Tuesday, 20 September 2011

100 days, 100 films; Day 91 - Inglorious Basterds

#10 - Inglorious Basterds

Now what better way to kick off the top ten than with one final visit to Mr Quentin Tarantino? Back when I reviewed Empire of the Sun, I drew attention to the fact that Steven Spielberg considers that film to be his best project or “Magnum Opus” if you want to get fancy. Well as it happens, Tarantino considers this film to be his Magnum Opus. I know that Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs are his most well known projects and have gotten the most critical acclaim but I’m inclined to agree with Tarantino on this one. Indeed the film’s success gives us a good example and I think that in a few years it will have gained the same iconic status that Pulp Fiction has. I mean, when I watched it in the cinema I thought it was a great film but there was no way I thought it would sweep the Oscars like it did. But hey the Academy can surprise us every now and then.

The setting is Nazi-occupied France in the middle of World War II. We follow three distinct plot lines that will all eventually intersect. The first revolves around an infamous officer in the SS called Colonel Hans Landa, who has been given the nickname “The Jew Hunter” for obvious reasons...except he’s freakishly good at his job because he prides himself on being able to think like a Jew and therefore find out where they are in hiding. Landa is introduced early on but he doesn’t come into play until much later in the story so let’s move on. The titular Basterds are a group of Jewish-American soldiers led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine who has them ambush Nazi soldiers and scalp them all. The Basterds always leave one soldier alive from each group to spread the word...carving a swastika into their forehead for good measure to mark them as a Nazi forever. The Basterds in this particular mission join forces with the British and seek the help of an informant – the German movie star Bridget von Hammersmark who is helping them prepare a plan called Operation Kino. This ties in with the third plot line: a Jewish woman named Shoshanna Dreyfus escaped from Landa’s clutches many years ago and is now living under a false identity in Paris as a cinema owner. A German actor takes a fancy to her and convinces Joseph Goebbels (yes that one) to have his prestigious film premiere at Shoshanna’s cinema. When this is arranged, Shoshanna realises that with a cinema full of Nazi officials, it will be the perfect opportunity to burn the building to the ground. Oh and Hitler himself will be at the premiere.

The film follows the traditional Tarantino structure in that it’s completely different from the typical three or five act structure. We open with a lengthy scene introducing Hans Landa to us, and Shoshanna of course, and then we switch to the segment with the Basterds where we see them and their motivation in great detail. Thirdly we see Shoshanna again and then we end up cutting back and forth with everything eventually coming together on the night of the film premiere where all three stories intersect. As soon as we hear about Operation Kino then half the film becomes dramatic irony since we see the Americans and the British planning this huge detailed scheme when they really don’t have to since Shoshanna’s plan is pretty much fool-proof. What’s probably the most curious and interesting part to me anyway is that the Basterds and Shoshanna never actually interact in the film which is a shame in that world since any plan they would come up with would be nigh-unstoppable. Oh and I do feel I should mention the length since it is exactly two-and-a-half hours long, for those who care. But the film itself doesn’t feel long at first since you solidly go from one part of the story to the next without cutting in between, so here the length is necessary.

Brad Pitt is billed as the main star in this film for obvious reasons though sadly he didn’t do it for me in this film. I found him and his Southern accent annoying and he seemed like he was just half-assing the whole film like he was playing it up to be along the so bad it’s good lines like it was Planet Terror or something like that, while the other actors were giving it their best performances. The only time Pitt actually made me laugh in this was with his (intentionally) atrocious Italian so he’s not completely worthless in this. Another bad part of the cast goes to Michael Fassbender who plays a British soldier, and he tries to posh himself up to hide his natural Irish accent. The result is a cringe from the audience whenever he speaks as the Queen herself isn’t that British. I’m aware that some people were that posh back then but it’s very hard to pull that specific accent off and Fassbender fails epically. Thankfully his German is flawless and he spends most of his screen time talking in that language so it’s really just a couple of short scenes where we have to put up with the pip-pip and cheerio dialogue. The delicious Diane Kruger plays Bridget von Hammersmark and is just charming as this bubbly and entertaining character. She moves so easily between English and German that she deserves some kind of Golden Tongue Award for languages. 
I don’t know if they give those out but they really should. Another recipient for the Golden Tongue Award is no doubt Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa. I was thrilled when I heard he got all the nominations and I wasn’t expecting him to win most of them since I never thought the Academy would give the Oscar to someone for playing a Nazi (I was of course forgetting Kate Winslet) but it was well deserved. He plays that role so well and is so brilliant as a villain that he’ll likely go the same way as Anthony Perkins and end up typecast. Melanie Laurent plays Shoshanna and her performance is right up there with the best of them. I do give Tarantino props for featuring two prominent female characters in the film whose main roles aren’t as the girlfriends of the main characters. Eli Roth makes an appearance as a man called The Bear Jew, known for beating Nazis to death with a baseball bat. He is a little over the top in some places but he’s not as overdone as Brad Pitt so I enjoyed him. I also noticed two actors who also appeared in Robin Hood have small roles in the first scene. The guy playing the French man Landa interrogates had one scene in Robin Hood with Godfrey while one of his daughters in this played Isabella. Samuel L Jackson also provides a voice-over in a couple of scenes as well. 

My favourite scene comes when the Basterds are meeting up with Bridget in a tavern. At first it’s just a fun little conversation scene until a Nazi officer shows up and hears the British soldier speaking German with an unusual accent (possibly a bit of irony there considering Michael Fassbender is a fluent German speaker while it’s his English accent that needs work) and sits down with them. They even play a little card game and all the while the tension is building over whether or not they can get rid of this soldier and get out of there easily. The scene is entirely in German and it’s done so simply that it stands out as one of the most enjoyable sequences in the film. Michael Fassbender makes up for his appalling English accent earlier by being quite entertaining with his German, and paired with Diane Kruger and her enthusiasm makes for a fun little dialogue scene. The opening scene on the French farm between Hans Landa and the farmer is also brilliantly built up and drawn out as the tension slowly starts to mount. We slowly go from thinking everything’s going to be alright to a big collective “oh crap” as we find out just how good at his job Landa is. The entire sequence at the premiere is pure gold for Brad Pitt and his deliberately bad Italian accent and of course Hitler and Goebbels acting like a couple. 

Well that’s the first of the top ten out of the way and of course my final stop to Quentin Tarantino. He has provided us with some great films and made me into a fan at the rather late age of sixteen, so of course he deserves to be in my top ten. I remember back when I reviewed Casablanca I wondered how many war films were actually on my list. So I guess a war film not only beat out that but made it into my top ten as well. I like to pride myself on getting plenty of varied genres into this whole list so stay tuned for some even more different genres in the following nine films. I would suggest preparing yourself for a futuristic story for the next entry. Adieu, Au Revoir, Auf Weidersein and goodbye, Bobby-verse. Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter.

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