Movie Review by:
Jim "Good Old JR:" Rutkowski
Brad Pitt, Eli Roth, BJ Novak
for strong graphic violence, language and brief sexuality.
" For all its visual bravura and occasional bursts of antic inspiration, it
feels trivial, the work of a kid who can't stop grabbing his favorite shiny
Quentin Tarantino has always worn his references
proudly. An acknowledged cinema geek whose early years were spent in blissful
self-education in the motifs of B-movies, noir pulp and the generic gestures of
spaghetti Westerns and 1970s exploitation flicks, he went on to create films
that stole from the best, and sometimes worst, that Hollywood had to offer. Like
a delirious and sometimes demented magpie, Tarantino feathered his movies with
the detritus of pop culture, creating visceral, glibly funny pastiches
("Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction") and, once in a while, even delivering stories
about recognizable human beings ("Jackie Brown").
With the eagerly anticipated "Inglourious Basterds," Tarantino manages to
simultaneously surprise and revert to predictable form. The surprise lies in his
choice of period and subject matter. Set in France during World War II, "Inglourious
Basterds" tells the fictionalized story of a special squad of American Jews
whose mission to kill and capture German soldiers was uniquely practical and
symbolic. But as rich as the subject matter is in both action and metaphor, in
Tarantino's hands it becomes mere scaffolding for his chief preoccupation, which
is the movies.
From the admittedly breathtaking opening sequence, which in its meticulous
staging, pacing and acting pays loving homage to the work of Sergio Leone, to
the Grand Guignol of a climax set in a Paris cinema, "Inglourious Basterds"
isn't about history or war, or people and their problems, or anything of
substance or meaning. It's a movie about other movies. For all its visual
bravura and occasional bursts of antic inspiration, it feels trivial, the work
of a kid who can't stop grabbing his favorite shiny plaything.
To the degree that viewers share Tarantino's obsessions -- with cinema, music
and bloody, ritualized violence -- they will enjoy "Inglourious Basterds," which
undoubtedly possesses its share of grace notes. Finest by far is the German
actor Christoph Waltz, who in a revelatory performance plays the German colonel
and legendary "Jew hunter" Hans Landa. Waltz appears in that fabulous opening
sequence, confronting a French dairy farmer whom he suspects of harboring a
fugitive Jewish family. As he drinks a glass of the farmer's fresh milk, Waltz's Landa takes his place among the pantheon of great film villains, the
personification of smiling evil and playful, menacing politesse.
That first scene turns out to presage much of what is to follow in "Inglourious
Basterds," whose structure pretty much comes down to scenes of people talking
followed by paroxysms of brutal violence (although it must be said that
Tarantino shows admirable restraint in the first outburst). What's more, it ends
with the movie's most problematic stumper, a gesture that is completely out of
keeping for a chief character, but without which the movie would have nowhere to
Landa is by far the strongest character in "Inglourious Basterds," which stars
Brad Pitt as his American counterpart, Lt. Aldo Raine, (a not-so-subtle tribute
to actor Aldo Ray) who early in the movie is shown assembling a group of Jewish
soldiers whose mission is to do "one thing and one thing only: killin' Nazis."
Only in Pitt's attempt at Smoky Mountain vernacular, that last line comes out
sounding like "one thang and one thang only: killin' Nattzies." Mustached and
flinty-eyed, Pitt's character ends his speech by announcing that he's part
Apache, and as such will insist that each of his men owes him "one hunnert
Nattzie scalps." (The deliberate misspellings of the title, presumably, are
meant to simultaneously pay homage and make a crucial distinction from the 1978
Italian war movie "The Inglorious Bastards.") Audiences may be shocked to
realize that after the Pitt-centric trailers that focus almost exclusively on
his big ra-ra speech to the troops, the headliner may not clock in at even an
hour’s worth of screen time in the 153-minute flick.
Because it's Tarantino, viewers can rest assured that we'll see those scalps
being taken. And we'll see a character called "the Bear Jew" -- played in one of
several instances of stunt casting by pulp horror director Eli Roth (who cannot
act worth a damn)-- beating a German soldier to death with a baseball bat. In an
attempt to go "The Dirty Dozen" one dirtier, Tarantino piles on yet another
macabre flourish, in the form of a swastika that Raine carves into the foreheads
of the Germans he doesn't kill. Doling out such graphic sequences like so many
dog biscuits, Tarantino clearly has sought to reward the "Kill Bill" crowd who
just can't get enough of guts, gore and torture. In a second plot line, the
beautiful owner of a Paris movie theater (played by Mlanie Laurent) begins her
own plot against the Nattzies, one that hinges on the premiere of a propaganda
film featuring the German version of Audie Murphy and the flammable properties
of old-fashioned nitrate film stock.
Those quick to complain about all the talk-talk-talk in his Grindhouse segment,
Death Proof, were not so quick to acknowledge that all the girl talk was leading
somewhere, establishing Zoe Bell’s nine lives or justifying how stupid it is to
ride the hood of a speeding car. All the second act conversations keep the film
firmly planted at a stand still. Everything that could be said in three
sentences is said in thirty. Sometimes it works as in precisely how much Italian
the chosen Basterds know and sometimes it doesn’t as in the extension of the
already lengthy basement sequence where Pitt interrogates Kruger over knowledge
that we already have. Kruger painfully overplays her toughness in this scene in
a manner that makes Laurent’s carefully brimming avenger all the more
tremendous. Pitt, on the other hand, overplays his southern drawl and impudence
with just the right measure, lending more credence that his skills as a comic
actor are immeasurably under-appreciated. Quite the opposite is true though of
Mike Myers who shows up for one scene as a British superior talking about Hitler
and the theater. Anyone not clear that Hitler will be there? As this scene
occurs before the basement, it’s the first real chink in Basterds’ armor,
distracting us with another of Myers’ limited variations on smirking accents.
His performance is so mannered and overtly familiar that it wouldn’t be out of
the realm to watch him raise a pinky to his lips. In turn, Tarantino could have
benefited his filmmaker friend, Roth, by turning his character into a mute.
Effectively menacing by anti-hero standards when silent, but giving Quentin’s
skewered work as an actor a run for its money anytime he opens his mouth.
Busy, busy, busy. And it gets even more frenetic when the Basterds conspire in a
plot against Third Reich bigwigs with a gorgeous German double agent (and
actress) played by Diane Kruger channeling Marlene Dietrich, and a dashing,
unflappable British officer (and film critic) played by the terrific Irish actor
Michael Fassbender channeling Trevor Howard. With name-checks of Leni
Riefenstahl, G.W. Pabst and the movie studio UFA dropped like so many bundled
incendiaries, "Inglourious Basterds" often feels like a windy tutorial in prewar
German cinema history, broken up by the odd firefight or brutal murder. Mashing
up visual styles and musical eras with blithe anachronistic license, Tarantino
at one point stages a scene to resemble "The Lady From Shanghai" by way of a
dime-store pulp novel, set to David Bowie's "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)."
If only the Allies had had Tarantino on their side; he could have made Hitler's
head explode. As it happens, they must instead settle on having their actions
and exploits extruded through his own bizarre sense of cruelty, spectacle and
talky, post-modern irony. (Characters are routinely introduced by way of cheesy
'70s-era screen titles.) In his defense, Tarantino announces right off the bat
that "Inglourious Basterds" is little more than a fairy tale, in a title that
reads, "Once upon a time in . . . Nazi-Occupied France." Still, even with the
most elaborately embroidered myth, it helps to believe at least one word of it.
It's interesting that "Inglourious Basterds" follows two other movies that have
spun their own tales of comeuppance and macho Jewish heroism: last year's "Valkyrie,"
which turned real-life attempts to assassinate Hitler into a sleek, "Mission:
Impossible"-like thriller, and "Defiance," which received high marks from
historians for getting the story right about real-life Jewish partisans who
bravely fought back. Compared with those relatively sober films, "Inglourious
Basterds" unspools less like bold revisionism than a lurid wish fulfillment
fantasy of revenge, cinephilia and carnage. Tarantino isn't interested in
telling an authentic or believable story in "Inglourious Basterds" so much as
using World War II as a backdrop for his ongoing enterprise of cinematic
recycling. He's managed to feather yet another one of his nests, which at this
point are feeling all the more flimsy for being overstuffed.
INGLORIOUS BASTERDS © The
Weinstein Company, Universal Pictures
All Rights Reserved
Review © 2009 Alternate Reality, Inc.
"Too often the
films fail to separate what made drive-in shockers good-from what made
them bad" (JR)
"The beauty of this film is in its lapidary details, which sparkle with feeling and surprise." (JR)
FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS
"..It's about heroes, and how a country can need them so badly that it simply manufactures them." (JR)