Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Were Gonna Be Doin' One Thing and One Thing Only...Reviewing Inglorious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino sure has a hard on for Revenge, doesn't he? I mean there was both Kill Bill movies, which were all about The Bride getting revenge. Then there was this film, Inglourious Basterds, which is essentially a Jewish Revenge Fantasy. Now, if rumors are true, Tarantino is making a "Southern," a film set in the Old South, about a former slave taking revenge upon his old master. Why is he so fascinated with this subject? Is it because revenge as a motive allows audiences to quickly sympathize with a lead without needing too much character development on either side? Is it because it allows Tarantino to use as much stylized violence as he wants without making audiences worry about whether the violence is "moral" or not? Is it because the desire to seek revenge taps into our darkest and strongest desires to cause pain and destruction in those we do not like? Did somebody kill his mum or something? The answers is probably all of the above (except the last one of course) but whatever his motive may be, making revenge movies has done nothing but good for Tarantino so far.

As a (comparatively) young director, Tarantino has always drawn upon films and genres he loved from the past to inspire his films. This time around, Tarantino is borrowing from old favorites like Spaghetti Westerns (borrowing his title from and giving a cameo to the director of the Italian movie The Inglorious Bastards) and exploitation films, as well as new genres like the WWII film. By combining these elements, Tarantino gives us a film which uses the best of Postmodern WWII films that focus on the victimhood of Jews and other groups, while also wallowing in the adrenaline-fueled Nazi-slaughtering violence of older WWII films. To me, the feel this creates works both for and against the film, as I shall explain, but you cannot deny that it makes a fun movie.

This time around the film is mostly shown in chronological order, though it is still split into chapters. We open up with a scene of an SS Officer Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz) interrogating a French man because he is harboring Jews in his home. Right away you see why Waltz won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this film. With every word he says, with every look, he has a perfect combination of menace and charm. Tarantino has feared that this role, a charming but scary Nazi, would be unplayable. However, thanks to Waltz, it became the best acted role in the film. When I heard that Leonardo DiCaprio was first slated to take on the role, it marked the first time I had ever been glad DiCaprio was not in a film.

Even if that pipe was a lollipop, he'd still be scary.
When Landa kills the hiding Jews, he decides to let the young daughter escape, a fatal move, as Shoshana (Melanie Lauren) becomes the proprietor of a movie theater in Paris which, thanks to the unwelcome interest of a Nazi war hero, becomes the theater where a film by Goebbels himself, starring the young hero, will be premiered, with high-ranking Nazi officers all the way up to Hitler himself attending. Shoshana and her young Black assistant/boyfriend Henri then plot to burn down the theater with all of the Nazis inside, effectively ending the war in one night. Now, though I like this film, it is in many of the scenes with this character that flaws come out. Firstly, I was unimpressed with Lauren's acting. There is a great scene of tension where she is being interrogated by Landa, who may or may not recognize her, where I felt all of the work was being done by Landa. To me, it seemed like Tarantino had written another role for Uma Thurman before realizing she was too old to play the part. Also, as a history major, I know that Black people would have been taken from France just as the Jews were, and having that character in the film was only a needless attempt to make our heroine seem even better by having here in an interracial relationship while fighting Nazis. In fact, it's actually rather insulting. This film in general portrays the French as heroic and believing in racial equality when, in fact, France was one of the most antisemitic nations in Europe, with many being overjoyed that the Nazis were taking the Jews, and of course most Blacks in France were there as a result of the brutal colonization by France of African and island nations. Nitpicks, perhaps, but they bothered me.

Melanie Lauren doing her best Uma Thurman impersonation.

The best parts of the film are when either (or both) Waltz was on screen or when the infamous Basterds were on screen. A group of Jews from around Europe and America, led by a Lieutenant from Kentucky (Brad Pitt), launch a guerrilla offensive throughout occupied France and attempt to kill as many Nazis (pronounced Nat-zeez) as possible. Most importantly, the Basterds are trying to instill fear into the heart of the Nazis, by killing huge numbers, by being incredibly brutal, and by letting some survive to tell others of their exploits. One of their most potent weapons of terror is that they always scalp the Nazis they kill (each soldier owes Pitt 100 Nazi scalps...and he wants his scalps), and even the survivors have a Nazi cross cut into their skull so that future generations will always know whose side they fought on.

"Aww shucks Fritz, I'm sure your momma raised you better than this. I mean, look at all this dandruff you got here! Well, since we ain't got no Head and Shoulders on us, looks like we'll just have to take care of that problem the old fashioned way..."

Perhaps their most potent weapon of fear is the legends that have evolved around each of the Basterds. One Basterd named Stiglitz is known for having killed 14 Nazi officers himself before being caught by the Nazis (and let out by the Basterds). Brad Pitt's character Aldo Raine is known as "The Apache" because he bases his tactics on the native American tribe of his ancestors. Most fearsome of all is "The Bear Jew," a massive Jewis boy from Brooklyn who beats Nazis to death with a baseball bat and relishes every moment. This character is played by director Eli Roth, and both he and Pitt do a fantastic job. You can't really say their acting is "good acting" in the traditional sense. However, they are so over the top and psychotic that they are totally enjoyable. They are funny as well. One of the best scenes in the movie is when you first hear Pitt and Roth try and convince the Germans that they are Italian by speaking only the most basic Italian phrases in incredibly thick American accents ("Bon-jure-no, Graat-zee"). Finally I must say that even though I am no fan of Roth's work as a director, when I heard that this role was originally offered to (shudder) Adam Sandler, I was overjoyed that he was an actor in this film.

Yes, he is. Now, if only he was also a decent director.

So essentially the story that follows these characters is a big Jewish Revenge fantasy about Jewish soldiers taking massive vengeance upon those nasty Nazis (Roth called the film "kosher porn"). Other characters are added to the film as well to share this goal. A British officer/German film critic is added to the mission. We get a sexy German actress working as a collaborator. We even get to see Mike Meyers as a British officer and Winston Churchill. Add Shoshana and her boyfriend to the mix, and that is a lot of people trying to piss off Hitler.
This was Hitler's reaction when he found out that Inglourious Basterds grossed over $300 million at the box office.

So, over all, this film was a ton of fun, where almost every scene was incredible. However, I must say that this film was only really great for me the second time I watched it. When I saw it in theaters, there were a lot of things that bothered me about it that made me think it was overhyped. They bothered me less the second time, but I think I should mention these problems here. Firstly, Tarantino has a lot of personal touches that he adds to films, and while usually they improve a film, I felt they got in the way here. Of course his dialogue is amazing as always, but little things bothered me. The way he would bring up name cards next to characters occasionally did not fit the film at all, especially when it was done in big bold letters only once, or when it was done in pencil only once. 2 times in the film, and only 2 times, he had a narrator come on, and these were clearly shoved into the film to give Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel cameos, and they made these sections of the film appear sloppy. Even the soundtrack was often (though not always) needless and interrupting to the films tone. 
Most damning of all, however, is the moral ambiguity that I found in the film, along with ambiguity in the motives of many characters. Tarantino made a clear tradeoff of adding more violence to the film at the expense of making it more moving or relatable. Ok, sure, having the Basterds torture German soldiers, not caring about their families or back stories, is understandable. I might be an elitist intellectual and prefer that we create stories that show how German men were fed propaganda to make them believe in an Aryan national and a cult leader, how many were just young men fighting for their country, and how this could have happened in any nation with crippling debt and a strong political movement fueled by racism (which I might add was prevalent in all of Europe and America at the time), but if a film just wants to say, "Fuck it, they're Nazis, they deserve it," I'm not going to complain. However, at time they do seem to go for making the Germans sympathetic, just to make scenes more dramatic. When Shoshana kills that German soldier who was hitting on her, even though it looked like he was close to just raping her to get what he wants, she has a moment of regret that causes her to get shot herself, despite never showing anything but contempt for the boy before. Other characters go out of character senselessly to add violence as well. For example, when Waltz's character discovers that the German actress betrayed her country to the Americans, he loses his (up until then unbroken) cool and just strangles her. At first I thought, "OK, he's filled with rage that this whore would betray the Fatherland." However, in the next scene, he does the same thing she did! Why would he be so angry that she did something he was planning to do? It makes no sense except to give the audience more torture porn of a woman being strangled to death by a man. Also, there is a scene where the German actress shoots a young German officer to death after he has surrendered. She and the audience knows that he just had a baby. Why would she shoot him? I could understand that Basterds not caring and just killing another Nazi, but why did she do it? Was it because he called her a traitor? She was! Why does she hate him so much? For that matter, why is she even betraying her nation in the first place? I guess maybe she is doing it purely for personal gain, but she is popular in Germany. Is she afraid the Allies will win the war and wants to be on the winning team? Does she hate the Nazi party for some reason? None of this is explained. Perhaps they left out her motivations so as not to add to the already 2.5 hour running time, but I really wanted some answers especially because I had started to really feel for that young German soldier. 

"Ho ho ho, vhat fun vwe are having! I am becoming so characterized and sympathetic to ze audience. I sure hope this Bitch here doesn't kill me for no adequately explained reason!"

One controversial decision Tarantino made though was right up my street: he ended the film with the Jewish protagonists killing Hitler. He literally said, "Fuck historical accuracy, we all know how the story really ends, I'm giving my audience some freakin' catharsis!" I loved this ending and totally did not expect it the first time I saw it. What a great surprise! This has all the enjoyment of those Golden Age comics where Superman of Captain America would just punch Hitler right in the face. It's just so fun to see Hitler get shot in the face by Jewish soldiers as a house full of Nazis is burned to the ground. As John Ford said, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

"OK boys, its time for the big dance number! 1...2...3! Springtime/For Hitler/And Germanyyyyy!"

So, the film really was incredibly enjoyable, especially the second time around. After the first time I watched it, I probably would have given it a six. The second time, I was poised to give it and eight. Now that I have ruminated more on its successes and flaws, I feel I should split the difference and give it a 7/10 or a Great by my standards. It is a really great film that I would recommend, but I would not consider it a true return to form for Tarantino and his early greatness. It does however give me confidence that his next film will truly be something special!

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