Monday, August 24, 2009

Movie Review: Inglorious Basterds

Inglorious Basterds ****
Directed By:
Quentin Tarantino.
Written By: Quentin Tarantino.
Starring: Brad Pitt (Lt. Aldo Raine), Christoph Waltz (Col. Hans Landa), Mélanie Laurent (Shosanna Dreyfus), Michael Fassbender (Lt. Archie Hicox), Diane Kruger (Bridget von Hammersmark), Daniel Brühl (Fredrick Zoller), Eli Roth (Sgt. Donny Donowitz),Til Schweiger (Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz), Gedeon Burkhard (Cpl. Wilhelm Wicki), Jacky Ido (Marcel), B.J. Novak (Pfc. Smithson Utivich), Omar Doom (Pfc. Omar Ulmer), August Diehl (Major Dieter Hellstrom), Denis Menochet (Perrier LaPadite), Sylvester Groth (Joseph Goebbels), Martin Wuttke (Adolf Hitler), Mike Myers (General Ed Fenech), Julie Dreyfus (Francesca Mondino), Richard Sammel (Sgt. Werner Rachtman), Alexander Fehling (Master Sgt. Wilhelm / Pola Negri), Rod Taylor (Winston Churchill), Soenke Möhring (Pvt. Butz / Walter Frazer), Samm Levine (PFC Gerold Hirschberg), Paul Rust (PFC Andy Kagan), Michael Bacall (PFC Michael Zimmerman), Hilmar Eichhorn (Emil Jannings).

The genius of Quentin Tarantino’s films has always lied in two areas. One, he is bar none the best writer of dialogue in the world right now. No, he dialogue is not realistic, but written in a high style, that requires great actors to deliver it in a very specific way. This is the type of thing we normally associate with playwrights, from Shakespeare to Mamet. His other level of genius is his ability to take all the thousands of movies he has seen in life, spin them in his own unique, warped little brain and come up with a result that is somehow just like every other movie you have ever seen before, and also completely different than any other movie you’ve ever seen. What makes his new film Inglorious Basterds his most mature work to date (I know, I never thought I would use the word mature to describe a Tarantino film either), is that for the first time, his obsessions with dialogue and movies is actually full integrated into the film itself. They become part of the fabric of the film that is much more important than what actually happens in the film.

Take for instance the films first scene, which may in fact represent the best single scene Tarantino has ever written and directed. It is 1941, in the France countryside. A Nazi, known as the Jew Hunter, Hans Landa (Christophe Waltz) shows up at a dairy farm to question it’s proprietor about the whereabouts of a local Jewish family that has mysteriously vanished. Landa uses language as a weapon against the dairy farmer, cordially speaking to him in French, complimenting his beautiful daughters, and when he is offered a drink, instead of taking alcohol, he requested a glass of their delicious milk. As Tarantino pans down and shows the Jewish family beneath the floorboards, Landa suddenly switches to English – apologizing, but not wanting to go on in his terrible French (which is, of course, impeccable), and he continues on with the dairy farmer, still all smiles. But he knows the family is hiding under the floorboards – the dairy farmer knows Landa knows. The scene takes on an air of suspense; much like Hitchcock loved to do. What’s under the table is not a bomb, but a family, but we wait with the same level of anticipation for the explosion that is sure to come.

From this first scene, language becomes one of the primary motifs in the film. Landa switches to English, not because his French is bad, like he says, but because he knows the Jewish family beneath the floor cannot speak English, which means he can tell the farmer precisely what he wants, and not spook them. This is repeated throughout the movie, like when a British officer (Michael Fassbender) under cover as a Nazi is discovered because even though his German is perfect, his accent is strange. Or when Lt. Aldo Rain (Brad Pitt) and two of his basterds try to pass themselves off as Italian filmmakers, even though they barely speak a word. In that scene again, watch how Landa teases them before the explosion of violence. He knows immediately that they are not Italian, but yet he strings them along for minutes on end – asking about the correct pronunciation of an Italian word (of, while speaking perfect Italian), and then getting them to repeat their names again and again, under the guise of how much he just loves hearing the poetry in them. At various times in the movie, Tarantino switches back and forth between German, French, English and Italian, but every time he does, he has a reason for doing so. This is not the typical WWII movie, where all the characters speak in accented English, but rather a movie in which language really does mean something. No matter what language is being spoken however, Tarantino continues to write dialogue with an almost musical tilt to it. This is probably the best written movie you will see this year.

The other major motif that runs throughout the movie is that of movies itself. From a scene with the Basterds, that the film gets its title from, movies are brought up throughout the film. In that scene, Aldo Rainn tries to get a Nazi officer to tell him where another Nazi patrol is, and when he refuses, he tells him that if he doesn’t tell them, then he’ll unleash the Bear Jew (Eli Roth, terrible as a director of such crap as Hostel, but pretty good here, as long as he does not have to speak – the wild and crazy look he gets in his eyes is truly frightening), who will beat him to death with a baseball bat “which is the closest we get to going to the movies out here”. Another set of characters, Shosanna (Melanie Larent), the lone survivor of the Jewish family caught in the first scenes of the film and Frederick (Daniel Bruhl), a German war hero who is having a movie made about him as he is Germany’s Sergeant York, meet cute while discussing Leni Riefenstahl, Max Linder and Chaplin. They both love film, but she has to be careful about what she says, as she could give herself away as a Jew. The English officer is selected for his undercover assignment, because before the war he was a movie critic, who published two books about German film (including one devoted to a personal favorite of mine, GW Pabst – who is brought up several times). Screen legend, an Oscar winner, Emil Jannings, shows up at one point as well. (One strange thing though, why is Fritz Lang never mentioned? Depending on what story you believe, after his masterpieces Metropolis, Spies and M, Goebbels approached the German-Jew filmmaker about becoming the lead filmmaker for the Nazi party, at which point he fled the country, and during the war made films like Hangmen Also Die and Man Hunt, which were essentially morality plays, or if you prefer propaganda against the Nazis. In many ways, I think Inglorious Basterds echoes these films far more than the “men on a mission” films like The Dirty Dozen and Von Ryan’s Express that Tarantino has talked about inspiring this film constantly).

Then of course, there is the movie’s climax. A new German propaganda film, A Nation’s Pride, is going to premiere at Shosanna’s movie theater. Realizing that she’ll have the Nazi brass – including the four big guns, Hitler, Goebbels, Goring and Boorman – in her theater, she hatches a plan (with the help of her black lover) to burn the theater down using the highly flammable 35mm nitrate films she has on hand. Not knowing her plan, the Basterds also plan to attack the theater the same night, blowing it up, and ending the war (with the help of a German film actress – Diane Kruger – who is a British spy). In effect, in Tarantino’s version of history, cinema is going to save the world from Hitler.

I am sure that many people will have a problem with Tarantino changing history as much as he does in this film. I’m not going to delve into this too deeply here (I do plan on doing a separate entry that addresses history on film, and all the historical inaccuracies in them), except to say that I do not consider what Tarantino does here to be at all wrong. He is not really trying to convince people that the war ends the way it does in this film. All one has to do is pick up a history book to find out what happened. But Tarantino’s ending keeps completely in line with the films he is borrowing from here – the propaganda films made in America, England and Germany at the time – and his ending is more cathartic and satisfying than history. Why not give a couple of machine gun touting Jews the opportunity to pump a seemingly never ending stream of bullets into Hitler and Goebbels? Like Paul Verhoeven’s recent Black Book (which was also a masterpiece, and also criticized for playing fast and loose with the facts, making a serious issue into a sexual thriller), Tarantino’s vision of the war is better, and I would argue more respectful than so called “prestige films” like Defiance, The Boy in the Stripped Pajamas or Roberto Benigni’s oddly beloved Life is Beautiful, which are manipulative in the extreme.

This review has already dragged on much longer than most of my reviews and I am realizing now that I have not even mentioned the performances in the movie. They are brilliant. Brad Pitt maybe one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, but he fits effortlessly in with this cast of mainly character actors. His demented Southern accent can be hilarious, and somewhat chilling at the same time. When his Basterds catch a Nazi, they usually scalp them (providing some of the films bloodiest, most disturbing moments – and providing a link between an American Holocaust – that of the Native Americans – with the European one), but if they let one live, they first carve a Swastika into their skulls, so that for the rest of their lives, everyone will know they were a Nazi. The demented glee on Pitt’s face when he carves them is sickening, yet we never lose our sympathy with him. After all, he is carving the skulls of Nazis, so they deserve what they get. The rest of the Basterds are all excellent – especially Til Schweiger- as an insane German who loves to kill Nazis himself. Diane Kruger is appropriately charming, sexy and tough as nails as the German film star. Michael Fassbender (amazingly good in last year’s Hunger), is perfect as the English officer (and in a short scene with Fassbender, Mike Myers redeems himself for last year’s horrid The Love Guru with a twisted, hilarious cameo performance). Melanie Laurent is brilliant as the Jewish Shosanna, just trying to avenge her family and her people with her final performance. In fact, every performance in the movie is just about perfect. Tarantino is probably better than just about anyone else right now at casting, figuring out what actors will best fit in his twisted movies.

But one performance stands above the rest. That is Christophe Waltz’s brilliant performance as the cordial, smiling, brutal Nazi Hans Landa. In what could well turn out to be the best performance of the year, Waltz makes Landa into one of cinema’s most memorable villains. He toys with his victims, giving them just enough rope to hang themselves with, and when he’s got what he needed out of them, be executes with speed and efficiency. Tarantino gives Waltz some of the best monologues of his career (and with Tarantino, that really is saying something), most notably in the film’s opening scene where he compares Jews to rats – and fully means it as a compliment. Waltz is not the true believer Nazi, nor is he simply “just following orders”, banal Nazi, but rather a smirking opportunist, who simply goes with whatever side offers him the best deal. This is truly one of the great performances you are likely to see this year – if he does not win the supporting actor Oscar, there will be hell to pay.

I sometimes forget just how good a director Quentin Tarantino is. His massive ego, and somewhat annoying public persona, sometimes gets the way for me when I discuss him. Yet, each of his films is brilliant in its own unique way. Is there another director alive who would even attempt something like Inglorious Basterds, let alone pull it off as brilliantly as he does? In five chapters, comprising maybe 12-15 scenes over the span of two and half hours, Tarantino weaves his magic in what maybe just be the WWII film to end all WWII films. After this film, is there really anything else to say about the most filmed war in cinematic history? I doubt it. Inglorious Basterds is an absolute masterpiece.

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