Movie Review: Inglorius Basterds

The first thing to realize about any review I do of a Quentin Tarantino is that I’m not a Tarantino guy. The first QT movie I saw was Death Proof—and I was already in the theater for Planet Terror (“Grindhouse”). Then I saw Kill Bill. Wait, actually, I saw Sin City, and one of the segments in that he directed.

I avoided him for so long ‘cause of the hype. It gets hard to really take a film for what it is when the hype machine precedes it. (I’ve never seen a Spike Lee film, either.) But I’ve yet to be particularly impressed by him.

Still, Jason (the commenter) remarked on it as “beautiful” and gave it four out of five stars. And I love the comic-book premise: A group of largely Jewish soldiers strike terror in the heart of the Nazis by committing atrocities upon them.

Yeah, the movie isn’t really about that. Strike one against it there.

Is it beautiful? Yeah, actually: Something I’ve not noticed of his other films, but Basterds is blocked masterfully. A scene’s “blocking” is the positioning of the actors in the scene, and some of the shots looked like QT and cinematographer graduated from the James Wong Howe school with honors. You don’t get good blocking these days because directors do everything by jumping the camera. Anyway, visually, quite striking, though not quite up there with Coppola’s Tetro.

But I had time to think about what it is I find lacking in the QT movies I’ve seen. Yeah. Lots of time to think. Lots of things to think about. Like, why is it that I’m completely uninvolved in a scene where the brilliant Christoph Waltz is playing one of the most heinous villains to ever grace a movie and is about to commit an atrocity?

I had more time to think about that in a later scene in a bar, where the same situation arises. Something horrible is going to happen. Yet I just didn’t care.

I figured it out, sitting there: You know—or at least I know—almost exactly what’s going to happen when the scene is set up.

I guess, in the first scene, it wasn’t necessarily obvious. I can’t tell you exactly why I knew how the scene was going to play out. I’m really not good at seeing twists and turns in movies—but this wasn’t a twist. Everything had to play out more-or-less the way it played out.

But the bar scene? Well, look, Chekov said that if you showed the audience a gun in act one, that gun had better go off by act three. This scene was sort of like saying “Here’s the gun I’m going to use to shoot the bad guy in the head with in act three.” I mean, really, the character just come out and detail what’s going to happen. When it happens, it’s not just unsurprising, it’s mostly just a relief that the story can finally move on. (Sort of like the 20 minute discussion of Vanishing Point in Death Proof, only this at least has something to do with something.)

Now, one of the issues may be a rather spare use of music. In fact, these scenes didn’t have any, I don’t think. The music that is used so incredibly self-conscious—the movie opens with a kind of comical ’60s-’70s style war/caper movie theme, that is recapitulated at the end to a weirdly comic feel—that it can pull you out of the experience.

And the use of the Cat People song—I’m not making this up—has to be the worst and most awkward MTV-style music-video-in-a-film since Watchmen’s Hallelujah sex scene. It’s an otherwise beautiful scene, and it reminds me that a lot of modern film makers don’t really have a good grasp on the use of traditional music scores.

At least I think a traditional score would’ve worked better there, and throughout the movie. This was…jarring.

The word “jarring” applies to a lot of this movie, or even “self-conscious”. The second and third chapters, are interrupted by expository narration—just a sort of out-of-the-blue introduction to one of the Basterds, and a “hey, film is highly exploisve” bit. Also in the third chapter, there’s a cutaway to a short shot of Goebbels having sex with his assistant, which is the first (but not last) time we get a cut-away. Later chapters actually include scrawled arrows with the names of high-ranking Nazis, just so you know that, well, that guy over there is Martin Bormann.

I guess that was supposed to be part of the fun? The whimsy? I found these, and other conspicuous techniques, repeatedly drew my attention out of the film and to the film-making process. (Hey, look at me! I’m making a movie!)

I’ve pointed out already that this movie isn’t really about the titular Inglorius Basterds. It’s not really The Great Escape or Kelly’s Heroes or Stalag 17—or, hell, even “Hogan’s Heroes"—where you get to know a bunch of macho characters as they do manly things. You meet these guys in the second chapter, and they come back half-way through the fourth chapter or so.

They’re really supporting players. And so, while the (relatively) few scenes they’re in are sort of brutally whimsical, that’s not really what the movie is about. That might have been more fun as a movie.

Instead, the real story is about a young Jewish woman who escapes her family’s horrible fate and then attracts the attention of a young Nazi war hero. This leads her to concoct a plot to kill a bunch of Nazis.

This story isn’t as whimsical as it sounds, and not even hinted at in the trailer. Worse, it leads to another long scene with lots of dialog that should be suspenseful but manages to be completely free of any sort of involvement.

The ending is pretty satisfying. And I really wasn’t too bored. So, as far as QT movies go, this one seemed less boring than the others.

Hey, I said I wasn’t a Tarantino guy. At least one guy was so involved in the movie he answered his phone at the climactic scenes, and instead of leaving the theater actually proceeded to have a discussion standing at the door five feet from us. I mean, that’s compelling: A phone call so important you have to take it, but a movie so compelling you’ll risk your life by refusing to leave the theater, and standing right next to the guy brandishing the bowie knife, getting ready to carve a cell phone into your forehead.

Ha! Sorry, just engaging in some IB-style whimsy.

Anyway, the Boy thought it was over-hyped. He was bored and said, "It made me want to play Company of Heroes on the German side.” He’s not a QT guy either, apparently.

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