Friday, August 21, 2009
A quick take on Tarantino's 'Basterds'
Disregard the four-star reviews. Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is no masterpiece. By the same token, you'd do equally well to discount reviews that claim the moral high ground, arguing that Tarantino has distorted history in ways that are deeply offensive and perhaps unforgivable.
At no time does Inglourious Basterds make a claim to be anything more than a movie. It even begins with a title card that reads, "Once upon a time," a bow to Tarantino favorite Sergio Leone and a clue that what follows shouldn't be taken as literally. I didn't. Even during the movie's revenge-laden finale, I never believed I was watching anything more than a fantasy. Among other things, Tarantino's movies are about the ways in which pop culture can trump history, absorbing its nuances and replacing them with its own assumptions. How else to justify Nazis who sometimes talk like they're in a Tarantino movie?
I'll give you some quick-hit comments, and return to the movie, which I couldn't catch at a preview screening, at a later date:
-- In all, Inglourious Basterds is worth seeing. There's plenty in it that can be appreciated and nothing that need be taken so seriously that you'll want to issue outraged proclamations.
-- As most reviews have noted, German actor Christoph Waltz steals the movie. Waltz plays Col. Hans Landa, a sophisticated SS man who's capable of alarming levels of charm and courtesy, but who has the cunning heart of a killer. His nickname: "The Jew Hunter."
-- As an Army lieutenant in charge of a squad of Jewish soldiers -- the Basterds of the title -- Brad Pitt probably works a southern accent a little too hard.
-- The violence may be kept to a minimum (for a Tarantino movie) but some of it is graphic enough to make you wince; i.e., watching German soldiers being scalped or beaten to death by a baseball bat-wielding Jewish soldier. The Basterds are dropped into occupied France for one purpose: killing Nazis and taking their scalps.
-- Tarantino is nothing if not eclectic. The movie is a real shape-shifter. It can look like a World War II movie, a western and even a gangster film. You can exhaust yourself counting references to other movies.
-- The first scene -- in which Col. Landa -- confronts a French farmer who's hiding Jews in his basement is full of dread and tension. It's the best scene in the movie -- not always a good thing, playing your strongest card first, but I don't know that I've seen a better scene in a movie this year.
-- The actor playing Hitler (Martin Wuttke) turns the odious Fuhrer into a cartoonish joke. That probably was intentional, but it didn't work for me. Besides, Mel Brooks already took care of that in The Producers. To complicate matters, I can't forget the way Bruno Ganz portrayed Hitler in The Downfall. Ganz seemed to get it precisely right.
-- A scene in which some of the Basterds pose as German officers to meet with a German actress (Diane Kruger) who's helping the allies has an underlying tension that's gripping and strange.
-- The movie's ending (a self-proclaimed Jewish revenge fantasy) didn't really do it for me. It's difficult to talk about the movie's ending without revealing too much, so I'll wait a decent interval before going into detail.