I'm not exactly the biggest fan of Quentin Tarantino's latest epic, Inglourious Basterds. But it seems that despite my Twitter warnings, the film opened at number one at the box office, and it was Tarantino's largest opening ever. Still, I don't understand the critical love for this movie. So I thought I owed it to my readers to provide a review. So a couple of days late, here's my review of Inglourious Basterds.
Let me start with what Tarantino got right -- and as much as I disliked this film, he got an awful lot right. The photography is fantastic. The dialogue is among the best he's ever written which is probably due to the fact that this film is set during World War Two and he can't depend on pop culture references. The acting was very good, especially from the Europeans that most of the audience have never heard from before. But the movie, as a whole, just doesn't work.
Like Pulp Fiction, and the Kill Bills, this movie is told in disjointed sections. But the styles seemed to differ between each and Tarantino would go from spaghetti western to spy flick to buddy comedy to horror film, and unlike with the other movies, the transitions didn't always work and momentum was often lost.
The first section of the movie, set in France during 1941, is perhaps one of the best bits of film work that Tarantino's ever done. This is the spaghetti western which is basically about a 15-minute segment of nearly pure dialogue framed by fantastic camera work, great editing, a tense setting, and fantastic acting that ends with a burst of violence that remarkably, for Tarantino, is actually rather restrained. The segment involves a Nazi SS officer, Col. Hans Landa (played fantastically by Austrian actor Christoph Waltz) interviewing a French farmer about Jews that are possibly being hidden by the farmer and his family. The farmer, Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet) seems to be up the game of the wits which involves the men speaking French, German, and English. But Landa, known as "The Jew Hunter" breaks LaPadite, which leads to the epic burst of violence. It also, unfortunately, leads to a moment that, while beautifully photographed, scored, edited, and acted, doesn't logically work except for one important fact -- the rest of the film doesn't work without it.
Tarantino then cuts to the formation of the Basterds, led by Lt. Aldo Raine, a Southerner with the thick accent played by Brad Pitt. This portion of the movie, which includes narration by Samuel L. Jackson and 1970s style title cards plays as a cross of a buddy war comedy and horror film since Pitt commands his basterds to bring each bring him 100 Nazi scalps. And it involves Germans having their heads beaten in by a baseball bat swung by torture porn director Eli Roth who is Pitt's second-in-command.
Then there's the spy film which involves a British intelligence officer being dropped into France where he is going to join up with Pitt's basterds and a German actress. There they're going to go to Paris and kill various members of the German high command who are gathered to watch the premier of a movie about Germany's Audie Murphy. This portion of the movie contains a cameo from Mike Myers looking like one of his characters from the Austin Powers movies and a heavily made up Rod Taylor playing Winston Churchill. And the British officer, he's a film critic.
Michael Fassbender's fine as the officer/critic, and Diane Kruger is good as the German actress, Bridget Von Hammersmark. And they're good in the spy film. But once Pitt's basterds join up, the two groups really don't work because Pitt's and his guys are playing broad comedy and Kruger and Fassbender are doing a LeCarre spy film.
The final interwoven thread involves the story of Shosanna Dreyfus, a Jewish woman hiding in plain sight as the gentile owner of the theater in which the film is going to premier. She is romantically pursued by the German Audie Murphy who is in town for the premier, and she gets to meet up with and entertain various members of the German high command. Dreyfus, played by French actress Melanie Laurent, has another secret. Along with being Jewish, she's hatching her plan to kill the Germans in attendance at the movie.
The stories all intersect at the end as the remnants of Pitt's Basterds and Dreyfus, working separately and not knowing the existence of the other, attempt to carry out their plans while Col. Landa hunts them down and seemingly attempts to prevent the deaths of Hitler and those under his command.
Separately, the stories work. Together, they don't mesh. I know Tarantino likes to go off on tangents and that his movies are generally interwoven stories. But it just doesn't work this time. The actors are fine, especially Waltz and Laurent who are fantastic, but when the various film portions interact, the styles just don't work. Waltz, who has to speak French, English, German and Italian throughout the movie, is the only actor who seems to fit in each section. Then again, he's the smartest man in the movie, and probably the most evil. He's definitely the bad guy, and it's like Tarantino directs him in the same way whether he's in the spy flick, the spaghetti western, or the buddy war comedy. But Pitt and his crew play broad comedy even when they're acting against Kruger and Fassbender, and Kruger and Fassbender are acting as if they're in a spy film. It just doesn't work.
The biggest problem for me, besides the sections of the movie not meshing, is just that I found large portions of it boring. The movie is alive when Pitt, Waltz, or Laurent is on screen. But they're not always there. And there's no momentum from one section to the next. It's like the movie comes to a stop and has to start all over again. And while this is how portions of Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bills worked, those movies didn't lurch from stop to action to stop to action. And even with all of the different stories, the movie was still too long, and it felt like Tarantino could have trimmed a good half-hour to make it work.
In the end, I think Tarantino just chose to make the wrong movie. Inglorious Basterds would have worked great if it was a movie about Pitt and his basterds. Or it would have been just as good were it to have been Dreyfus and her attempt for revenge. And a movie focusing on just the British plot would have been equally as good. As it is, each segment was short-changed, the parts weren't as good as the whole, and some of Tarantino's best individual work is dragged under by some of his most indulgent. If you go for this movie, go for the first 15 minutes. Go for the work of Waltz, Laurent, and Pitt. Or go for the short segment scored with David Bowie's "Cat People (Putting Out The Fire)."
But don't go for the movie as a whole because it's just not worth it.