Tuesday, June 14, 2011

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS - FILM REVIEW (2009 - Directed by Quentin Tarantino)

(Film review originally written on August 22, 2009.)

"If my answers frighten you, then you should cease asking scary questions."
- Jules, from Pulp Fiction

... This is a beautiful film.

Does that seem like a strange thing to say? Almost every Christian who avoids this will do so with good reason. First, because almost all the "Christian" movie reviews will denounce it for it's "sickening" violence. Second, because the previews and commercials advertising for this movie were all promoting it to be two and a half solid hours of nonstop bloody Nazi slaughter. And this, of course, is the moralist's cue to denounce our taking vicarious pleasure in violence of any kind, and besides, Nazis are people too.

Add to this the further element that this Jewish-American team of "basterds" is the embodiment of all that’s wrong with modern day movies in the eyes of the older generation of your church. You’ve heard the complaint before. Instead of clear cut good guy vs. bad guy, the good guy started wearing the black hat. You can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys anymore. Part of what makes the good guy “good” is that he doesn’t lower himself to the methods of his enemy, he shows mercy and values every human life. I’ve already heard complaints that it’s the younger generation who will be making excuses for enjoying Inglourious Basterds because they’re just so desensitized that they are now entertained by the bloody and graphic deaths of other human beings.

And finally, look back on the old classic movies through the years. What is the one genre where at least the lines between good and evil have stayed absolutely clear? That’s right - World War II movies. There’s a reason Nazis make such good bad guys in Hollywood. You won’t find a single person willing to defend what they did. The Nazis stand for all that is evil in human nature, and the Allies stand up against them. Think back to The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, and Kelly’s Heroes - all great WWII films but ... none of the good guys were scalping the bad guys.

But suddenly, we have a story about a group of heroes who decide that, because the Nazis are showing inhumanity to the Jews, they are going to show inhumanity to the Nazis. Essentially, in the eyes of your mother, Brad Pitt’s character Aldo Raine and his merry men are stooping down to the bad guys' level. Every single person who denounces this film for moral reasons is going to focus on one admittedly uncomfortable scene with a baseball bat. These Jewish-American "heroes" are engaging in a sort of psychological guerilla warfare that is making them … just … as … bad … as … the … Nazis?

But I'm going to side with the whimsical here and say that you really ought to see this film regardless. To begin with, you know those movies where the trailers and previews are very misleading? Where, for some reason, they advertise their movie to be something that it isn’t? Well, this is one of those films. The trailer pretty much showed you almost all of the violence you’re going to actually see. In fact, I’d have to look at it again, but I’m pretty sure there was a memorable scene in the trailer that showed one of the Americans running down a hallway blasting away on his machine gun. Yep, it didn’t even make the final cut.

If you are sensitive to really graphic violence, then after Sergeant Donny points to the war medals on their captured Nazi colonel’s uniform and asks him how many Jews he’s killed to get those, just close your eyes for a few seconds when he swings his baseball bat. That’s as graphic as any scene gets. When you look at the two and half hours the story takes, all the violence put together is less than five minutes worth of screen time. This is not to say that there are not a few very fast VERY violent shoot ‘em up scenes, but none of them are really as impacting as the first time that someone pulls the trigger - and when that happens, even though you can’t see what’s happening off the screen, it will matter more to you than when all the rest of the characters get to pull their triggers later.

When it comes to bloody violence, if you’ve seen The Patriot or Braveheart , then you’ve seen worse. Mel Gibson’s The Patriot brings up some interesting questions though. That was another story of a group of rag-tag men fighting for the right side who start using questionably brutal guerilla tactics. Questionable enough for the more idealistic Heath Ledger character to demand that they purposely distinguish their combat tactics from the style of their enemy. He appeals to a higher moral standard that they "are better men than that", and then towards the end of the film he changes his mind.

In Inglourious Basterds, Lt. Raine has his men purposely adopt guerrilla warfare designed to inspire fear in the Nazis. They don’t take prisoners. They take scalps like the Apache Indians instead. Raine explains “and when the Germans close their eyes at night, and their subconscious tortures them for all the evil they’ve done, it will be with thoughts of us that it tortures them with.” In other words, thoughts of soon approaching Jewish justice and revenge. Whether you agree with it or not, this is a form of psychological warfare against the Third Reich that no one has really been able to try before in a WWII movie.

What does taking no prisoners and taking scalps remind you of? Film reviewer, Peter T. Chattaway made a comment that this reminds one precisely of Old Testament Israel -
I am intrigued to hear, also, that modern-day Jews regard Hitler and his ilk as being, in some sense, "descendants of Amalek". The Amalekites, of course, were the race that Saul was supposed to stamp out -- in retribution for their treatment of the Israelites in Moses' day -- and it was because his act of genocide wasn't as thorough as it could have been that the prophet Samuel declared that God was taking the monarchy away from Saul and giving it to someone else, i.e. David. (And David, of course, is the guy who massacred Moabite soldiers after they surrendered, and who killed 200 Philistines for their foreskins after Saul told him, "Every man in my battalion owes me one! hundred! Philistine! foreskins! And I want my foreskins!" Okay, I exaggerate, but you get the point.)
Quite interesting, although the purpose of this review is not to engage in a philosophical discussion of what sort of tactics one can use while engaging in a “just war.” Actually my point here is that the “basterds” engaging in this sort of warfare are really only given one Nazi killin’ scene in the whole movie in order to explain the legend they’ve become behind enemy lines. After the introductory scenes of the movie, and for all intents and purposes of the story, they are more of a looming presence - always there in the background - until they suddenly find themselves forced into some espionage work that they aren’t quite as suited for.

I’m constantly surprised that people call Quentin Tarantino’s movies amoral (at least, if not just plain immoral). Am I the only one being fooled into seeing the distinct moral choices and positions being taken in these films?

(Possible Spoilers in the next paragraph only if you’ve never seen one of these decade old films.)

For me, the poignancy of Reservoir Dogs has always been that the cop is making the choice to suffer a slow and agonizing death (while he could save himself at any time) because he believes the cost is worth it if that means catching the bad guy. In True Romance, the one scene between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken is going to offend some people, it’s also going to be an example of loving self-sacrifice to others. Pulp Fiction is still probably Tarantino’s greatest - and it’s filled with characters taking moral stands. Bruce Willis finds himself in a situation where he has to decide whether it’s worth risking his life to save his mortal enemy who was just trying to kill him five minutes ago. Samuel L. Jackson’s character (a) decides he believes in miracles, (b) thus decides he believes in God, (c) thus decides he’s been living an evil life, (d) therefore decides to repent and change, and (e) immediately gets a chance to test out his new beliefs in action.

(End of old Spoilers).

Inglourious Basterds is pure, movie loving fun and entertainment. But that doesn’t stop it from making its characters take some very specific moral stands on a few things. Besides the obvious, that all the Allied characters are risking their lives (against impossible odds in near suicide situations) in order to stop the Nazis from winning the war (with the depth of PluggedIn reviews, maybe they can list this as the one thing in their “Positive Elements” list - “well, the American and British are fighting a war on the right side, so that’s good I guess. Now on to list all the bad words they say …”).

One question often asked in WWII stories is how culpable do you hold the German troops fighting for Hitler? Most of the “Nazis” were really just regular men and boys fighting for their country, right? Whenever modern historians look at the history of war today, we find it very uncomfortable to blame the actual troops for what they were fighting for. Most of them are just doing their jobs and probably didn’t understand what was going on. Because of Adolf Hitler, and because of what he lead Nazi Germany into doing was so evil and morally repugnant to us, we find Nazis to be the easiest evil bad guys in any story.

Tarantino could have just made the Nazis into stereotypical caricatures and left it at that in order to commence cartoonish blood and slaughter. But he doesn’t (take either option). Instead, Inglourious Basterds takes the clear and unambiguous position that it was an individually morally wrong choice to decide to wear the Nazi uniform. If you think about it while you watch the film, you’ll notice a theme. At the very beginning, Lt. Raine asks the German soldier he’s about to let go (to help get the word out) if, after the war is over, “are you going to take off your uniform?” The frightened fellow replies enthusiastically that not only is he going to take it off, but that he’s going to burn it (as if there were something inherently wrong with it in the first place).

Raine replies - “Yeah, that’s what we thought. We don’t like that. You see, we like our Nazis in uniforms. That way, you can spot ‘em just like that. But you take off your uniform, ain’t nobody gonna know you was a Nazi. And that don’t sit well with us.”

The implication here being that choosing to fight for the Nazi army was a crime - a capital crime actually. It was not something that you just did because it was your job. This is directly contradicted by the two most developed Nazi characters.

Colonel Landa casually dismisses the nickname he's been given for working for the Nazis -

"Jew Hunter? (pffft) I’m a detective. A damn good detective. Finding people is my specialty. So naturally, I worked for the Nazis finding people. And yes, some of them were Jews. But Jew Hunter? Just the name that stuck."

Landa doesn't feel he's responsible for the side he's working for. He just does what he does best wherever he happens to be. In another scene, when Shosanna tells Zoller she doesn't want to be his friend because of who he is, he protests that he's "more than just a uniform" - in other words, the uniform he has decided to wear doesn't say anything about who he really is. But not to Shosanna. And not to Raine and his "basterds" either, which is why they make a practice of giving the soldiers they allow to live something they "can't take off" like a uniform.

Tarantino takes this position in the film for a reason. This is what Raine and the "basterds" believe - that, by choosing to wear a particular uniform you could be choosing to fight for a great evil (a theme you see repeated by contrast in Til Schweiger's character, one German solider who decides he doesn't like what the Nazi uniform stands for). And if this is what they believe, then what they are doing makes much more sense (even in an Old Testament Biblical sense if you will). I took no pleasure in the scene where the film illustrated their methods (beating a Nazi to death with a baseball bat) but I still love this story.

You have to admire the righteous anger with which they are able to charge head-first into the film's climax. It's because, to them, the choices here are in absolute black and white, absolute good and evil. When Hirschberg and Donowitz first walk into the movie theater, you can see the hunger in their eyes - they both look like they are going to explode (no pun intended) at the enormity of it all. When Shosanna first realizes what could potentially happen, you see the surprise and then desire of it begin in her eyes and then encompass her entire being. Colonel Landa causally and lightly dismisses the role or label of hunter or executioner. It just comes with the job. To Shosanna, or to the "basterds", the role of executioner can be a sacred, and perhaps even a holy, trust.

So why and how should you go see this film?

1 - It's a work of art.

This is not really an action movie. This is a suspense film. And suspense is something rare in Hollywood today. Tarantino is asking you to sit and watch a story - a World War II fairy tale in a sense - for two and half hours. In my estimation, every second was worth it. From the minute the opening credits start rolling to The Green Leaves of Summer to the last concluding chapter of the film entitled “Revenge of the Giant Face” , unless you have some preconceived reasons for being disappointed, the whole thing is going to hold you spellbound.

Dialogue is one of the whole point of the film. Let me say that again. The point IS the dialogue. Americans speak in distinctly American English. The British speak in British (yes, there’s a difference). The French speak in French. The Germans speak in German. Thus, there are whole segments with only subtitles. But you hardly even notice. It just feels right. Every scene is longer and technically slower than in most other films, but it doesn’t feel like it. Because in every one of these scenes, there is a reason to be worried. At the very beginning, Tarantino shows you that he’s willing to do anything. You know something bad is going to happen, it hasn’t happened yet, and the longer the characters talk - the longer they get completely and enthusiastically obsessed by their conversation - the more powerfully the tension builds … and builds … and builds …

Brian Holcomb explains how old school this is -
“Alfred Hitchcock used to love to give journalists a characteristically deadpan lesson in suspense filmmaking through an anecdote about ‘THE TICKING BOMB‘. The gist of it was that three men sitting around a table talking about baseball or the weather was by the very nature of MOTION pictures - boring. But any scene involving mundane dialogue or exposition becomes instantly suspenseful to the audience once they've been tipped off that a ticking bomb has been placed under the table. The audience would watch AND LISTEN helplessly while the unsuspecting characters went on talking about batting averages or whatever. The audience would think, "Don't talk about baseball you fools, there's a bomb under that table!" …

How can a filmmaker get an easily distracted audience to sit still while characters ramble on - well, you get the point. Put a bomb under the table and get the audience worked up into a lather. The skill is in coming up with these ticking bombs so that they aren't always LITERAL ticking bombs. In his latest movie, the spelling challenged INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, Tarantino becomes so skilled at it that he can even make a glass of milk function as a ticking bomb.”
These scenes are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before (unless you’ve seen a few other Tarantino films). They are crafted carefully, lovingly, and with the eye of a perfectionist’s attention to detail. Every costume and outfit, every color, every set prop, every line of dialogue ... is all minutely put there for a reason. And yet, these scenes will remind you of a ton of other movies you have seen before. Classic movies back in the 1970s, 60s or later. And that’s a good thing. All the music is hand-picked by Tarantino as well. Somehow we’ve got ourselves a WWII movie where the music can make simple scenes of dialogue sound like they are showdowns at Tombstone. How many films start with The Green Leaves of Summer, take you through a number of old spaghetti western Morricone tracks (themes from The Big Gundown, One Silver Dollar & Dark of the Sun), Elmer Bernstein, David Bowie!, and finally some climatic music at the end that sounds strangely similar to the standoff in Kelly’s Heroes?

And really, only someone who loved The Bridge on the River Kwai can fully appreciate the simultaneously dry and jovial British humor between General Fenech and Lt. Hicox -

Lt. Hicox: The master race at play, aye?

Gen. Fenech: Basically we have all our rotten eggs in one basket. The objective of Operation Kino … Blow up the basket.

Lt. Hicox: “… and like the snows of yesteryear gone from this earth.” Jolly good, sir.

After taking a long drag on his cigarette, Fassbender’s stoic rendering of the line - “There’s a special rung in hell reserved for people who waste good scotch.” - can’t help but make you think that he must have been one of Richard Attenborough’s right-hand men in The Great Escape.

2 - Don’t allow Brad Pitt’s accent to annoy you.

Yes, it’s over the top. Yes, it’s slightly comical sounding. But that’s all on purpose. First of all, it isn’t a coincidence that he sounds like a member of John Wayne’s little band from The Alamo. Lt. Aldo Raine is from the backwoods of Tennessee - he’s part Jewish, part Apache, and part very proud descendant of Jim Bridger. He was given that scar around his neck by fighting with the KKK. He believes in American values like any American backwoodsman hero should. Watch The Alamo by the way, listen to how the characters talk, and then tell me if you still think Pitt is overdoing it. Second, this stereotype of an accent has a huge pay off towards the tense closing minutes of the film. One scene simply wouldn’t be as absolutely hilarious as it was meant to be, if he wasn’t just incapable of speaking like anyone other than Davy Crockett.

3 - The acting performances alone are reason enough to see the film.

Speaking of Brad Pitt’s acting performance, he is by no means the star of this film. But you’re going to like him. He’s the solid uncouth American stereotype that we can all love and root for when everything else in the story dissolves into German, French and British battles of wits, intrigue, subterfuge, counterfuge, and subsequent complete and utter chaos. The way Raine’s character blusters his way across the screen when forced into a situation where his life depends upon his nonexistent ability to fool Nazi master intelligence agents is something unique to Pitt’s abilities. Brad Pitt put a little Clark Gable, James Coburn and Lee Marvin all together with a couple of the more homicidal moments of his turn a few years ago as Jesse James. And the result is a perfect Aldo Raine.

And all the praise you’ve heard about Christoph Waltz’s 'Jew Hunter' Colonel Landa is true. Waltz is brilliant as the pleasant, cheerful, always calm and logical, Nazi detective. Every time he starts asking someone questions, he does so with a combination of something that is both disarming and lethal, charming and deadly. Thus, as so many critics are pointing out, this guy can make happily asking for a glass of milk seem like a murderous threat. To have real conflict in a story, your bad guys can’t all just be cartoon characters. Waltz gives us an especially evil and pleasant bad guy - more of a seeming threat than even Hitler and the SS.

Denis Menochet is a strong and silent resistance farmer, Perrier LaPadite. Daniel Bruhl plays the Nazi hero Frederick Zoller with a persistent puppy dog attitude that always seems to include the threat of turning ugly. Michael Fassbender pulls out his young Alec Guinness/young Richard Attenborough impression. Mike Myers reminded me of Danny Kaye’s British General MacKenzie-Smith. Read other reviews for more detailed discussions of how everyone did. Diane Kruger is cast perfectly as a glamorous substitute for Marlene Dietrich (in fact, I like Kruger better). The “basterds” are all good when given a chance - Eli Roth, Gedeon Burkhard, Sam Levine, and B.J. Novack are particularly memorable, but Til Schweiger will be your favorite.

But Brad Pitt and Christoph Waltz aside, the real star of this film is the luminescent Hollywood newcomer, Melanie Laurent. She manages to almost effortlessly "burn" up her scenes in the film in more ways than one.

4 - Inglourious Basterds asks you to question how film itself can affect you.

There are so many references to older films here, I’ll leave pointing all of those out for someone else. There are so many comparisons made in this story that are not coincidences, that I’m overwhelmed even thinking about it. I have to go see this movie again.

But, one main parallel that anyone should be able to see is the one between everyone sitting in the movie theater watching Inglourious Basterds and all the Nazis sitting in the movie theater watching their Nazi propaganda movie “Nation’s Pride.” If there is one thing Quentin Tarantino believed and wanted to get through in the script (often humorously) when writing this thing, it was that film is dangerous.

Movies can be dangerous.

Was it because they were degenerate and depraved Nazis that they were shrieking with joy whenever Zoller shot an American in the face in the film, or was it because Hitler and Goebbels had been using film for years to help brainwash the German people? Was the Nazis laughing about their guy killing our guys in their movie the same as us laughing when our guys killed their guys? Was our enjoyment of violent entertainment the same as theirs?

Some would say yes.

Some would even say that films like Hostel by directors like Eli Roth are very dangerous because they actually do desensitize and brainwash people to where they no longer value human life. And I would agree with them. Having good friends who love watching every modern day horror movie they can get their hands on, I can say firsthand that this is not healthy - psychologically or spiritually.

But I don’t think the message in Inglourious Basterds was that the movie audience in the real theater was the same as the Nazi movie audience in Shosanna’s theater. Why? Because we were taking pleasure in two completely different things. And it is only because I believe in a REAL right and wrong that I can claim this. If morality is just based and created by culture, then we are the same as the Nazis. But if there really is such a thing as a right and wrong side to fight on, if there really is such a thing as good and evil, then it is possible to take pleasure in good triumphing over the evil. And it is morally better to take pleasure in the triumph of good than it is to take pleasure in the triumph of evil.

There is a difference between mere vengeance and actual justice, but sometimes the two can coincide. You can’t tell me that the actions of the good guys at the end of Inglourious Basterds wasn’t revenge. But, on the other hand, neither can you tell me that it wasn’t justice.

But here we go - can the false portrayal of revenge as justice harm and affect the way that you think? Yes. Can the false portrayal on film of fighting for evil as justice harm and affect the way that you think? Yes. But can the clear portrayal on film of real justice, and of characters who give their lives to achieve it, potentially even inspire you to do the same? Yes.

Film is dangerous.

5 - You’ll walk out of the theater speechless.

The closing 30 minutes of the film are simply intense. The climax at the end did not have everyone cheering as much as simply in shock that Tarantino would decide to do things this way. With the life and death, justice and revenge, and simply historically huge epic proportions of what they were given the opportunity to do, Shosanna, Raine and the “basterds” were all bound to look pretty fanatical at the end.

And at the end, that just didn’t strike me as morally wrong. Instead, it struck me as something good, even inspiringly so.

It also will make you think both about what ought to be and what ought to have been - both things worth taking the time to think about.

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