Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds: a return to form

Orson Welles' self-description, "I started at the top and worked my way down", was beginning to fit Quentin Tarantino's career graph. Tarantino's debut, Reservoir Dogs, was electrifying; his next film, Pulp Fiction, a masterpiece. Jackie Brown, was pretty darn good, Kill Bill passable, and Death Proof pointless if occasionally amusing.
Now, with Inglourious Basterds, the man has resurrected his sagging reputation. Basterds is a self-indulgent movie that will appeal most to cinephiles, but possesses enough action, plot and character to keep wider audiences happy. I rate it above all but the first two of Tarantino's directorial efforts. Jackie Brown may be a better paced, better plotted film, but has none of the scope and lushness of Basterds (besides, audibility was an issue throughout the Pam Grier starrer).

The Basterds of the title are a group of Jewish, mainly American, soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who operate behind enemy lines during WWII, killing Nazis with notable brutality. Assisted by a German actress and a British film critic, they plot to eliminate the Nazi leadership during the premiere in Paris of a movie about a German war hero. The premiere is held in a theatre owned by a woman whose parents were killed under orders of the notorious 'Jew hunter' Col. Landa (Christoph Waltz), and who is plotting a massacre of her own.

From its opening shot, Basterds seeks to create apotheoses of movie stereotypes: the broken-nosed French peasant, the sophisticated but cruel Nazi, the blunt American and the plummy-accented Brit. We feel at each moment the presence of past WWII films, particularly those made in the sixties like The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, and The Battle of the Bulge.
As indicated by virtually everybody who has written about the film, Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa steals the show. The polyglot actor is the film's greatest asset, but also its greatest flaw, insofar as there is no performance to balance his. Pitt has some very good moments and some indifferent ones; his effort at a Tennessee accent becomes too apparent in the odd scene.
The climactic conflagration in the theatre is meant to be a huge catharsis, a film-maker's revenge on history as it were. I'd rate it seven on ten. It was satisfying enough, but didn't give me goose flesh.


DS said...

Girish, as Dev says, Tarantino lives in his own world. But what a glorious world, he really returns to form here. I LOVED the movie. Its every which way stereotypical in some aspects, irreverent to history in the ending, the score is fab (Bowie blaring as the theatre fills and that red dress gets dressed) and the suspense in each chapter builds sometimes excruciatingly at others,SNAP and the deed is done,the pace never flags. Lush to look at, engagingly multilingual and dark humour as always it was superbly cast, only Brad Pitt while not bad...well, problem here, you KNOW he is BP and the accent does seem tough then....Cristoph Waltz was brill, was thinking, thank heavens I am not watching RAlph Fiennes here...I would give it an otto e mezzo. :)

adrian mckinty said...


I agree about Christoph Waltz but nothing else. After the first fifteen minutes I was bored to tears. The scene in the basement beer cellar seemed to go on forever and the trope of Tarantino's foot fetishism has really gotten old.

I also think there are big structural and plot flaws in the screenplay.

I havent seen Death Proof but for me this is the worst Tarantino I have seen.

Girish Shahane said...

Adrian, I felt the basement beer cellar was a great take-off on the castle cafe scene from Where Eagles Dare, in which the Gestapo Major tries to expose the female spy: "Strange, I seem to remember that the cathedral was on the other side of the square".
I also liked the questions about King Kong / black Americans.
The length of the sequence did little for the plot, but I really liked the dialogue all through, right to the bit about wasting good scotch. As I said, the apotheosis of the suave, plummy-accented Brit.
I agree with you about the issue of what the Basterds contribute to the plot. As for the outdated map, well, maybe Hitler enjoyed the glory days when the jackboot dominated the continent.

DS said...

The Basterds were the weakest link. The cellar scene went on and on but never did one get the feeling it was tiresome....sure thought he was toying with us there...

T also throws conventional structure out and brings in his own, don't you think?

Not once was I bored. :)

adrian mckinty said...

The scene in Where Eagles Dare worked better for me because I actually cared about the characters and their mission. The same with the Dirty Dozen. The Basterds were utterly irrelevant and uninteresting. If it hadn't been for Waltz popping up from time to time (I also thought the apple strudel scene was great) I'm pretty sure I would have left the cinema.

Tarantino's gotten a bit like Elvis I think, he's surrounded by a coterie of yes men who praise everything he says and does, poor chap

VV said...

At last, Tarantino is getting back to his Pulp Fiction form. I loved the movie. There were some scenes where QT was doing his over-cutesy QT thing, but I dont mind that- I like classic Tarantino moments. My one issue with the movie was with the Eli Roth character. His personality seemed so inconsistent throughout the movie- at least during the baseball battering scene and the last scene. I was very unimpressed by Roth.

And, yes, the Basterds were pretty inconsequential and except for a couple of them, their characters weren't developed at all (esp. if you are calling the movie IB). But then, I would have rather had more of Archie Hicox than the IBs (I really loved the cellar scene, I have to admit).

Blackfayth said...

Caught the movie yesterday and quite enjoyed it. The plummy Brit accent kinda took me back to David Niven in Guns of Navarone.

I don't about y'all but there was something grotesquesly enjoyable about watching a man's face being shredded by machine gun fire :)

Girish Shahane said...

VV, I agree, the Bear Jew was the worst part of the film. In general, I felt the action scenes weren't as good as the talkie scenes (though, as Blackfayth points out, the shredded face of Hitler was fun). The shoot-out was the least successful part of the cellar scene, though it had so much potential. After the long wind-up there should've been some serious gunning down happening (it's possible, of course, that the Indian censors cut some stuff out, must see the uncut original before making a final judgment).
My problem with Kill Bill was along similar lines: action scenes from Hong Kong martial arts flicks are often much better choreographed and more athletic than anything in Tarantino's homage. I was frankly bored during a couple of Uma Thurman's showdowns in Kill Bill.
A tribute, if it is to work, has to be at least as good as the original, or add a dimension to the original, else it seems boringly derivative.
Tarantino began with an even balance between talk and violence: in Reservoir Dogs the talk about tipping waitresses is balanced by the torture scene. Pulp Fiction offers loads of examples, but the adrenaline shot must be tops as a perfect mix of funny exchanges and shocking action. But since Jackie Brown I find him lagging on the choreographed action side.

Nimit Kathuria said...

Actually, he made his directorial debut with "My Best Friend's Birthday".

About the King Kong/black Americans thing... I think hardly ever anyone got that, since I was the only one who let out a chuckle when he said that and then too my friends asked if I had gone mad laughing at a scene which apparently had nothing funny in it.

Girish Shahane said...

Ok, I should've said first full-length feature. The fact that 'Birthday' was partly destroyed in a fire may have inspired the final scene in 'Basterds'...