Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

I deliberately did not read anything about “Inglourious Basterds” and initial impressions were based solely on the trailer. So imagine my surprise when director Quentin Tarantino’s latest is nothing like I expected it to be. While a tad disappointing in some ways, it’s also far better than what I was expecting. I really liked it and think I will like it even more when I see it a second time. High praise from me, as this is one of the very few movies I’ve seen in the theaters this year that I would consider seeing a second time.

I won’t go into specifics so as to not spoil the surprises in store. All I’ll say is I was expecting a movie detailing the experts of a group of men on a dangerous mission, ala “The Guns of Navarone” (1961), “Where Eagles Dare” (1967) or “The Dirty Dozen” (1967). We get that, but it’s not the central part of the film, and for a film titled “Inglourious Basterds”, the title characters do not dominate the film.

Who does dominate the film is Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, who plays Col. Hans Landa, an SS colonel who can be charming, sly, witty, clever, brutal and treacherous in the blink of an eye. It’s a standout performance, and Waltz is sure to be remembered at Oscar time.

Waltz shines in all his scenes, especially in the film’s tense opening sequence when, early in the war, Landa and his men come to a farmhouse in the French countryside looking for Jewish refugees. It’s all dialogue, but written and acted so well that, in its own satisfying way, it’s the best action scene in the film. The way Landa relishes his glass of milk in this scene is unforgettable.

Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), one of the refugees, escapes from Landa and makes her way to Paris. Several years later, she’s operating a cinema in Paris, where she will again unexpectedly cross paths with Landa.

Waltz is so good (deservedly so) and is garnering so much attention, that I hope Brad Pitt isn’t overlooked.

Pitt plays the Basterds’ leader, Lt. Aldo Raine (one of the films many homages) and I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a performance so much. Pitt gives us what has sorely been lacking from movie screens of late, and that’s a real joy of performance. I’m so tired of contemporary actors being so serious all the time, muttering their lines in a sorry attempt to convey importance, and striving ever so hard to get to the “truth” of a character. Yawn.

Of course that’s important, but it also means we’ve missed the joy of actors giving us larger than life performances. Pitt does so here, and thank you very much. I missed the Lt. Aldo Raine character every second he was off screen, and if there should be a sequel, I hope Tarantino gives us more of this character.

The Basterds are on a mission and that mission is simple – to kill Nazis. Raine goes better and asks each men in his squad to deliver 100 Nazi scalps.
A big disappointment in the film is the lack of characterization given to the Basterds. We only get to know a couple of them, with prominence given to “Hostel” director Eli Roth as Sgt. Donowitz. Roth is a simply terrible actor and sinks every scene he’s in.

I also intensely disliked a cameo appearance by Mike Myers as a British general. He wears this stupid grin throughout, as if he’s Austin Powers impersonating a British officer. If Myers wants to be taken seriously, he has to learn to play his roles straight. Fortunately, in that scene we get a cameo from the great Rod Taylor as Winston Churchill. He’s only in the film a few minutes, but if I had known Rod Taylor was in it, I may have gone opening night. I truly appreciate that Tarantino has such a healthy apprecaition of cinema's past.
But such appreciation can be carried too far. I wish that Tarantino would stop raiding his LP and CD collections in compiling scores for his movies. In interviews, Tarantino has said he’s very protective of his films and doesn’t want to turn them over to a composer who may put a completely different spin on his movie. So instead of an original score, we get lots of cues here from the likes of Ennio Morricone and Charles Bernstein, not to mention the head-scratching inclusion of Dimitri Tiomkin’s great “The Green Leaves of Summer” from “The Alamo” (1960).

While I appreciate Tarantino the Film Nut in rescuing great neglected film music, these cues came from films where the directors were likely very appreciative of the extra dimension the composers provided for their films. Would Tarantino’s beloved Sergio Leone be the revered figure he is today without the original scores from Ennio Morricone? Not likely.

There’s not as much action as I thought, and it’s much more dialogue-driven than I expected, but “Inglourious Basterds” is still an absolute winner, despite my small reservations. There was a lot of applause at the Saturday afternoon matinee screening I saw, and it’s been a long time since I heard that. I can’t wait to see it again.

1 comment:

Dees Stribling said...

Sounds like I need to see it.