Quentin Tarantino is one of my favorite filmmakers, not only because his filmography, despite short, is so competent, but because he defends the same thing I do when it comes to filmmaking: he’s watched how people used to do movies, he plucked the good bits and incorporated them into his own style. He’s an old-school filmmaker, and considering new-school basically consists of a million cuts per second and shaky cameras, I’ll stick with Tarantino, thanks.
“Inglourious Basterds”, though, is not his magnum opus. In fact, this is the first film in Tarantino’s career where Tarantino actually becomes his own enemy. Oh, don’t get me wrong: “Inglourious Basterds” is GOOD. But in all of Tarantino’s previous films, I could watch them and later think to myself “This was a great film”, while this one came with a footnote: “except for a few Tarantino-esque problems”.
The film follows three storylines: the Basterds, an American squad famous for wearing Nazi uniforms (and for their Nazi-killing methods) and currently infiltrated behind enemy lines; Shosanna, a young French girl who survived the massacre of her family and now owns a theatre in Nazi-occupied Paris; and SS Colonel Hans Landa, who carried out the massacre — and many others, which is why he owns the nickname “The Jew Hunter”. These narratives intertwine when Shosanna’s theatre is chosen to host the premiére of Goebbels’ new movie — an event the Nazi high-command will be attending, making the theatre one big fat target for the Basterds and one big fat revenge opportunity for Shosanna. Only it might be a serious problem to both of them, because it’s Landa who’s responsible for the theatre’s security.
Let’s start with Landa, who is, hands down, the best thing in the movie and one of the best — perhaps the best — character in Tarantino’s career, which is saying a lot. An almost disturbingly well-mannered Nazi, elegant and pleasant until he’s got you by the balls. Christoph Waltz (in his first role in an American film) plays him to absolute perfection, from his louder moments (his insane laugh) to much subtler ones (the careful, meticulous way he eats a dessert). The scene where he meets the Basterds during the premiére actually had me choking out of laughter, and fortunately this isn’t the only inspired moment in the film. The meeting between a Gestapo officer and three of the Basterds in a bar is superbly-written and filmed, and it contains an absolutely brilliant moment regarding “King Kong”. And of course, any scene Landa is in fails to disappoint.
Brad Pitt also deserves applause for understanding so well what Tarantino was going for and embracing it bravely: caricature. Lt. Aldo Raine is a total redneck, something Pitt manages to portray even when speaking other languages (something hilariously shown during the premiére scene) but without ever overacting or trying to be funny — he just turns into Aldo Raine, simple as that. Til Schweiger, playing yet another Nazi* (he is a Nazi before he is recruited by the Basterds), doesn’t do a lot of talking, but does shine in the Gestapo scene (in fact, everyone in that scene puts on a show). And as much as I detest Eli Roth as a filmmaker, I have to hand it to the guy: the moment he tries to convince someone he’s Italian by making an extremely cliche Italian gesture makes his appearance in this film worth it. As Fredrich Zoller, Daniel Bruhl does a great job in making the character annoying even in his moments of humanity — which is actually the point. Diane Kruger wisely distances herself from her inexpressive role (if I can actually call that guest appearance a “role”) as Helen in “Troy” by playing Bridget Von Hammersmark with intensity, and Mélanie Laurent — I might be biased because I fell in love with her but she’s very good as well, especially after she accidentally meets with Landa and, after he leaves, it’s like she’s breathing for the first time since he arrived.
* October 18th update: I am not sure how I accomplished this, but I seem to have confused Til Schweiger with Thomas Kretschmann, the latter being the one who has played a lot of nazis in his career. Sorry about this. For reference, Til Schweiger played the protagonist of Uwe Boll’s “Far Cry” — not a good reference, no.
With such an excellent cast and a brilliant script, what actually stops “Inglourious Basterds” from being Tarantino’s best film — aside from the sheer difficulty of topping “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” — is Tarantino’s job as director. While he is careful to make sure most of his trademarks (like a fixation for feet, which I, mm, also have) are vital for the story and not just pointless self-reference, some of his habits do slip through. In this case, the use of existing music. This is a film that needed a composer, because Tarantino does not hesitate to punctuate some scenes with music that is some times well-used (the scene where Shosanna escapes from Colonel Landa) or badly-used (the scene between Shosanna and Zoller in a projection room). And while “Inglourious Basterds” is never a dull film, some scenes do stretch for too long and needed a more dynamic pace, which might be due to Tarantino falling too much in love with his dialogue — which is excellent, yes, but not a reason to make a two-minute conversation into a ten-minute one. Also, this is the second time I’ve seen Tarantino go for the melodramatic, in the aforementioned scene between Zoller and Shosanna in the projection room — aside from the music, Tarantino also uses slow-motion — to very good aesthetic result, but emotionally it just falls flat, and the scene had all the potential in the world not to.
(The first time I’ve seen Tarantino go for the melodramatic was in Jackie Brown, in the scene Max Cherry sees her for the first time and romantic music plays in the background)
However, Tarantino is becoming, more and more, a brilliant visual storyteller and flawless in the composition of his shots. There is a particularly beautiful frame that shows Shosanna running away, seen through an open door — which Colonel Landa passes through, obscuring the view in an accurate symbol of what he would mean to her for the rest of her life. And Tarantino’s conversation scenes aren’t just interesting because of the dialogue and the actors, but because the editing is precise (despite the slow pacing) and the shots well-framed. But what Tarantino is really good at is humor, and “Inglourious Basterds” is a histerically funny film at times — it never strikes the same high note emotionally, but when it comes to comedy the movie is pure win. Whenever I think of the scene between Landa and the Basterds in the premiére I start chuckling, and Brad Pitt himself, an actor with excellent comic timing, never misses a joke (I especially like his short monologue about fighting in basements). Tarantino also deserves credit for incorporating so many languages into the film, and even having characters speaking on different languages to confuse each other.
And when I think about how the movie had emotional potential that is never pulled off, I think of the movie’s ending and realize this wasn’t really the point. Tarantino just wanted to kill some nazis. To have fun portraying Hitler as a caricature that is based more on Chaplin’s Adenoyd Hynkel than on the real man, to do a war movie in Tarantino fashion, and for it to be enjoyable. And he pulled that off. “Inglourious Basterds” is a memorable film. It could have been memorable as a whole, not just for a few scenes and a great character, but as it is, it’s a memorable film nonetheless.
PS: I have the habit of reading trivia and goofs in imdb.com. Here’s a bit from this film’s goof section. “Revealing mistakes: At the beginning of the film the Gentile’s daughter is hanging sheets on the line to dry; however, the sheet she is securing to the line is already dry (it isn’t wet).”
Wow! Thank fuck for the thoughtful addition in parenthesis, eh?
Originally written on March 10th 2008.
May 14th 2009 commentary: oh, whoops. I had almost forgotten that I had to compile my old reviews from Whitechapel into this blog.
This one is short, but gets the point across — a bit too enthusiastically, though. I like Planet Terror a lot, but not enough to have multiple orgasms over it as this review implies I did.
I fucking loved “Grindhouse”. It was a box office failure, but a high quality one. Tarantino is usually great at paying homage to old stuff, but when he tried to bring it to real life, the result was this: two great films, this one and the exceptional “Death Proof”, being watched by practically no-one in the movies. A man with Tarantino’s vision should have foreseen it wouldn’t work and released the two movies separately.
One of the two “Grindhouse” attractions, “Planet Terror” is a clear homage to trash films. With a zombie story that involves gas and hot chicks, director-screenwriter-composer-younameit Robert Rodriguez has created one of the most entertainingly funny films I’ve seen this year and the previous.
The story is about a gas that leaks, turns everyone into zombies except a group of people who reveal themselves immune to it and a group of military soldiers, who have a container with a gas that counter-acts the zombie gas. Unless they’re inhaling the antidote gas constantly, they’ll turn into zombies too. This being a trash film, obviously it doesn’t take long until all the immune-to-the-zombie-gas characters get together and cause a zombie-killing mayhem.
“Planet Terror” is filled to the brim with elements from trash films: the unbelievably huge sprays of blood after each shot, the ridiculous story, the absurd characters… the difference lies in Robert Rodriguez’ direction. While the screenplay is as trash (and funny) as it can possibly be, Rodriguez refuses to do a purposely bad directing job as well and adds his visual flair to the film, fortunately without calling attention to himself. Directing the action scenes with energy, he’s one of the main reasons this movie’s so fun.
Another reason is the cast. Bruce Willis doesn’t need to do anything, all he has to do is show up in a movie like this and you’ll start laughing already. Naveen Andrews, one of my favorite actors in “Lost” (he plays Sayid Jarrah), is clearly having loads of fun, and his comedy timing is impeccable. Josh Brolin is fucking fantastic, hands down the best in the whole cast. Rose McGowan is beautiful and funny. Freddy Rodriguez is the perfect b-movie action hero. Marley Shelton is brilliant (“Don’t point it at your face, it might go off”). And it’s great to see Michael Biehn again, doing a good job. Quentin Tarantino makes an hilarious appearance and Michael Parks once again plays Sheriff Earl McGraw, a character who shows up constantly in Tarantino’s films.
Not only Rodriguez directs and writes this wonderful piece of shit, he also does loads of other stuff: he has a hand in the special effects, he cuts the whole film, the cinematography is entirely done by him and he even composes the music. The main theme of this film is simply spectacular. The special effects are also surprisingly good, some are bad in purpose, others are excellent (Rose McGowan’s leg, for example).
Filled with hilarious moments and performances and plenty of exaggerated action and gore, “Planet Terror” is an incredibly entertaining homage to trash films. It’s not as good as “Death Proof”, but it’s definitely good.