Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Back to the movies...

Goodness, I didn't realise it had been quite this long since I'd posted anything... oops... My paltry excuse is that spring was a mess for me, I was in Israel for almost a month in earlier summer, and.... I guess I'm fairly lazy. Or perhaps I just needed to be excited enough about something to want to post! And here it is. This is what I am excited about - and I do not use that word in the positive sense in which, for instance, I might be excited about birthday presents!

Here it is - my review of Inglourious Basterds - may contain spoilers!

So I went to see Tarantino’s new film last night – Inglourious Basterds. Besides the fact that the grammar and spelling queen in me has a problem with the affectation of the title (He says that the words are misspelled so as not to confuse it with another film, Inglorious Bastards, a 1978 effort that saw more wide release in Italy, and whose actors remain in history.), I confess right up front to two biases, which truly, I managed to put aside (or I wouldn’t have gone in the first place!). The biases: I am not a great fan of films rife with gratuitous violence – but we all know that if we’re going to a Tarantino film, there will be violence. Additionally, I’m not a great fan of Brad Pitt – I’ve never thought he was a great actor, frankly, and there are plenty of men of his generation who are much, much better. I have long believed that he gained a career through shirtless, ‘aw, shucks’ scenes in Thelma & Louise.This said, I went off to see the film.

Its opening was an excellent study in knowing – without giving anything away, we get into the story with a German SS Colonel, Hans Landa (played by Christoph Waltz, about whom more later) and a French dairy farmer, Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet, who I think was wasted in this film). The ‘knowing’ to which I refer is that each of these two men knows something about the other, without its having to be said. And what they each know of the other is very dangerous. To call this a scene of cat and mouse would be to very much understate what unfolds. It is definitely predator and prey, and like a cat with a mouse, Waltz’s Landa is enjoying his little game. Equally, Menochet’s LaPadite bravely stays with the game, though he must surely know how it will wind up.

As I watched this opening, I thought that I might have been hasty in thinking I’d dislike the film because of what I already knew about its violence (has anybody not read about the scalping scenes?!). Here, at least, we were not treated to the visual spectacle of the machine gun murders of a farmhouse full of French citizens (including the requisite hidden Jews), though the one who did escape, running for her life, was shown covered in blood as she ran. No doubting what had happened in that farmhouse, even if we tried to pretend that the gunshots we heard weren’t making contact with flesh and blood.

Tarantino moves us fairly quickly along. We meet the stereotypical bunch of ragtag American heroes – at least, by appearance they are stereotypical. In fact, what we have here is one American lieutenant (Aldo Raines, played by Brad Pitt), and a tiny handful of Jewish enlisted men. We are to presume that they were selected for this mission by some means of which we are not informed, because there were certainly more than this little clutch of Jewish soldiers in WW II. Raines gathers the men together and tells them, “I want me some Nattzy scalps!” Yes, I know that’s not how we spell Nazi. But that is how Pitt pronounces it throughout the film.

In fact, the Raines character is such a tremendous caricature of gung-ho Americanism that it astonished me that he should even be there – this character belonged in a comedy. If John Wayne and George W. Bush could’ve had a child together, Aldo Raines would have been that child. He was all squint, the Pitt version of a Tennessee drawl, and not bloody much else. I’m all for suspending disbelief in movies – generally speaking, we go to be entertained, after all. I don’t really expect Tarantino to make much effort at historical accuracy (listen to the music of this film – David Bowie’s stuff makes an appearance!). But seriously, folks – how much are we expected to fall for here?! What is the likelihood in 1941, when our movie begins, that a single American lieutenant would have been given the go-ahead to create his own little band of (ahem) brothers to go off “Natzzy” hunting, separate from the rest of the military forces in Europe?! (And by the way, where WERE those forces? Other than a cameo by Mike Myers as a British Army officer, and yes, occasionally Austin Powers crept out, the only people apparently involved in this war were the Germans and a couple of Americans! There were no French soldiers or collaborators; there were no British, Canadian, or Italian soldiers. Perhaps Tarantino belongs to the school which feels that the Americans won the war single-handedly, despite the fact that they didn’t enter it until after Pearl Harbour was bombed by the Japanese in December 1941.)

Tarantino not only directed this film – he also wrote it. That should explain a lot. Besides being incredibly far-fetched, the writing is pedestrian at best. Most of the dialogue is altogether laughable (I wonder if he meant for the audience to laugh so heartily in this film? Was that a clever ploy to jolly us along into thinking that Jewish soldiers would cheerfully cut the scalps from the heads of German soldiers?).

And why he wrote the Aldo Raines character as he did completely escapes me. I have no idea who Pitt’s dialogue coach was (For a change, I didn’t hang around to read the credits – I couldn’t wait to get out of there. In fact, this is a film I would’ve left in the first 45 minutes, had I not gone with a friend.), and I haven’t heard a great many Tennessean accents, it’s true – but those I have heard sounded nothing like Pitt! If I was from Tennessee, I think I’d be offended at the stereotype.

Was there anything good about this film? Surprisingly, the answer is “yes!” I don’t think this fact redeems the film, though, nor does it justify shelling out even the cost of a cheap-night or matinee ticket. But I digress. Much like, say, the Bible, some of the best bits are about women, and are downplayed. I suppose we’re lucky that they made it to film at all.

Diane Kruger plays Bridget von Hammersmark, a German actress (who is, of course, spying for the good guys), and she’s brilliant. Kruger has been in a number of films, including Wicker Park, Troy, and National Treasure: The Book of Secrets. Kruger is from Germany, so no worries about the accent there, and she’s great.

Mélanie Laurent plays Shosanna Dreyfus, the one survivor from the farmhouse scene at the beginning of the film. She is French, and the vast majority of her work is French, so honestly, I’ve seen none of it. No preconceived notions here. But, wow – fantastic! She plays such a broken person, and the viewer just knows that she would like nothing better than to kill the people who left her like this, took her family, and were trying to take her country. She concocts a rather clever plan of revenge (which coincidentally will also take down Waltz’s Hans Landa character, though she does not know that initially), and though it’s quite dramatic – and deadly – we quickly realise that it doesn’t matter so much to Shosanna. She was dead the minute she ran from that farmhouse covered in the blood of her family.

Kudos, too, to Christoph Waltz. His performance as the über-creepy Hans Landa is fabulous. His résumé in a career spanning at least 32 years is impressive, though like Laurent seems to be limited to his home country. Shame, really – it’s going to make it more of a challenge to see more of his work. And an unsettling aside – for those of you who may have watched the British TV series, All Creatures Great and Small, about real-life Yorkshire veterinarian James Herriott, Waltz bears a most uncanny resemblance to Christopher Timothy, who played Herriott. Why so unsettling? Well, because Timothy’s character was a kind and gentle man who took care of animals. Waltz’s character is an amoral monster who thought nothing of killing Jews – he didn’t seem to have so much against them, really. It was just another job.

Altogether, my feeling about this film doesn’t seem to mirror that of the theatre full of people with whom I saw it. There were laugh-out-loud scenes, apparently (I heard the laughter – I just didn’t share the sensation that it was amusing. Do we sometimes laugh at something unspeakably horrific, because it comes too close to dark places inside ourselves where we really don’t want to visit?); and as the film faded to black, there were cheers and applause.

I was left with the same feeling that I had as I considered Roger Ebert’s review. Like many in the audience last night, Ebert loved this film. As for me, I thought immediately of the children’s fable, The Emperor’s New Clothes and wondered whether so many reviewers have rated this film highly because they did not want to be the ones who said, “Man, this SUCKED!” Because it did. I give it a resounding “two thumbs down.” Waaaaay down, in fact. If I had more thumbs, they’d be down, too.

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