Vantage point

Friday, August 21, 2009

Review of Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino's latest release, Inglourious Basterds, is kind of like a 50-over innings from a one-day cricket match. Delectable beginning and a breath-taking end, but the middle portion has you checking the watch a lot. The bang for the buck you get from the start and the end does compensate for the dreary middle, but really, this is not the sort of calculation you usually find yourself doing for a Tarantino movie! So while keeping in mind that the movie is way better than the usual fare, worth watching on the big screen, and entertaining on the whole, let us examine why it fails to meet the admittedly astronomical QT standards.

A big problem - the dialogs, which, paradoxically enough are usually QT's biggest strength. Hardly any engaging conversations that really stay with you after the movie ends. Individual lines? Lots, most of them from Brad Pitt. But conversations? Not so much. Maybe something got lost in translation, because at least half, if not three-fourths of the movie, is in German or French, so for the most part, you are reading the subtitles. I say "maybe", because it was not at all an issue in the two Kill Bill movies. Subtitled conversations were still engaging, hilarious and memorable, like those between the bride and Hatori Hanzo or Pai Mei. Here, nahh, not so much.

Which probably has to do with the second problem too. A relative dearth of memorable and well-fleshed-out characters, which again, QT films are usually packed with. Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa of the SS is chillingly suave, and should get an Oscar nomination. Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine has a rustic hilarity that is reminiscent of his character in Snatch, more in style than content. But too much in the film rests on the shoulders of these two men. I found myself wishing, hoping praying that every subsequent scene would have at least one of the two men.

And I don't think the problem was with acting. Melanie Laurent's performance as Shosanna is a triumph in non-verbal acting, with her eyes, facial expressions, and even sighs conveying more than words ever could. Daniel Bruhl, whom I loved in Goodbye Lenin, does an excellent job playing the annoying overachieving sniper Zoller. The guys caricaturing Hitler and Goebbels are hilarious, and there is a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo by Mike Myers. And the rest of the basterds, like Eli Roth, B.J.Novak, and so on also put in a competent hard day's work, but are not developed. I was especially disappointed to see Eli Roth as the promising "Jew Bear" lose all distinguishing characteristics as the movie progressed. So the problem was with the writing, which left all characters except Landa and Raine totally flat and purely functional rather than evocative.

With the film lacking in engaging conversations or engaging characters, the middle half is bound to meander. I was especially annoyed by the whole long-drawn scene in the bar, which fails to deliver on its potential of being cult-worthy, and adds nothing to the movie except what happens at the end. The King-Kong bit is the only clever part in there, and even then, the punchline takes a little too long to arrive. And considering what happens at the end, it was also pointless to include the British angle, including a doddering old man not given too much footage, and who one assumes is supposed to be Winston Churchill.

But that's the bad part. Now on to the really good ones.

The opening scene of the movie is nail-biting and gets you on the edge of your seat right away. And gets you intimately acquainted with the demonic Col. Landa. And has some awesomely imaginative background music.... imagine a mash-up of Beethoven's Fur Elise and David Bowie's Cat People? (The background score is quite awesome throughout, with lots and lots of Ennio Morricone, whom QT used extensively in KBV2 as well). Then we get acquainted with the basterds, leading to some deliciously violent signature Tarantino scenes.

Then umm... the middle....already extensively bashed..... which has some crucial elements as a way of laying the ground work for the end, but for the most part...mehh... and devoid of Pitt or Waltz.

Then the beginning of the end, which is when the movie starts picking up pace again. And the QT touch returns and keeps making itself felt as it builds up. Finally the climax reaches a vein-bursting crescendo in a manner that is very unique, even unprecedented. It is at once a stylishly pulsating big flourish (like in KBV1) and an intelligently ironic anti-climax (like in KBV2). Tarantino manages this seemingly impossible task with the panache and ballsiness that show he still da man.

So my advice to you is - go watch it for sure. But with lowered expectation. Don't expect something of the caliber of Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs or Kill Bill, but more in the Jackie Brown - Death Proof range, and you will be a contented customer.