Friday, 30 January 2015

Inglorious Basterds

Inglorious Basterds (2009)

Starring Brad Pitt and Christoph Waltz

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

After the giant "Meh" of "Kill Bill" Volumes 1 and 2, and the almighty strike-out of the utterly execrable  "Grindhouse" segment "Death Proof", writer / director Quentin Tarantino, cinema's apparent 'enfant terrible' was in danger of becoming permanently known as 'réalisateur terrible'.  He needed something special to recapture the glory days of "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction".  And whilst "Inglorious Basterds" is not quite that picture, it took huge strides towards fixing the damage.  It's a remake in almost-name only of the 1978 Italian film, bearing scant resemblance, and is a skewed fantasy set during the Second World War, yet one betraying no regard for historical accuracy.  One might argue that few and far between is the Hollywood war film which pays credence to historical accuracy, most just pretend to.  In the case of "Basterds" Tarantino doesn't even waste our time pretending.  This is invention pure and simple.  Sometimes it doesn't work, but mostly it does.  It's a revenge picture - obviously - as that's Tarantino's staple.

The plus points are many.  Primarily it's in the acting performances, and as one would expect, in the dialogue.  Storywise, the film opens with a 20 minute scene consisting primarily of two men sitting at a table talking to one another.  But it's gripping.  The speeches are fantastically written and brilliantly played, and it's one of the rare occasions on which one doesn't feel Tarantino has gone on too long - more of that later - even though the scene is long.  The scene in question concerns the visit in 1941 by SS Colonel Hans Landa, self-styled "Jew Hunter", to the dairy farm of M. LaPaditte, who is suspected of sheltering Jews.  Having manipulated the farmer into giving up his secret, Landa charmingly departs.  It's a fine example of Christoph Waltz's epic, Oscar and Golden Globe winning performance, that he can be so likable whilst being so chillingly evil.  Fast forward three years, and we find moustachioed US Army Lieutenant Aldo Raine, of Appalacian country (and accent), played by Brad Pitt, putting together a squad of Jewish GIs to drop behind German lines ahead of D-Day and wage a campaign of terror. In essence The Dirty Dirty Dozen. Raine also is charming and funny, but vicious - he insists his men scalp their Nazi victims, and happily has one of his squad beat captives to death with a baseball bat.  He's the flip side of Landa.  Pitt, too, although somewhat over the top, is excellent.

Two further storylines are thrown into the mix.  In Paris, Shosana, an escapee from the farmhouse in the opening scene, has changed her identity and is now the proprietress of a cinema.  She meets Frederick Zoller, a German war hero, about whose GI-killing exploits a propaganda film is being made.  He attempts to chat her up but she rebuffs him, until finding out who he is.  Together they hit upon a plan to convince Joseph Goebbles to hold the premiere of his propaganda film at Shosana / aka Emmanuelle's cinema.  The allies, on learning of the switch, hatch a plan (Operation Kino) to destroy the cinema thus taking out the entire German High Command and dispatch Lt. Archie Hicox to co-ordinate with undercover spy and glamourous actress Bridget Hammersmark to make the necessary arrangements.  Emmanuelle is thinking along the same lines, even if it means destroying her own movie palace.  Meanwhile the Basterds' killing spree continues, and everything builds towards a history re-writing climax.

What's good about all this is the sheer velocity, and the nerve of concocting such a story.  Aside from the two leads, the cast is superb; Melanie Laurent (Shosana), Diane Kruger (Bridget) Michael Fassbender (Archie), are all great, and even Eli Roth (Donny) is ok. There are neat cameos from Rod Taylor and a virtually unrecognisable Mike Myers.  Raine's "marking" of the hapless Nazis he comes across is genius.  The script crackles with wonderful scenes and some killer lines.  And the conclusion is quite simply delicious., something close to perfectly orchestrated farce. There are some killer speeches, and, impressively, much of the dialogue is spoken in French or German and in subtitles.  This in itself is really impressive, not something one often sees in "big" films. the downside, as with most Tarantino offerings since "Reservoir Dogs", it's way too long.  QT really needs to make friends with an editor - or rather, annoy his editor to make him or her more brutal.  The entire "Operation Kino" subplot is, frankly, superfluous and its excision would have brought the running time right down.  Having said that the "bar basement scene" is superb, although the "three fingers" thing is so annoying as it could easily be explained away.  Small point though.  The film is divided into "chapters" which is a bit annoying, and it's very much Tarantio's thing.  The biggest problem for me was the music.  The use of a David Bowie track in one scene is completely misjudged and jarring.  And the over-reliance on Ennio Morricone is just boring and possibly just lazy.

Overall, "Inglorious Basterds" is very entertaining, despite its flaws.  It's distinctively contemporary despite its period setting, and unmistakably the work of its director; the camera work, particularly in the first scene featuring the squad, is fantastic.  It is a bit flabby but doesn't significantly lose the viewer's attention at any point.  Its warped take on history is original and strangely fitting.  It boasts some mesmerising performances (excited to see Waltz on board for "Spectre").  Frustratingly, not all of the right characters are killed off - although maybe that's the point.  It's much better than "Django Unchained", which likewise ended up with an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.  Come to think of it, I'd say it's Tarantino's third best film after "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction".  There are a few gruesome moments but if you can stomach them these "Basterds" can be recommended.

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