Inglourious Basterds – Tension
I don’t think any war in our nation’s, or world’s, history has been done to death like World War II. There have been romantic, comedic, heart-wrenching, and just plain bad tellings of “The War to End All Wars.” On the top of my list I have “Saving Private Ryan” and the so-far-under-the-radar “Enemy At The Gates,” whereas craptastic crap like “BloodRayne” remains at the bottom of the English Channel. But you know that when a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino gets a bug up his ass that he wants to make a war film its not going to be like any war film you’ve ever seen. Enter, “Inglourious Basterds.”
Before I dive into “Basterds,” I’ll preface; I was actually going to review all of Tarantino’s directorial efforts in order, but the holidays sidetracked me and I ended up skipping right to “Django Unchained,” where you can read that review right here. I’d like to think of “Basterds” as the moment where Tarantino went mainstream, and I mean REAL mainstream. “Basterds” was his first film to feature a TRUE leading man in Brad Pitt, and he finally was able to reward one of his actors with an Academy Award in Christoph Waltz. In a way it was also one of his most accessible efforts in theaters where it was the largest release for a Tarantino movie to date, “Kill Bill Vol.1” was a close second. And it was the first of his films to be available in a Digital, DVD, and Blu-Ray format (since the writing of this review you can pick up the Tarantino XX Blu-Ray Collection that features all of his films in an HD format).
“Inglourious Basterds” follows the exploits of a group of Jewish-born Army Mercenaries and their commanding officer Lt. Aldo Raine as they merrily maraude across Europe killing, scalping, and branding Nazis. But that is just a small portion of the film, which also follows a French-born Jewish female theater owner planning her revenge against Nazis who are planning to premier a propaganda film entitled “Nation’s Pride.” Included in attendance are Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler. As you can imagine there are twists, typical Tarantino humor, and scenes of fantastic violence. The difference between “Basterds” and Tarantino’s other films is the tension and you can cut it with a knife in several scenes. The best examples include the Strudel scene and the Bar scene. What you also start to see, and this might have started after QT finished up his “Kill Bill” saga, is the change in his tone of film.
Tarantino began making and writing films with an edge, a very gritty edge. He dealt with the wrong side of law in thieves, murderers, sadists, and hit-men And for the most part, it all seemed to fit in some realm of reality. When “Bill” was released you began to see a different side; which included more fantastic plot devices and stories that revolved more around revenge and the bloody road that leads to it. I’m not going to say that Tarantino is getting lazy, its really just a maturation process in his filmmaking, or an evolution if you will. He’s moved from the gritty streets of Los Angeles, to a fantastic Earth 2 of DC proportions.
Look at any war genre film from the 1960s and 70s, and “Basterds” has its fingers all over it. From the original “Inglorious Bastards” to “The Dirty Dozen” and maybe in throw in a little “Wild Bunch” and you have “Basterds” in a nutshell. What Tarantino really brings out is the fact that a so-called “foreign” film can be accessible to any audience. There are a ton of subtitles across this nearly three hour epic, but the actors who read the dialogue do it so well, and with such fluidity, that you get seduced by their delivery, no matter if its in German, French, or Italian. I brought up Christoph Waltz winning an Oscar for his portrayal of Col. Hans Landa, aka, The Jew Hunter, and part of that victory must have come from his ability to act and deliver dialogue in English, German, French, and Italian with gusto, hilarity, and conviction. Every time he appears on screen you are transfixed on his slimy SS Officer. You both hate and love Landa, and there aren’t many characters in the history of film you can say that for.
Is “Inglorious Basterds” a good movie, of course it is. While some viewers saw it as a little boring, uneven, and maybe even a romantic take on Nazis and World War II France, there is still plenty to take away from “Basterds.” Also, I would put money on the fact that the ending of “Basterds” is one of the most satisfying in any Tarantino film to date, even “Django Unchained.” If you haven’t already, or maybe if you’ve even seen it a few times, check out “Inglourious Basterds,” it’s tons of fun, and started a new chapter in the career of Quentin Tarantino.
Fun Fact: Eli Roth, who appears as Sgt. Donny Donowitz, aka The Bear Jew, in “Basterds” directed the scenes from the film-within-a-film, “Nation’s Pride.”
Django Unchained – Conversation
I’ve been hearing this a lot lately; “Tarantino is back…..classic Tarantino,” blah, blah, blah. My question is; “What would you call classic Tarantino?” Yes, he’s known for his witty dialogue, mind-bending plot twists, and recently, alternative takes on important periods in U.S. and European history. But I reiterate; “What would you call classic Tarantino?” My answer: There’s no such thing! People like to come off as smarter than they are, myself included, but of course I’m reviewing movies so I need to come off as a little bit of an expert, aka, dickhead. Tarantino is Tarantino, you can’t say any of his work is “classic Tarantino” because every film he makes is entirely original and nothing like the previous film he made. Here’s a practical example of two other directors to prove my point: Take Ridley Scott. He is known for his sci-fi epics, “Alien” and “Blade Runner.” After those two films he went in entirely different directions, please see “Gladiator” and “Matchstick Men” as examples. Classic Scott would be sci-fi, and he went back to that with ‘Prometheus” with mixed results. Another director would be William Friedkin, known for taut thrillers and exciting crime work, please see “The French Connection” for a excellent example. Friedkin left those movies for a while but returned with “Killer Joe” a taut thriller that keeps you on your toes with plenty of violence. “Joe” would be classic Friedkin. Digressing, enough talk about “Classic Tarantino.” Yes, you can say a movie of his is a classic but enough saying “Classic Tarantino.” I feel it’s something that someone says whose only seen “Kill Bill” and “Inglorious Basterds.” Sorry, I had to get that off my chest, but this brings me to Tarantino’s newest “classic” the Southern-fried Spaghetti Western “Django Unchained.”
“Django” is a modern day “Birth of a Nation,” only with more guns, more talking, and the white man getting his comeuppance. It’s intriguing, noteworthy, timely, violent, offensive, and thought-provoking. Not since 1997’s “Amistad” has the issue of slavery been covered in such an unflattering light. Whereas Steven Spielberg directed “Amistad” with his usual gravitas that includes a two-and-a-half hour history lesson, Tarantino directs with HIS usual gravitas that includes memorable characters, witty dialogue, graphic, sudden violence, but this time, with more maturity. I might add that Tarantino had the added challenge of directing his first movie without the assistance of late-editor, Sally Menke, who passed away shortly after the premier of “Inglorious Basterds” in 2010.
Tarantino uses both the original 1960s “Django” film, starring Franco Nero, (who he also gives credit to during the opening credits for “Django”) and the much-maligned (and probably still is) film “Mandingo” as a template for his newest blood-soaked revenge opus. We follow Django, played with much restraint by Jamie Foxx, as he and Dr. King Schultz, a dentist turned bounty hunter played by Christoph Waltz, set out from Texas to Tennessee and into the dark heart of Mississippi to collect bounties and save Django’s wife, Broomhilda, from the evil clutches of plantation owner Calvin Candie, played with conviction and maniacal delight by Leonardo DiCaprio. Once again, the plot is easy to follow and unlike much Tarantino fare, is streamlined and doesn’t deviate into his non-linear storytelling aside from a few flashbacks of both Django and Broomhilda. In typical Tarantino fashion, he is also able to find humor in dark subject matter which ranges from KKK riders who are having disguise issues to cameos by the likes of Don Johnson playing a slave-owning Colonel Sanders, and Tarantino himself as an Australian slaver.
If you’re a fan of Sergio Leone, or any Western, you’ll love the vast landscapes that Tarantino uses to great effect and moments of tension between characters. It’s much like “Basterds” where the tension usually pays off with a grand crescendo of violence, blood, and dead bodies. Contrary to what people might say about the violence in “Django,” its nowhere as bad as some of the other stuff that is out there, but I think it’s the context in which the violence is portrayed that might get some people’s goats. Aside from the physical violence, which runs the gamut of black on black, white on black, and black on white, there is also the assault of the dreaded “N-word.” dum-dum-dum……the word that people still try and skate around as much as they can. However, I don’t have a problem with Tarantino’s use of the word, especially in “Django.” Spike Lee might have an issue with it, but when you haven’t made a movie that matters since “Inside Man,” I’d be a grumpy, short, black guy too. The word pretty much takes on a character in-and-of itself. It flows freely throughout the film, but you know what, it flowed freely in 1858, and it still flows freely today. No matter your creed or race, everyone has said the word, either out loud or under their breathe. George Carlin gave us the “Seven Words That You Can’t Say,” and thank goodness he didn’t put this on the list.
Maybe it’s my white guilt, but yes, I have black friends. Does that give me the excuse to use the “N-word?” No, it doesn’t. There really isn’t a need to use the word at all, but we still use it, even in casual conversation. While I was watching “Django,” in a packed theater, I knew the dialogue was going to be chalk full of “the word that shall not be named,” so i was waiting to hear some noise when stars like DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson starting dropping the “N-bomb” like it was going out of style. But, alas, not a peep. Perhaps people were prepared to hear that type of language, and if you’ve seen “Jackie Brown” you know that Tarantino loves using it in a casual sense. The reason this word is effective, and makes sense in “Django,” is the context. Yes, slavers and plantation owners used this word freely (of course I don’t know that for sure, but what would you expect racist slave owners to say in the 1850s). Tarantino’s dialogue has always been known to be both direct, and a zeitgeist for the time and place the story is taking place in. He takes ugly language and somehow makes it beautiful and poetic.
The one problem I did have with “Django” was ironically enough the music. Usually the music that QT picks is almost as important as his dialogue and characters, but this time around it seems like a cash-in. There’s original music from John Legend and Rick Ross (the first time in a Tarantino film that music was actually written for his films), and while you’re not going to include music from the 1850s, why include the 808-thumping sounds of Ross. In a film full of good ideas, this was by far the most awkward and perplexing. It almost felt like a cheap MTV-type movie gimmick, see the trailer for “Gangster Squad” as a prime example.
As most of Tarantino’s films, there will be a lot of conversation about the violence, language, and how he takes portions of genre films that he loved and makes them his own. But I find “Django” his most polarizing film. You already have the line in the sand where many people think that he is tearing the scab off the topic of slavery and uncovering the ugly, but true, side to life in the South for African-Americans in the 1850s. Others are saying the violence is too much in a post-Newtown world, while I’m saying, relax! Sorry social crusaders, it’s a movie, or maybe this time, it’s a little more than a movie. Maybe it’s time to have a conversation about our ugly past. Since the founding of our nation we have been gun-toting, slave-buying, violent jingoists. As a society we crave violence in our films, video games, and news. But the moment something tragic occurs it’s time to tone it back. Enough toning back, we have to face our past demons and prepare for new ones that are sure to come. While “Django Unchained” might not be Tarantino’s best film, it’s an example of filmmaking where someone decides that we can’t keep looking at our past through rose-colored glasses. There were some despicable things, and people, in the work-up to the Civil War, and whether you like his style or not, no one spins a story quite like Quentin Tarantino who re-writes history again, sort of, with “Django Unchained.”
Fun Fact: The story of Broomhilda, or Brynhildr, is an old German legend that involves a Norse Valkyrie. She was later popularized by Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle opera series.