Quentin Tarantino is back with his much-anticipated World War II epic "Inglourious Basterds".
When I first heard about the project, I imagined Tarantino would make a more serious film about the war with his trademark attention to detail and signature over-the-top violence. As I heard more and more about the project, I was surprised to learn it would be much more tongue in cheek. After watching the film, I was surprised to realize the director sticks pretty closely to the influences that have shaped all of his previous films.
The film opens in the early 40s at a farmhouse in the Nazi-Occupied French countryside. A Nazi officer, Colonel Landa (Christoph Waltz) interrogates a dairy farmer, looking for a Jewish family that has gone missing. Eventually, the Colonel figures things out and orders his men to kill everyone but the oldest daughter, Shoshana escapes. Four years later, Shoshana (Melanie Laurent) is living undercover in Paris and manages a movie theater. A young German soldier, Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) finds himself the poster child of Nazi Germany and is excited to be the center of attention; he fought off an entire platoon of soldiers, shooting from a bell tower, picking them off one by one. Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) has made a film about the hero and wants to hold a huge premiere in Paris, for all of the Nazi elite to revel in. He might even be able to get Hitler to attend. Zoller meets Shoshanna and becomes infatuated with her and tries to pull some strings to get the premiere held at her theater. Shoshanna goes along with the plan, but is shocked to learn Colonel Landa is the head of security for the premiere. Thankfully, he doesn't seem to recognize her and instead seems to be attracted to her. In the meantime, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) forms an elite squadron of Jewish American soldiers who infiltrate the enemy lines for one reason and one reason only; to hunt some Nazis. He and his men are in the Nazi hunting business and "cousin, business is a booming". Eventually, the two stories intersect and Raines and his men begin to work with Shoshanna to attempt a very daring assassination attempt.
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, "Inglourious Basterds" is a rollicking roller coaster of a film filled with Tarantino's signature style; the characters frequently have lengthy conversations filled with expertly written dialogue making the scenes both interesting and fun to watch, there are many moments of tribute to the many genres Tarantino grew up with and fell in love with, there is a lot of very graphic violence and some truly hilarious, over the top moments are sprinkled throughout. But "Basterds" is not a great film. Very good, yes. Great, no.
Tarantino often talks about the various films he grew up watching and these films have colored his own projects throughout his career. I think if you gathered a group of 100 people in a room and had them watch many of these films, the majority of the group would walk away before any of the films was done. But Tarantino loves them, idolizes them and is greatly influenced by them. What has always fascinated me about Tarantino is that while he pays homage to these less than spectacular examples of filmmaking, he also elevates this source material. Tarantino takes the ideas but applies his vastly superior writing and cinematography, usually creating a project most people would label as something great, something special. In short, he makes excellent films based on material that most would consider D-Grade.
Sure, he has had a couple of missteps, but even these films are fun to watch and a lot better than most of the other movies we are able to see.
But when he hits it out of the park, he gets a homerun. Some of my personal favorites "Jackie Brown", "Kill Bill V.1" and "Pulp Fiction" are examples of great writing and directing, but also such purely satisfying cinema experiences, you can't do anything but walk out of the theater giddy with excitement, eager to talk about everyone and everything involved in the film.
When he doesn't hit it out of the park ("Kill Bill V.2", "Death Proof") there are still moments of pure brilliance to be witnessed. I think the reason I don't find these films so brilliant is because Tarantino seems to be a little too fascinated by his own dialogue at times. It seems to be a little too clever, a little too obtuse and this simply creates films that seem long.
"Basterds" is mostly great, but it does fall victim to Tarantino's infatuation with his own dialogue. And this ultimately makes the film seem too long and dilutes the power of all of the great things going on.
In an interview with Charlie Rose, Tarantino stated that one of the conversations in this film runs twenty-two minutes. This is an eternity in a film and needs to be the stuff of legend to make us feel like it is but a second. I'm not sure which scene this is, but there are a few that could qualify. The film opens with a lengthy conversation between Landa and the dairy farmer. As Landa arrives at the dairy farmer's house, he seems to be completely at odds and not at all what we might expect a Nazi officer to act like. But as he quietly questions the farmer, very pleasant in tone, you begin to sense there is an undercurrent of dread. You see it in the farmer's face and actions. You sense it in Landa's every pore. And sure enough, the scene has a terrifying climax.
Throughout the film, there are moments like this, in which various characters engage in lengthy conversation, but none really reach the impact of the first scene. I think this is due to a few different factors. First, the film opens with this scene, so it helps to establish much of the rest of the film. And as we watch, there is still a sense of discovery because we don't really know what is going to happen.
Brad Pitt is great as Aldo Raine, the Lieutenant from the rural backwoods who leads a group of men through France for some "Nahzee huntin'". When we first meet Raine, he has gathered his men and lays out their mission for him. He wants them each to collect 100 Nazi scalps. And he isn't referring to a rhetorical scalp either. Pitt plays the character with relish, allowing us to delight in the character's backwoods ways and origin. This is a man who knows what the Nahzee's are doing and he wants to help put a stop to it.
His elite group is filled with a group of familiar actors, all of who get a bit lost, but seem to be having fun. B.J. Novak (TV's "The Office) and Eli Roth (director of "Hostel") are the most well known of the group. Soon, the group is running through France, cornering as many German soldiers as possible and interrogating them before dispatching them. Their interrogation is for one reason and one reason only, to find more soldiers and to collect more scalps.
Eventually, they connect with Shoshana and realize the benefits of working with her. It's a crazy plan, but they are dealing with crazy people. And they are a little off their rockers as well. It’s a good match.
One of the many things I love about Tarantino's films is to watch and delight in the rediscovery of a long lost actor or the rejuvenation of an actor's career. Tarantino has always mixed the hot with the curious helping to resurrect the careers of many. In "Inglourious Basterds" he does less of this. Rod Taylor, a popular actor from the 60s is listed in the credits and I became excited about seeing him again, but his role is really small and I didn't even recognize him when he was on screen. Mike Meyers (yes, "Austin Powers") shows up as a British Colonel who learns of Raine's campaign in France. But that's about it. The rest of the recognizable names are recognizable because they have been in Tarantino's previous films. This isn't a bad thing, but I was hoping for a rediscovery along the lines of Pam Grier or Robert Forster.
"Basterds" is filled with a lot of great Tarantino-esque stuff and only a little bit of Tarantino excess creating a highly enjoyable, over the top film experience.