Inglourious Basterds review
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by Sebastian Haselbeck
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"You're getting pretty good at this", says Sgt. Donny Donowitz aka "The Bear Jew", played by Eli Roth, as Lt. Aldo Raine aka "The Apache", played by Brad Pitt, carves a swastika into poor Private Butz's forehead. "Practice is what gets you into Carnegie Hall" Aldo replies, triggering spontaneous laughter from the audience, as the implication truly is that this wasn't and won't be the first Nazi experiencing this special treatment. But Aldo Raine, the Lieutenant leading The Basterds, is not the only one who's getting pretty good at this. While Raine has been killing and scalping the German occupiers in France behind enemy lines for weeks or months while building up a reputation of fear and terror among the Nazi forces, Quentin Tarantino has been making dead-on-the-money cinema about cinema (for cinema lovers) for decades. And each time he makes a movie, it's like carving a swastika into somebody's forehead. It's a bloody work of art. There will be plenty of folks who will admire such inglourious work, and of course, there will be some who hate it. With Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino is again splitting the camps, months before the movie even opens. The most outspoken people who line up against his films are usually those who just don't "get" him, at least for the most part I think that's true, maybe they have the wrong expectations, but for those who love his movies, they love them for what they are, what they stand for, and what they do. Towards the end of the film, we see Aldo Raine yet again, carving a swastika into the forehead of a victim screaming in pain. "This might be my best work yet" he proclaims, not without the meta-irony and a poke into the ribcage of critics who will hone in on this line like vultures. Could this be Tarantino's best work yet? Inglourious Basterds is a masterfully crafted, detailed and overwhelming epic, telling a story of how cinema saves the world. Yet it's not the action film the movie advertisements might suggest. It's a dialogue- and character-driven adventure in Quentin Tarantino's pastell-colored version of World War II. It has some very strong scenes, an amazing finish, a multi-national and multi-lingual cast, and great music and cinematography. It might not be for everyone, and it's not without its flaws either, but if you love cinema, like Tarantino does, and if you really appreciate cinema, this movie will put a smile on your face and tears into your eyes, tears of joy.
The movie begins with Perrier LaPadite (played by the impressive Denis Menochet), a French dairy farmer, chopping wood, while one of his daughters is hanging up laundry outside. What looks like a beautiful day of work in this peaceful rural place far away from the carnage of war, is disturbed by the roaring sounds of motorcycles. The young woman stops, removes the linen, and we see a Nazi officer's car and two motorcycles speeding up towards the house. Minutes later the audience finds itself in dead silence, while Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, (already awarded the Golden Palm for this performance), a multi-lingual expert detective/SS Jew-hunter, interrogates the farmer in his house. Both are smoking pipes, and for a while it seems as if the farmer can outwit the evil bureaucrat and save The Dreyfus', a Jewish family hiding under the floorboards. But the power of this first chapter of Inglourious Basterds lies in the terrifying sounds of machine guns ripping the floor apart after one meticulously written dialogue face-off between two amazing actors that builds tension like Stallone's Rambo pulling back the string on his bow and arrow - only to result in a BOOM! True to its Spaghetti Western inspiration, little Shosanna Dreyfus gets away, while Col. Landa, enjoying the excitement of a manhunt, shouts "Au Revoir Shosanna!" The two will meet again. The screen goes black. Loud applause erupts in the theater.
The second chapter title appears, it reads: "Inglourious Basterds". Lieutentant Aldo Raine, a Tennessee hillbilly-turned-commando addresses his rag-tag unit of nerdy little Jewish boy soldiers, who you can hardly imagine running around in the woods scalping the enemy. Tarantino then takes us on a little Basterds mission, and not only do we see "the evidence" of their cruelty, but also the joys with which they carry out their mission. We see why the Nazis are scared shitless by rumors of a Golem called the Bear Jew, who supposedly beats prisoners to death with a baseball bat. Because that's precisely what he does, and Tarantino lets Morricone's spaghetti western theme "La Resa" thunder through the theater while he does it, to put goose bumps on a cinephile's arms and neck, and to give the Basterds something to watch, because as Raine says "it's as close as they get to going to the movies". We also find out how the Basterds recruit the infamous Nazi officer killer Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz, played by German movie star Til Schweiger, who is a stone cold psycho not unlike Reservoir Dogs' Mr. Blonde. Tarantino then takes us away from the war-drama context in an audacious jump, because Tarantino wouldn't be Tarantino if he'd simply made a remake of Castellari's Inglorious Bastards, The Dirty Dozen or Band of Brothers. This isn't your daddy's cliche filled WWII action movie with explosions and battle scenes. Suddenly, we're outside a small little movie theater in Paris and we see Ms. Emanuelle Mimieux changing the movie marquee, to announce German Night in Paris. She is showcasing one of the classic 1930s movies of the time, as required of her so she can keep operating the theater. A young soldier in a fancy uniform walks up to her and starts talking to her about movies. The young girl is annoyed, scared and sceptic. What does the German soldier want of her? Has she done anything wrong? After all, she's actually Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), the outlaw Jewish girl, living under cover, in constant fear of being caught. But as we find out in this chapter, the soldier hitting on her is none other than Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a German war hero who supposedly killed 300 US soldiers from a bell tower in Sicily. A story so amazing Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels decided to put it on film, starring Fredrick Zoller as himself.
The propaganda movie is supposed to premiere in Paris, and Zoller, now a famous movie star among the German occupying force and party leadership, uses his influence on Goebbels to convince them to move the premiere to Shosanna's movie theater. Being the film buff that he is, and having a crush on pretty Shosanna (without really knowing who she is) it seems just fine to him. In his rebellious nature Tarantino whips out the history book, slaps it across the audience's faces, tosses it in the toilet and flushes it down (and I mean that in a good way). Here is where we learn the core plot of Inglourious Basterds is not about a bunch of Nazi-scalping soldiers led by Brad Pitt, it's about a Jewish refugee girl/theater operator, who finds out that the Nazis want to hold a huge premiere in HER little "kino", and she decides to burn the place to the ground while they're all marvelling at sniper prodigy Fredrick Zoller on her own silver screen. It's also about Hitler trying to send a message and deciding to attend that premiere, and it's about a parallel plot, introduced in the next chapter, about a British movie critic turned commando soldier Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), an expert on German cinema, being sent into France on a secret mission to blow up the movie theater during the Nazi gala premiere. He's supposed to meet up with The Basterds, who will execute the mission, aided by a German movie star who's also an undercover agent, who will get them into the premiere. What follows is the remastered version of the Reservoir Dogs breakfast conversation, executed like a suspenseful stage play, set in a French basement tavern. Just toss in some alcohol, card games, drunk Nazis and one very smart, evil SS officer. It's a sequence so powerful and tense, lasting for a good 20 minutes, resulting in such an onscreen fury of only seconds in length, it was already considered the most notorious scene of the film before it was even finished. The "La Louisianne" scene (named after the tavern it takes place in) shows how much Tarantino has mastered scenes that take place at diner and bar tables. The Landa - LaPadite interrogation almost an hour before seems like the distant past. Now we have Basterds dressed up as Nazis and a table full of drunk German soldiers who are ready to start shooting the minute the Basterds' cover is blown. And it is. That's why in the end, the undercover agent Bridget von Hammersmarck (played by Diane Kruger) attends the premiere not with the German-speaking Basterds, but with those left alive. Aldo, Donny and Omar are disguised as an Italian film crew with horrible, fake accents. Meanwhile, Col. Landa, being the astute detective he is, has already put the pieces of the puzzle together and sets out to rewrite the script for this final chapter to his own liking.
The last chapter is where the two plots converge, and where Quentin Tarantino shows he can make a thrilling, suspense-filled finish, that combines trademark Tarantino style irony with just plain outrageous things that haven't yet been put on film in such a way. While the Basterds' own plan goes awry, and Aldo has to strike a deal with Landa, Shosanna and her projectionist/lover Marcel (Jacky Ido) lock the doors and prepare to burn the theater to the ground - and end the war in one fell swoop, just like Aldo had it in mind. In a fantastic finish, the movie premiere ends up a hellish inferno complete with explosions, guns blazing, and an audience (not the one in the film) staring astonishingly at a burning screen, watching Tarantino rewriting not only history but also the War-Movie rule book. Cue Ennio Morricone's thundering peasant march from the film Allsonanfan. Roll the closing credits. The real movie audience slowly comes back to its senses.
So much for a rundown of what this movie is about, but it is more than just that story. The plot itself is not what captures the essence of a Tarantino movie. You could summarize the plots of the other movies he's made with a few sentences, making this one the most complex so far. What makes a Tarantino film, is what he utilizes to tell the story. It's not about a billion dollar budget, like a Spielberg or (god forbid) Michael Bay would have. Inglourious Basterds grabs you, throws you into your seat, ties you to it, and then detonates a bomb of cinematic awesomeness on your senses. You'll forget you brought a date to this movie, your soda will get warm and when the lights go on you'll notice you still have plenty of popcorn left. Quentin Tarantino made Inglourious Basterds an epic that will put tears of joy in your eyes because it is beautiful. From the opening shots to the dramatic finish, it's like a comic book/WWII fantasy turned real, with a villian both charming and super evil, protagonists that are neither the leads of the film nor are they just a supporting cast, with a soundtrack that for me has already moved to the top of the charts in terms of how awesome a job he has done again in selecting tunes to match his visual work. The movie boasts dialogue sharp as razor blades, in four languages nonetheless, spoken by a cast of excellent actors that enrich this little Tarantino-WWII-universe with a sense of authenticity, even though the movie is everything but authentic. The point is, that within his universe, it's about as authentic and detailed as it can get. And oh boy is it detailed, multi-facetted and spiked with little twists. Some have said that Christoph Waltz, who plays the linguistic genius Col. Landa, steals the show and will win an Oscar. I have to say, with all the enthusiasm, that at times I felt his performance was bit too much, and tends to cross the threshold in the the comic realm, which might actually be just the right thing. For me, the actor who really blew me away was August Diel, who, in my eyes, was really fucking scary, and a true villain in the film. Landa is a villian who is very likeable, and in the end, he's just another Basterd, pursuing his own ends. August Diel, playing an SS officer slimier than you could imagine, was a real joy to watch. But that is a sidenote. By the way, this is a movie that has Brad Pitt in it (a bit more so than True Romance), but it's not a Brad Pitt movie. I didn't really buy his hillbilly accent, but that's fine. The real star is Melanie Laurent, whose Shosanna is a really fine performance (she also gets one of the most memorable scenes, spiced up with a great David Bowie track). Its such an amazing counterpart to Daniel Bruehl's Zoller, who in the end turns out to be not only "more than a uniform" as he says, but also not quite the charming guy he starts out as. Yet, that's also wrong, because in a way, the film has no star, and it doesn't need one. Landa might have the most screen time probably, but the most screen time is not the point, the movie itself is the star in this film. It's cinema, starring as itself (I think it's not credited, sort of like Bruce Willis in Four Rooms), delivering the performance of its lifetime.
I think there should be an award in it. Not only because of Quentin Tarantino's masterful direction, but for its unique quality that is devoid of any proper comparison. It has allowed Tarantino to break genre conventions, go bonkers artistically and reinvent the classic war-adventure film with a multi-national cast, amazing music and a fun and exciting story, but without all the fake history-book accuracy and scolding. I have to say, the movie, even though it suffers a tiny bit from some characters being skipped over (i.e. who are the other Basterds?) and from what I thought were scenes in the beginning that didn't create a good rhythm, as opposed to those in the second half of the movie, which strode along like a Nazi march, it delivers the goods and it delivers them the Tarantino way. This second collaboration with Award Winning Cinematographer Bob Richardson really shows. The movie looks gorgeous and connoisseurs of filmmaking will find themselves marvelling at some of the great compositions they've put onto film. Another aspect that makes Basterds so special, is the use of languages. In this film, it's not merely about authenticity (the Germans speaking German and so on), but the different languages are so much a part of the story, the plot, the characters and the functioning of the movie. Reading subtitles might irk some, but Tarantino basically just made a quadrilingual movie and it just works perfectly - and the international cast is buttoning it.
I'm having a hard time putting my thoughts into words, even though I've seen the movie twice now. I'm still debating with myself what sort of a "rating" I would give. I can say that with all honesty (and the suspected bias that you could accuse me of), I was in awe watching this movie. I wasn't blown away (as I was watching Kill Bill), I wouldn't say you could watch it every day (like Pulp Fiction), I do think it has its flaws and some of the criticism voiced by others I can understand, but this movie is so much a movie, you can't but love the hell out of it. Quentin Tarantino has climbed his mountain, he's erected the little Basterd flag at the summit, and he's come down again. In this case he's come back to Berlin delivering the movie he made there, in front of an almost all-German premiere audience - which is a funny fact considering the plot of the movie,. This was more than just a film premiere, it was a celebration of cinema. I'm sure this film will prove to be a hit - among those who "get" cinema, and to get back to my above-mentioned quagmire, I think I'll give this film 8.5 or 9 out of 10 points if you like your points scales, or 4 out of 5 stars if you like stars.
In closing, Inglourious Basterds is a glorious piece of filmmaking, a movie that logically follows Tarantino's previous work while breaking new ground. It's an event movie, for so many reasons, and it it's a controversial one, for a few others. Some people will hate it (let them, but ask them if they've even seen it), and many will love it. This is a Basterd's work well done. The king of cinephiles has reuinited with his crowd, and all is well in the movie jungle.
Sebastian Haselbeck. August 2, 2009.
Special thanks to Stephanie, Irfaan, Wolfie and Peter.
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