Friday, August 21, 2009

On the QT

Inglourious Basterds
Directed and written by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Melanie Laurent
Opens August 21, 2009
The Weinstein Company/Universal

Pitt in Inglourious Basterds
First, I must apologize to Quentin Tarantino. In my review of the Blu-ray release of Enzo Castellari’s 1978 action potboiler The Inglorious Bastards, I referred to Tarantino’s remake, but it turns out that Tarantino only bastardized Castellari’s movie’s title and kept the World War II setting. All else is different—to the new movie’s detriment.

Inglourious Basterds (the second word should have a “u,” not an “e,” but that’s less subtle) is a 2-1/2-hour mess from the world’s most self-important director. Ever since the runaway success of Pulp Fiction in 1994—including an Oscar for Best Screenplay—Tarantino has been more about his own brand (“QT”) than whatever movies he makes: Jackie Brown, Kill Bill 1 and 2, and his half of Grindhouse (Death Proof) have added little to an already overblown reputation.

I was willing to meet the new movie halfway, and there are remnants of a talented filmmaker buried in there somewhere (notably in two extremely well-done sequences), but the overall smugness, the glee with which he steals from other, better filmmakers, the non-existent characterizations notable only for excessive chattiness and the by-now rote stabs at maximizing violence exhausted me by the time Inglourious Basterds limped to its far from “glourious” finale.

The story concerns a group of Jewish-American soldiers recruited by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, whose amusingly deadpan performance includes the dimmest Southern accent ever) to go on lightning raids against Nazi soldiers, murdering and scalping them at will, and frightening the bejesus out of Hitler’s deadly efficient army. In a parallel story, ruthless Nazi colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, giving an elegant portrayal of a horrible human being) is out to track down Shosanna Dreyfus (a one-note Melanie Laurent), who escaped from a farm hideout as Landa’s men cold-bloodedly mowed down her family.

Shosanna ends up managing a movie theater in the heart of Paris (yes, this is a fantasy), and it’s there that the leaders of the Third Reich, including Hitler, will assemble for the world premiere of a new propaganda movie, Nation’s Pride, and where the Basterds—allied with German actress-turned-spy Bridget von Hammersmark (an essentially wasted Diane Kruger)—will attempt to kill those men most responsible for the deaths of millions in WWII.

As this brief summary shows, the movie is mostly a ridiculously plotted (and ridiculously bloody) action-adventure in which we are made to happily root for the good American murderers because they get better lines to speak than their bad Nazi counterparts. But wouldn’t we do that anyway? While watching Pitt and company scalp yet another victim—there are many needless close-ups of hair and skin being detached from German heads—I marveled at Tarantino’s inability to do anything remotely original with this scenario: transforming the fantasy of getting the ultimate revenge on Hitler into a mere yuckfest (in both senses, since most of the jokey dialogue occurs during the movie’s most violent sequences) is just what we would have expected out of him. And which he delivers.

It’s too bad, then, that there are hints of a more substantial movie in the two sequences where Inglourious Basterds rises above the level of mere juvenilia into something more challenging. The opening is a tense, taut sequence in which the Nazi Colonel questions a French farmer about whether he’s harboring any Jewish fugitives. The precision of Sally Menke’s editing, the eerie silences, and the heart-pounding stillness of the entire sequence make for what may be the best segment of any Tarantino film yet.

A similarly strong sequence occurs later when three of the Basterds meet actress Bridget von Hammersmark in a basement bar near Paris. There’s only one problem: there are also Nazis there, drinking and partying, and one of them is rightly suspicious when he can’t quite place the accent of one of the Basterds, all posing as Nazi officers. Playing with the German language and various accents is an intelligent move on Tarantino’s part, and before the sequence climaxes with its predictable explosion of violence, we are kept on the edge of our seats with a tension that’s been quite plausibly created by what’s an horrifically realistic situation.

The rest of Inglourious Basterds—which ends with an inferno in the Parisian movie house that incinerates Hitler and all the rest of his high command (ironic, of course)—is the usual blend of infantilism and smart-ass movie-based trivia that Tarantino has been churning out since Reservoir Dogs. Film buffs may get off on some characters’ names, on the allusions to directors and actors, and even on the stylized black and white Nazi-propaganda film-within-a-film, nominally directed by Eli Roth (who also poorly plays one of the Basterds).

Shallowness is Tarantino’s calling card, but in a backhanded way, we must admire his chutzpah: after 2-1/2 hours of this endless and repetitive blood-letting, in the final shot the director has his star carve one last swastika into the forehead of another Nazi and announce to the audience that he’s created his masterpiece. How wrong he is!

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