Tag Archives: Tarantino

Inglourious Basterds

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: A band of gung-ho Jewish-American soldiers take the fight to Hitler’s Nazis in the occupied France of 1944. Tales of their brutal exploits reach the ears of Hitler, who has every right to be concerned: he’s due to attend the premiere of Goebbels’ latest propaganda piece, and it’s not just the ‘Basterds’ who want to sabotage the event. Just as well that the Führer has the bloodhound-like Hans Landa – aka the ‘Jew Hunter’ – on his side.

Nazi-occupied France in 1941 is no place to be harbouring Jews, especially with the notorious ‘Jew Hunter’ Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) on the case. When Landa re-visits the farm of Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet), he senses and kills the hidden Dreyfus family, but young Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) manages to flee with her life. Three years later, Shosanna is running a Paris cinema under a pseudonym and catches the eye of Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a German war hero whose exploits have been made into a film, Nation’s Pride, by Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth). Zoller petitions for the film to be premiered at Shosanna’s cinema and when Landa turns up to assist with the evening, she redoubles her own plans to turn the night into a Nazi bloodbath.

Meanwhile, a crack unit of Jewish Americans under the leadership of Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is terrorising rank-and-file German soldiers, their fears multiplied by legends of the ‘Bear Jew’ Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) and the ‘Inglourious Basterds’’ recruitment of homicidal Nazi-killer Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger). They become involved in Operation Kino, a plan hatched by the British Army to get Lt Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) into the premiere alongside actress/double agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger); their meeting doesn’t exactly go to plan, but Raine decides that he must attend the premiere with Bridget, Donny and nervous Omar (Omar Doom). After all, Adolf Hitler is rumoured to be coming, and what better Nazi scalp could there be than der Führer?

There are very few things I can say with complete confidence about Inglourious Basterds, not being a connoisseur of War movies – specifically, not having seen The Dirty Dozen or the Italian knock-off/homage which lends this film its odd title. What I do know is that Tarantino knows his films, and I’m sure that the vast majority of Basterds’ movie references flew right over my head as I watched; but I can still give an opinion on the piece, and my immediate verdict is ‘not overly struck’.

It’s a shame, because in places there’s plenty to admire. Since it’s driven by cinema, the climax taking place in one, the plot is unsurprisingly sure-footed; the style is confident, too, the camerawork fluidly swooping over the heads of our characters, the violence explicit and visceral when it arrives. Tarantino boldly presents an alternative, movie-bound universe where Hitler can be shot to pieces in 1944 by brave Yanks and although we know that’s not what actually happened, we accept it as part of the conceit of World War II seen – and heard – as Revenge Western.

The universally-feted Waltz is terrific, but he is merely the standout in a host of strong performances: Pitt is (in)gloriously brash, while Fassbender’s Hicox is convincing (until his fatal mistake) and both female leads, Kruger and Laurent, are very strong.

So what’s my problem? Well, there are a few. Firstly, Tarantino has storytelling issues. The film essentially runs three story strands simultaneously: Raine’s Basterds, von Hammersmark’s role in Operation Kino, and Shosanna’s retribution (pitched against any or all of Landa, Hitler, and the Nazis in general). While these strands physically converge at the film’s climax, they never become contingent; would Hitler and his cronies not have perished in the fire anyway, regardless of Donny and Omar’s bullets?

Perhaps because of this, Inglourious Basterds comes over as disconnected, a self-conscious construct rather than a credible fiction, a film made by someone expert in World War II movies but ignorant of – and caring little about – the war itself. The lack of resonance with historical facts means that despite impressive set decoration, costumery and so on, the film never feels as real as Valkyrie or even Mother Night. And since I’ve mentioned some strong acting performances, I should also point out that Mike Myers’ English General is lousy, Rod Taylor is the worst screen Churchill you’ll ever see, and Martin Wuttke’s Hitler isn’t much cop either.

Secondly, it’s not as if everything about the story works. The queasy comedy of Raine, Donowitz and Omar posing as Italians at the premiere of Nation’s Pride just doesn’t work: not only is it not funny, someone would surely have had them shot, or at least got the high-ranking Nazis out of harm’s way, as soon as it was discovered that they were frauds (ie. immediately). But as we are reminded at every single moment, this is a cinematic construct, not a true history. There are also some directorial tics that I didn’t enjoy: the eclectic soundtrack, which shoehorns a Bowie track (from another film) into a WWII drama; or the silly arrows pointing out infamous Nazis in the cinema.

However – and thirdly – perhaps Inglourious Basterds’ biggest failing is Tarantino’s self-indulgence. He’s evidently testing his own mettle, and the patience of his audience, by stretching out a number of key scenes to the point where they become tiresome, deliberately daring the viewer to lose confidence in the scene before the inevitable explosion of violence arrives. If you’re absolutely caught up in the drama, this technique is potentially effective; I merely got bored.

There is, as I say, much to applaud in many of the scenes, especially the opening encounter between Landa and M. LaPadite and the tense meeting in the cellar between von Hammersmark and Hicox, which swirls intriguingly between outwardly celebratory parties of protagonists who all have their own interesting sub-plots. However, each scene could have lost at least a third of its running time without harming the film one bit.

I don’t quite know what Quentin was hoping to achieve by making so many of the scenes in Inglourious Basterds as long as they are. He may have been allowing them room to breathe, in which case the writing’s not as strong as it needs to be (it certainly lacks the snap of his earlier work); or he may have simply been showing off, in which case he’s literally wasting our time. Whatever, I got fed up with the film’s empty machismo, its absurd fantasy that the Americans would’ve shown Hitler what for if only they’d sent “the boys” over to do the job.

That said, I didn’t dislike Inglourious Basterds at all, because although it’s self-indulgent and overlong, Tarantino’s talent – with a big helping hand from Waltz – comes through. However, people with a deeper investment in the conflict may feel he’s being thoroughly disrespectful; those with a shorter attention span may just switch off instead.

Advertisements

Pulp Fiction

WFTB Score: 18/20

The plot: The intersecting lives of a couple of hoods, their intensely laid-back boss, his reckless wife, the washed-up boxer paid to lose a fight and possibly the most hapless robbers in history.

For enforcers Vince and Jules (John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson), anything can happen in the course of a day working for Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). For example, Vince might be obliged to entertain Marsellus’ wife Mia (Uma Thurman), an evening that quickly turns from teasing frustration to terror when Mia mistakenly snorts heroin. Or Jules might miraculously survive being shot at whilst recovering a mysterious package, causing him to question his purpose. Or both of them might have to rely on the cleaning services of ‘The Wolf’ (Harvey Keitel) when Vincent proves to have a twitchy trigger finger. Others have tales to tell, too: when fighter Butch (Bruce Willis) wins a fight Marsellus paid him to lose, he and girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Madeiros) become fugitives, though he can’t possibly predict where his day will go when he attempts to retrieve a prized watch. And when Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer’s amateur bandits hit on the bright idea of turning over coffee shops for easy cash, they can’t possibly predict how bad an idea it is to attempt to separate Jules from his wallet.

Simply because of its purpose, the dialogue of most films is profoundly unrealistic. Nobody’s really as sharp as Rick in Casablanca; nobody’s really as ‘confused’ as Nigel in This is Spinal Tap. And nobody really uses language as caustically, as glibly, as punchily as the cast of Pulp Fiction. For all of its other qualities – and it has many – the film’s dialogue is what elevates it from a run-of-the-mill collection of gangster exploits to a modern masterpiece. Like the films above, examples are too numerous to mention, though I particularly like “I shot Marvin in the face” (which shouldn’t be funny, but is) and Jules’ explanation of what his wallet looks like (I won’t go into it here, but the swearing is both monumental and impressively inventive). Tarantino’s trick is to intersperse moments of action and violence with the characters chatting about the most mundane things; while this might sound dull, it humanises and fleshes out characters who could otherwise appear monstrous or alien. It helps, too, that the stories Tarantino and Roger Avary have written are satisfyingly gritty and sordid*: if we didn’t know anything about gimp masks before Pulp Fiction, we certainly did afterwards.

Pulp Fiction’s fractured structure is another trick that works spectacularly well. By rights, chopping back and forth in time, so that someone we’ve seen being shot in one section is back with us in the next, should be a jarring experience. However, it works brilliantly, allowing the film to have explosive and shocking moments while still giving characters the exits they ‘deserve’. It may be a cheat, but it’s a damn effective one. While Tarantino isn’t averse to gimmickry and homages (there’s a shot that exactly mimics Psycho, and no doubt tons of other film references that I’m not aware of), Pulp Fiction is directed fairly unfussily, Tarantino’s most obvious contribution coming from the wonderfully eclectic and always appropriate soundtrack. Jungle Boogie is an early highlight, Dusty’s Son of a Preacher Man another; but my favourite is Urge Overkill’s version of Neil Diamond’s Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon.

Of course, directors can do little without good actors, and Tarantino can count himself incredibly lucky with his cast for Pulp Fiction, and especially Samuel L. Jackson’s breakout performance. Jules is an engagingly cool dude, albeit one capable of a terrifying homicidal rage; in Jackson’s hands, he’s also fascinatingly complex following the ‘miracle’ and his subsequent epiphany. That said, it would be careless to overlook Travolta’s contribution to the partnership and the movie as a whole – call him unlucky, or reckless, or whatever you like, there’s something endearing about Vincent’s resentment at being blamed for things that are completely his fault (Travolta, having been unfashionable for most of the previous decade, temporarily became hot property again). Uma Thurman, who has been pretty terrible at times, finds the right level of self-amusement in Mia and, to be fair, does the traumatic stuff really well; Bruce just has to be Bruce to be good, though he does more, showing great tenderness and scary anger in his relationship with Fabienne and always keeping us guessing about whether or not he’s a good guy. I should also mention Ving Rhames, who takes Marsellus’ reversals of fortune with a calm voice, though you can tell there’s one hell of a wallet description waiting to bust loose. Keitel is simply class. It’s fun, too, to see other actors as you might not expect to see them: Rosanna Arquette, Steve Buscemi.

Which brings us to the few elements that are less than brilliant. Tarantino as actor will never be a particularly compelling screen presence; I wasn’t convinced that his Jimmie belonged in the film’s world of gangsters and lowlifes, though Quentin makes life hard for himself by trying to roll with Keitel, Travolta and Jackson all at once. As director, Tarantino could surely have trimmed his famously long scenes ever so slightly: Butch’s lengthy walk to his apartment, for example, or Vince’s tour of Jack Rabbit Slims. In fact, I’ve never actually been able to watch Pulp Fiction without pausing it halfway through (which might say more about me than the movie) – luckily, there’s a natural intermission immediately before Christopher Walken’s superb cameo, which makes the start of ‘part two’ a highlight.

Tarantino’s critics have argued with some justification that the director’s tropes – the knowingly mundane dialogue, the long scenes, the record-collection soundtrack – are repeated mindlessly from one film to the next, making him something of a one-trick pony. Nevertheless, when it’s used as successfully as it is in Pulp Fiction, and pulled off by actors in the blistering form of Travolta and Jackson here, it’s one hell of a trick.

NOTES: I won’t go on forever; I just wanted to mention the scene of Butch trying out weapons of escalating offensiveness. It’s both a nod to Tarantino’s beloved exploitation films and a lovely bit of non-verbal comedy.