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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Director Report Card: Quentin Tarantino (2009)

8. Inglourious Basterds

“Inglourious Basterds” is a movie Tarantino has talked about making for years now. For years, it was his mysterious World War II epic, named after the more grammatically correct spaghetti combat flick “The Inglorious Bastards.” It was a script he tinkered around with for over a decade and, at one point, was suppose to star Adam Sandler and Arnold Schwarzenegger. At another point, it was going to be a television mini-series. For a long time, I was fairly certain it was never going to actually get made. When Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” finally made it to theaters in 2009, it was preceded by years of hype. How could any movie live up to such anticipation? Apparently it did, as it wound up being the director’s highest grossing film at the time, garnering the most Academy Award nominations of any of his films, and receiving a heaping helping of critical praise.

This is doubly surprising when you consider that “Inglourious Basterds” is a film engineered to play with expectations. The titular squad of bad-ass Nazi killers, plastered all over the trailers and movie posters, are not actually the main characters. They only appear in maybe half of the film. The actual protagonist of “Inglourious Basterds” is Shosanna Dreyfus, the Jewish girl who previously escaped Hans Landa, the notorious Nazi Jew Hunter. The two plots, the Basterds’ campaign of terror against the Germans and Shosanna’s own quest of revenge, exist separately for most of the run time. Even by film’s end, the two never meet. Their stories play out parallel to each other without ever intertwining. Once again, Tarantino is violating one of the first rules of screenwriting with subplots that never meet. However, unlike the split screenplay of “Death Proof,” “Inglourious Basterds” playing with convention works far better.

The film is deliberately paced, balancing impressive moments of suspense before paying them off expertly. The opening sequence, where Landa investigates the farm house, plays out fantastically. The German officer is nothing but civil, charming even. The scene operates on Hitchcock’s First Rule of Suspense: The Bomb Under the Table. The audience knows Shosanna and her family are hiding under the floorboards, even before the director reveals it. The suspense comes from whether Hans Landa knows that and, more importantly, what his reaction will be. Of course, he does know, the character revealing that information as graciously as anything else. Powered by the nervous synth tingle of Charles Bernstein’s score for “The Entity,” the scene builds to a deeply suspenseful climax. Finally, the scene dissolves like ephemeral smoke, Landa laughing into the air. “Inglourious Basterds” impresses right out of the gate.

And it’s a good thing too, since the middle section drags quite a bit. The scenes introducing the Basterds work fairly well. Aldo Raine’s motive establishing monologue worked fantastically in the film’s trailers and works even better in the film. Til Schweiger’s Hugo Stiglitz, with his Samuel L. Jackson provided introduction monologue, certainly makes an impression. Showing Hitler’s reaction to the Basterd’s violence before we see the violence itself is another smart element, mentally stuffing up the characters. After that impressive moment, “Inglourious Basterds” hits a series of bumps. The long scenes of Shosanna meeting Zoller or Michael Fassbender’s Lieutenant Hicox drag. They aren’t without bright moments. Shosanna meeting Landa again for the first time in four years generates some minor suspense. The unexpected appearance of Winston Churchill is a humorous surprise in the latter. Both moments are powered by Tarantino’s trademark dialogue. However, reading Tarantino’s dialogue as subtitles instead of hearing them robs the words of their musical quality. The scene with Hicox and Michael Myers’ General Fenech is loaded down with exposition and plot mechanics. None of those scenes are bad but they lack a certain energy.

The middle act cumulates in a Mexican stand-off in a basement bar. Tarantino usually reverses his Mexican Stand-Offs for the climax. Dropping that sequence in the middle of the movie is somewhat problematic. First off, the build-up is tortuously long. Characters talk endlessly. Attempts by the Basterds to talk with their spy is repeatedly interrupted, first by a drunk soldier on leave and then by a nosy SS officer. The scene winds up coming off as more annoying then suspenseful. When guns are finally drawn and the characters stop talking bullshit, the stand-off picks up speed. The sudden explosion of violence is unexpected, as it cleaves through a large portion of the cast.

That story move is representative of one of the film’s major problems and also, unexpectedly, one of its strength. Spending time developing Lieutenant Hicox and Hugo Stiglitz just to kill them off a few scenes later is frustrating. Why did we invest in these cast members if they weren’t important? From a fan’s perspective, this is frustrating. The coldly, if reasonably, psychotic Stiglitz is fascinating, especially when paired with Til Schweiger’s intense, stare-eyed performance. Michael Fassbender, with his ironic mastery of accents, cuts an impressive figure, like a modern day Errol Flynn. His delivery makes some of the heavier dialogue easy to listen too. So what was Tarantino's purpose in clipping them so soon? Perhaps he was making a point about the wages of war, how any one can die at any minute. Maybe.

Or, maybe, he just cut down a huge story to an only big story. After the self-indulgence of “Death Proof,” “Inglourious Basterds” is one of Tarantino’s most disciplined screenplays. Like most of the director’s work, the film is presented in novel-style chapters. Oddly, there are only six chapters. That doesn’t seem like very much. This is a sprawling story with dozens of characters. There are at least ten Basterds to start with. We only spend time with only four or five of them. Shosanna’s story only details some of her history. We know very little about her relationship with Marcel. Zoller’s plot line could have easily been expanded. It’s easy to see how much was condensed, removed, cut, or whittled down. “Inglourious Basterds” is a pretty good two-and-a-half hour movie that would have been an amazing five hundred page novel, ten hour mini-series, or seventy-volume comic book. Though frustrating on first viewing, this is less of a problem on repeat watches. This isn’t the whole story, nearly a small portion of it. Tarantino is adapt at creating sprawling worlds and this is one of his most involved.

“Inglourious Basterds” is plagued with that stop-and-go pacing until somewhere near the film’s hour point. All plot lines come together during an exhilarating montage set to David Bowie’s “Cat People” theme. A song originally about repressed sexual desire suddenly becomes a ballad about Shosanna’s simmering rage, her revenge finally coming to a head. From there on, “Inglourious Basterds” is electrifying. Aldo and company’s attempt to fit in at the film première is hilarious. Hans tearing through their disguise with his polyglot skills is both hilarious while ramping up the stakes. The bullets, fire and explosion are perfectly executed, the chaos bringing way to silence. The resolution to Zoller and Shosanna’s storyline is shocking but weirdly cathartic, mostly thank to the inspired musical choice of Morricone's "Un Amico." Finally, the film’s final step builds fantastically on what we already know. Raine looking directly into the camera and declaring the film Tarantino’s masterpiece might be a bit presumptuous. But as far as final acts go, “Inglourious Basterds” has got one hell of one.

Another sign that this screenplay is the writer at his most efficient is its thematic element. “Inglourious Basterds” is a film lover’s proposal about film’s importance to history. It’s less a war movie then a war movie. The turning point of the war doesn’t take place on the battle field but in a movie theater. Film itself is position as a literal weapon, a pile of nitrate reels re-purposed as a bomb. The characters discuss movies and directors, mentioning “King Kong,” Emil Jennings, “Sergeant York,” and Leni Riefenstahl. The characters prominently feature an actress and a film critic. A huge portion of the plot revolves around a propaganda film. During the climax, Tarantino visualizes the film’s theme when Shosanna’s mad, cackling face is projected onto a plume of white smoke. Never before has the director so seamlessly merged his love of cinema with his script’s theme.

When released, a predictable wave of controversy greeted “Inglourious Basterds.” Critics questioned the taste of casting Jews as bloody avengers against the Nazis. If meeting genocide with further violence was a smart connection to make. On one level, you wonder if such a response was even on Quentin’s mind. Was he making a movie about World War II that wasn’t a “serious issues” movie but rather a simple exploitation flick? Yet then again, the wages of war and revenge are right there in the script’s DNA. The Basterds mow down Nazis, grim-faced and ruthless. The same way SS Officers mercilessly murdered Jews. Nobody in the film comes out clean. Innocent people die in Shosanna’s fire; soldiers who were just doing their jobs fall at the Basterds’ bullets and blades. The avengers are ultimately no better then the perpetrators. War is ugly business and nobody makes it out without innocent blood on their hands.

Despite its interesting construction and intriguing subtext, the most important thing to come out of “Inglourious Basterd” was Christoph Waltz. Never before has an actor been more suited to a director. Waltz’ ever-loquacious delivery is perfect for the director’s trademark double-stuffed dialogue. Waltz is never tripped up by the words, always delivering them in a razor sharp fashion. It helps that Tarantino wrote such a great character for him. Hans Landa is bound to go down in history as one of cinema’s great villains. Landa never betrays his sinister thoughts, hiding every action behind a smile and likable turn of phrase. He is so charming that, when he cooks up a complicated plot at the end, you half-way want to see it succeed. It’s no surprise that Waltz has quickly become Tarantino’s trademark actor as the two are perfectly suited to one another.

The rest of “Inglourious Basterds’” cast is more mixed. Melanie Laurent impresses as Shosanna, packing a lot of intensity under a glance or a word. Her fear and resentment is balanced on her face. Seeing her reap her revenge is truly satisfying. For a character like Bridget von Hammersmark, a charming, internationally beloved actress, you needed a charming actress. Diane Kruger is more then up to the task, lovely and likable, especially during the bullet extraction scene. Brad Pitt ultimately wins the audience over as Aldo Raine. However, his laughably bad Appalachian accent takes some getting used to. At the very least, Pitt adapts nicely to Tarantino’s style. Speaking of bad accent, Eli Roth’s Bahston accent is embarrassing. Roth is hardly a trained actor to begin with and he stretches his limited range to its breaking point. It would have been nice to see more of B.J. Novak or Omar Doom, as both are entertaining in their limited roles.

“Inglourious Basterds” marks a strong return of the director’s style. Some trademark crash-zooms and tracking shots appear during the “Putting Out the Fire” montage. The sudden appearance of Samuel L. Jackson as a narrator is a great addition and works especially well during Hugo Stigletz’ introductory flashback. I like the quick jumps around in time, like a flash back to a machine gunned Jeep. Tarantino even manages to justify his foot fetish, as a missing shoe is a plot-point. His soundtrack selection is typically excellent, Billy Preston’s “Slaughter” theme especially.

Hugely ambitious, somewhat uneven, but propulsive when it works, “Inglourious Basterds” is a distinctly Tarantino production. Some love it a lot, calling it the director’s best work. I wouldn’t go that far. However, the movie’s best moments are spectacular and unforgettable. [Grade: B+]

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