A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 510 – Inglorious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds – July 23rd, 2011

We went to see the new Captain America movie yesterday afternoon and after we got home we looked through our movie list for something suitable. Obviously we’d already watched the 1990 Cap movie and I wanted something long. We’ve got a fair number of movies over two hours that we just never feel up to when we get home from work on week days. This one popped out at me, what with it being set during World War II, much like the new Cap movie. Except this one is decidedly less superheroic and more incredibly obviously Tarantino. Granted, since it is Tarantino, there are some comic-y aspects. But that’s the least of its issues.

Back when this movie came out I remember reading a review of it that I found fascinating. All of the marketing for the movie played up Brad Pitt’s role and showcased the whole “killin’ Nazis!” aspect as if the Basterds were the point of the movie. As if it was two and a half hours of a squad of American soldiers kicking Nazi ass in the woods. And there is a bit of that, yes, and the Basterds are in a good deal of the movie. But what the movie actually is, is a tale of righteous revenge. And we all should know by now how I feel about righteous revenge. It’s a not uncommon theme for Tarantino, so I wasn’t at all surprised to see it as a theme here. But I was surprised that the plot that has the most righteous revenge was barely a hint in the marketing. It’s the heart and core of the movie and the Basterds almost fuck it up.

Really, this movie feels incredibly disjointed. It’s presented in chapters, for one, which immediately makes it episodic. And it has two focal storylines that eventually come together, but not until well into the movie. First there’s Shoshanna’s story. Only after we watch a Nazi officer with the nickname “the Jew Hunter” have her family killed while they hide under the floorboards of a neighbor’s house – a scene that takes a good long time – do we get introduced to the Basterds in the next chapter. Now, while the Basterds are far more what I expect from Tarantino, there is a certain Tarantino quality to the beginning of Shoshanna’s story, such as the switch to English from French based on a fairly flimsy excuse. It just struck me as so convenient and ridiculous and tongue-in-cheek in a thoroughly bizarre way. So we meet Shoshanna and we meet Col. Landa (the Nazi officer who killed her family) and then we’re whisked away to meet the Basterds.

Now, the Basterds are thoroughly Tarantino. A squad of Jewish-American soldiers who hunt Nazis and scalp them? Yeah, that’s Tarantino. And to an extent the Basterds are an example of righteous vengeance on their own. At least two of them were originally from Germany and have returned as American soldiers. The whole idea of this squad and their nicknames – shown to us as comic-book style titles for the couple we get backgrounds for – is exactly what I expected when I heard Tarantino was doing a World War II movie. They’re a team of bad-asses who do bad-ass shit. They’re over the top and they’re apparently unstoppable and they scare the crap out of the Nazis and infuriate Hitler by their very existence. And that’s all well and good, and the ads would have you believe that the movie is entirely made up of this team of bad-asses doing said bad-ass shit. The thing is, it’s not. There’s a single scene of them being bad-asses and that’s really it for the squad as a whole. Individuals from the group get to do stuff later on, but what surprised me about the movie is how it treats the Basterds.

The thing is, the heart of the movie is, as I said, Shoshanna’s story. We meet up with her later on, a few years after the massacre of her family. She’s moved to Paris and somehow obtained a cinema. And she has apparently been living her life quietly until now. Until a young German soldier approaches her and hands her the perfect means to an end she likely never thought she could get. He has a crush on her, you see. And he’s a war hero with a film made about him. And combine those two and you have a gala premier for the film, hosted at Shoshanna’s cinema, with the entire Nazi high command – Hitler included – invited. Of course she will want to do something with this situation. And in any other movie, by any other director, this would have been the A plot. The marketed plot. The story of a woman who has lost everything and who has a chance to do what the entire Allied forces tried and failed to do throughout the war. For me, this is the A plot. Shoshanna, in hiding as Emmanuelle, is a wonderful figure, carefully putting into place everything she needs and sacrificing what she has not just for revenge, but for the good of all the people Hitler has yet to kill. But this is Tarantino. And we have to deal with his Basterds.

It becomes apparent when the British army appears on screen, planning an operation meant to do pretty much precisely what Shoshanna is planning but with less intelligence about the location and the people and more fiddly details, that things might well go wrong. Shoshanna has things well in hand, with a store room full of highly flammable film stock and every reason to be present in the cinema and the knowledge of how to keep everyone inside long enough to kill them. But the Brits have come up with a plan to infiltrate the premier with one of their men and a couple of others along with a double agent from Germany, plant some bombs and blow the place up themselves. Really, given the number of obstacles in their way, it seems destined to fail. And after a rather tense scene in a bar, where the three intended infiltrators meet up with an SS officer and we end up with a thoroughly Tarantino Mexican standoff, it’s clear that the Basterds are way out of their element.

Things only get worse at the premier, with Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine speaking Italian with a ridiculous Tennessee accent. The tension here for me wasn’t so much about Shoshanna against the Nazis or the Basterds against the Nazis. It was about whether the Basterds would fuck everything up so badly that someone would try to leave the theater early, alerting everyone that they’d been locked in before Shoshanna or her lover, Marcel, had a chance to light the place up. Every line they say, every move they make, every action, every look, it’s all nervewracking because they are so not spies. They’re bludgeons, not rapiers. They’re not trained to go in and do espionage work. I struggle to even begin to understand why they’d even be the ones called in to help with this. Couldn’t someone better be found? I mean, look at Operation Mincemeat! That’s a real operation carried off during World War II. And it worked. And here I’m expected to believe that no one better could be found for this mission.

It’s such a strange way of marrying these two plots. The Basterds are a great team of bogeymen for the Nazis and they’re clearly very good at what they do. But they come very close to ruining everything Shoshanna had set up. And they do end up keeping her from killing off the man who killed her family. If they’d stayed out of it all then Landa would have been in that cinema, not off making deals with the Americans to get himself out of the war. And Landa himself is an odd character, embracing his title early on, then claiming to dislike it later. Who on Earth is he? What is his motivation? I could never quite see it, possibly because he is a different character depending on which plotline he’s taking part in at the time. It simply feels as though Tarantino had two ideas for a World War II movie, both involving over-the-top revenge that never actually happened but don’t you wish it did, but couldn’t quite decide between them and decided to stick them together. I can’t fault the writing in each individual scene. The bit in the bar is amazingly tense and the writing is superb from the beginning of the scene to the end. But in the overall context of the whole movie it’s far messier. The parts are good, but they don’t necessarily make a good whole. It’s all very strange. I wish I could like it more. Maybe if it had been two separate movies I would have.

July 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inglourious Basterds

July 23, 2011

Inglourious Basterds

After watching the new Captain America movie Amanda and I decided we’d like to continue the theme of fantasy films involving Americans defeating Nazis. This movie came to mind because that is exactly what this film is all about. It may appear to be more of a historical action/drama and less of a superhero film than Captain America, but the truth is that Basterds is every bit as fantastic as any comic book movie. It just hides it better. I recall when we watched Quentin’s half of the Grindhous movie – Deathproof – that I described it as a movie that spent a lot of time denigrating and depicting violence done to women, which made both myself and my wife very uncomfortable. This movie, on the other hand, spends a lot of time denigrating and depicting violence done to Nazis, which is something it’s much easier to get behind.

Amanda and I discussed this movie a little before we began our reviews and we agreed that it is somewhat strangely divided within itself. There are actually two main plot lines here that somewhat intersect in the conclusion but which have little do do with each other. One plot is about Shosanna, the last survivor of a Jewish family that has been wiped out by Nazis in occupied France and her plan for vengeance. The other plot is about a group of Jewish American terrorists behind enemy lines bent on causing fear and confusion in the German ranks. In the end, as the climax approaches, it becomes more and more apparent that the little terrorist squad, the Basterds, are the biggest impediment in Shosanna’s competent and well laid plans.

In every way this is clearly a Quentin Tarantino movie. It is full of long scenes that are simply people talking to each-other. Scenes filled with menace and tension where people attempt to appear as though they are civil and friendly. It also is filled with tonal references to the kinds of movie Tarantino enjoys, especially spaghetti westerns. There are several familiar bits of Ennio Morricone music (some of which Tarantino used in Kill Bill as well) in the sound track for example. Indeed the whole film has a sort of reverence for cinema and films, another Tarantino hallmark.

The movie has a very episodic nature to itself, being divided into distinct chapters. I think that contributes to the feeling that this is two different movies doing war with each other. We get powerful, intense scenes such as the prologue (which is fully twenty minutes long) which introduces us to the devilishly intelligent and ever so pleasant “Jew Hunter” Hans Landa. He has been tasked with finding and eliminating any Jews who are hiding in France after the start of the German occupation, and he does so with a completely ruthless efficiency. I’m glad the movie starts out with him because he is the only character in common between the two halves of the film, and because the absolutely stunning performance delivered by Christoph Waltz is the best thing in the whole movie.

After this scene we are introduced to the Inglourious Basterds themselves. They are led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt with a heavy southern drawl, and they are a kind of gruesome comic relief and release valve for all the tension created by the scenes with Landa in them. This movie works in kind of waves – building up a great head of tension, showing us Nazis being heartless and cruel – then releasing that tension by having the Bastards kill some Nazis in the most brutal ways possible. It’s an odd sort of rhythm.

Meanwhile, in the Shosanna plot, she has escaped from Landa and hidden herself in Paris, where she now manages a cinema. A young Nazi sniper, who has just starred in a movie based on his exploits, falls for her and thinks he can win her with their shared love for movies. He convinces Joseph Gobbels, the director of the movie based on him and real life historical figure and Minister of Propaganda for the Third Reich, to premier the new film at Shosanna’s theater.

Here Melanie Laurent displays some amazing acting of her own as the hunted and desperate Shosanna. She encounters the heartless bastard who gunned down her family (he offers her strudel) and meets Gobbels. Ultimately she concocts a plan: she will burn down her theater on the night of the premier, killing every high ranking Nazi officer in attendance. Unfortunately for her, the allies have come up with the same plan, and the team they choose to carry it out are the Basterds. Now the Basterds may be great at killing Nazis and sewing fear, but they are not very good undercover operatives. They are, ultimately, the unknown factor that could spoil everything.

Another noteworthy thing about the movie is its multi-lingual nature. It involves dialog in French, German, English and Italian (all of which languages apparently the character of Hans Landa is fluent in.) It’s not often that you see a movie, even a World War II drama, that shows so many people speaking in their native tongue. Especially in a Hollywood picture.

In spite of its uneven pacing and conflicting plots I find that I really do enjoy this movie. Because it has some amazing performances in it. Because it does a great job of building up tension and then using that tension to drive the bloody vengeance that is the key to the film. And because it is every bit as much an escapist fantasy film as Captain America – not terribly concerned with historical accuracy but delivering a thrill that a strictly accurate portrayal couldn’t serve up.

July 23, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment