Thursday, September 24, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

"Pure Tarantino."

That statement alone is enough to fill seats in a theater. It's also enough to know that there are going to be upset, frustrated, and confused people sitting in a good number of those seats. Everyone knows that QT films are going to be polarizing, and I doubt many will question either his skill as a filmmaker or his (obsessive) love of the medium. What critical movie-goers should be asking is whether Quentin's latest film "works," or whether the worlds most accomplished cinephile missed the mark this time.

By "working," I mean whether the film resonates in some way with people (chiefly myself), and whether or not I would tell a friend to see it. Different films resonate with people for different reasons and in different ways - it's those films that we remember, the ones we see again and again, the ones who's images infiltrate our conversations and daydreams. Being able to connect to a film is a great achievement for the filmmaker(s), and something that is hard to quantify and criticize. My experiences are only mine and this means I will be able to connect to some films (see my '500 Days of Summer' post), and others will pass by with little emotional response.

But this post is about the Basterds, so it's time to get back to WWII, sort of. A bare bones plot description of Tarantino's latest reads something like this: a select group of Jewish American soldiers are dropped in to pre D-day France with the intention of killing/maiming/mutilating/terrifying as many Nazi's as possible, and things heat up as fate presents the "Basterds" with the chance to get their hands on the most prized scalp of the war.
The story is presented in five acts, which for the most part follow Tarantino's (in)famous dialogue structure of complex conversations building in tension and ending in outbursts of graphic violence. The fact that 'Basterds' does not break from QT's self-established mold means that some are going to criticize the film for lacking originality. Personally I know that I am in no position to judge because I will gladly and lovingly throw money at any/every Wes Anderson film, regardless of how similar they all are, so I have little to say about being original. Quentin has a style, he does it well - having a conversation about being unique, especially being unique in response to oneself, is valid but shouldn't necessarily affect someones judgement on a film's worth or effectiveness.

Trying to break down every element of 'Basterds' for this review would be a time consuming task far beyond my abilities, so I will try to keep this manageable and brief. What amazed me the most about 'Inglourious Basterds' was Christoph Waltz's performance as a charismatic and linguistically gifted Nazi colonel. It's difficult to imagine 'Basterds' without Waltz's character, his character's sadistic intellect is the perfect counterpoint to Brad Pitt's Lieutenant Aldo Raine. Not that Pitt's character isn't a sadist; he's just a different variety...
Other notable performances include those of Eli Roth and Melanie Laurent - Roth because he gives me nightmares, and Laurent because her character is the link to an important theme of the film: the love of cinema. Shosanna Dreyfus is the young owner of a french movie theater who's own revenge driven plot becomes intertwined with the Basterd's similar schemes. On a more conceptual level she represents an ode to the medium of motion pictures. There is a lot of talk about how 'Inglourious Basterds' pays homage to films like 'The Dirty Dozen' and 'Quel maledetto treno blindato' as well as several spaghetti westerns, but I would argue that there is an overarching appreciation of cinema being represented through Laurent's character. Tarantino's films are always self aware and often have overt film references in them (like Uma Thurman's biker outfit in 'Kill Bill'), but the French cinema proprietress is the most outward clue that this movie is really about movies - most particularly war movies, and that it's not about war.
There are other ways 'Basterds' distances itself from war even in Nazi occupied France. A clever mix of out of decade music references (David Bowie for starters), moments of stark/morbid comedy and a liberal understanding of historical events reminds us that we are not watching 'Saving Private Ryan' or anything by Spielberg for that matter.
If anything is to be said about gender in this film it would probably come down to how characters act and react to their circumstances. Even though there are two strong-forlackofabetterword-women in the story it is important to note that they only react to the conflict and violence around them. The men of the story do not react, they act; they enlist for the special mission; they are the hunters. This is a pretty universal theme in movies, even those whose female protagonists are portrayed as individualistic and capable of taking charge of their lives - it is almost always because of forces beyond their control pushing them to react. This kind of action/reaction gender dynamic hints at deeper notions of men and women's (perceived) relationships to violence. Men seek out violence, for sadistic or honorable purposes, where as women must be pushed to violence.

My final verdict is to go see 'Inglourious Basterds.' Compared to other works by Tarantino I was not as impressed, but that does not mean that this film was unsuccessful. Nobody makes films like Quentin, which makes seeing his movies a necessity for movie buffs. Tarantino's prolificacy as a director aside, I would still recommend this movie solely because of Christoph Waltz's performance. Consider not eating before sitting down for this one though as there are some graphic depictions, or "glourifications," of violence. Bring some friends too because this film, as with all Tarantino films, is a great conversation starter. If you hate Quentin's other works than you can probably skip over the 'Basterds' as this one's another chip off the old block(buster).

Check out the trailer over here.