Thursday, May 28, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino | 2009 | 154 mins | USA / Germany

I’ve been a fan of Quentin Tarantino’s since I first snuck into a screening of Pulp Fiction in high school, and subsequently sought out and was blown away by Reservoir Dogs. It’s not that he can do no wrong in my eyes, it’s just that I’m predisposed to liking his visual style, his cleverly crafted dialogue, his ultra-violent yet oh so stylish action sequences and his nerdy nods to his favourite genre films. When I heard that he was going to be making a WWII film about a gang of Jewish soldiers who wreak havoc on the German countryside scalping Nazis and striking terror into the heart of the Reich, I imagined a cool-as-hell reinvention of The Dirty Dozen, only grittier, more violent and more over the top.

In my mind, Inglourious Basterds was going to transcend the war film and become my favourite genre of all, my cinematic Achilles heel: the film about a ragtag group of misfits on an impossible mission. Alas, I was woefully disappointed on this count, but perhaps it’s unfair to lay the blame entirely on Tarantino’s shoulders for not delivering the film that existed in my mind. I wrote up a review of the film for Twitch which can be found here, which explains a bit more about the extensive and convoluted plot twists. I won't repeat the summary here. Instead, here's a concise list of my top and bottom three things about Basterds.

The best:

1. Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa. His impeccable command of English, French, German and Italian and his goofy yet sinister vibe make this milk-drinking villain so delightful you want to root for him even though he’s a Nazi. Waltz won the best actor award in Cannes for the performance, and he fully deserved it.

2. Tarantino’s use of music. At first I hated the fact that he slipped David Bowie singing Cat People (“Putting Out Fire”) into the Morricone-infused score during a sequence in which French-Jewish babe Shosanna is getting dolled up for a big night, because it pulled me out of the atmosphere and time period entirely. As I think about it more, this choice seems particularly inspired, messing with the audience’s understanding and perception of a history that Tarantino has completely reinvented anyway.

3. The final battle sequence. Tarantino’s film is not-too-subtly all about the power of film itself. Ultimately, it’s cinema alone that is mighty enough to destroy the Third Reich, and when the climactic, cinematic exorcism of all our collective WWII demons finally arrives, it’s pretty damn brilliant and cathartic.

The worst:

1. There’s nowhere near enough Basterds in this film. After the first time they’re introduced, they almost never appear together again in the 154 minute film, and they’re so poorly fleshed out as characters that it’s impossible to care about them or even remember who some of them are. The film should have been called The Jew Hunter. That would have been considerably less disappointing.

2. Lots of great characters who disappear before you’ve had a chance to learn their name. Mike Meyers has a pretty decent cameo as General Ed Fenech, but the entire OSS subplot that he’s part of is axed so quickly it’s hardly worth the elaborate setup. Even Brad Pitt as Basterd leader Lt. Aldo Raine is reduced to essentially little more than a funny-accented comic relief character. A tiny bit more development could have gone a long way.

3. Inglourious Basterds is (nearly) all talk and no rock. A friend who also saw Basterds in Cannes referred to it as “a film about tables”. First, they talk at one table. Then they sit at another table and talk some more. Then they go to another table and ... you get the idea. Essentially, this is true. Of course we expect nothing less than brilliant dialogue from Tarantino, and he does deliver, but there’s way too damn much of it, and the balance between talk and action is so far off that I nearly dozed off during the middle. If you’re able to doze off during a Tarantino film, then the man’s not doing his job.

On the whole, I give this one 6.5 out of 10. I’m not sure if it’s my least favourite Tarantino, but it certainly doesn’t touch my top three (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Death Proof in occasionally shifting order, in case any of you want to judge my worth as a critic on this basis).

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