It's funny... I frequently attend festivals, and I publish my reviews from those festivals, and I ask you to trust me that my reaction to those films aren't colored by where or how I see them. And yet, here I am at the end of July, and after seeing "Thirst," "Anti-Christ," and now "Inglourious Basterds", I'm going to have to dismiss outright all of the buzz from this year's Cannes festival, because it seems to me that those early responses have next to nothing to do with my own reaction to those films.
In particular, Quentin Tarantino's newest film really took it in the face this year. I'm guessing part of it was simply the urge that seems to exist in many people to take Quentin down, no matter what. Ever since he was "annointed" with "Pulp Fiction," every single film he's released has been an opportunity for people to declare that he is no longer relevant, or that his voice has been dulled, or that it's just the same old thing again and again. I politely disagree on a nearly molecular level. I think there are very few filmmakers with a voice as innate as Quentin's, and I am perfectly happy to sit through an "inconsequential" movie as fun as "Death Proof" or an "homage mix tape" as ridiculously entertaining as "Kill Bill." Personally, my favorite of his films is "Jackie Brown," and I think I can pinpoint why that is. It's a movie about people, and not a movie about other movies. Do I mind that he's a shameless magpie? Absolutely not. You can find my "Kill Bill" or "Grindhouse" reviews over at Ain't It Cool, and I still feel the same way about both films, but "Jackie" hits me on a deeper level. I adore those people, and I could spend time with them, even away from that particular situation. I just plain enjoy every element of that movie, every performance, every shot, every exchange of dialogue.
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When the "Inglourious Basterds" script leaked last year, I read bits and pieces of it, but at this point, Quentin works at such a deliberate pace that I decided to hold off and not read it before seeing the movie. And, man, I'm glad I made that choice, because as I understand it, there were some pretty major changes from script to screen, and if I'd just been sitting there cataloguing what was different, I don't think I would have enjoyed the experience quite as much.
And let's be clear... I love this movie. In an age when everyone rushes to remake old movies and old TV shows and comic books and toys and whatever, Quentin decided to remake World War II.
And this time? It ends right.
I think some people may have taken the title too literally, and as a result, there's some dissatisfaction that we don't see enough of the titular Basterds in the film. I would argue that this whole movie is filled with self-serving bastards, ruthless people who will stop at nothing to accomplish what they want, and that both of the major storylines actually tie into the title, thematically speaking. The film starts with a riveting sequence at a dairy farm in France, where Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) shows up on a mission. He's known as "the Jew Hunter," and he's searching for the Dreyfus family, who vanished into thin air. When he finds them, the results leave Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) alive, alone, afraid... and very, very angry.
The second chapter of the film introduces us to Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and his special squadron of Jewish soldiers, ready to parachute in behind enemy lines. Aldo explains their mission in one of the film's most entertaining bits of dialogue. They are tasked with only one goal: killing Nazis. They aren't really a strategic weapon... more like a psychological one. Their methods are brutal, and their purpose is pure terror. They plan to destabilize the Nazi regime by scaring all Hell out of the rank and file. And just as soon as Raine finishes outlining their plan, we find ourselves in the office of the Fuhrer himself, where we learn that the Basterds are indeed accomplishing their goal. By this point, even Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke) himself has heard of them.
We definitely see the Basterds in action in the field, but we also spend a significant amount of time with Shosanna, who has resurfaced four years after the first scene, now the owner of a cinema in Paris, where she is determined to wait out the rest of the war, surrounded by film. It's a good plan until she meets Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), a young German soldier who loves movies and who finds himself smitten with her. He's a hero, having killed over 300 men from a sniper's eagle nest during a three-day assault on a town where he was the only German soldier left. And his heroism brought him to the attention of Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), the Third Reich's Minister of Propaganda. Goebbels saw Zoller as a symbol that common soldiers could rally around, and so he decided to make a film about Zoller's exploits, starring Zoller as himself. Very Audie Murphy. Now that the film is finished, there's a major premiere planned, and Zoller, desperate to impress Shosanna, wants to hold it at her theater.
That premiere becomes the focal point of the energies of both Shosanna and her lover Marcel (Jacky Ido), as well as the Basterds, who pick up an OSS officer, Lt. Archie Hickox (Michael Fassbender), who is determined to help them destroy the theater during the premiere. Shosanna has the same goal, and she seems more than willing to burn down this place that is so obviously dear to her if it means she can cut the head off the Nazi party. Most of the movie is dedicated to gradually bringing these two storylines together at that fateful premiere, and that slow burn pays off in some of the most inspired and emotionally satisfying material of Tarantino's whole career.
In fact, I find it hard to describe quite what I felt at the climax of the film. I won't tell you what happens, but I'll tell you that the imagery that unspooled pulled a primal reaction out of me, a genuine bloodlust I didn't know I possessed. Part of it is because of the situation, but part of it is that Tarantino has put together one of his most eclectic and interesting ensemble casts ever.
Brad Pitt seems to relish each and every line of dialogue he has, like each one is a perfect piece of steak he can't wait to eat. I really don't get people who think Pitt is anything less than the most eccentric leading man working right now. He looks like a matinee idol from the golden age of Hollywood, but his heart is pure '70s character actor, and he makes Aldo a focused and fascinating angel of vengeance. The Basterds themselves are made up the last actors in the world most people would have used to fill out a WWII film. Samm Levine, Paul Rust, Omar Doom, and B.J. Novak are all guys who look like anything but the typical action heroes, and that seems to be the point. These guys aren't larger than life because of how they look... it's what they do.
A few of them in particular become near-mythic figures. One is Hugo Stiglitz, played by Til Schweiger, a former German soldier who started killing his own officers out of disgust for what the Nazi party was doing. The other is Sgt. Donny Donowitz, played by director Eli Roth, known to the German soldiers as "The Bear Jew," infamous for beating his victims to death with a baseball bat. I assume some people will never judge Roth's performance fairly, taking whatever baggage they have about the "Hostel" films into the film with them. Screw that. Roth does very, very good work here, and I'd love to see more directors use him based on how good he is.
I've seen Melanie Laurent in a few films, but until now, I had no idea what she was capable of. She's wonderful, delivering a textured, rich performance full of anger and pain. Even better, Christoph Waltz's work as Landa, the Jew Hunter, is staggeringly good. Alternately charming and terrifying, he is the ultimate opportunist, a disturbing character who is compulsively watchable. Daniel Bruhl, so good in "Goodbye Lenin," comes of age with his work here as Zoller. Tarantino's Hitler and Goebbels are grotesque parodies, appropriately exaggerated, and overall, the entire cast seems to be made up of the exact right faces, the exact right people.
Robert Richardson's photography is lush and gorgeous, and Sally Menke's got this final release cut of the film fine-tuned so that it hums along with a genial malevolence. I love the use of the Morricone music throughout the film, with a few notable exceptions. As much as I sort of rolled my eyes when I heard that the David Bowie song from "Cat People" was going to be used in the film, it's perfect where and how he uses it. More than anything, what I love about the movie is that, for the first time since "Jackie Brown," Quentin has made a movie about people, a movie about characters and a particular situation, and not a movie about other movies. And considering how little of this is stitched together from moments or ideas from other films, it's sort of amazing how the movie ultimately seems to be about how cinema itself can be a weapon, a powerful tool for revenge.
There are some images towards the end of the film that I've been replaying in my head, over and over, since I saw the movie on Saturday night. I plan to see it again the second I can, and I'm fairly sure I'll see it several times during its theatrical run. This is a movie that should be seen with a crowd, a movie you should see in the very best theater you can find playing it. This is a movie that once again restores my faith in one of my favorite working directors, and one that I think should silence any of his detractors who actually watch the film instead of just prejudging it. "Inglourious Basterds" isn't what I expected when I sat down to watch.
Instead, it's so much more.
"Inglourious Basterds" opens nationwide on Aug. 21.
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