***1/2 out of 5
Quentin Tarantino's new film Inglourious Basterds is meant to be enjoyed on a visceral/gut/emotive level, not on a logical level.In a way, as different as the two films are on the surface, on a gut level IB reminds me of reactions to District 9 -- if you start to deconstruct it, there are places it feels awfully familiar. But it is fresh and enthralling in the presentation. Basterds in particular is clearly made by someone who loves cinema (which we all already knew about Tarantino, of course). This means there are the some scenes that are victimized by either running on too long -- Tarantino in love with his dialogue -- or giving off the "Hey look at me! This is a movie!" vibe, and the requisite nods to other films (even Cinderella gets a rather obvious shoutout) -- but more often than not the film pushes all the right buttons. It clasps on to the WWII movie tension and wratchets it up expertly multiple times over, and cathartically gives us release.
But I can't top screenwriter John August's summation (in less than 140 characters, on twitter): "Inglourious Basterds is A Night of Short Plays about Nervous Liars by QT, but they're wildly enjoyable and well-shot plays."
The BBC's Mark Kermode also made a fair point -- though I liked the film better than he -- that Tarantino is excellent with set pieces, as he is here, but not as good connecting the overall vision to a more cohesive whole. I don't mind the chapters-of-a-book idea as a way of unfurling the story,
It is clearly channeling in spirit a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western (it even borrows at least a couple of snippets of music score from those films). It is also, as QT himself said, "a bunch-of-guys-on-a-mission movie; but, it's more than that."
It is indeed a collection of connected sequences, set pieces, many of which are built around characters with secrets trying not to be found out.
Criticisms that the film runs too long seem less valid to me, especially after he'd made some trims post-Cannes, or at least to me the film rarely feels like it's flagging along. But criticisms that certain scenes are overlong are more valid, that QT is still so enamored with his dialogue that he can't find any place to edit down even if we the audience can.
And yet on the other hand, even some of the talkier bits are usually so well-written that, I, too, become in danger of getting mesmerized by the conversation. In other words, Tarantino may still overwrite at times, but he really does have such a fine ear for back-and-forth dialogue, and in IB, unlike in, say, Death Proof, the conversation at least is almost always on point. revealing character and/or pushing the plot ahead, that it didn't bother me as much here. And there are undeniably some great scene-chewing lines for Brad Pitt.
I also really did appreciate the way Tarantino, so front and center a film buff to the extreme, wove in film itself (both projected and the physical manifestation of it on celluloid) to the plot. Even if the climax itself is a bit over the top, it's hard not to become enthralled by the movie theater scenes.
But again, the film is at its most distracting when we're reminded, oh yeah, we're watching a film. QT is so clearly talented and much of the film works so beautifully that when these moments happen they are doubly frustrating; it's as if Tarantino, as confident as he may seem on the surface, doesn't always appreciate his own talents to just tell the story naturally. He's certainly matured in that regard, but it makes the moments when he regresses all the more noticeable. Bits here and there, like using a snippet of the Moroder "Cat People" score, or the casting of comic Mike Myers, covered with "old British officer's pockmarked skin" makeup -- a small role to be sure, and Myers carries off the British accent, as if he's channeling Colonel Blimp, but it still ends up being slightly distracting.
Film director Eli Roth reminded me physically of film director-slash-actorJohn Cassavetes' roles in similar war movies; except Cassavetes was a good, experienced actor and I'm not sure we can say the same for Roth, but he inarguably has a presence here. He and many of the other Basterds seem cast for their similar looks -- including The Office's BJ Novak and Freaks and Geeks Samm Levine.
Which reminds me of one other minor debit: Might be due to some late editing QT had to do but some of the Basterds characters (not Novak's Utivich but certainly Levine's character) just sort of disappear in the third act -- what happens to them? Where did they go? I guess we'll find out in the inevitable director's cut on DVD.
The ending at the theater is of course not meant to be realistic and it certainly provides a cathartic thrill but it still felt too over the top, even for QT. The script sets up the climax to come from several possible angles, as there are multiple "blow up the movie theater" plots that work in tandem toward the finale. While each of the parallel stories work pretty well on their own, as separate chapters of this book that is the film, I'm not fully convinced they all create the most coherent climax in the movie theater. That said, it's still satisfying, and the very last moments with Brad Pitt's Aldo Raine (which sounds suspiciously like Aldo Ray) and Christoph Waltz's Col. Randa are terrific. It's almost too bad it isn't until the very end that these two memorable characters come face to face at last, but it is most satisfying when they do.
And is there a better film discovery in recent memory (as it were, as he's known to German audiences) than Waltz? His Randa is a challenging character; Tarantino says it may be the best one he's ever written and I can't disagree, but it also requires speaking multiple languages, including many long speeches in English, and playing a character who is part abhorrent Nazi "Jew Hunter", part detective, with an upper class, Rules of the Game-ish manner, and yet with a sense of humor that is hard not to take to. Waltz takes it and runs with it.
He and Pitt have a blast.I'm Fine, Don't Worry) also more than holds her own as Shoshanna, the character that gives the film the most weight. If it weren't for this actress and the character's story, there is not enough from the male characters alone to glom on to. She's terrific. In a scene where she has to keep her calm and her origins a secret while dining lavishly with Nazis, and then has to meet the man responsible for the death of her family, her quick shift from pleasant poker face to emotional breakdown is beautifully played.
All in all, while there are problems with Basterds, I can't deny how enormously entertained I was by the whole thing, riveted throughout. And anyone complaining that it's not historically accurate should also then complain of the same with Raiders of the Lost Ark. This film lets you know from the very start that it takes place in an alternate universe; people who complain about that seem to be living in a parallel one.
I just want to see Tarantino, while still being QT, let his next film take us in to its world entirely, with less of the "hey! we're watching a movie" decorations.
Anyway, here's your Basterds outside reading list:
The Evening Class Q&A with Tarantino
Glenn Kenny on Some Came Running
Elvis Mitchell Interview with Tarantino on The Treatment (KCRW)
The Inglourious Basterds screenplay!
Lastly, check out this pretty awesome unused Basterds poster [thanks Film School Rejects], which has shades of, yes, Raiders of the Lost Ark.