Thursday, September 3, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: Paths of Gloury

Inglourious Basterds (2009) • View trailer for Inglourious Basterds
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, brief sexuality and relentless violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.3.09
Buy DVD: Inglourious Basterds• Buy Blu-Ray: Inglourious Basterds (2-Disc Special Edition) [Blu-ray]

I don't often say this about films that already run well in excess of two hours, but Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds should have been longer.

Probably quite a bit longer.

This 152-minute crazy-quilt homage  echoing everything from The Dirty Dozen to Clint Eastwood's spaghetti Westerns  too frequently feels as if important stuff has been left out. Backstories and plot logic have been sacrificed for lengthy isolated scenes that are fascinating to watch, but really don't advance the story.
Donny Donowitz (ELi Roth, left) admires Aldo Raine's (Brad Pitt) handiwork,
after the latter carefully carves a swastika into a minor Nazi soldier's
forehead: a mark by which the young man will be recognized forever, should
he survive the war.

The always self-indulgent Tarantino has many strengths, starting with his enthusiastic affection for All Things Cinema, and the imaginative way he can construct a scene to be vibrantly fresh, while simultaneously a sly nod to some well-loved (and sometimes obscure) exploitation flick from days gone by.

Tarantino also is gangbusters with dialogue scenes, particularly in terms of the subtle power struggles that take place beneath the surface of even the most benign conversations. Although the climactic car chase was the best part of 2007's Death Proof, the lengthy session of filthy gal talk between Sydney Poitier and her BFFs was quite entertaining, and Kurt Russell's seductive come-hither wooing of Rose McGowan (poor, poor woman!) was deliciously unsettling.

Inglourious Basterds opens with an equally mesmerizing conversation between two characters: a prologue of sorts, set in 1941, that finds Nazi Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) on what seems a purely routine visit with a rugged French farmer who, while wary of his guest, doesn't appear too worried about him.

The chat  which takes awhile, but isn't the slightest bit dull  evolves through numerous moods, the apparent "lead" passing from Landa to the farmer, as we wonder just where the scene is heading. (This is Tarantino, after all; we can be excused for imagining that the farmer's three nymphette daughters are quietly slaughtering the trio of Nazi soldiers outside, as this parley takes place in the farmhouse.)

But then the penny drops: Control of the conversation swings irrevocably to Landa  we realize, perhaps belatedly, that he dominated the encounter all along  and the scene's true purpose emerges: the introduction of Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), who narrowly escapes Landa and his minions, and survives to become a key player in what follows.

This opening sequence is audacious  dare I say "glourious"  filmmaking by a talent who knows precisely, unerringly how to manipulate an audience. Tarantino has us in the palm of his hand; as of this moment, we'll follow him anywhere.

And it's equally obvious that  as conceived, at least  every character of note in Inglourious Basterds has a similarly fascinating backstory or origin, which absolutely should have been part of the finished film. But it doesn't happen that way: Only one other character receives similar attention  one member of Brad Pitt's Dirty Dozen-esque squad of Nazi hunters  and it frankly seems odd that we never get acquainted with the others in similar fashion.

But such a film would have run four hours. Not a bad thing, in my view  after all, Kill Bill turned into two whole pictures, for precisely this sort of reason  but probably box-office suicide.


Flashing forward several years, Tarantino unveils the main course in his history-mangling revenge fantasy: the creation of a clandestine squadron of elite killers, quickly dubbed "the basterds," hand-picked by Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt) to sow fear into the enemy's ranks. Raine makes a point of selecting Jewish-American men, and  in a nod to his part-Apache heritage  charges each with the task of obtaining 100 Nazi scalps.

Yep, it's that kind of film.

Mercifully, we're forced to watch only one scalp being taken, in all its gruesome detail. (Well ... maybe two. Or possibly three.)

Raine's ironic "recruitment speech" could have come from Lee Marvin's mouth, for those of us who fondly remember The Dirty Dozen, and the basterds' subsequent activities are orchestrated to Ennio Morricone's percussive-heavy themes from Eastwood's three Sergio Leone Westerns. (Tarantino obviously believes  as do many of us  that the best exploitative cinema arrived in the 1960s and early '70s.)

It's all a gleefully vicious assault on the senses that fuels the same sort of what-if wish fulfillment experienced by those who read sci-fi "alternate history" sagas specifically to see Hitler killed much earlier in the war. Tarantino obviously couldn't care less if it never happened this way; he'd prefer to believe that it should have happened this way.


Shosanna, having forged a new identity as the owner/operator of a darling, old-style French movie house, is approached one day by Nazi war hero-turned-movie star Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl). Regarded as a poster child for Aryan supremacy by the Nazi high command, Zoller has been lauded for having single-handedly killed hundreds of Allied soldiers from his sniper's nest in some small town.

Much the way our very own Audie Murphy played himself in To Hell and Back, the 1955 big-screen account of his own WWII exploits, Zoller has embarked on a movie career, and played himself in a re-creation of his battlefield bravery.

This flick is just about to have its premiere: a prestige event that will draw every top Nazi officer. Smitten by Shosanna  believing her to be nothing but an attractive young Frenchwoman  Zoller exerts his considerable charm and influence, and arranges for the premiere to be held in her theater.

At which point, Shosanna realizes that she has a God-given opportunity, with all these Nazi officials under her roof  perhaps even Hitler himself  to trap them inside and burn the theater to the ground.

The Allies also get wind of this film premiere, and similarly recognize this rare chance to strike; Raine and his basterds therefore are dispatched on an undercover mission of their own.

Despite our realization that Tarantino can seduce, trick and yank our chains at will  after all, he's making all these details up as he goes along  this premise generates just as much suspense as last year's Valkyrie, which was based on an actual plot to assassinate Hitler. Perhaps even more suspense, thanks to Tarantino's strongest weapon: Waltz's unforgettable performance as Landa.

The Austrian actor, despite a 30-year career with plenty of film, television and stage work, is completely unknown in this country; that's about to change (just as South African filmmaker-turned-actor Sharlto Copley has become the man of the moment, thanks to District 9).

Waltz has presence to burn: always an important quality in a Tarantino film. He makes Landa playful, seductive and dangerous by turns, the line separating these varied emotions sometimes razor-thin. Although we watch Waltz shift from one mood to another repeatedly during this film, he surprises us anew each time he does it again.

Rarely has a broad grin been employed to such disturbing effect; rarely has an "unknown" actor so effectively taken control of a film that boasts several other camera-hogging performances.

I only wish Tarantino had been allowed to weave the massive tapestry that would have showcased Landa to even better advantage, while granting additional expository scenes to Pitt, Eli Roth (as the baseball bat-wielding basterd, Donny Donowitz) and a few others. We really only get to know two characters quite well: Landa and Shosanna. Waltz and Laurent certainly make them memorable, but Tarantino too frequently allows his narrative to be sidetracked by lesser individuals.

Consider Irish actor Michael Fassbender, who pops up as British cinema expert Archie Hicox, tasked to join the basterds as they liaise with German actress-turned-Allied spy Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger). Only Tarantino would have the audacity to turn a film critic into a crack espionage agent  talk about tweaking the medium!  but Fassbender's "money" sequence is completely superfluous to everything else in the story.

Yes, it's another of Tarantino's killer "conversation scenes"  we can't help hanging on every word  but this one never goes anywhere ... and the degree to which it merely wastes time becomes irritating, if only in hindsight.

Tarantino has a history of biting off more than he can chew: Consider the multiple character arcs and weird flashbacks in Pulp Fiction, or the way that Kill Bill grew into two whole movies. (Death Proof, in great contrast, is tight and economical.) I'm not sure restraining him is the answer, because forcing Tarantino to be more commercially viable works against the film-geek auteur mentality that makes his stuff so visually dynamic  and so much fun  in the first place.

All that said, then, Inglourious Basterds is always engaging, always entertaining and frequently suspensefully mesmerizing.

As the lights come up, alas, it's also disappointing: not quite the best basterd it should have been.

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