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Inglourious Basterds

August 18, 2009

Hey, if you happen to see the Most Somethingest Director in the World, tell him this.

Inglourious Basterds, the Look-At-Meee! film title for 2009, trumps and burps and waddles its way onto our screens like an overweight prize-fighter relying on past glories. It does this by looking up the ‘what people said was innovative the last few times’ tag, and dressing it up in different clothes; World War 2 clothes (because that is where the film is notionally set).

Wait, don’t go. You get that I didn’t like this, don’t you? Well, OK, not massively, no, but stick around. Go on, over there, just relax for a minute. There’s a lot of qualifying to be done here, and like most gone-to-seed prize-fighters, a real haymaker winning punch might not be too far away. OK, cool.

There’s not a great deal to be said about the plot, which is more than a little ridiculous and also, in places, somewhat taxing (only the most unquestioning moviegoer will fail to raise their eyebrows at some of the liberties taken here, but we are expected to take this on board as part of the fun). So, let it ride, for a while at least. Essentially, The Basterds are a ‘crack’ squad of Jewish-American soldiers sent to Nazi-occuppied France to spread fear by killing and mutilating German troops. Their brief is heightened at the half-way mark when they are asked to assist an operation to kill the majority of the German High Command in a movie theatre in Paris during a propaganda film premiere. I won’t trouble you with that again. But, we start 3 years earlier (“Once Upon A Time…in Nazi-occuppied France” as the Chapter Title – Tarantino likes these stop-and-think ‘flourishes’ – goes) in 1941, and the evil Colonel Landa ( a splendidly hammy Christoph Waltz), is touring his area of administrative interest, Northern France, hunting out Jews. In a tense and atmospheric scene, he taunts and teases a farmer who is clearly hiding a family of Jews. It’s a superbly staged scene, and the two-hander dynamic is spiritedly played, but Hell’s teeth it goes on. And on. And on. There’s cranking up the tension and there’s overstaying your welcome, you know? Chapter Two (“Inglourious Basterds”) introduces us to Brad Pitt (the leader of the group) and his mission statement about nixing the Nazi foot soldier and creating an aura of fear. This. Goes. On. Too. Long.

When we first see The Basterds (it’s tiring, that, isn’t it?) in proper action, they have all been busy, eradicating a German patrol and are just about to torture all but one of their captives (one will be set free to spread the word). The chosen soldier is asked to point out the location of the next group up the road, or he’ll have his head caved in by the semi-legendary “Bear Jew”. Now, at the same time, for comic effect, because Jews, Hitler and that whole Holocaust thang is essentially crying out for laughs, this scene is intercut with the Führer himself talking to a survivor. The faintly obvious badinage is played as a big joke, and isn’t unfunny, but it swiftly becomes weary and not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, you want them to just get on with it. The arrival of the fabled Bear jew doesn’t help. Heralded by Pitt, we hear him walking up a tunnel. Here he comes, banging his baseball bat against the wall, here he comes.

On his way.

Any minute now. Right with you. Just a bit longer. Right with ya. We’ll come back to him in a minute.

Leaping off to Paris, we meet Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), the owner of the theatre where the propaganda film is to be shown. She happens to be an escapee from Landa’s terrifying scourges, and therefore no easy collaborator. In fact, she has hatched a deadly plan to blow up her theatre when the Germans arrive. Laurent is quite simply the very best thing on show here, shining like Bruce Willis managed in Pulp Fiction, to give the film a proper sense of depth and, dammit, some fizz and élan.

When we leave her and fly to Blighty to pick up Michael Fassbender as a too too posh Brit spy, I began to think we might be on to something. Fassbender is absolutely brilliant, but he is forced to share his first scene with – oh dear – Mike Myers. Being Mike Myers. Tarantino, unfortunately, is determined to move through the gears and – however much you might hope against it – re-invent World War 2 as a screwball comedy. It is a funny scene, but it doesn’t need two daft British accents. It doesn’t need Mike fucking Myers at all, frankly. Oh, I’m getting all aggravated again now, and it’s been almost a week since I’ve seen it.

Back at the tunnel, the guy is still walking out of the darkness. So, instead, we go to an extended scene where Fassbender and two of the German-speaking Basterds have to meet their double-agent contact in a bar filled with German soldiers. Much has been said of this. It’s ‘bravura’ apparently to have a 15 minute sequence entirely in German. Mmm. I preferred that bit in Where Eagles Dare where Eastwood and Burton get rumbled in the bar and go quietly, meself. And you know why? Because it says what it needs to say and then moves on. Here we’re stuck riffing on the the bloody tipping scene from Reservoir Dogs again, and again, and it never seems to end. Are you getting a theme coming through at all?! The moment after this is set in the movie theatre and, once more, we are in an overextended skit with lots of dialogue all endlessly looping around trying to be, oh I don’t know, cool or funny or something. In fact, by the time we get everyone all together in the same place ready for the climax you may have started to get a) a numb bum, and b) more than significantly irritated. By the time the Marx Brothers stuff has turned any pretence that this isn’t a particularly ill-judged screwball comedy (those Nazis!) on its head, you may – in spirit – be wishing you were well on your way home. Tarantino, certainly, has by the last half hour, exhausted any of the narrative drive that he might have had in the first part of the film, and is just rushing headlong towards the end. Fuck, then, tying up the ends neatly, instead you just get a big bang, lots of bullets, and Pitt gurning into the camera after slicing a swastika into his enemy’s forehead and telling the audience, “this may just be my masterpiece.” Fuck. Off.

The most annoying thing on show here isn’t the bad stuff per se, but the fact that there is some good shit buried underneath it. Laurent’s plotting (one sequence, played out smartly to Bowie’s Cat People (Putting Out Fire) is the high point of the entire shebang) is excellent, the final moments of the bar scene are fiercely exciting if you haven’t drifted off, the opening cat and mouse schtick is wonderful…but all the surrounding gubbins is soul-sapping and extends the Cons column beyond endurance. There is no knockout punch here, just an undignified slugging match with all the good work in and around the body hidden by the flab. Oh, and the guy in the tunnel? Therein lies the problem. If Tarantino’s hubris, in-jokes and motormouth excesses have a soul mate it can be found in the man who emerges from that long walk. Eli Roth, the nerdy horror exploiter du jour, and not a man to tell Quent to put a fucking sock in it. Tarantino is deseperate to fill his stuff with references, homages and steals from D-movie exploitation cinema, perhaps he ought to follow Rule One, first and make something that comes in at about 80 minutes. There is two and half hours of overblown and fatty waste here…if the guy’s still a contender he needs to ditch the entourage and remember that Reservoir Dogs was about an hour and a half, and it was great. Otherwise, throw in the towel.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 24, 2009 1:39 pm

    I was just posting a comment on a surprisingly similar review over at the Ruthless Culture blog (www.ruthlessculture.com, bizarrely your last few reviews and his seem to massively overlap, which given neither of you cover everything that’s out is a bit of a coincidence, but anyway).

    My thought there mirrored yours here, the problem is fat, overindulgence, an inability to cut to the chase. Like M Night Shamalayan, Tarantino hit it out of the park with his first two films*, but since then that success has gone to his head, he has oceans of great ideas which is fine but they all go into the films and they just end up turgid and cluttered.

    If you’re making longer movies than guys like Tarkovsky or Lean, there’s a question why. What are you using that space for? Do you need it? In Tarantino’s case, he uses the space because he can’t pick and choose, he can’t hone to what really matters any more.

    If he can make another 90 minute movie, I might check out his next marathon. But until he can, I won’t.

    *Well, one out of the park for Shamalayan, for a generous meaning of out of the park, and one quite good followup, followed by one of the worst descents into tosh in cinematic history.

  2. August 24, 2009 1:48 pm

    Hi Max, and many thanks for stopping by.

    I haven’t been to the Ruthless Culture blog, so will head over there as soon as I post this.

    I’m nodding my head vigorously here, agreeing wholeheartedly with your comment about QT’s inability to pick and choose. I think you’ve nailed it far more elegantly than I managed!

  3. August 24, 2009 1:55 pm

    I’ve just been reading a few of your reviews, good stuff, I’ll be following more in future.

    The joy of comments is that the hard work is already done by the blogger, to sort of quote Oasis, adding comments is just a case of standing on the shoulder of giants.

    I love that album title, no great interest in the album itself, but such a terrible title, and all for want of an s.

    But possibly I digress.

  4. August 24, 2009 8:33 pm

    Well that’s Noel Gallagher for you: a complete tin ear, an anti-talent (as Amis put it) for titles, for words in general.

    God how I agree with Max on Shyamalan too. Bathos personified, or filmcareerified.

  5. fanshawe permalink
    September 2, 2009 4:24 pm

    Despite the fact that I don’t agree with your overall assessment of the film, this is a great review. Enjoyed reading it.

  6. September 2, 2009 4:30 pm

    Hi fanshawe, thanks for dropping by. Glad you enjoyed the review, and the film too.

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