Sunday, August 23, 2009

On the Big Screen: INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009)

To the layman, "Once upon a time" means "fairy tale." To the movie buff, it means "Sergio Leone" or, perhaps more generally, "spaghetti western." The new film by Quentin Tarantino is advertised on some posters and announced in its opening chapter as "Once Upon a Time in Occupied France." While the story is structured according to Tarantino's peculiar preference for breaking things down into chapters, some of the fundamental elements of the classical spaghetti remain apparent. Most obviously, there is a division of characters into good, bad and ugly as in Leone's film of that name as well as Once Upon a Time in the West. The good is Shoshanna Dreyfus aka Emmanuelle Mimieux, lone survivor of a Jewish family harbored by French dairy farmers yet brought down by the bad, "Jew Hunter" Hans Landa, in the opening chapter. Shoshanna is the story's avenger, but her prominence in the story is obscured to the point of false advertising by the emphasis given to the ugly, Aldo Raine and his band of "Basterds," in the ads for the film.

Understanding Brad Pitt's actual role in the film goes a long way toward solving the riddle of his performance. Some reviewers get it, others don't. The latter blame Pitt for clownishness, which seems unfair when Raine is meant to be a clown. He's Tuco to Melanie Laurent's Shoshanna as Blondy, though they never interact and aren't aware of each other's existence; he's also Cheyenne to her Harmonica. Pitt is meant to be crude and brutal and to be funny doing it, and he succeeds admirably. He is an unheralded comic genius, as he first intimated in his previous performance of a Tarantino script in True Romance and demonstrated again more recently in Burn After Reading. Pitt and Laurent are counterpoints as Tarantino challenges himself to juggle tragedy and comedy while the two plots play out in the same movie theater.

Basterds doesn't play entirely by spaghetti rules. Shoshanna appears less interested in avenging herself on Landa (though she assumes he'll be among her victims) than on Nazi Germany in general. That's appropriate in a war story, since war isn't supposed to be about individuals. That in turn makes adapting spaghetti formulae into a war-movie framework a tricky business. Tarantino complicates things further by making most of the well-rounded characters Germans, whether it's ambivalent war hero-turned-film star Frederick Zoller, Wilhelm the common soldier who celebrates the birth of his son in the wrong place at the wrong time, or the brave officer who defies the Basterds at the brink of death by baseball bat.

I leave Hans Landa off this list, and I confess that I find Christoph Waltz's lauded performance somewhat overrated. I suppose that's because he just doesn't match my idea of a Nazi villain. That idea allows for considerable range, but Landa seems too much like a glib Tarantino villain rather than a Nazi. I know: it's a Tarantino movie, so what's my point? My point is, that while I understand that Landa is less a Nazi than a spaghetti archetype in a German uniform, which he proves by ultimately looking out for himself rather than the Party or the Fatherland, Waltz just doesn't ring true for me in a way I feel he should. Having said that, I think he gives a fine performance as a glib Tarantino villain, and that goes a long way toward selling the twists Landa makes along the way.

Spaghetti westerns weren't known for their historical accuracy, but they also weren't known for borrowing characters from history very often. Tarantino's claim of similar if not greater creative license in the context of World War II has shocked some reviewers and provoked accusations of inappropriate frivolity or insufficient engagement with the evil of Nazism. On the other hand, I've seen at least one reviewer argue that Tarantino's license restores some of the necessary unpredictability to World War II dramas -- the sense that anything can happen identified with a certain type of thriller. With Basterds, Tarantino has made a distinctive verbal thriller. He fills the space in which suspense builds with his customary verbiage, but he's figuring out how to use his verbosity dramatically. Reviewers have made a lot of the initial scene of Landa chatting with a French farmer, but Tarantino's skill really shines in the tavern scene at the center of the film. With the grumbling title characters relegated to the basement, the celebration of the aforementioned Wilhelm and a "what's my line" type of card game share space with a crucial meeting between a British spy and a turncoat German actress, the problem being how soon to leave without attracting suspicion and how long to stay without attracting suspicion. That scene may be Tarantino's best work to date as a writer.

The final half hour of Basterds is pretty much indescribable if I don't want to spoil things for the uninitiated, but it is spectacular stuff, shocking and cathartic. Those who think there's something inherently wrong (historically speaking) with it should remember the "Once Upon a Time" sign up front and attempt to recall whether they were expecting a true story or not.

The acting: Waltz is overrated and Pitt overrated, but both are good. Laurent should be a global star, while Diane Kruger as the actress makes up for Troy. The guy who really impressed me was Til Schweiger as Hugo Stiglitz, a renegade German recruited into the Basterds. Schweiger plays his part in a perpetual slow burn that marks him as the most dangerous man in any room he enters. He does this without a lot of dialogue, which is a testament to his own talent and to Tarantino the director as opposed to the writer. At the other extreme, Mike Myers as British General Fenech makes a fortunately brief appearance that had the local art-house audience giggling just at the sight of him and the sound of his voice. Whether this was the desired effect of casting him I'm not quite sure, though I was happy to see Rod Taylor as Churchill sharing the scene with him.

I'm not quite sure yet of where to rank Basterds among Tarantino's films. It's definitely an improvement on Death Proof (which the director himself now seems to dismiss), and if I have to treat the two parts of Kill Bill as one film then I'd lean toward saying Basterds is his best work since Jackie Brown. At the same time, some aspects of his style are starting to wear on me, and for all that I liked a lot of what I heard on the soundtrack, if I had the man in a room and could make one request of him, I'd challenge him to commission an original score for a film. Tarantino remains a brilliant yet problematic filmmaker and, despite his detractors, one who's still evolving and perfecting his style and remains worth watching while he continues to do so.


Dave said...

I'm happy to see you review this and at least reassure me that I'm likely to enjoy it. I am a big fan of Tarantino's first three films, but other than that I can take or leave the rest -- the Kill Bills I can enjoy, but they still always feel like throwaways that Quentin made specifically for his own enjoyment, regardless of whether or not anyone else liked them. While I definitely respect an attitude like that, they just aren't my cup of tea.

I'll likely be seeing this one on Thursday, so I'll stop back in afterward and post more specific thoughts on the film.

Rev. Phantom said...

First off, great review--very to the point. There is really nothing to disagree with here, but I would like to comment on issue of the soundtrack. True, Tarantino uses music from other films (mostly Spaghetti Westerns and blaxploitation films here) and to genre freaks like you and I, it may come across as unoriginal. You have to remember that Tarantino's films are mainstream--way off the beaten path, but maistream "cineplex" movies none the less. A lot of people have not seen the films--and may not ever see the films that these great scores cames from originally. So my question is "why should they go to waste?" I love the fact that he renews these old scores and theme songs. To the cinephiles it's a wink and a nod and for the casual movie fan, they're experiencing the greatness of Ennio Morricone (among others) for probably the first time. I saw the film in a packed house and I can guarantee that I was one of the only people in the audiance that recognized the music from The Big Gundown and The Mercenary. If the use of the music inspires a few people to check out where the music originally came from--all the better.

Samuel Wilson said...

Rev, I felt the same way when I heard the Morricone music from Grand Slam play over one of the most dramatic moments, and as an admirer of John Wayne's The Alamo I was thrilled to hear Dmitri Tiomkin's romantic theme over the opening credits of Basterds. I understand that Tarantino's really doing nothing different from what Kubrick did when he dumped Alex North's original score for 2001 in favor of classical excerpts. In Kubrick's case, at least, I suspect that he didn't want someone else defining the mood of his film,as North had arguably done with Spartacus. Tarantino may feel the same way. But in Kubrick's case I think he chose pieces based on a calculated effect on the audience, while my hunch on Tarantino is that he chooses based on what's meaningful to him alone. I suppose I worry that he sets a bad example. If everyone else scored their films his way, where would the next generation of Morricones or Tiomkins come from? In any event, my statement was a challenge, not a condemnation. I await eagerly your thoughts on Basterds as well as Dave's.

Rev. Phantom said...

I see your point and that would be a shame if Tarantino was to start a trend, but I don't really have high expectations of that happening. He's kind of made it 'his' thing and if someone else starts doing it (I'm sure some have already) they'll probably be accused of trying to copy Tarantino's style. Which is ironic that someone would be accused of being unoriginal for copying something that was unoriginal to begin with.

Joy Reed said...

Tarentino is very twisted, but that is what makes him famous.

Sam Juliano said...

Excellent review indeed by a most reliable writer.

But a hugely problematic film for me. The sadism that ran through RESERVOIR DOGS and then with th ehighly stylized KILL BILL films, now takes on a far more serious and disturbing context here. The grisly scalping sand head gorgings are sickening to watch, and I completely agree with both Stephanie Zacharek and Manola Dargis, who basically call this two and a half hour movie a great, big collassal BORE! I hope the insanity will subside and people will eventually come to their senses, even if the thirst for a good film late in summer is understandable great.

Samuel Wilson said...

Sam, Basterds is bound to be a tough sell, and I don't consider it my mission to defend the film from critics. I was not bored by it, but that doesn't mean others can't be. I'm interested in learning where you draw a line, if you do, separating legitimately explicit screen violence from what you'd call sadism. That would also be relevant to my current project with Goodbye Uncle Tom, about which I'm curious to know your thoughts.

Dave said...

Most of this is copied from David Schleicher's blog, but since I've just returned from the theater seeing this movie, I don't feel like rewording exactly what I just wrote elsewhere:

Just got back from seeing IB and just thought I'd jot down a few thoughts. I guess on first impression, I'm kind of in the middle in regards to the film. It's certainly bloody and gory, but the violence doesn't really bother me, particularly considering the context of the film. That being said, the movie (and by this I guess I'm saying the dialogue) was nowhere near as funny as I expected. Outside of Brad Pitt, there wasn't any of the dark humor that I expected based on parts of Pulp Fiction and similar efforts. There were definitely moments (I loved the part where they're pretending to speak Italian), but not as many as I would have liked for a 2 1/2 hour movie. It felt at times like I was watching scenes/sequences that were meant to be humorous but just weren't for me -- although, for others in the theater, they obviously were.

And while I am by no means a stickler for historical accuracy (JFK ranks among my personal 4 or 5 favorite films), the creative license taken here is stepping out too far even for me. Yes, I understand that it makes no claims to accuracy and that it is following the "Once Upon a Time..." idea, but it still seems a bit much. This is not like he took some gray area and offered his spin. We're entering Harry Turtledove territory, which just isn't my cup of tea.

All this might sound like me being extremely harsh in my assessment, and to a certain extent I guess it is, because I was hoping to like this one as much as I do Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs. I _did_ like it, but it failed to live up to expectations that I had built. Right now I would probably rate it 7/10, squarely behind Tarantino's first three movies.

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Dave. Personally, I didn't go looking for as much humor in the film as you did, but given your reservations about the direction the story took, I can see why you'd think more humor might be necessary to redeem the concept. As it is, Tarantino pitches the Shoshanna material at deadly earnest, with the Basterds, Hitler, and to a lesser extent Landa serving as comic relief. That seriousness probably won't work with viewers unwilling to accept the historical absurdity of the climax, and I've been pondering over whether Tarantino's counterfactualism is an objective demerit of the film. I may write another post this weekend on the subject depending on how my thoughts develop, but I'm inspired by the idea that "Who won World War II?" is still open to question for many people, depending on one's perspective. In a way, Basterds is a funhouse reflection of that debate, but I'll save further elaboration on that point for later.

I'm still weighing Basterds against The Hurt Locker but the Tarantino may end up being the best film of 2009 so far simply by virtue of the intelligent debates it's provoking in the blogosphere.

Dave said...

You understand what I was trying to say completely, but I didn't articulate it nearly as well as you just did... for me, if it's meant to be taken completely serious and without any comedic value, then I do have an even bigger problem with it. That's what I was searching for the comedy. It has been a trademark of Tarantino films that have gruesome, violent situations that are somehow turned humorous. I guess that's what I was expecting in this case. It happened in certain parts -- Brad Pitt was terrific -- but in others I couldn't tell whether it was supposed to be happening and I just didn't find it funny or if it wasn't mean to be serious. Again, if it was meant serious, it was lost on me.

I just want to say again though, the reason I'm so rough on it right now is how much I expected of it. It's still a solid 7/10 movie for me, which means I liked it and I'm glad I saw it, but not one that I'm rushing to see again.