Sunday, August 23, 2009

"That's a bingo!"

I have never been a huge fan of war pictures. I find them very difficult to follow and nigh impossible to keep track of the countless characters, their ranks, their motives, what side they're on, etc. Inglourious Basterds, the latest from love-him-or-hate-him auteur Quentin Tarantino, is a glaring exception. Perhaps because it is not built like a war movie, but instead is modeled like a spaghetti western. Two well-known films by Sergio Leone, in particular - Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly - are clear inspirations for this film. Tarantino has long had a cinematic love affair with Leone - many of his characters, perhaps most notably in Kill Bill, are styled after Leone's larger-than-life, almost godlike characters.

But this is the film of Tarantino's that really tries to be that kind of film. He has said himself that he intended it to be his spaghetti western, but with World War 2 iconography instead of the trappings of the western. The locations are relevant to WW2 but also look very like the decidedly non-western locations that subbed for the traditional western settings.

The ads do this movie a bit of disservice, as there is far more to the story than the eponymous Basterds. Three intertwining stories unfold over five chapters and culminate in a rather gorgeous climax and an ending to World War 2 that you will not recognize. I have no problem with a film rewriting history. This is not a history lesson. We know what really happened. This is a piece of art. You wouldn't look at a painting of something that happened in this film and say "That didn't happen!" In this reality, if these characters existed, the events of the movie are quite plausible.

Kill Bill is probably still my favorite Tarantino film, but I do think Inglourious Basterds is his most layered, sensitive, and accessible film to date. It has all the characteristic violence, but people who tend to be put off by that kind of thing always seem to make exceptions for war films. Of course, this isn't battle violence. The scalpings and what is done to Landa in the end are cringe-in-your-seat gross. It also seems to have much less profanity than Quentin's other films - perhaps because about 2/3 of the dialogue (at the very least, half) is not in English. The period setting might have something to do with this as well.

There are three main characters in this film. Lt. Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt, is probably the most characteristically "Tarantino" character. He reminds me quite a bit of Samuel L. Jackson's character in Pulp Fiction. He talks much the same way (though with obvious dialectic differences) and has a similar kind of toughness. The French-Jewish cinema owner Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent, pictured above) might be compared to The Bride in Kill Bill. She's a survivor and she's tough, but she's also quite vulnerable.

Which brings me to the third main character, a person the likes of which I've never seen in any of Quentin's movies. Actor Christoph Waltz, who plays him, calls Colonel Hans Landa one of the best written characters he's ever seen, not just in movies, but in all of the drama over the centuries - we're talking Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen ... that seems like a bit of a step-out (and I don't mean "bit" sarcastically) even to me. But it's a marvel of a character. People have compared Landa to Hannibal Lecter (the one in Silence of the Lambs, not the hammy later versions - sorry, Sir Hopkins, but you know it's true), and I find that an incredibly good fit. He's a character that you really, really ought not to like, but you just can't HELP it. I also have to observe that, in this movie full of people pretending to be someone they're not, Landa - who doesn't need to lie about who he is - is the biggest, most unknowable enigma of all. Waltz won Best Actor at Cannes for this performance, and if there's a more compelling performance yet to come in a film this year, I haven't heard a peep of buzz about it.

I will say this, though I've recently ranted about critics who start making their [O-word] picks this early. I will be very disappointed if both Christoph Waltz and Mélanie Laurent don't get some award show love this winter. Both of them preferably as leads, because they are support to absolutely no one in this film. Pitt does an excellent job as well, and perhaps people who vote on such things will recognize how much his performance makes the movie work. But I will be personally hurt if both Waltz and Laurent don't get the love they richly deserve for their work in this movie. Hear that, award voters? PERSONALLY HURT! *glares menacingly*

One thing did manage to bug me, though. One of Tarantino's best strengths, along with dialogue and memorable characters, is his choice of music cues, some of which have all kinds of layers and references and almost all of which are plucked from other movies. Two music cues in this film really bugged me, because they were both taken from Kill Bill. It wasn't a huge thing, and I suspect that if Tarantino hadn't put the time limit on himself to get the film finished for Cannes this year, perhaps different choices would have been made. But those two moments took me out of the film for a sec.

Having said that, most of the rest of the music is glorious, and once again I find myself listening to one of Tarantino's soundtracks on a loop. There is a good deal of Ennio Morricone music, which gives the film its spaghetti western vibe, but there are also some (relatively) obscure pieces of period music, including some delightful German and French songs (I particularly love "The Man With the Big Sombrero"). The pièce de résistance, however, is a bit of anachronism from David Bowie - the title song from a 1982 remake of Cat People, "Cat People (Putting Out Fire"). Used much more effectively than in its original context, this music accompanies a scene where Shosanna gets ready for the Nazi premiere taking place at her theater. There are a lot of great music moments in Tarantino's films, but this may be my absolute favorite. ("And I've been putting out fire ... with gasoliiiiiiiiiiine!")

A word (okay, way more than one) about the title, Inglourious Basterds. It might seem upon first viewing that the title "Inglourious Basterds," spelling aside, is a little limiting, as there is far more to the film than the story of Lt. Aldo Raine and his Nazi-killing posse that call themselves "The Basterds." But the more I think about it, I think the title refers not just to the actual Basterds, but to the other major characters in the film. "Basterds" here would not be a derogatory term, at least, not exactly; but war does turn even good people into hardened, cruel, calculating ... well, bastards, you know?

As for the spelling, I think it very fitting for the title of a film that rather audaciously rewrites the entire end of the Second World War to have such a stubbornly inventive misspelling.

Such a wonderful movie, and one that gets even better with each successive viewing and each uncovered layer. C'est magnifique. Ist wunderbar. È eccellente.

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