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Friday, Nov. 13, 2009
Quentin's round; same again then
Anyone who drinks outside the privacy of their own home knows the peril of stumbling across the dreaded barroom bore. You know the type: a casual question ("Is that The Japan Times you're reading?") followed by a quick unsolicited opinion ("I've always thought Fazio was a bit of a prat."), which somehow leads, twistingly and tortuously, to a 20-minute-plus monologue on the history of cats in Catholicism, or why Hootie and the Blowfish's "Looking for Lucky" is an unrecognized work of genius, or how global warming is a plot by freedom-hating socialists to take your guns and abort your children.
Judging from "Inglourious Basterds," I'm not sure I'd care to meet Quentin Tarantino on a barstool. His films have always been amusingly chatty, from the opening "Like a Virgin" scene of "Reservoir Dogs" to the road-tripping stuntwomen in "Death Proof," but with his latest, he seems to have hit the four-pints-and-ready-to-bloviate stage. "Inglourious Basterds" may be Tarantino's homage to gritty World War II movies like "The Dirty Dozen" (1967), but it can sure talk the talk more than it can walk the walk.
The film starts with the caption "Once upon a time in occupied France," which clues you into both Quentin's love of Sergio Leone, and the fact that this is an imaginary World War II, one about as close to reality as, say, "Hogan's Heroes," with its zany Nazi concentration camp. Tarantino breaks the film into chapters, and each one is a self-contained sequence of sorts, most of them based around, well, someone giving a real gasbag of a monologue.
Chapter 1 begins with S.S. Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, who picked up Best Actor at Cannes) inviting himself into a French farmer's home and proceeding to quiz the nervous peasant about the whereabouts of his missing Jewish neighbors. Over the course of a long, winding conversation, Landa slyly breaks down the farmer's resistance, building to a deadly conclusion. It's a slow start to the film, but Tarantino builds the tension nicely.
Then it's bang into chapter 2, and we meet Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine, the hayseed leader of the "Basterds," a small group of Jewish-American G.I.s on a mission to operate behind enemy lines as, well, terrorists. "The German will be sickened by us, the German will fear us," Raine tells his men, while demanding 100 scalps from each. Cut to a closeup of a Bowie knife slashing open a German soldier's skull.
What follows is a disturbing scene that makes you wonder whether Tarantino has ever heard the words "Abu Ghraib." Raine and the Basterds threaten a German prisoner, saying that the "Bear Jew" (played by "Hostel" director Eli Roth) will beat his brains in with a baseball bat unless he reveals the location of his unit. The German bravely resists, as is his duty, so the Bear Jew does indeed split the guy's skull open, with stomach-churning thwacks.
Roth and Tarantino have described this as a Jewish revenge fantasy, but the brutality is such that you find yourself rooting for the poor Nazi. Now that's a remarkable achievement, but not necessarily what was intended. It's interesting to note that "The Dirty Dozen" featured hardened criminals and killers who found some sort of redemption through service, whereas "Inglourious Basterds" posits normal soldiers committing sadistic war crimes for the hell of it as morally justified. Such are the perverted times we live in, I suppose.
Chapters 3 and 4 introduce more new characters: a Jewish cinema-owner in Paris (Melanie Laurent), a cinephile German sniper-turned-war movie hero who has a crush on her (Daniel Bruhl), a British film critic-turned-spy (Michael Fassbender), and a German movie star (Diane Kruger) who's secretly working for the Allies. Hitler is planning to attend the Paris premiere screening of a propaganda film by Joseph Goebbels, and all the above characters plan to attend and, hopefully, take him out. Meanwhile, Landa appears as the head of security, and quickly sniffs out the plots.
You will wait in vain, though, for the film to really take off. Typical is the scene where a couple of the Basterds arrange to meet up with the movie star in a tavern, only to find it full of Nazis on a bender, who grow suspicious when they hear the Basterds' strange accents when speaking German. It's a good premise, with plenty of inherent tension, but Tarantino drags the scene on forever; the drinking game played here is about as interminable as the notorious drunken song scene in John Cassavetes' "Husbands," and equally self-indulgent. Barroom bores, indeed.
Long, digressive, domineering monologues; gratuitous torture scenes; a cornucopia of sly quotes from other movies (including the entire soundtrack here) . . . we know the drill, and while it's effective in spurts, we can only wonder when Lt. Tarantino will learn some new tactics.
"Inglourious Basterds" is being shown with English and Japanese subtitles.