Saturday, August 9, 2014

CRACKER? Inglourious Basterds (2009)

                “Inglourious Basterds” is Quentin Tarantino’s addition to the suicide mission subgenre.  He specifically mentioned “Dirty Dozen”, “Where Eagles Dare”, and “Guns of Navarone” as examples of what he was shooting for.  However, he chose a movie on the opposite end of the subgenre for inspiration.  The original “Inglorious Bastards” was an Italian spaghetti war movie.  This was a creative process reminiscent of his “Django Unchained”.  One has to wonder about Tarantino’s self-esteem due to his choices to “remake” movies that the kids on “Super 8” could improve on.  Of course, he had to put a Tarantino spin on the subgenre.  Most critics liked the spin and the movie was nominated for eight Oscars including Picture, Director, Original Screenplay,  Cinematography, Film Editing, Sound Editing, and Sound.  It was a box office success which is quite an accomplishment for a war movie these days.  Maybe audiences need something different from the genre.  Compare this to the tepid response to the more traditional “Monuments Men”.  New School versus Old School.  One has to give Tarantino credit for perseverance as it took him ten year to get the film done.  It was the ending that was part of the holdup.  It looks like he got that right in the long run.

                The plot is from the alternative history arena.  It opens in occupied France in 1941.  A suave Gestapo agent named Landa (Christoph Waltz) and nicknamed “the Jew Hunter” makes a visit to a farm searching for a Jewish family in hiding.  In one of the great war movie scenes, Landa ferrets out the rats (his description of Jews).  At one point Landa pulls out a comically huge pipe ala Sherlock Holmes in a typical bit of Tarantino humor. The impact of the scene develops a tremendous amount of goodwill for the film and won Waltz a Best Supporting Actor award, among many other accolades.  One member of the family, Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent), escapes and thus begins one of the primary threads of the movie.

Don't let the pipe fool you -
he's one malevolent dude

                The other thread involves a commando unit created by an OSS agent named Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt).  The unit consists of Jewish soldiers and the mission is to drop behind enemy lines and do as much damage to the Nazis as an R-rated Tarantino movie will allow.  This includes scalping their victims.  One of the members is the baseball bat-wielding Donowitz (Eli Roth) who becomes known even to Hitler as the “bear Jew”.  As though the plot is not defying reality enough already, the unit is joined by a Gestapo-killing psychotic German soldier.

                Fast forward to 1944.  Shoshanna is living in Paris under an assumed identity and is the proprietor of a movie theater.  She meets the German version of Audie Murphy.  Pvt. Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) wants to hook up with the very reluctant Shoshanna.  Zoller has preempted Murphy by starring in a film about his exploits before the war is even over.  Goebbels is using Zoller for propaganda purposes and Zoller schemes to have the film premiered at his potential girl friend’s theater.  The debut of “Nation’s Pride” will be attended by many Nazi bigwigs.  This gives British intelligence (represented by the distracting Mike Myers) the idea of using Raine’s unit to assassinate the moviegoers.  Churchill (Rod Taylor!) approves the plan.  A film expert/secret agent named Hicox (Michael Fassbender) is sent to link up with Raine and make contact with the German actress Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) who is an Allied spy.  With all these combined talents, the mission should be a piece of cake.  Right?

Shoshanna and Zoller do not live happily ever after
                Hicox makes contact with Bridget in a basement bar.  The ensuing scene is masterful if you suspend reality (drunken Germans certainly react quickly to totally unexpected danger).  It includes a Tarantinoesque orgy of violence and complicates the plan immensely.  Raines’ role in the assassination becomes a farce, but it is balanced by the earnest act of revenge Shoshanna has cooked up.  All of the surviving players converge on the cinema with the addition of der Fuhrer himself.  If you have not turned off your brain yet, do so now.  Embrace the implausibilities.  Revel in the feel good massacre.  Be aware that this is not a true story!

Never play games with drunken Germans
                “Inglourious Basterds” feels like the culmination of the suicide mission subgenre.  It is a war movie that could not have been made in the 20th Century.  I am not sure this is the direction I want war movies of this type to go in.  As you will see with my updated rankings of the subgenre, “Basterds” is not a pinnacle of these types.  It is a worthy addition and does take the subgenre into the 21st Century.  Although the movie is very entertaining even to a purist like myself, it has its flaws that make it a bit overrated.  First the strengthes.  The acting is outstanding (with the exception of the stunt casting of Mike Myers).  This is actually one reason why the film is overrated.  Waltz’ performance is so mesmerizing that it overshadows some of the movie’s flaws.  Without him the movie would have had a lot less buzz.  In fact, Tarantino would have been unlikely to have made the movie if he had not found the perfect actor to play Landa.  The rest of the cast is great with special kudos to the females.  Strong females are so rare in war movies, they really stand out.  Pitt appears to be the only actor that was told that the movie is a comedy.  He has a lot of fun with the part and you want to wink back at him. 

                The plot has some interesting twists and some shockers embedded.  Don’t get too attached to any of the characters.  Speaking of which, the characters are well drawn.  Particular mention should go to Zoller.  He is not the hissable villain you would expect from a sniper who killed a bunch of Americans.  He even comes off as charming in his pursuit of Shoshanna.  The music is typically eclectic for a Tarantino film.  Some of it reminds of a spaghetti Western which is obviously what Tarantino intended.  One long scene (the one in the bar) has no music.  The cinematography (although nominated for an Oscar) is not pretentious or showy.  The violence is not for the squeamish.  If you like scalpings and knife carvings, this is the movie for you.

It's not against the Geneva Convention if you win
                I am not a huge fan of the movie.  I am not interested in alternative history.  The actual events are interesting enough without people wondering “what if?”  This is the reason why I thought I would not like the movie when I first heard about it, but it is not the reason why I think the movie is overrated.  I actually enjoyed it once I suspended my rational nature.  The problem with the film is although it has some outstanding scenes, they tend to be overly long.  And this is after Tarantino had to do some substantial editing.  There are also some implausibilities that grate even in a movie of this subgenre.  On the other hand, I have to point out that the movie is so clearly a fantasy that you would have to be a complete moron to think any of it is true.  That does not mean I’m not a little concerned about asking my students how Hitler died.

                It is interesting to compare the two recent movies about assassinating Hitler.  “Valkyrie” (2008) was Old School and very historically accurate.  It cost around $75 million and made about $200 million.  “Inglourious Basterds” cost around $75 million and its box office was around $320 million.  It was New School and was about as historically inaccurate as you can get.  Based on these two films, it would appear obvious what the movie-going public wants from 21st Century war movies.  I like both movies and as long as the movie is well made and entertaining I can appreciate either school.

GRADE  =  B+ 
4.  Inglourious Basterds
the trailer


  1. I really, really enjoyed Inglorious Basterds, even though, like you I was not eager to see it. As you said, the cast is great aside from the badly miscast Mike Myers. I liked the long scenes, I appreciated that Tarantino did not hurry the scenes like too many movies today. I think I have already mentioned that I do not share your appreciation of Where Eagles Dare, which may explain my preferences for Basterds. I like your point that kids may grow up thinking Hitler was assassinated in a movie theater.

  2. It looks like we agree on IG, but not on WED. I have a special fondness for WED because it was a formative movie from my childhood. It was my phase when I was entertained by huge body counts. In that respect it was in a category with "Magnum Force". I also love the twisty ending. Too bad IG has no equivalent of "Broadsword calling Danny Boy".

  3. Nice review. Afraid I'm not a fan - like most of Tarantino's recent flicks, the self-indulgence overwhelms the story for me.

    1. Well, at least with Tarantino, you get what you paid for. No one expects subtlety.


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