Saturday, August 29, 2009
Saturday Night At The Movies
Torah! Torah! Torah!
By Dennis Hartley
Care to repeat that anti-Semitic remark?
World War II movies can generally be divided into four distinct categories. There’s the no-nonsense, historically accurate docu-drama (The Longest Day, Battle of the Bulge, Tora! Tora! Tora!). There’s the character-driven, grunt’s-eye-view yarn that is either “based on a true story” or endeavors to retain historical feasibility (Saving Private Ryan, The Big Red One, Hell Is For Heroes). There’s the Alistair MacLean-style action-adventure fantasy; not so believable but maybe keeping at least one toe grounded in reality (Where Eagles Dare, The Dirty Dozen, The Eagle Has Landed). And finally, there’s the “alternate reality” version of Dubya Dubya Two (Castle Keep, The Mysterious Doctor, and, um, The Keep ). Quentin Tarantino’s new war epic, Inglourious Basterds, vacillates somewhere in between action-adventure fantasy and alternate reality.
Sharing scant more than a title with the, erm, more correctly spelled 1978 original (which was itself a bit of a knockoff of The Dirty Dozen) Inglourious Basterds is ultimately less concerned with WW2 than it is with giving the audience a Chuck Workman on acid montage of 20th century cinema, “101”. It’s not like we haven’t come to expect the cinematic mash-up/movie geek parlor game shtick in Tarantino’s films, but he may well have outdone himself in this outing, referencing everything from the Arnold Fanck/Leni Riefenstahl mountain movies (!) to Al Pacino’s final stand in Brian DePalma’s Scarface .
Tarantino wastes no time reminding us of his particular obsession with Sergio Leone right out of the starting gate (aka “Chapter 1” in Tarantinospeak), with a prelude cut straight out of Once Upon a Time in the Westand pasted into “Nazi-occupied France”. Remember Henry Fonda’s memorably execrable villain in that film? He appears to have a soul mate in SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a disarmingly erudite sociopath who has been assigned the task of methodically combing France to round up and eliminate Jews who might be hiding out in the countryside. Landa is very good at his “job”, which has earned him the nickname of “The Jew Hunter” (charming, no?). After setting you up with an antagonist that you know you are going to love to hate (especially after his introductory scene) Tarantino serves up some heroes that you are going to hate to love (I’m starting to think that boy just lives to make his audiences squirm…okaaay?).
A scenery-chewing Brad Pitt stars as Lieutenant Aldo Raine (whose name, I am assuming, is a clever-clever homage to the late actor Aldo Ray, who was a staple player for many years in war films like Battle Cry, The Naked and the Dead, Men in War and The Green Berets). Lt. Raine has been charged with assembling a Geneva Convention-challenged terror squad comprised of a hand-picked group of Jewish-American G.I.s. Their special assignment: Kill Nazis. Oh, I know what you might be thinking-“Wasn’t that the general goal of the Allied forces in Europe in WW II?” Yes (if I may retort), but as far as I recall, the mission orders normally didn’t include a directive to also (literally) take scalps. And forget about taking prisoners; although they usually purposely leave a lone survivor (not before they etch out a Charlie Manson-esque souvenir in his forehead).
At any rate, the self-anointed “Basterds” have managed to “carve out” quite a name for themselves, and have become the bane of evil Nazis (or as Raine refers to them in his Huckleberry Hound drawl, “GNAT-sees”) everywhere (these are some bad-ass Jews). Even the Fuhrer (Martin Wuttke) fears them; he is particularly chagrined whenever the name of the dreaded “Bear Jew” (Eli Roth) is mentioned. This particular team member (known to fellow Basterds as Sgt. Donny Donowitz) has earned his nickname from his swarthy, hulking appearance and a preference for dispatching Nazis utilizing a baseball bat (move over, Sandy Koufax). These happy Jews, this band of bubelehs have even enlisted a Nazi-hating German defector (Til Schweiger) who fits right in (he’s a psycho!).
Now, don’t despair-this outing is not strictly a Braunschweiger fest. No Tarantino film (at least from Jackie Brown onward) would be complete without an ass-kicking heroine. Shosanna Dreyfus (played with smoldering intensity by Melanie Laurent) is a French Jew with a personal score to settle with one of the main characters (yes, it does bring The Bride in Kill Bill to mind). She’s a clandestine resistance fighter (a la Melville’s Army of Shadows) who has covered up her Jewish heritage by changing her name and “hiding in plain sight” as the proprietress of a popular movie house (which of course conveniently affords Tarantino the opportunity to REALLY pile on the movie homage-and create the ultimate dream girl for film geeks like me). Her story eventually converges with the Basterds (and her quarry), which culminates in an audacious, grand guignol-fueled finale.
Love him or hate him, there are two aspects of filmmaking that Tarantino has inarguably proven to have a golden ear and an eagle eye for: crackling dialogue and spot-on casting. As usual, every actor seems to have been born to play his or her respective part in this film, especially Waltz (is there a more appropriate name for an Austrian actor?). Repellent as his character is, there is a twinkling, pure joy of performance bursting just beneath the grease paint that is exhilarating to watch. Pitt, who actually doesn’t get as much screen time as the pre-release hype and movie trailers may have led you to believe, seems to be having the time of his life. Diane Kruger is excellent as a German movie star who is feeding intelligence to the Allies. A heavily made-up Mike Myers can be seen as a British general (the type of supporting character “back at HQ” that you could picture Anthony Quayle, Jack Hawkins or Trevor Howard playing back in the day). As you might expect, there are cameos a-plenty, including Rod Taylor (as Winston Churchill) and Bo Svenson (a veteran from the original film who you’ll miss if you blink). Don’t strain your eyes trying to spot the cameos by QT stalwarts Harvey Keitel and Samuel L. Jackson; they are heard, but not seen. Tarantino appears as a dead German soldier who is shown being scalped (which undoubtedly fulfills the fantasies of some of his detractors).
One aspect that makes this film an anomaly in the QT oeuvre is the fact that much of the dialogue is spoken in-language by the French and German actors. It’s quite a testament to the director’s formidable writing skills that after the first few scenes, you don’t really notice that some characters will frequently switch idioms (especially the amazing Waltz, who proves fluency in German, French, Italian and English). Even when subtitled, the words veritably sing and dance with Tarantino’s unmistakable, idiosyncratic pentameter.
In the context of purely visual storytelling, I think that Inglourious Basterds signals the director’s most assured, mature and resplendent work to date (beautifully lensed throughout by Robert Richardson, who was the DP on both Kill Bill films and previously a veteran of 11 Oliver Stone collaborations). This is particularly evident in the film’s opening scene, which immediately draws you in with an eye-filling, gorgeously expansive exterior shot of the French countryside. The prelude to the film’s finale is arguably THE visual highlight of any QT film to date. In a possible homage to Joan Crawford’s Vienna (whose name is derived from the French word for “life”) donning her rose red blouse for the final showdown with her black-clad nemesis in Nicholas Ray’s deliriously lurid revenge western Johnny Guitar, Shosanna (whose name derives from the Hebrew word for “rose”) dons her vividly Technicolor red dress as she prepares for the showdown with her black-clad nemesis, scored with David Bowie’s “Putting Out Fire” (originally used as the theme for Paul Schrader’s 1982 version of Cat People). It’s a ballsy move by Tarantino, but not unlike his similarly brash gamble of doing a wholesale lift of the theme song from Across 110th Street for Jackie Brown’s opening credits, I’ll be damned if it ain’t the perfect choice (maybe he figured it would have been pushing his luck to also “borrow” the “harmonica man” theme from Once Upon a Time in the West?).
Finally, I wanted to share a thought or two about the violence, which is de rigueur for any Tarantino film, and which invariably provides the catalyst for discord in any conversation between QT disciples and QT detractors. Yes, scalping is an abhorrent, gruesome thing to watch. There are stabbings, shootings, and deaths by strangulation and bludgeoning. This is not Pinocchio . Yet, if you were to add up all of this simulated mayhem in actual screen time, I’m guesstimating that it wouldn’t be much more than 10 minutes (out of a 153 minute total running time). With the possible exception of Kill Bill - Volume One (an over-the-top affair in the bloodletting department by anyone’s standards) I think that the knee-jerk tendency is to perceive a higher ratio of violence in Tarantino’s films than actually exists. In fact, do you want to know which scene has the most white-knuckled, edge-of-your seat, heart-pounding suspense in this film? A fucking game of charades. Charades. I won’t spoil it for you; just know that wherever Alfred Hitchcock is, he’s probably looking down on QT with a nod and a wink…from one inglourious basterd to another.
Dennis Hartley 8/29/2009 06:00:00 PM