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Non-Review Review: Inglourious Basterds

I went to see Inglourious Basterds with my brother last night at the cinema in Swords. I’m not sure what either of us was expecting – I’d read enough reviews and opinion articles and am well-versed in the knowledge that trailers always lie to know that it wouldn’t be a straight-up Nazi-killing flick. In fairness to the misdirecting marketing campaign though, I’m not sure how you could advertise what Tarantino has produced here. What we’ve got is a film possibly unlike any other you’ve ever really seen. I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it, which is certainly a big indicator in the film’s favour.

Tarantino, you magnificent basterd, you...

Tarantino, you magnificent basterd, you...

I had a conversation with a friend on Tuesday night where he observed that the reviews for the film were falling into one of two categories: it’s either ‘flawed but brilliant’ or ‘utterly terrible’. There’s no middle ground. I took a bit of umbridge at that statement – I pride myself at generally averaging out over polarising movies (like Watchmen, for example). But after seeing the movie, myself and my brother can understand. I’m reminded of that great story that Roger Ebert tells about his first viewing of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction at Cannes:

Immediately after “Pulp Fiction” played at Cannes, QT asked me what I thought. “It’s either the best film of the year or the worst film,” I said. I hardly knew what the hell had happened to me.

This just about sums up where myself and my brother sit right now. I’m leaning towards words like brilliant and masterpiece, while the bro is still struggling to decide his true feelings on the matter, for the record. Eitherway, I’m reminded of something that Tarantino himself said about his own movies and what he aims to accomplish with them. While watching a clip of him hosting Sky Movies last weekend, he simply stated that he wanted to offer entertainment. Nothing more nothing left. If a punter doesn’t feel cheated out of €10, then he’s done his job. In this case, he has definitely done his job.

The film really seems unique. Sure, it’s full of shoutouts and references – the opening sequence deftly echoes the introduction to The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, Tarantino smoothly appropriates a David Bowie soundtrack that no one but me seems to have heard (even picking the superior film mix over the album version) and so on – but Tarantino skilfully mixes his 101 ingredients together to create a unique brew. The premise of the movie is pure B-movie, but – since he seems to have gotten bored of that half-way through Deathproof – the execution is not.

The film comprises of several strands all tying together in the climax. The strand which gives the film its title – and provides most of the advertising footage and themes – is the story of Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raines and his squad of Nazi-hunters in Nazi-occupied France. This thread is handled well, and Tarantino has a great leading man in pitt. Realising that Raines is more carcature than character, Pitt lets his chin do most of the acting. It isn’t a deep or brilliant performance like Pitt is capable of, but it isn’t meant to be. Raines is a simple (if brilliant) man and one who doesn’t really need growth or development for the exploitation film he has found himself in. And Pitt does the character’s comedy brilliantly. There’s a hilarious segment where he passes himself off as Italian, with a strong Southern drawl as he utters “Si – errr, correcto”. He’s ably supported by his team. Eli Roth has got a lot of criticism as The Jew Bear, and he’s not fantastic, but he gets the job done. Probably better than Tarantino himself would have done.

This thread is violent and bloody. It’s probably not as violent and bloody as the trailers and marketing may have led you to believe, but it’s as violent as you could expect Nazi-scalping to be. Still, even in these sequences, Tarantino shows his deft hand. In one of the two best sequences of the film, there’s an extended scene in a tavern overrun by Nazi’s. IT’s witty and funny and tense and scary all at the same time, and shows Tarantino to be a far superior film maker to those exploitation directors he seems to aspire to. This scene also links a British thread that Tarantino ties in, seemingly just for the hell of it (and just to include a fairly good cameo from Mike Myers).

Again, Tarantino seems to be having fun more than he’s crafting a story, so the film eschews the traditional rules of narrative in several ways. Threads go nowhere. Characters appear and disappear. Public service announcements by Samuel L. Jackson interrupt twice. Seemingly plot-relevant characters die with little-or-no-reason or because of bad choices. It sounds like a big mess, but it works well and gives the movie an odd feel that throws a modern audience on its ear and helps the three-hour run time fly.

However, what really sets the film apart from the pack and Tarantino’s other recent efforts are three factors. The first and second are related. The casting of Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa is absolutely amazing. He singlehandedly delivers the film’s standout sequence, the opening chapter. It’s a scene heavy on dialogue featuring Waltz switching through three languages, smoking a pipe and being entirely reasonable. But you’re always watching him and nothing ends up getting lost. Indeed, each move is sheer genius. My brother turned to me in the middle of the scene and declared ‘this is brilliant’. Which is odd for a guy who generally doesn’t like quiet dramatic scenes. Waltz is magnificent throughout. He is charming and sophisticated, but the audience knows what lurks beneath the surface (and what Waltz and Tarantino only let out once over the film’s run).

The second element is the plot thread that follows the lone survivor of a Jewish family who hosts the Nazi premier that provides the film’s centre-piece. Melanie Laurent is amazing as Shoshanna, and her scenes with Waltz cackle. Indeed, this thread more than any of the others running throughout the piece is the heart of the story. It’s as emotionally honest as Tarantino has ever allowed himself to get and it elevates the movie beyond the bravado fantasy that one would imagine inherent in the concept of the film (a crack team of Nazi-scalping commandos). Indeed, the final scene in the cinema is brilliant and Tarantino couldn’t have picked a better venue to stage the ultimate showdown between good and evil. Or, at least, his version of that showdown. Laurent is the film’s heart and an aspect that will likely be ignored come Oscar-season. Still, it provides the best moments of the film and these two threads are what push the film into brilliance.

But all this talk of depth and heart distracts from what Tarantino does. He isn’t trying to make Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List – and it’s a smart move. He is trying to make a fun, entertaining movie that engages its audience for the three hours it runs. That he manages to leave them with a smile on their face and maybe something to think about is a bonus.

The third element is the ending. Due to my views on spoilers, I won’t really talk about it here, but it is great for so many reasons. I might post on it as an exclusive element in a week or so.

I’ll concede that the film isn’t really perfect. There’s so much going on that – even at nigh-on three hours – we feel like we don’t see enough. The other side of that coin is that – at three hours – the audience is liable to feel exhausted following so much. And I can appreciate that this film will split audiences down the middle. Still, it’s a film I recommend seeing either way to form your own opinion.

What is particularly jarring about the runtime is that – contrary to the laws of narrative that govern big releases like this – a lot of the scenes go nowhere or feul plots that aren’t directly related to the main plotline. I have no problem with the apparent randomness of it all (in fact, I’d use the alliterative adjective ‘refreshing randomness’), but I can see it wearing thin with audiences used to conventional storytelling. In fact, I can see the movie confusing audiences going in with a firm idea of what they expect from the film or expecting a wall-to-wall actioner. Like I said, your mileage may vary on any the film. The stuff that I loved is just as likely to irritate any other viewer for the exact same reasons.

Indeed, there’s a lot more maturity on display here than we’ve come to expect from Tarantino. In a small moment, a baseball-bat-wielding Basterd asks a captive Nazi if he received a prominent medal “for killin’ Jews”. He swallows nervously and responds that he received it “for bravery”. Indeed, Tarantino reminds us throughout the picture that most the people in uniforms – no matter which – are human. Flawed, innocent, naive, wonderful, cynical and horrible. And human. That’s not to say that Tarantino makes light of the Nazi’s – these aren’t the cartoon fare of Raiders of The Lost Ark, for example. Indeed, there’s a darkness lurking just below the surface and occasionally illustrated by the acts of brutality. I have to admit, I am pleasantly surprised at how Tarantino dealt with the heavier aspects of the story, given its exploitationist roots.

Ultimately, what it boils down to is that the film manages to be both a war movie and a Tarantino movie, rather than one or the other. Tarantino’s dialogue – as ever – sparkles, but it doesn’t feel out-of-place coming from the mouths of actors like Pitt or Waltz. There’s even room for the director’s infamous foot fetish.

Ill see it again, but for now I’m leaning towards brilliant and one of the year’s best.

_________________________________________________________________________

Inglourious Basterds is directed by Quentin Tarantino (Jackie Brown, Kill Bill) and stars Brad Pitt (Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Ocean’s Eleven), Eli Roth (director of Hostel) and Michael Fassbender (Hunger, 300). It also features cameos from Mike Myers (Austin Powers, The Love Guru), Samuel L. Jackson (Lakeview Terrace, Die Hard With a Vengeance) and Harvey Kietel (Pulp Fiction, Life on Mars). It was released worldwide on 21st August 2009.

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6 Responses

  1. […] Inglourious Basterds opened to mixed reviews. That may sound like an odd thing to be happy about, but Tarantino doing a […]

  2. […] lack of pithiness that defines Cannes journalism, I don’t know what to make of coverage of Inglourious Basterds. The reviews are mixed at best. I miss the Tarantino who won the Palme d’Or for Pulp Fiction. […]

  3. […] pretty much become guarunteed Oscar bait. Given the minor furore which surrounded the release of Inglourious Basterds, is the time of the one-dimensional cardboard cutyout passed? And has political correctness gone […]

  4. […] was 2009. What has been dubbed “the Twitter Effect” apparently helped Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds gain a larger audience than most anticipated over its weekend opening and it also crippled Bruno, […]

  5. […] Not that Uma Thurman doesn’t try. She gives one the best performances of her career, making the Bride nearly the only character in the film (everyone else is a cutout, a reference, a plot device or a filter, or some combination). The problem is that the movie relies on the Bride’s quest for revenge to engage us and to hold it all together. It just about manages to do that, but barely. I described the film above as somewhat juvenile. You might think I was making a cheap shot at Tarantino’s influences or his style – I was not. I was speaking about he treatment of the notion of vengeance, a prickly topic to deal with in any form, let alone in a brightly coloured, gratuitously violent style. Here he shows no real appreciation of what vengeance is (beyond some vague metaphors mumbled at the end by cult actor Sonny Chiba). That takes maturity and consideration, which he had earned by the time he returned to the theme in Inglourious Basterds. […]

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