official Oscar for ‘Most Awesomest Movie of the Year’ then here be your winner!

Kyle’s Review: I had wanted to see The Hurt Locker again before I could render such judgement, and so now I’m able to say with conviction that Inglourious Basterds was absolutely the best film of the year. I had wanted to see Avatar as well, just to be thorough, but I didn’t expect any competition on that front (UPDATE: nor did I find any). Quentin Tarantino, never the most humble or subtle of filmmakers, rubbed some of the audience of this film the wrong way by blatantly identifying Basterds as his “masterpiece.”

Thing is, he’s right.

Up until now, I personally had always considered Tarantino’s work to be stylistically profound but less than significant in terms of dramatic content. His impact on both culture and filmmaking was nothing if not understandable, and his emergence as one of the most influential authorial voices in cinema was at the very least something very fun to talk about. But overall, for me, his movies were enjoyable to watch but regrettable for how much Tarantino-overpraise I would have to endure in conversations with all manner of legions of his superfans. I mean, I dug Pulp Fiction and I thought Kill Bill Vols. 1 & 2 were beautifully flawed endeavors. Really, pre-2009 I felt everything he’s worked was worthwhile entertainment, but I would’ve been more willing to consider his artistic virtues if I didn’t have to hear how “****ing awesome!!!!LOL!!!!” Quentin Tarantino was all the time. Especially since the man himself and his work seemed to be fused into one manic, fast-talking caffeinated entity that served as a horrific harbinger of the Age of The Bro. Yikes.

I haven’t totally been converted to the Tarantino Side, but I’m more inclined to visit there on a regular basis. I’m very excited to see whatever he creates next, because Inglourious Basterds is not simply Tarantino finally delivering on the immense promise his outsized cultural persona imparts his every project with. It is a nearly perfect film, a work of art that is undeniably Tarantino’s own yet opens itself to contemplation by everyone who sees it. I have close friends who think Basterds is a complete piece of crap. I think it’s a cinematic masterpiece. Let’s see if I can explain away a bit of both stances to everyone’s satisfaction!

Inglourious Basterds is best defined as being part of the ‘Tarantino genre.’ It is of many different genres yet defiantly belonging to no single one, and knowingly disregards many storytelling conventions to provide tangential information at a whim. Prior amalgams, while just as inspired (I’m thinking specifically of the Kill Bill saga at the moment), were rather ham-fisted in spots and glaringly incongruent in others. Basterds connects its disparate parts into a seamless whole, finally fusing Tarantino’s penchant for scattershot referencing with a, well, I have to say ‘zany’ world of characters that make such a malleable reality believable.

And ‘malleable’ this world of the Basterds is. Here, the urbane Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) cuts an imposing yet charming swath across Nazi-occupied France. Landa is a fascinating figure, though he never lets one forget that his nickname ‘The Jew Hunter’ has been quite well-earned. Our first glimpse of Landa in action leads to the young Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) fleeing her family’s massacre, and serves the audience notice: this not your typical movie Nazi. Far from underestimating his enemies/prey, Landa allows a twisted and bizarre sense of respect to inform his instincts (it’s the sort of performance one must see in action rather than merely read about, and Waltz’s work is deservedly seen as one of the few ‘sure things’ at this year’s Oscars). On the Allied front, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) has been given orders of his own: to form a small group of Jewish-American soldiers to be dropped behind enemy lines in France and wage guerilla warfare upon Nazis. Killing Nazis isn’t merely enough for Raine: each of his men owes him 100 Nazi scalps, and the rare Nazi they choose to pump for information then allow to survive to spread word of the Basterds is permanently identified as a Nazi, the better to let no one forget post-war whose side they were on.

Pretty straightforward story in a lot of respects, yes? Tarantino plots are generally solid and reliable; it’s the story turns and characters where he succeeds or fails. Here, his successes are remarkable. Landa is the jewel here, a cultured villain with a sense of humor and joy for the details of life. Raine purposely toys at being a stereotypical good ol’ boy but retains enough little Tarantino quirks (manifested perfectly by Pitt, reminding those of us who forgot that he can be a hell of an actor) to be consistently complex. Shosanna, though, is the true heart of the film. The tragic survivor who becomes something more, Laurent effortlessly mixes her undeniable beauty with palpable melancholy. When events conspire to set Shosanna and Raine’s Basterds on separate yet equal paths towards ultimate vengeance, watching these main characters and their supporting cast bounce and plot against one another is a stunning experience. Perhaps those who watch the History Channel on a nightly basis with find some fault with Basterds‘ version of events, but those who trust in art will find great catharsis in Tarantino’s adjustments.

Ultimately, I don’t think I’m going to sway my friend with my review here. Inglourious Basterds reminds me of a favorite song that I’m suddenly forced to defend: it’s a popular song, so obviously I’m not alone or ‘wrong’ for liking it so much, but my appreciation for many of its defining elements is rooted in personal preferences. Tarantino, for the first time, is aligned with my own likes in ascribing characterizations and maneuvering plot dominoes into place. There are several lines I should think most anyone should find side-splittingly funny, and the climatic set piece is staggeringly impressive. ‘Revenge of the Giant Face’ has rightfully become shorthand in many circles, and that particular moment (you’ll know it when you see it) is just as rightfully viewed as one of the most astonishingly inventive moments of the entire decade of film. Just as memorable for me is the moment just a few seconds later when Eli Roth finally justifies his existence with one of the best nonverbal acting moments of all-time. I know, I can barely believe it myself. But it’s true!

Tarantino has never failed to be at least interesting. With Inglourious Basterds he officially becomes Great to me. My apologies if you contend I should have been on the bandwagon all these years, and please accept my invitation to come investigate if you too have remained unconvinced. And trust in the advice of Roger Ebert, as well: when you’re done watching, don’t hesitate to watch it again. You won’t regret it!

Check out the cheese on that 'stache

Intermission!

  • Quentin Tarantino wanted this film to be an amalgam of a war film and a spaghetti western, and for a while intended to title it “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France.” He instead used that title as the first chapter of the film.
  • Tarantino worked on this film’s script for close to a decade.
  • Simon Pegg was originally to play Lt. Archie Hicox but couldn’t fit the film into his schedule, so Michael Fassbender stepped in instead.
  • Tarantino first asked Adam Sandler to play Sgt. Donny Donowitz, but Sandler was booked to film Funny People.
  • The role of Francesca Mondino was written specifically for Julie Dreyfus, who played a similar role in Kill Bill: Vol. 1
  • Leonardo DiCaprio was the first choice to play Col. Hans Landa, but Tarantino decided a German-speaking actor should play the part.
  • Regarding the misspelled title, Tarantino has said this: “Here’s the thing, I’m never going to explain that. You do an artistic flourish like that, and to explain it would just take the piss out of it and invalidate the whole stroke in the first place.”
  • A scream sound effect used near the end of film is actually Kurt Russell’s scream from the end of Tarantino’s film Death Proof.

Groovy Quotes:

General Fenech: We have all our rotten eggs in one basket. The objective of the operation: blow up the basket.

Bridget von Hammersmark: I know this is a silly question before I ask it, but can you Americans speak any language besides English?

Aldo: Well, I speak the most Italian, so I’ll be your escort. Donowitz speaks the second most so he’ll be your Italian cameraman. Omar speaks the third most, so he’ll be Donny’s assistant.
Omar: But I don’t speak Italian.
Aldo: Like I said, third best. Just keep your ****in’ mouth shut. In fact, why don’t you start practing, right now.

Aldo: Sergeant Hugo Stiglitz?
Stiglitz: (nods)
Aldo: Lieutenant Aldo Raine. These are the Basterds, ever heard of us?
Stiglitz: (nods)
Aldo: We just wanted to say we’re a big fan of your work. When it comes to killing Nazis . . .
Nazi Guard: (groans and is shot dead by one of the Basterds)
Aldo: . . . I think you show great talent. And I pride myself on having an eye for that kind of talent. But your status as a Nazi Killer is still amateur. We all come here to see if you wanna go pro.

Aldo: You know something, Utivich? I think this might just be my masterpiece.

If You Liked This Movie, Try:

  • Kill Bill: Vol. 1
  • Pulp Fiction
  • The Dirty Dozen
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s