A Second INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS Review
[Our thanks to the lovely and talented Travis Stevens for the following.]
Blind dates, restaurant reviews, follow up albums and movie premieres all set you up. Your brain starts firing the neurons, your mouth starts watering and soon you are building out SIMs style fantasies of what this “thing” will be. You can almost taste it! And then the big day comes…and low and behold once you experience the reality of it…it seldom matches up. Expectations become disappointment. Like some sort of emotional GoBot.
Basterds is not a bad film. But it certainly isn’t the film I wanted to see.
Having never seen the original “Inglorious Bastards” I wasn’t bothered that Tarantino’s remake has nothing to do with that film (although some people were). The man’s art is all about using other films as a jumping off point into territories all his own. In some ways he is like a DJ, stealing a beat or a bass line, adding a vocal track and mashing it up in a unique and exciting new way. I’m fine with that.
What did bother me as I watched the very first public screening in Cannes was that this was not a movie about a small group of soldiers (the “Basterds”) under the command of Lt. Aldo Raines (Brad Pitt chomping so hard I was surprised he didn’t have a cigar) sent behind enemy lines to kill Nazis. Wait, WHAT? That was the movie I wanted to see; Tarantino’s version of “The Big Red One”…his version of the “men on a mission” films he cited as his inspiration. I wanted to spend time with this group of men as they snuck around occupied France, hiding out in farmhouse barns, setting booby-traps and ambushes, making shaky alliances with the French resistance and maybe even losing a man or two (“Merde!”) who jumps on a kraut potato masher to save the group. And most of all I wanted to watch this group kick ass for 90 minutes. Or in QT’s case, 180+ minutes.
Instead the title characters are limited to cameos within their own film. I believe they appear as a group no more than 4 times. We first meet Lt. Raines around 15-20 minutes into the film as he informs the group of scrawny young men what he expects of them (a scene the trailer wisely plays out). Brad Pitt plays Lt. Raines with a “Kalifornia” style over the top performance that works. Raines is a guy who knows the psychological damage this group of basterds is going to do will far surpass the physical damage they are capable of…and so he creates a larger than life persona to help spread the myth. And it is hilarious to watch.
We leave the scene and the next time we see the Basterds (10 minutes later maybe?) they are engaged in an ambush mop-up, and this introduction is a whole sequence spent building up the reveal of Eli Roth’s “the Bear Jew” character, Donny Donowitz. It is an awesome and effective scene. There is also a hilarious flashback showing how they recruited psycho German soldier Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger who just quietly owns every shot he’s in). The scene ends with the group insuring their reputation will continue to spread throughout the German ranks. It is bloody and vicious and felt like it would finally kick off the movie I was expecting. It didn’t show us much ass-kicking, but it certainly cemented the idea that this group was capable of it.
But then we leave the group. And we don’t pick them up for another 30 minutes or so.
You see Inglourious Basterds is not really a movie about a bunch of Jewish American soldiers kicking Nazi ass behind enemy lines. It is really the story of Shosanna Dreyfus (a gorgeous and tough Melanie Laurent), a survivor of a bloody massacre who now runs a cinema under an assumed name and due to an unwanted crush, finds an opportunity to get revenge and at the same time end the war. Every major event in the movie is tied to her story.
And there in lies my disappointment.
Shosanna’s story is wonderful. Tarantino creates another badass female heroine who takes no shit, outthinks and out moves the men around her and he gives her a triumphant and tragic end. Throughout the film his cinematic technique continues to evolve (while still showcasing his uncanny ability to build tension in a scene…even if it is just 4 people sitting at a table talking) and the performances are great across the board—most notably Cannes award winner Christoph Waltz’s career making turn as Nazi officer Hans Landa. Waltz has so much fun slamming the gears between psycho and charming, class and cruelty that you’d swear he was in a Transporter film.
But despite these strengths, her story isn’t a “men on a mission” film. This isn’t a gender issue either. A personal revenge story is just a different beast than a men on a mission film. Plain and simple.
As the different storylines become entwined we end up with a very effective caper film—with three different groups trying to maneuver themselves into the best position to come out on top. We also get another foot fetish moment; although this one is integral to the story (I wonder if QT had an early sexual experience with a lusty babysitter who read him Cinderella?) and we get a “What if…” take on history that is audacious, even if it completely undermines the emotional weight of what has lead up to it (which is why in comics, those stories always reset to the existing continuity). Tarantino has even managed to create an entire film where the characters feel like they live in the film’s world, and not in “Tarantino’s World” that his previous films have taken place in. In fact I’m shocked that in a WWII film nobody is smoking Red Apple cigarettes.
But all of these separate elements end up working better on their own, than as a whole.
There are amazing characters who are each given equal screen time in well constructed scenes….but what we crave is to follow one group, the Basterds as they encounter all these other characters. The running time didn’t bother me, nor did the lack of action (hell Reservoir Dogs never showed the bank robbery but you certainly felt it. And Basterds does have a hell of a climax and tension throughout), but I think unless he and his editor find a way to refocus the movie on the Basterds themselves (or Universal/TWC change the marketing completely), the movie will be another example of disappointment triumphing expectations. Instead of “Triumph of the Kills” we’ll get “Band of Why Bother”.
Which will suck. Because this is a filmmaker entering exciting new territory.
Review by Travis Stevens