August 28, 2009

Blood, Banter and Basterds: Tarantino's Back

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It’s not hard to poke fun at Quentin Tarantino’s distinctive writing style: Choose an obscure pop culture reference, have two odd characters argue about it over coffee, have one provide a radically new interpretation of the reference and throw in as much profanity, sexual slang and the n-word as possible (maybe have one of them comment on the quality of the coffee.) When writing by a particular auteur gets so predictable, it is either a welcome expectation by longtime fans or a glaring revelation that an artist has run out of steam and is fumbling at the frayed bottom of his bag of tricks.
What is certain is that Tarantino knows how to dial down and tell a story. He can wrest a tale from the annals of reality without unrealistic gallons of dripping blood or gimps in basements or crazy katana-wielding blondes, and with good old-fashioned characterization, i.e. normal people in abnormal circumstances fighting to get out or in or through. Here is where his much-touted, long-awaited WWII film, Inglourious Basterds, succeeds. Yes, the title of the film is a reference to a ’70s film. Yes, there’s an annoying intro. There’s also some hogwash about a crack squad of expert killers, the Basterds, under the command of Lt. Aldo Raine (a hysterically hicked-out Brad Pitt) who are sanctioned to drop into occupied Europe before D-Day and kill Nazis at random. There are “chapters,” and chronology is messed with a little, but the opening scene is one of the best in recent cinematic history.
It features an understated but magnificent performance by relative unknown Christoph Waltz, who plays SS Colonel Hans Landa, nicknamed “The Jew Hunter” for his uncanny ability to apply his detective skills to sniff out which families in France are harboring Jewish refugees. Landa arrives at the dairy farm of a Frenchman and casually chats him up in a scene of such hidden tension and lurking evil that nail-biting is induced. An otherwise good man learns through calculated nuance that the Colonel knows he is hiding Jews, and he reveals the truth for the sake of his family. Landa murders all but one, Shosanna (beautiful new comer Melanie Laurent), who flees for her life.
Shosanna creates the other plot arc of the film, as she inevitably comes into contact with a young German sniper named Zoller (Daniel Brühl), totally smitten with her, who awkwardly places her in the position of hosting the entire German high council, including Hitler, at a propaganda film premiere in her newly acquired cinema. She plots an act of revenge as Lt. Raine and the Basterds swiftly approach with their own assassination ideas in mind. Diane Krueger proves she has some acting mettle as well as the German double agent for the Allies, Bridget von Hammersmark, a reputedly famous German film actress who provides the Basterds with the information about the premiere, where the expected showdown takes place, with unexpected twists.
The set-up is great for a final action reel, but the beauty of the film comes in the way people talk to each other. The rhythms of dialogue are perfectly constructed, and the audience laughs hardest at Lt. Raine’s attempt at Italian, at Colonel Landa’s odd exclamation of an American catchphrase, at the peculiarly proprietary humming of the British.
As proven twice before in 1996’s From Dusk Til Dawn, which bears Tarantino’s scriptwriting credit, and 2007’s Grindhouse double feature (the Death Proof half was directed by Tarantino) no one writes dialogue like good old Q, and no one upstages him in action direction more than Robert Rodriguez. Perhaps consulting his longtime friend and collaborator in orienting the pacing and camera angles of Basterds may have done some good. Or, maybe, they couldn’t be salvaged at all.
The cartoonish, regrettably “trademark” Tarantino comedy-violence just didn’t seem to work in this film. For every bright red scalped head, close-zoom of a swastika carved into a forehead or chaotic Mexican standoff, the jarring tone furrows brows and induces gag. Tarantino has a history of bringing out the humor in an otherwise gruesome situation, and although this film has the existing aura of being a surreal revisionist tale where anything goes, too much care is put into crafting characters and meaningful dialogue. Too much delicacy exists in the film, as the audience is treated to nuanced character acting and subtlety of facial mannerism only to see someone erupt in a shower of blood or have their head beaten in with a bat. Tarantino has filmed and advertised a film as a wacky vendetta against Nazis for their cruelty to Europe’s Jews and others, and rewritten history to reflect that. Why? He crafted an expert film about people and their tribulations and relationships during a brutal period of the past. But he forgot that Nazis are people too.