Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Review: Inglourious Basterds (2009)

I have a strange relationship with this film. Seeing it in the theatre, I admired it at the time for having dialogue scenes lasting longer than five minutes and portraying historically notorious villains with things like motivations and personality, especially in an era where most films consider it unnecessary. On this day, where the projector failed FOR REAL during an important moment at the climax, I was left unsure about certain misgivings but felt content to say that the above aspects were what saved it.

Finally seeing it again, all the way through... I'm not so sure anymore.

There was a time when Quentin Tarantino's fragmented films could stand up to the highest levels of scrutiny. His scripts for True Romance and Natural Born Killers passed the ultimate test: being placed in chronological order. Jackie Brown, which now seems like a different century altogether, was his worst (unless you count Four Rooms) but remains interesting in repeat viewings; it has strong characters and a strong script, and the worst aspect of it is, dare I say it, the style he chose to do it in.

After a short hiatus, entering this sort of grace period wrought with denial on my part, Kill Bill is released in two "volumes" and carries some problems Tarantino's previous films don't have. Then Death Proof, part of a larger Grindhouse project and a little difficult to hold up to the same level of scrutiny, also has problems that one can forgive only if the rest is deemed worth the effort.

Now to Inglourious Basterds, and it's time to declare the grace period OVER. Tarantino had been talking about this film for awhile, and I don't know what I imagined other than "How is he going to fit a trunk POV shot into the story? Do WWII tanks have trunks?" For awhile, I think Michael Madsen and John Travolta were in it as Vega grandfathers and the title was "Untitled World War Two Epic." What would that film have been like?

Better, maybe. I'm told that, if this is a remake, it shares about as much kinship with the original Bastards as John Carpenter's The Thing does with the 50's version. Here, not even in name! So it's either a complete reimagining of the original with very little sense of loyalty to it, or it's an original screenplay retitled to tie into a 70's zeitgeist, as if his stlye weren't enough. Or he couldn't think of a better title.

Conspiracy theory time: this could be another case of Tarantino being dicked around by the Weinsteins. They used a Hanzo sword to cut Kill Bill into two separate releases, undermarketed the Grindhouse project, and shooting down the 'Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France' title, they say "Well, you can't put Bastard in a title. Fix it." And I think that same pressure forced Tarantino to make, I'll use his words, a "leaner, more concise film." Let's break it down.

1) Villains are introduced.
2) Title characters are introduced.
3) Third lead introduced/revenge plot formed.
4) Brief scene in Britain introducing a character that will die in the subsequent scene.

We are now halfway through a 2 1/2 hour movie.

5) Title characters appear in their second scene, half of them die.
6) Third lead refines revenge plot/title characters refine assassination plot.
7) Climax with all characters.

With the words 'leaner, more concise' reverberating in the background, I can see where those missing scenes would go. In a perfect world, Inglourious Basterds would be a well-researched but dramatically-deviated action film set during WWII. Brad Pitt would spend over half the film on a Nazi-killing warpath unbound by the Geneva Convention. Meanwhile, paralleling Patton's advance on Europe, the top brass could find ways to channel this into a strategic advantage, eventually happening upon the assassination plot to end the war. While this is going on, and entirely unrelated subplot about a Jewish girl escaping execution and stumbling across an opportunity to wreak vengeance on the man who killed her family is hatched coincidentally at the same time the Basterds' plot is to go down. Will she fuck up the plan? Who will survive? In a perfect world, this film would be 4 hours long.

On Shadow Earth, it's probably fantastic. Here, on Normal Earth (is it called Normal Earth?), we have to settle for the above bullet points. Point 1 is a brilliant way to begin the film, like Sergio Leone's insistence that it takes ten minutes for somebody to walk through a door. The tension rises beautifully, due to the unspoken deceptions going on during the dialogue. Things going on! Imagine!

I'll skip ahead here to Point 5, a scene that equals Point 1 when taken independantly from the rest of the film. A long conversation ends in a too-brief shootout and a lazy-ass killtransition to the next scene, what is basically the climax. Characters that we barely had any time to get to know are killed, setting the stage for a stupid, stupid plan. Its construction, however, is amazing. Tarantino is good at this, which I guess means he is good at fooling me.

Being "lean and concise," without MORE movie, these scenes are padding, set pieces at best. An ample amount of time is spent with Point 3 and her revenge scheme. On Shadow Earth, I would welcome the time spent with open arms. Here, it throws the film incredibly off-balance as it isn't broken apart and it takes too goddamn long.

At Point 7. We've spent two scenes with the title characters and have accelerated very suddenly to this assassination plot which feels in the film exactly as it feels outside of it: rushed, destined to fail. Plotlines don't so much converge as they do end in the same location. Both assassinations succeed anti-climactically (anti-historically) and due mainly to the conscious actions of the FILM'S VILLAIN.

This idea, that the war is ended by the enemy's participation, cannot be grappled with as it makes no statement about anything. There isn't a 'necessary evil' theme until this point, nor is there one about Brad Pitt learning to compromise until now. As it relates to Christoph Waltz, it doesn't even fit his character. He liked hunting Jews for the Reichsland, but now all of a sudden he doesn't. Okay, so what it is, then, is another attempt to fool me. I sure didn't see this ending coming... because it makes no sense!

It's one thing when a filmmaker is eventually crushed spirit-and-all by the weight of his environment, it's another when the machine is chruning slowly and the last functioning neurons are still firing. Great scenes are created in an otherwise frustrating, lazy excuse of a film.



  1. QTs earlier movies were extremely ambitious in terms of story, and baroque in their complexity. I think you're right that his movies show a trajectory from a fascination with classical beauty of story towards a fascination with plots that are ungainly and to some degree ugly, but allow for exploration in other directions (the social observation in Jackie Brown, the sheer audience manipulation and misdirection in Death Proof, and the butt ugly nonsensical horrible shit in Kill Bill). I think IB kind of partakes in some of that--I still find the climax structure strangely reminiscent of Death Proof, and the movie as a whole has the feeling of a sort of social experiment: what if I were to make a World War II movie that did not treat the subject matter with any kind of reverence at all?

    I dunno

  2. And finally seeing The Wild Bunch for the first time, I think Tarantino should have ripped it off EVEN MORE for Inglourious Basterds. Stick some kinda train robbery in dere.

  3. I wanted to like this movie. I really did. But as the film wore on, I couldn't help but come to the sad conclusion that nothing in this film match up to that first scene.