That’s a bingo!: Eli Roth and Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds.
It’s a good thing that 10 films are
vying this year for Academy Award consideration as Best Picture (this
hasn’t happened since 1942), thus offering a shot for the wildly wacky,
spellcheck-prone Inglourious Basterds (Weinstein/Universal; 153 minutes; R; widescreen; 2009) to slip into the running.
Instead of the general Oscar bait that
guarantees slots for high-minded, self-important prestige pictures,
writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s amusing World War II fantasia
fields the auteur’s latest quirky round-up of celluloid homages,
soundtrack-music cues and rhythmic dialogue, this time embellishing a
slice of period-piece melodrama in the hopes of mining nuggets of retro
cool from old-school war-flick clichés. Everything Tarantino has
learned from the movies is on display here, albeit in a jacked-up
refashioning, from noting the flammability of nitrate film prints
(there’s even a helpful clip from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 Sabotage) to how not to order three glasses of Scotch at a German barroom.
Tarantino’s cinematic guilty pleasures also serve as reference points, starting with the correctly spelled Inglorious Bastards,
director Enzo G. Castellari’s 1978 Italian-made war drama that played
in Jimmy Carter-era grindhouses and was a late-night perennial during
Home Box Office’s formative years. Starring American leads Fred
Williamson and Bo Svenson, Castellari’s tale of court-martialed
soldiers on the run and massacring the enemy was the umpteenth clone of
The Dirty Dozen, The Devil’s Brigade and others in the
maverick-misfits-mete-mayhem genre from the late 1960s. (Film fanatics
will note that the Universal Pictures logo that begins this movie is
actually from that period; it’s just one of many fastidious flourishes
that Tarantino brings to this pop-culture party.)
Heading Tarantino’s Basterds is hunky
Brad Pitt, playing a Tennessee-bred, snuff-snorting hillbilly Army
lieutenant known as Aldo Raine, named of course after Aldo Ray, the
1950s-era he-man hero of Battle Cry and The Naked and the Dead.
Raine presides over a select group of near-psychotic Jewish-American
killing machines such as Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth, director of the
Hostel slaughterhouses, which were executive produced by
Tarantino), who caves in the skulls of captured Aryans with his
baseball bat. Raine demands that the guys under his command must
liberate 100 Nazi scalps from the bad guys’ noggins, so news of the
Basterds’ exploits quickly reach Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke,
channeling Moe Howard). And, brother, is Der Fuhrer furious: “I will
hang them naked by their heels from the Eiffel Tower,” he barks in a
brief scene, “then throw their bodies in the sewers for the rats of
Paris to feast!”
Since this is a Tarantino outing,
however, don’t expect Raine’s squad to hog most of the screen time.
(It’s doubtful that even Angelina Jolie could handle 2 ½ hours’ of
Pitt’s exaggerated cornpone accent.) In fact, Pitt’s character is
introduced following a 20-minute prologue titled “Once Upon a Time in
Nazi-Occupied France,” a tip-off of what to expect from Tarantino’s
melding of spaghetti western tropes and far-fetched comic books such as
Marvel’s Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos.
The prologue showcases the villainy of
Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, a consummate scene-stealer), a nasty
Gestapo colonel who investigates a French dairy farmer who might be
hiding Jewish refugees. Tarantino accomplishes a lot of genre juggling
here, from the salute to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
director Sergio Leone’s penchants for simmering long takes of tension
that build to jarring bursts of quicksilver violence, to Tarantino’s
semi-kidding of old war movies that featured
actors-as-European-characters uttering American dialogue instead of
subtitles. (“My French is inadequate,” Landa explains prior to tugging
on a Meerschaum.) The latter’s partial joke is twofold, however, since
Landa and the farmer chatting in English means that Jewish ears cannot
comprehend their conversation.
Tarantino’s movie is really just a
handful of very long and verbose sequences, so another key character,
movie-house manager Emmanuelle Mimieux (Melanie Laurent), doesn’t
figure into the proceedings for several reels. (Actually, her character
is reintroduced at this point, although that would entail a plot
spoiler that’s better left unrevealed.) There’s a sort-of meet-cute
encounter as Emmanuelle, who is changing the titles on her marquee
(wrapping its engagement is 1929’s The White Hell of Pitz Palu,
an early starring role for Nazi propaganda queen Leni Riefenstahl),
must converse with Pvt. Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), a Nazi marksman
with a backstory that Tarantino slyly twists as the German counterpart
to American soldier (and eventual movie star) Audie Murphy.
Remember the sense of overkill that Tarantino employed in his Death Proof movie for the 2007 drive-in homage Grindhouse, as his characters endlessly blathered about the attributes of car-chase opuses like Vanishing Point? Then be prepared for more of that nerdy level of movie masturbation in Basterds,
with Emmanuelle defending that “in our country we respect directors,”
while Fredrick prattles, “I always preferred Max Linder to Charlie
Chaplin.” Nobody talks like this except in the reel world of Tarantino,
although these cinema-quoting layers are surely hilarious for film
Other central characters pop up past the
midway point, notably British “Lefftenant” Archie Hicox (Michael
Fassbender) and German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger),
both working undercover to ferret information that could bring down the
Third Reich. The adolescent joys of the auteur’s pulp fictions build to
a brassy finale involving the Nazi High Command that’s clearly
reminiscent of The Dirty Dozen’s let’s-incinerate-goosesteppers-at-a-chateau climax, as Inglourious Basterds plays out like a fever-pitched fairy tale, right down to its late-in-the-game Cinderella references.
For those hep to the Tarantino vibe, it’s obvious early on that Inglourious Basterds won’t be mistaken for Saving Private Ryan,
but rather a rambunctious reimagining of the bullet-riddled genre.
Forever the film-geek/video-store clerk, Tarantino uses unlikely music
cues that not only fit in a bizarrely apt fashion (think David Bowie
and Giorgio Moroder’s “Putting Out the Fire” from 1982’s Cat People,
used when Emmanuelle prepares for her suicidal mission), but also steer
you toward other treats, such as Charles Bernstein’s music for White Lightning, an unheralded Burt Reynolds dandy, and one of composer Lalo Schifin’s motifs for the Clint Eastwood war comedy Kelly’s Heroes.
Meanwhile, Tarantino’s casting of
retired Australian actor Rod Taylor as Winston Churchill is a double
salute to the star’s work as a double agent in 1964’s 36 Hours and as a mercenary in 1968’s rousing action yarn Dark of the Sun. On the other hand, Mike Myers seems to be imitating John Hurt by way of Roddy McDowall to portray a British general.
Still, Tarantino’s greatest enemy can be
himself, particularly his occasional inability to pare away his own
dialogue-heavy sequences. The German barroom encounter with Hicox, von
Hammersmark and various unexpected Nazis takes a solid 20 minutes
before reaching its bloodthirsty Mexican standoff, a favored Tarantino
gimmick, as the suspense grows more slack with each rejoinder.
(Fassbender’s Hicox does have a great farewell toast, however: “There’s
a special rung in hell reserved for those who waste good Scotch.”) And
Tarantino allows character Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), Hitler’s
minister of propaganda, to utter an N-word during comments about Aryan
supremacy; if given half a chance, Tarantino could insert an N-bomb
into an adaptation of Little Women.
Yet when Tarantino is really cooking,
few can touch him. When he introduces fellow Basterd and homicidal
maniac Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), it’s with a guitar sting from the
blaxploitation movie Slaughter, followed by a brief recap of
Stiglitz’s resume that is narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. When Raine
proposes that the Basterds pass themselves off as “Eye-talian”
moviemakers to orchestrate the fiery climax, Tarantino allows the von
Hammersmark character to momentarily slip into a Bowery Boys-ish accent
as she remarks, “So you mumble Italian and brazen through it, is that
Tarantino’s storytelling craft is so
confidently ballsy that he can even have rube Raine dressed in Armani
at a bijou decorated in Cabaret kitsch, and yet somehow the Nazis don’t pay attention. Buoyed by a sense of playful fun that was in short supply for his Grindhouse contribution, Inglourious Basterds
offers a welcome return to form for this movie-mad auteur. In the final
shot, Pitt’s Raine looks into the camera (following a violent act of
mutilation, naturally) and declares to the Tarantino audience, “I think
this might just be my masterpiece.” Indeed, it just might.
Universal’s partial bankrolling of the Basterds
budget means that its Universal Studios Home Entertainment has the
stateside DVD rights. The single-disc incarnation offers a sharp
letterboxed (2.35:1 ratio) rendering of director of photography Robert
Richardson’s widescreen images. Extras include 11 minutes of extended
and alternate sequences, with two more minutes of the already lengthy
barroom prelude and a two-minute bit inside Emmanuelle’s movie theater.
Most noteworthy is a seven-minute master shot of Emmanuelle and
Fredrick lunching with Goebbels, a sequence that demonstrates how the
actors groove to Tarantino’s scripted cadences. There are also four
trailers, two domestic and two international, with the latter pair
playing up the other actors besides Pitt.
By far the best DVD extra is the six-minute Nation’s Pride, which is shown only in too-brief snippets during Basterds.
Eli Roth directed the fictional story of Nazi sniper Zoller as he mows
down hapless American soldiers from a bell tower, as Roth comically
imagines a jingoistic portrayal of heroism from the Master Race’s
viewpoint. Watch for a cameo by Bo Svenson as well as a subliminal
swastika image created by U.S. gunfire. Universal’s two-disc package
has more vignettes (unseen by these peepers), but neither DVD boasts a
commentary track from Tarantino, one of the chattiest mothereffers on