Thursday, June 10, 2010

Inglorious Basterds (2009)

Universal, 2009

Principal Cast:  Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Daniel Brühl, Til Schweiger
Director:  Quentin Tarantino
Producer:  Lawrence Bender
Screenwriter:  Quentin Tarantino
Cinematography:  Robert Richardson

Awards & Nominations:
Academy Awards
Best Actor in a Supporting Role - Christoph Waltz

Academy Award Nominations
Best Motion Picture of the Year
Best Achievement in Directing - Quentin Tarantino
Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly For The Screen - Quentin Tarantino
Best Achievement in Cinematography - Robert Richardson
Best Achievement in Editing
Best Achievement in Sound
Best Achievement in Sound Editing

BAFTA Awards
Best Supporting Actor - Christoph Waltz

Cannes Film Festival
Golden Palm (nominee)
Best Actor - Christoph Waltz

Golden Globes
Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture  - Christoph Waltz

People's Choice Awards
Favorite Independent Movie

Screen Actors Guild Awards
Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture
Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture - Christoph Waltz

Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France...   Inglorious Basterds is a War World II film... well, let me rephrase.  It's a film that takes place during World War II.  It follows three different story lines that all converge into one hell of a climax.  The first storyline follows Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and his band of Jewish-American soldiers (known as the titular Basterds) as they go deep behind enemy lines and kill, maim and torture Nazis.  The film also follows Col. Hans Landa, or "the Jew Hunter," as he tracks down enemies of the state, whether they be Jews in hiding or the Basterds themselves.  And the final storyline belongs to Shosanna Dreyfus, who escaped the massacre of her family at the hands of Landa and now lives in Paris, hiding in plain sight.  


Each and every man under my command owes me one hundred Nazi scalps. And I want my scalps. And all y'all will git me one hundred Nazi scalps, taken from the heads of one hundred dead Nazis. Or you will die tryin'. 

Quentin Tarantino can do no wrong.  At least from a film making perspective, anyway.  Everyone talks about Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill and of course Pulp Fiction, but even "minor Tarantino" (as some put it) like Jackie Brown  and Death Proof are still far better films than they are given credit for.  Tarantino adds to his already legendary film canon with Inglorious Basterds. This film just plain works on every single level.

First and foremost, let's start with the story.  Tarantino divides this film into five separate chapters.  Each one of these chapters furthers the overall plot of the film, while at the same time being so self-contained that they almost feel like their own short film.  In fact, long periods of time take place in between chapters that are never explained, but it doesn't matter, Tarantino trusts the audience enough to piece it together.  Three scenes in particular stand out:  the opening scene at the dairy farm, the restaurant scene between Landa and Shosanna and the basement tavern scene. These scenes are so well written and so wrought with tension that they will be studied and analyzed for years in film classes and text books.

One of the things QT always does well in his scripts is character development.  Well, in this film he had the additional task of setting up a lot of really heavy exposition.  Tarantino in most of his films does something that most screenwriters should take note of.  He builds characters and delivers exposition without you even noticing he's doing it.  He does it by burying those element deep within a conversation between two characters that would otherwise seem meaningless... or he distracts you from the exposition by showing you something else.  It's slight-of-hand screenwriting.  The best example of these is the "Royale with Cheese" discussion in Pulp.  In Basterds he  does this expertly in a few scenes, the afore-mentioned dairy farm conversation, the basement tavern scene and the interrogation of Bridget Von Hammersmark at the veterinarian's office.

Speaking of character development, I don't believe there has ever been a more well-written character than Hans Landa.  Hans Landa is absolutely an evil, vile and deplorable human being.  But what is most disturbing about the character is that the audience is put in a position to respect the man.  He is a twisted Sherlock Holmes (in fact he even busts out a comically large Holmes-esque pipe in an early scene) who is damn good at his job.  On top of that, the character has a very pleasant and charming demeanor, which makes him all the more unsettling. 

  And of course, you can't talk about Landa without talking about the magnificent performance of Christoph Waltz.  Sometimes Academy Awards are handed out because someone is the sentimental favorite, or because of politics.  Waltz deserves every square centimeter of that little gold statue as he absolutely gave the best performance of the year (supporting or otherwise.)  Landa deserves his spot on the 100 Greatest Movie Villains List.

The film also gives two other very memorable characters.  The first being Lt. Aldo Raine, played by a scenery-chewing Brad Pitt.  What's great Aldo he is at once comical and menacing.  Yes, he is kind of a buffoon, especially when trying to speak Italian, but he's on a mission and he won't stop until he's completed it.  Raine could have a whole movie dedicated to himself.  Tarantino touches on some of his background throughout the film:  he's a descendant of mountain men and Indians?  He sells moonshine?  He fought his way through Sicily?  And what is with that scar?  These questions are never really expanded upon, which gives the character a great level of mystery and depth.  

The other great character is Shosanna Dreyfus, who has now become my favorite female character of all time.  After surviving the slaughter of her family, Shosanna, a Jew in hiding, goes to France, owns an art house cinema, is in a relationship with a black man (in Nazi-occupied France, no less) AND develops a plot to kill Hitler.  I LOVE this woman.

Speaking of Hitler, I appreciate the fact that he is NOT the villain of this film.  Or, better put, not the main antagonist of the film.  The chief antagonist is Landa, and in fact Hitler is made to look comical, weak and ridiculous.  If it wasn't for his real life atrocities, the way he is presented in the film, he really poses no threat to the heroes.  Which, brings me to the ending of the film.  As you may know (and if you don't, I warned you there would be spoilers) Hitler is killed during Operation: Kino.  The Basterds get him.  Obviously this is NOT how he actually met his demise.  But I applaud that this film isn't going "hey this is how it happened, this is how history went down."  No.  The film realizes it's a revenge fantasy... and the payoff to that HAS to end in Hitler's death, or it wouldn't work.

I have heard some complaints that the movie is barely in English, which is a ridiculous complaint.  What I love about the film is that the Americans and the English speak English, the French French and the Germans German.  Especially when language is a key part of the story as it depends on certain characters being able to go undercover.  It's a stupid criticism.  

The cinematography is also worth noting.  Robert Richardson, the DP of this film, was brought on board after doing a great job on the Kill Bill films.  While Pulp and Dogs are all time classics, the one element they lacked is striking visuals.  Those films were more gritty and dirty (to their benefit), where as Kill Bill was really sleek.  Basterds takes it a notch further.  For the first time you get to see a Tarantino do a large scale picture and the cinematography is so beautiful.  It looks EPIC.  

The way Tarantino uses music in his films is always fun to listen to.  Most of his movies have great soundtracks, and Basterds is no exception.  He knows exactly which tracks to use to really highlight the mood of the scene of the film.  What's particular amusing about this score is that it's almost anachronistic, relying heavily western film music motifs. 

The last point I want to make is about the obvious theme that pervades this film.  The theme of the film is film itself.  QT has a famous quote: "I didn't go to film school, I went to films."  Tarantino has had a long-running love affair with cinema itself. (Probably why I like him so much.)  All of his movies contain subtle and blatant references to the films he loves.  Make no mistake that at the end of the day, Inglorious Basterds is Tarantino's love letter to the movies.  From his "shout out" to movies like The Searchers and Sergeant York or naming the movie itself after a cult b-movie from the 70s.  The power of cinema as a tool is exploited by the Nazi's in this film with their propaganda movie, "Nation's Pride."  Two major characters have film backgrounds:  Shosanna owns an art house cinema and Lt. Hicox's (close resemblance to Hitchcock, no?) pre-war occupation was that of a film critic.  On top of all that is the obvious message Tarantino is sending about the "Power of Film."  The mission to blow up a mess ton of Nazis in a movie theatre is named "Operation: Kino," which is fantastic.  But on top of all that what is the instrument of destruction used to kill the Nazis?  Reels and reels of highly flammable nitrate film.  If that doesn't scream "power of film," I don't know what does.

In the final image of this film Aldo Raine, after having branded Hans Landa with a swastika, looks down into the camera and says:      
You know somethin', Donowitz? I think this might just be my masterpiece. 

Can't say I can argue that.