'Inglourious Basterds': If You Survive the Boring Parts of Quentin Tarantino's New Film, It's Actually Really Good
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When I heard Quentin Tarantino was making a Dirty Dozen-like action film set in WWII, I groaned in spirit. With all the amazing eras and dazzling historical figures and slaughterhouse horrors not yet represented in cinema, we're going to visit the Third Reich again? Really? Tarantino-ized Nazis? As they used to say in the old WWII gas-rationing ads, Is This Trip Necessary?
But it turns out to be a pretty interesting film.
That is, if you're already genuinely interested in film, your interest will sustain you during the long, slow, boring, unmoving-camera parts in the middle. If you're not really interested in film, i.e., its history and formal aspects and so on, I'm not sure what you'll think about when the tough-slogging sequences get underway. Seriously, there's a tavern scene that runs so long you begin to feel a slight edge of panic, as if you're in a Twilight Zone episode and are condemned to die in the theater watching uniformed Nazis eternally bantering over drinks at small tables.
There's a relentlessly repeated scenario in the film: an urbane Nazi observes all the social niceties while interrogating an anxious potential victim/enemy of the Reich. You wait for the revelation of the iron fist beneath the velvet glove. If you don't think that's a promising scenario, this ain't the movie for you, because you're going to see it enacted, with innumerable variations, about ten times.
I don't mean to sound dismissive, because for people who really like film, there's no easy way to dismiss Tarantino. He's too good. I say that with some uneasiness, but it's true; technically, stylistically, Tarantino and the creative teams he assembles, they can kick almost anybody's ass. Beautiful, beautiful work. The shot compositions in the first sequence are so lovely, so effective, I felt the tears come to my eyes.
And I know, smart boy, Sergio Leone gets a lot of credit for those compositions. But really, that Tarantino's-just-a-thief charge has always been silly. The question—in most arts and above all in filmmaking—isn't whether or not you're stealing, because of course you are. The question is, what can you do with what you've stolen, and as erratic as Tarantino is, by now he's proven he can make excellent, highly inventive use of stolen goods.
Supposedly the project started as a neo-spaghetti Western, and there's plenty of trace evidence left. The most publicized aspect of the film involves Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) leading his band of "Apaches," vengeful Jewish soldiers ordered to collect literal Nazi scalps, through occupied France.
(Why didn't he go with the real Apaches? Incredible fighters, Geronimo, Cochise, and what a story, whether to cut a deal with the whites or go down to inevitable defeat knifing whites all the way! Now that's a film, and nobody's tried it since that pacifist Jimmy Stewart thing in the ‘50s! Argh, anyway…)
The Nazi-scalping storyline intertwines with other "chapters" involving Jewish girl Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), who's the lone survivor of the opening-sequence massacre, and German film star Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Unger) secretly working for the Allies. Bedeviling them all is SS officer Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), aka "The Jew Hunter," whose humorous, mincing precision and blank-eyed cruelty has every critic in the world hunting for new superlatives to throw at Waltz, an obscure actor who'll now have a big international career.
Tarantino—he can cast, man.
While we're on the topic of actors and performances, for some reason Denis Menochet, who plays Perrier LaPedite, the French farmer who stoically "hosts" Col. Landa in the tense opening sequence, isn't getting his share of the accolades, but he's every bit as great as Waltz. Brad Pitt's also good, though he's getting slagged badly for his performance as the unflappable kill-happy Tennessean. I think the general complaint might be that, as Raine, Pitt doesn't move his face much, having gone with a Bell's-palsy paralysis of the jaw in his interpretation of the character.