Friday, August 21, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

There are moments in Inglourious Basterds when you can’t believe what a great movie this is. There are other times when you despair of Quentin Tarantino, and think it’s more than spelling that’s giving him trouble lately. It’s that sort of movie.

The Director’s Cut is one of the ruinations of modern cinema. The very idea is wrong – what makes a movie good isn’t what you put back in, but what you leave out. It’s precious in the extreme to think otherwise. Movies’ natural lengths are ninety minutes to two hours. Once you go beyond that, you’re stretching the form.

Tarantino clearly had lots of ideas for Inglourious Basterds and, instead of picking and choosing and treating the audience to 90 to 100 minutes of schlock cinematic bliss, Tarantino shoved them all in to a 153 minute magnum opus. Think the Beatles’ White Album on celluloid and you’re there.

The movie’s original premise was about a US guerrilla force in Nazi-Occupied France during World War II. But the really interesting thing in the movie is the subplot, about a Jewish girl whose family has been wiped out by the Nazis and finds that Heaven has sent her a golden opportunity for vengeance.

Tarantino could have made a super, super movie if he’d realised that he’d fallen for Shosanna Dreyfuss and dumped Aldo Raine. Brad Pitt has very little to do in the movie, really, and seems to amuse himself by impersonating George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou? A little judicial editing and working on the script could have changed the focus to Shosanna, where it belongs, and then run the Basterds idea through that.

Tarantino could have sold the change of emphasis to Pitt by pointing out that you don’t need time on screen to be the star, and proved it by showing him Silence of the Lambs. Instead, everything goes into the pot and we take the rough with the smooth.

Some of the set pieces in the movie are fantastic. Two especially; the opening, where we meet the villain, Colonel Landa, and another about half-win in, set in a bar, that helps establish the dénouement. Tarantino has found a German actor, August Diehl, who is the spitting image of Christopher Walken thirty years ago. How perfect is that?

There’s so much to enjoy, in many ways. There are some lovely, really clever scenes between Shosanna and a German soldier who later turns out to be vital to the plot. Christoph Waltz's Colonel Landa is a super, super villain. The scene where Mike Myers’ General briefs Michael Fassbender’s Archie Hicox is up there with Christopher Walken’s watch scene in Pulp Fiction. One of Tarantino’s great gifts is his use of music, and he doesn’t disappoint here, not sparing the Ennio Moricone for a moment.

But the overall effect is watered down by a plot that isn’t tight and by a liberty taken with history that isn’t worth it. The film doesn’t end so much as peter out. Therefore, the overall effect of the movie is disappointing, even though there have been great moments. Not the artistic washout that we feared, but not as good as we hoped either.

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