Saturday, August 29, 2009

Send In The Bastards

When one identifies reasons he or she enjoys seeing movies in the theater, numerous factors typically reach the top of that list. Good film is entertaining, memorable, elicits emotion and tells a story in an interesting way. Further, good films almost always involve characters one could either completely welcome into his/her life or be completely unwilling to do so. But invariably, the character(s) in good film are ones we either love or love to hate.

These factors apply universally and perfectly to the latest in the line of Quentin Tarantino achievements, Inglourious Basterds.

The film has received a thorough round of praise from most film pundits, critics and online observers, so hopefully nothing cited in this space will have any bearing on those who have not yet ventured to the theater to experience this 2.5-hour explosion of World War II themed-flight of fancy. And inasmuch as I'm a strong proponent of home theater viewing of films, this is one that deserves to be viewed in a quasi-auditorium in honor of its final act.

Please note that the following will disclose some facts about the movie that you might want to avoid until after you've seen same. Please also note that this film could, informally, be labeled as the world's first "Jewish Fantasy Revenge Porn" genre piece.


Broadly speaking, this is a World War II film which commences in 1941 France. However, much of it is a character study so the typical shots of legions of German soldiers and of mutilated corpses, brutal combat and the atrocities of the Holocaust are forsworn for far more intimate, small settings. In their place, the study of the various -- and limited number of -- characters provides a good chunk of the pace of the film. And while the bulk of the film could take place in a soundstage much as did Tarantino's first, Reservoir Dogs, this particular film's sets are so vivid and authentic in feel it would be a surprise if any of these sets were not somewhere in the French countryside or in Paris itself.

The "main" character herein is Lt. Aldo Raines (Brad Pitt), a fast-talking part-Apache Southern boy whose penchant for killing Nazis and having his underlings recover Nazi scalps at his behest is only superceded by his penchant for snappy, descriptive dialogue. Despite the fact that Brad Pitt is a media icon and makes as much news for his personal life as his on-screen projects, this movie is made with his persona and his on-screen charm. His performance in this film, without a doubt, seals the deal and puts this way over the top.

Raines leads a group of eight soldiers into France to secretly fight Nazis and/or put the fear of God in them by disfiguring them in a very memorable way. This group is known as the Bastards (both by their superiors and their Nazi counterparts). Essentially, their main function -- in the limited, skewed accuracy of this film's self-defined zeitgeist -- is to search for groups of Nazis, kill all members of each group they encounter but one, and leave said survivor scarred and scared to tell the tale (much like the trail of corpses and lone survivors from Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers," also penned by Tarantino).

The Basterds are a crack group of Jewish-American soldiers who have gained a reputation among the Nazi hunted. There's the "Bear Jew," aka Hugo Stiglitz (portrayed by Til Schweiger), Sgt. Donny Donowitz (portrayed in a rare turn in front of the camera by Eli Roth), Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), Pfc. Smithson Utivich (The Office's B.J. Novak) and Pfc. Omar Ulmer (Omar Doom), among others. These Jewish fighters, as led by Raine, gain notoriety for their ferocious, fear-inspiring, merciless success at killing and mutilating Nazis.

There's more to the story, of course, then simply these soldiers' quest to alter the war's outcome -- one Nazi scalp at a time -- but this wouldn't be a Tarantino film if there weren't. There's the story of Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) and her meticulous dalliance with Nazi war hero Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) to effect a spectacular and memorable conclusion, both to the war and the film. And finally, and most notably, there's the so-called "Jew Hunter," Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). There are numerous other characters herein, including Mike Myers as General Ed Fenech and Diane Kruger as famed German movie star Bridget von Hammersmark, but for the most part, the actors here are relatively unknown and each is, predictably, excellent.

There are three specific components to the film's plot, divided up into five chapters, and the film is relatively bold and brash in its portrayal of the events of World War II. Clearly the Holocaust, specifically the Nazi intention to rid Germany, France and the rest of Europe of Jewish presence, is a significant component to the story. But so too is the notion of revenge, as this aspect of the film commences and concludes the film. And finally, the retelling of the actual facts of World War II are rewritten in an almost cartoon-like way, but in very entertaining, memorable fashion.

Put another way, the three separate stories -- much like Pulp Fiction, Tarantino's greatest Opus, had separate sub-plots that simultaneously intertwined by the film's conclusion -- come together like a tangle of separate highways that culminate in one huge epicenter. The film's conclusion herein is satisfying both in terms of its plot and its style, and as per usual, Tarantino focuses on each frame of film in telling his story.

At times, the film is humorous; actually, it's frequently very humorous. Despite the violence, gore and over-the-top brutality in parts, it's a darkly comic turn for Brad Pitt and a subtle, restrained performance for the so-called Jew Hunter, Col. Hans Landa (again, portrayed by Christoph Waltz). Frankly, inasmuch as Brad Pitt's portrayal of Raine is excellent and completely on point, Waltz's portrayal of Landa is so impressive and so memorable that one could easily say he stole this film. Each time Waltz appears his presence and charm capture the viewer without fail, and, frankly, seemingly without effort. And his ability to portray Tarantino's impeccably-crafted dialogue -- with equal parts of humor, charm, humor, exacting detail and icy-cold analytical, sinister logic for which the Germans, especially the Nazis, are known -- is completely and thoroughly rewarding.

Frankly, I'd be shocked if Waltz fails to capture an Oscar for his performance in this film.

Overall, from the first frame to the appearance of the final credits, this is a meticulously-crafted ode to World War II films in general (although The Dirty Dozen is certainly at the top of that list). However, what I found most entertaining about it was that Tarantino completely side-steps worry vis-a-vis factual accuracy and instead created his own world. The appearance of Hitler, Goebbels, Goering and other members of the Reich's echelon herein is at times silly, if not simply inaccurate, but by the film's conclusion it is clear that the liberties Tarantino took with respect to history are done not out of laziness but sheer entertainment. At some point during the film -- probably less than twenty minutes in -- you're made to understand facts are secondary here, and the only real notion to which Tarantino follows is his adherence to the art of cinema and entertainment. There are two -- among at least a dozen -- scenes (whipped cream and strudel, and Laurent's red lipstick, dress, etc.) -- where Tarantino's camera dotes on his subject in an almost imperceptible way, except the perception of his focus reminds us that facts and dates and history is secondary, and the only real exposited significance from this film, as per usual, is not the destination itself but the journey thereto.

The only real criticism of this film, if any applies, is its overwhelming length. At 153 minutes, it feels heavy. However, especially given that the bulk of modern films barely clock in at 90 minutes, I came to the conclusion that this film is much like a special meal for a holiday or an event as much as most meals are disposable, forgettable and merely performed out of nutritional requirement. This film is a celebration of film, character study, plot and the interspersion of genres, themes and even the music in film (Sergio Leone-spaghetti westerns are invoked in this film's sonic landscape). And in his deliberate misuse of terms and spelling and historical accuracy, I think Tarantino specifically went out of his way to demonstrate the only real requirement a film should fulfill is to be entertaining. This particular film, with its many transgressions in terms of factual errors/mistakes, musical overlapping, and -- in many cases -- downright silliness, is nothing if not entertaining. To wit, the film's title is even misspelled -- intentionally -- and yet the film is engaging, completely memorable, and perhaps Tarantino's best. So whether that suggests it's a great film or not; or whether Tarantino fully worships the world of film or is thumbing his nose at those whose overaching attention to detail precludes said films from actually being worthwhile of viewing, is debatable. Somehow, I think "Nation's Pride" won't be much of a worthwhile viewing, but this film, for sure, is not only a worthwhile film, but will be one that generations will be viewing and studying for years to come.

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