Monday, March 1, 2010

Inglourious Basterds: A Ladybrain Review

Quentin Tarantino considers his latest film, the obnoxiously misspelled Inglourious Basterds, the "best thing he's ever written." That's saying a lot, when one considers Tarantino's kick-ass filmography, especially since he is known most for not just stories but dialogue. There's nothing that annoys this ladybrain more than mindless hero-worship and name dropping, so don't get the wrong impression. In fact, this ladybrain wasn't keen to see Inglourious Basterds on this basic premise: Tarantino has become exponentially more popular in the past few years, and thus must have also become exponentially less interesting (this ladybrain's love for Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill notwithstanding). Having skipped over Death Proof amid poor reviews, this misspelled magnum opus thus was reviewed by skeptical lady-eyes.

Inglourious Basterds follows a French Jew, Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) and a Jewish-American militia headed by Lt. Aldo "and I want my scalps" Raine (Brad Pitt) in an alternate history of World War II, emphasis on alternate. The militia, who call themselves the Basterds, go behind enemy lines in France to kill, torture and intimidate Nazis. They intersect with Shoshanna in 1944 Paris, where she owns a cinema and is passing as a Gentile named Emmanuelle. Much to her chagrin, a Nazi posterchild takes a liking to her. But after he arranges for a propaganda film to premiere at her cinema, Shoshanna sees a perfect opportunity for revenge against the Nazis for murdering her family.

While it may not have the staying power of other Tarantino classics, this is a very interesting film, and not just because of the cathartic Nazi slayings (including Hitler himself). Tarantino finds a way to make the sometimes painfully familiar Holocaust story line enthralling, especially by capturing the paranoia and paralyzing fear that a fair-haired, blue-eyed Jewish woman endures every day by living in Nazi-occupied Paris. Tarantino allows the stress and tension of those scenes, the most memorable of which involve Col. Hans "the Jew hunter" Landa (Christoph Waltz), to build far beyond the threshold audiences are used to. But the fact that he can enthrall and ellicit this kind of gut reaction shows what an amazing filmmaker he is.

And, to his credit, Tarantino pays homage to these French and German story lines by avoiding the trademark American arrogance of assuming any foreign characters would speak English in their foreign homes, albeit with a slight accent. In this film, American characters speak English, and their ignorance of other tongues is chastized and then made an ongoing joke. The Europeans speak English only either to Americans, or in the chilling opening scene, to speak plainly without being understood by others.

The colors, landscapes, costumes and music are tremendous. The acting is impeccable, with the notable exception of basically all the Basterds except Pitt (who is more of a caricature here) and a truly ridiculous and embarrassing cameo by Mike Myers. The inexplicable casting of every out of his league character-actor-who-has-ever-played-a-geek as a Basterd, including a guy from Freaks and Geeks and Ryan from The Office, as well as Tarantino's buddy and a proud forefather of the torture porn genre, Eli Roth. Really, for a film named after this motley crew, it was surprising how anonymous most of the Basterds were, other than being a group of non-athletic looking skinny dudes who can inexplicably kick every Nazi troop's asses. Other than their dear leader and Roth's Sgt. Donny Donowitz who, try not to laugh out loud, is feared above no one else as the mighty, strong, ruthless "Bear Jew." BOO! Roth is admittedly a woman-hating scuz bucket and his black eyes are super creepy but he's not exactly Goliath. He's super scary when you contemplate what his work says about women. But anyone can hit Nazis with a bat. Come on.

Whenever the Americans aren't onscreen distracting us from the more interesting plotlines about Shoshanna and German double-agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), we get to see some truly remarkable performances by Waltz as a disturbingly effective and calm Nazi enforcer, Laurent as a strong and resilient survivor and from Kruger as a German actress feeding information to the allies.

All the same, the depiction of these leading ladies is still somewhat fraught. The film manages to abysmally fail the Bechdel test even though it features two clever, charming young women. How can that be? Well, judging from Tarantino's other films, he tends to write female characters who surround themselves exclusively with men--they're sufficiently socially deviant that they apparently can't relate to any female friends or family members. Think of the Uma Thurman characters alone. Kill Bill's The Bride and Pulp Fiction's Mia Wallace are both loners. They're wives and mothers but still deviants--one is an assassin, the other a cokehead.

Similarly, Shoshanna and Bridget are both very beautiful, commanding women, who aren't attached to a husband or father, but at the same are surrounded by men in their social and professional lives. Shoshanna inherits a cinema from an offscreen "aunt" and runs it independently with her employee and lover Marcel. Other than Marcel, Shoshanna only interacts only with Nazi soldiers (not by choice), and she seems completely at ease as a professional, if not as a Jew in hiding. She is stylish and acerbic, qualities that charm her Nazi admirer until he is tired of being rebuffed. But even when threatened, Shoshanna uses her cunning to gain the advantage and protect herself, although a hint of sympathy afterward spells her doom.

The beautiful and lively Bridget uses her fame and acting skills to help the Allies get closer to Hitler and top Nazi officials, but the same charm that makes her double-agent life possible also puts her under a cloud of suspicion to the Basterds and Germans alike. A mark of her fame and her feminine wardrobe are what lead Landa to suspect Bridget, and when he confronts her, he punishes her with vigor and gendered insults that he wouldn't bestow upon a male double-agent.

All told, Inglourious Basterds is an interesting flick, and worth seeing, but it surely won't hold up to Tarantino's older, better films.

Feminist grade: D

It fails the Bechdel test, and punishes its leading ladies for their sympathy and cunning, respectively.

Moviegoer grade: C+

The parts that focus on French and German characters are head and shoulders better than the distractingly bad American Basterds scenes. There are some cool elements at play here, but ultimately it's a notch below Best Picture quality.

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