Saturday, November 14, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (***1/2)

Do you have a member of your extended family, a spoilt nephew perhaps, or a cocky uncle, who is incredibly annoying? He will not listen to anyone, and will blatantly disregard all norms. And most frustrating of all, he will - again and again - come through with flying colors in everything he does. The prodigiously talented insufferable. Quentin Tarantino belongs in that company.

'Inglourious Basterds', the title of the latest from Tarantino, refers to a group of American men brought together to fight back, with full militant vendetta, against the Nazi assault during WWII. This story intercuts with that of the opportunity presented to a young Jewish girl to exact revenge for the death of her family at the hands of German troops led by an unreasonably devious Nazi colonel.

The movie is many things, but to me, the one thing it seemed more than anything else was - indulgent. From the deliberately misspelt title, (I understand the film borrows only the most basic premise from the late seventies italian movie of the same name), to the mix-and-match opening credits (half in technicolor bright yellow 70's font, the rest in regular font), to characters who talk and talk and talk (in Tarantino-speak, of course), to the casual disregard for historical accuracy, it could have been terribly labored.  How indulgent you ask? The last words uttered in the movie are, "I think this might be my masterpiece". Really, Mr Tarantino? Imagine how overwrought this film, clearly a pet project, could have become. But darned if Tarantino does not make it all work. Not just make it work, but take off with giddy delight. This is a movie that does not have a minute that is not interesting

The movie is essentially a putting together of six to seven precisely structured (and fully realized) episodes that more or less tell a full story. I suspect Tarantino shot a much longer version, but had to slash off large portions for a shorter theatrical run time. [The DVD release of the movie may tell if this the case. It would not be the first time; Kill Bill - Volumes I and II, released separately in cinemas, were originally shot as a single movie]. Tarantino is as good if not a better writer than a director; nobody does dialog like him. In this film he demonstrates a particular proficiency for structuring cat and mouse scenes of unbearable tension. From the first scene, a charged, mostly verbal exchange between the Nazi colonel and a French farmer who may be hiding a secret, the movie crackles. There are scenes of particular (and sadistic) wit that follow, which show Tarantino using every trick in the book, but with such intelligent structuring, that it all comes off new. He confounds expectations beautifully; there are many developments that occur in the latter half of the movie that break cardinal rules of the film book. I would offer specific details, but do not want to give away critical plot elements. There is, in particular, a scene in a tavern late in the movie that is so smartly written, tightly constructed, and well played out, that this episode alone would make a memorable short film worthy of the price of admission.

Much has been made of the character of the acid-sharp Nazi leader, Colonel Handa. I will only add that by now, thousands of films have provided us with hundreds of legendary villains, and it takes skill to present a bad guy who is unlike anything we have seen before. Christoph Waltz, who plays this character with an impossible balance of grace and evil, has an assured lock on a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Melanie Laurent, who plays the lead female character in the movie has a face meant for cinema; Tarantino fetishizes this face with many generous close ups - for good reason. I was transfixed by her face to the point of distraction in her scenes. I am surprised that much has not been made of Brad Pitt's performance. I suspect his job was to bring the masses in, who will be surprised to find that he is not in every scene of the film. This is a true ensemble film, with memorable work by dozens of actors. But even then, Pitt does well here with lifting his role out of caricature into a believable character; I fully bought his southern accent (what is the story with the scar that runs along his neck in the film?). On the issue of accents, this is truly a European movie (made with American financing), where key plot points are built around accents. And here is the miracle: Tarantino (and Pitt?) were able to bring in millions to the cinemas to watch this movie that turns out to have sub-titles through more than half its running length. I am all for destroying the aversion to movie subtitles for good and all. And kudos to 'Basterds' for tricking the movie-going masses wholesale into seeing a subtitled film.

I also liked the fact that this is a movie about movies. The lead female character owns a cinema house in Paris. Characters talk about films often and there are many cinematic references. The climax is structured around events that transpire during the screening of a pro-Nazi film in Paris. There are critical events that transpire in the projectionist's room of the theatre. All of which allow Tarantino to indulge in his obsessive love for the cinema and to pay homages. There is a nice little tip of the hat to Chaplin's 'The Great Dictator'. For the movie lover, I am sure there are endless references to discover upon repeat viewing.

The film is cleanly violent. While this did not bother me, what I did not appreciate was far too many shoot-em-ups - the kind that popped up suddenly and pretty much decimated everyone on the screen. These scenes pulled me out of the film due to acts that seemed dissociated from the flow of the story. But this is a minor quibble. Before going to see it, I had poor expectations for 'Inglourious Basterds', because the reviews had been polarizing. And I was fully ready to dislike it based on Tarantino's more recent contributions to popular culture. Imagine then the pain it causes me to say that this movie squeezed out my admiration for this director once again. To grant him, yet another time, the elusive 'g' label. Yes, this movie is genius.


  1. Yazdi, Did I watch the same movie you did? It was good, but genius - I am not quite sure.


  2. Naveed, upon first watch, I would not have called it genius either. But this was one of those movies that stayed with me long afterward. The sort that grows steadily in esteem the more you think about it. In my books now, it may be one of the best of the year.

  3. OMG - this may be my fave Tarantino yet and I LOVE KB 1 and 2...This film was like the perfect 3 course meal, the first third a perfect size appetizer, full of flavor and leaving you with just enough anticipation of what's to come for the main meal; just enough but not too much. An entree size middle which I just didn't want to end for all it's tasty witty and indulgent dialogue and just when i thought it couldn't get any better, a flavor bomb of a dessert as it took you to the finish line leaving you feeling like you had eaten the best meal of your life...aaaahhhhh QT does it yet again and no room for coffee :)

  4. Great review Yazdi. For me the most memorable aspect of the movie was the tension. Created almost entirely through dialogue, the film quite literally had me reaching for my blood pressure pills just to endure some of the scenes.

    Some of the more subtle (or not so subtle) indulgences were lost on a more causal movie goer such as myself. However, it was evident from start to finish that Tarantino understands his craft perfectly. His expert ability to lead one toward a seemingly obvious conclusion and then turn the situation on its head, while remaining absolutely plausible, has no equal among modern filmmakers. I should note that "plausible" is a term I use loosely - I have to acknowledge that such things make sense only in a world created by Tarantino.

    A beautifully made film and one of my favorites of the year. A surefire frontrunner for Best Foreign Language category at this years Oscars... ;)

  5. Joe and Rashmi - You guys should become reviewers, your comments are astute!

  6. Rashmi - your analogy is good. Using food of course :) Funny, the movie did not quite blow me away while I was watching it. But is grew steadfastly in esteem upon thinking of it more and more in the ensuing days. And yes, it now ranks in my mind almost as high as Kill Bill which I think is Tarantino's best yet.

  7. Joe - I agree with you. When it comes to understanding film, Tarantino right now has no peers. One of the things that made me respect the movie, is how he has toyed with conventions and systematically broken every one of them. A major character dies unexpectedly half an hour before the end of the movie! The hero (Pitt) is completely left out of the main action at the end of the film! This sort of thing can ruin a movie, but somehow the whole thing is held together. I believe that if Tarantino had released this as a miniseries on television, say on HBO, in one-hour installments (the episodic structure of the movie would be perfect for it), this would be regarded as one of the best on television ever. An instant classic, like the Sopranos. It has an assured place on the ten movies to be selected for Best Film Oscars this year.