Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Movie Review: Inglorius Basterds

The first thing to realize about any review I do of a Quentin Tarantino is that I'm not a Tarantino guy. The first QT movie I saw was Death Proof—and I was already in the theater for Planet Terror ("Grindhouse"). Then I saw Kill Bill. Wait, actually, I saw Sin City, and one of the segments in that he directed.

I avoided him for so long 'cause of the hype. It gets hard to really take a film for what it is when the hype machine precedes it. (I've never seen a Spike Lee film, either.) But I've yet to be particularly impressed by him.

Still, Jason (the commenter) remarked on it as "beautiful" and gave it four out of five stars. And I love the comic-book premise: A group of largely Jewish soldiers strike terror in the heart of the Nazis by committing atrocities upon them.

Yeah, the movie isn't really about that. Strike one against it there.

Is it beautiful? Yeah, actually: Something I've not noticed of his other films, but Basterds is blocked masterfully. A scene's "blocking" is the positioning of the actors in the scene, and some of the shots looked like QT and cinematographer graduated from the James Wong Howe school with honors. You don't get good blocking these days because directors do everything by jumping the camera. Anyway, visually, quite striking, though not quite up there with Coppola's Tetro.

But I had time to think about what it is I find lacking in the QT movies I've seen. Yeah. Lots of time to think. Lots of things to think about. Like, why is it that I'm completely uninvolved in a scene where the brilliant Christoph Waltz is playing one of the most heinous villains to ever grace a movie and is about to commit an atrocity?

I had more time to think about that in a later scene in a bar, where the same situation arises. Something horrible is going to happen. Yet I just didn't care.

I figured it out, sitting there: You know—or at least I know—almost exactly what's going to happen when the scene is set up.

I guess, in the first scene, it wasn't necessarily obvious. I can't tell you exactly why I knew how the scene was going to play out. I'm really not good at seeing twists and turns in movies—but this wasn't a twist. Everything had to play out more-or-less the way it played out.

But the bar scene? Well, look, Chekov said that if you showed the audience a gun in act one, that gun had better go off by act three. This scene was sort of like saying "Here's the gun I'm going to use to shoot the bad guy in the head with in act three." I mean, really, the character just come out and detail what's going to happen. When it happens, it's not just unsurprising, it's mostly just a relief that the story can finally move on. (Sort of like the 20 minute discussion of Vanishing Point in Death Proof, only this at least has something to do with something.)

Now, one of the issues may be a rather spare use of music. In fact, these scenes didn't have any, I don't think. The music that is used so incredibly self-conscious—the movie opens with a kind of comical '60s-'70s style war/caper movie theme, that is recapitulated at the end to a weirdly comic feel—that it can pull you out of the experience.

And the use of the Cat People song—I'm not making this up—has to be the worst and most awkward MTV-style music-video-in-a-film since Watchmen's Hallelujah sex scene. It's an otherwise beautiful scene, and it reminds me that a lot of modern film makers don't really have a good grasp on the use of traditional music scores.

At least I think a traditional score would've worked better there, and throughout the movie. This was...jarring.

The word "jarring" applies to a lot of this movie, or even "self-conscious". The second and third chapters, are interrupted by expository narration—just a sort of out-of-the-blue introduction to one of the Basterds, and a "hey, film is highly exploisve" bit. Also in the third chapter, there's a cutaway to a short shot of Goebbels having sex with his assistant, which is the first (but not last) time we get a cut-away. Later chapters actually include scrawled arrows with the names of high-ranking Nazis, just so you know that, well, that guy over there is Martin Bormann.

I guess that was supposed to be part of the fun? The whimsy? I found these, and other conspicuous techniques, repeatedly drew my attention out of the film and to the film-making process. (Hey, look at me! I'm making a movie!)

I've pointed out already that this movie isn't really about the titular Inglorius Basterds. It's not really The Great Escape or Kelly's Heroes or Stalag 17—or, hell, even "Hogan's Heroes"—where you get to know a bunch of macho characters as they do manly things. You meet these guys in the second chapter, and they come back half-way through the fourth chapter or so.

They're really supporting players. And so, while the (relatively) few scenes they're in are sort of brutally whimsical, that's not really what the movie is about. That might have been more fun as a movie.

Instead, the real story is about a young Jewish woman who escapes her family's horrible fate and then attracts the attention of a young Nazi war hero. This leads her to concoct a plot to kill a bunch of Nazis.

This story isn't as whimsical as it sounds, and not even hinted at in the trailer. Worse, it leads to another long scene with lots of dialog that should be suspenseful but manages to be completely free of any sort of involvement.

The ending is pretty satisfying. And I really wasn't too bored. So, as far as QT movies go, this one seemed less boring than the others.

Hey, I said I wasn't a Tarantino guy. At least one guy was so involved in the movie he answered his phone at the climactic scenes, and instead of leaving the theater actually proceeded to have a discussion standing at the door five feet from us. I mean, that's compelling: A phone call so important you have to take it, but a movie so compelling you'll risk your life by refusing to leave the theater, and standing right next to the guy brandishing the bowie knife, getting ready to carve a cell phone into your forehead.

Ha! Sorry, just engaging in some IB-style whimsy.

Anyway, the Boy thought it was over-hyped. He was bored and said, "It made me want to play Company of Heroes on the German side." He's not a QT guy either, apparently.


  1. I think I liked it so much because I dislike Brad Pitt. I completely agree with you that the main story isn't about him, but obviously for me that wasn't a disappointment.

    Some of the stylistic problems you mentioned were the result of Tarantino trying to make the movie in a exploitational style. Just like there are blaxploitation movies, this film is a jewploitation movie.

    What I liked most about the movie was the ending, with the movie-within-the-movie, which Tarantino used to say something about his audience and their resemblance to Nazis.

    I left feeling happy and wondering what my happiness meant.

  2. Tarantino's always been ironic and postmodern. He doesn't want you to be involved. He wants you to say "Gee, look at this guy making a movie." He trained in a video store, for Chrissake. His movies are not about life, just about movies, so how can you be involved? All the violence is comic-book. There's nothing to believe in, therefore nothing to be shocked by, except trivially and neurologically.

  3. For what it's worth, I felt happy at the end of "Kill Bill Part I." You're seeing something stylized, unreal, and at best, fun.

  4. Geez, I disagree with just about everything Amba said, which is novel for me! But then I am a QT guy so that's not surprising. I used to go to the theatre when Reservoir Dogs first came out to watch the audience; at a certain moment ( If you've seen it you know which one ) half the theatre can't take it and leaves! The other half let a mass audible gasp and sigh when they got a pleasent surprise twist ending to that scene! Is that because it's not about "life" but about "movies?" I could care less; it just scared the pants off the lot of them more than I've seen in a 100 horror movies!

    I haven't scene Basterds yet, but I will.

  5. Blake- you (almost) make me wanna see it.

  6. There was a fantastic, taut, beautiful 90 minute film in there somewhere.

    A shame it ran for 152 minutes.

    Sometimes long time editor/director combos are good for both, other times, their work gets more and more bloated over time. Tarantino/Menke's partnership doesn't serve either of them well, they seem to indulge each other's worst habits.

    I think you see the same thing with Scorcese/Schoonmaker.

    If Tarantino's intent was to make a rollicking exploitation styled film, then he should have made that movie (and brought it in under 90 minutes), if his intent was to make a darkly tragic, yet fulfilling revenge fantasy against the Nazis by a Jewish woman hiding in plain sight within Vichy France, then he could have made that film.

    Trying to do both, served neither well. The tonal shifts were jarring, it would be as if someone tried to remake Casablanca and To Be or Not to Be and combined them into one film. Might seem like something brilliantly audacious to try, but the chances for complete success are slim.

  7. amba: His movies are not about life, just about movies...

    I find meaning in them and I think they speak to an important part of the human psyche, something that keeps us alive.

  8. Tell me if this criticism is correct: Tarantino takes his band of Jews and essentially turns them into Nazis.

    I have seen and liked a couple QT movies. Others, I've avoided as likely tiresome with no pangs of regret. Do you recommend I see it?

    And if he studied at the video store, shouldn't he at least try to make a romantic comedy a la QT? We've seen heist pictures and buddy flicks. QT: Why not a RomCom?

  9. I've only liked 3 QT movies "dogs" "Jackie Brown" and "Kill Bill part I"

    Given his track record I'll wait for the DVD.

  10. Tell me if this criticism is correct: Tarantino takes his band of Jews and essentially turns them into Nazis.

    No, not really. They are brutal, and I'm not entirely comfortable with the lack of distinction between average German soldiers and Nazis, but the movie isn't really about them. There's no depth there at all. Not even good explotiation-style depth. They're props for the other story.

    I have seen and liked a couple QT movies. Others, I've avoided as likely tiresome with no pangs of regret. Do you recommend I see it?

    I guess it would depend on what you liked about the other movies. I get why some people rave about this: There are some scenes that should be very suspenseful. If they worked for you, you'd probably love this movie.

    But I've never felt drawn into a QT suspense scene. Hence, boredom.

    If that helps.

    And if he studied at the video store, shouldn't he at least try to make a romantic comedy a la QT? We've seen heist pictures and buddy flicks. QT: Why not a RomCom?

    Wasn't that Natural Born Killers?

  11. Jackie Brown is one of my all-time favorite movies.

  12. My wife and I saw this last weekend.

    Yes, the lack of distinction between regular German soldiers and NAZIs really bothered me and I am glad someone else noticed this too. My wife thought that since most people don't make any distinction, it would have complicated the story. My view is that if there is a distintion to be made, the filmmaker should make it. They had the time to talk about nitrocellulosic film stock, but maybe they had time to do that because it is a subject that interests our filmaker.

    A couple of other things too: 1) The Zoller charicter was, I thought, presented in a positive light early on. But then right at the end he is kind of a jerk. Wife reminded me that he did have the girl essentially arrested in order to join him at lunch with Goebles and that was kind of jerky... 2) There were two independant plots against the theater and neither of them interfered with the other. There could have been some very nice tension if--in each case--something unexpected happened that left doubt as to the plot's success. After the denouement, all the plotters would come to the conclusion that their plot worked since they don't know about the other one. This could lead to all kinds of post-event intrigue. There was a better movie in there somewhere.


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