Friday, August 21, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (2009) review

Where in the world does one begin with Mr. Tarantino's new opus? Let me say first, that he's got a winner on his hands here, hands-down, and that Inglourious Basterds is going to woo even the hardest hearted Tarantino hater, it's that good, that funny.

In 1983, I had the pleasure to see the original "Inglorious Bastards" (1978), directed by the great Italian action director, Enzo Castellari on cable television. It became a kind of legendary movie for me and my friends over the years, and like Tarantino and his crew, we used the short-hand of "Inglorious" when were referred to it. The reason it became a kind of legend to us has a lot to do with the availability of movies almost thirty years ago: there was literally no other way to see this film over the years, and occasionally, I would see an article or a blurb about it, even meeting others who had seen it, but no dice, it eluded me on home video for over two decades.

Finally, belatedly, the word was out that Tarantino was directing his "homage" to the movie and many other war films and the original was re-released onto DVD in 2008 by Severin-Films.
How times change. Now you can find the most obscure movies ever lensed, and easily, even cheaply. I assume Tarantino somehow saw the original "Inglorious" either the same way (TV), or through his job with Roger Avary (now in deep doo-doo don't even want to know) at that legendary video store he was once a mouthy but knowledgeable clerk at. It must have been one hell of a well-stocked video store, that's all I'm saying. The critics are already weighing-in that this is a tale of revenge, and it is, but that's if you take the surface-level of the film with the utmost seriousness which is losing the entire point with his movies. Yes, Tarantino goes to incredible pains to create a convincing cinematic reality, and yes, this is based on Castellari's original tale in some very basic areas (like the title, and the fact that it takes place in occupied France during WWII), but that's about where it ends; this is about movie reality and the homage once again. You either like the director's writing and directing style, or you don't, and I'm with the former.

Recall that Castellari's original 1970s "rip-off" of The Dirty Dozen (1968) is really more an homage to Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969), a story about another group of scoundrels that you end up at least respecting by the end of the film because they do something good to redeem themselves. To cut it short, Inglourious Basterds isn't even a revenge film or a revenge fantasy at all as some critics have written. It's more and less than that because it's not really about WWII directly but about the cinema before, during, and after the war, the cinema surrounding the rise of National Socialism and its demise, and the movies made about it after-the-fact. Once again, this is a movie about movies, so just enjoy the ride.

If you really wanted to reduce a good part of the movie itself to its fundamentals, you could equate it with someone talking about WWII cinema and the nature of the movie business in the 20th century, which when referring to Hollywood means that the subject of Jews in the business is inevitably going to come up (and not necessarily in a negative-light). It's not a political film, but it does have some interesting political implications to it; one way of describing it is that it's WWII through the movies, even being "won" by the end through cinema, film itself, quite literally, as part of the plotline. Fortunately, that's not giving away too much. As with most Tarantino movies, we get the famous chaptering. The very first scene is very reminiscent of the style of Sergio Leone and many parts of the film could be compared to a Spaghetti Western with faces serving as landscapes, and landscapes serving as faces; and as you might expect, many of the characters are "stock" ones grabbed from other WWII films. There are even occasional nods to the great war movies of Sam Fuller.

But then, we get a lot of references to the cinema of the 1930s--mostly German and French, a little American--like the references to Leni Riefenstahl, who as a Teutonic heartthrob of their "mountain films" wowed German audiences and had a certain sex appeal among the Nazi cadre. Riefenstahl had other talents that would flourish under National Socialism. She later went on to direct the most well known Nazi propaganda film, "Triumph of the Will" (1935) and "Olympiad" (1937). But then, we also hear about G.W. Pabst ("Pandora's Box" with the sultry Louise Brooks), and even Henri-Georges Clouzot's "Le Corbeau" (1943). This is all going to be over the heads of most moviegoers when they go to see Tarantino's new work, but it adds to the experience and cinematic richness nonetheless.

And then there is the violence: it's not nearly as graphic as many reviewers are painting it, and it's not present in much of the film. I'm sure some Jewish members of any given audience watching this movie might view it as a revenge story of some sort, and to some extent it is, but so is Death Wish with Charles Bronson. Everything is a prop in Inglourious Basterds, used by Tarantino to drape his dialog and vignettes on. I think that's about as deep as Tarantino wanted to get into that aspect of his tale, a story that could be seen as autobiographical in some strange way. There's not much that I can say that's bad here; from the production design that's right out of Tinto Brass's "Salon Kitty" (1976), to the musical-stings by Ennio Morricone copped from several Italian classics of the 1970s, and even to the use of David Bowie's "Putting Out Fire With Gasoline," this is about style, and little else. There's nothing wrong with that.

There is gore (a couple scalping scenes are probably referencing William Lustig's "Maniac," not even a war movie), there is violence, and you could be forgiven for thinking that Tarantino decided to place Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs in the midst of WWII, but it's all very deadpan, very funny material. The comic timing itself is pretty impressive and the dialog is up to the writer's normal standards. Perhaps what's most impressive is that Quentin Tarantino has forced American audiences to sit through a roughly 3 hour motion picture where 3/4's of it is subtitled, no mean feat. I predict a hit here. There is no real political message to Inglourious Basterds anymore than there was in a lot of the WWII genre, and if there was, it was unintentional and purely a product of the times they were made in. With the ousting of an "ugly American" president in George W. Bush, there is at least for this brief moment that one thematic-thread that runs through most of the postwar WWII genre: the mutual-ties between the former allies and their cultures, their people. Even Star Wars reads like a retelling of WWII, but Inglourious Basterds could read like a retelling of the movie industry after it.
So far, Europe has been "liberated," conquered at Cannes.

In a telling scene with comedian Michael Myers and a character actor playing Winston Churchill, the British high command wants a briefing on German cinema under the Nazis from one of their officers. The look is right out of the films of Michael Powell and even Lindsay Anderson. The Myers character brings-up the fact that "Goebbels has gotten the Jews under control" in their motion picture industry. Churchill chimes-in: "We need to find-out how they did it." An enigmatic statement if ever there was one, but a funny one; Inglourious Bastereds is a knuckleheaded flick for cineastes, a must see, and almost as funny as 1984's "
Top Secret."

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