Inglourious Basterds: Two Hours of Great Cinema, 32 Minutes of Not-So-Great Cinema

August 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

Roundtable Pictures Solves the Mystery Behind the Spelling of the Movie

By Lars Trodson

I was thinking back on all of Quentin Tarantino’s movies and wondering if he had ever filmed a big crowd scene like the one that ends his “Inglourious Basterds.” It seems to me, looking back on everything from “Reservoir Dogs” to “Death Proof” that Tarantino pretty much keeps the number of people he puts in a scene down to a manageable few.

That could account for what happens at the conclusion of “Basterds.” The ending takes place in a crowded theater lobby — which in certain shots doesn’t look so crowded at all — and in the auditorium of the theater. But with so many people to suddenly account for in his film — the Nazi high command, including Hitler, as well as the remaining “basterds” of the title — Tarantino literally looks lost. He moves from person to person, scene to scene, set to set, but nothing fits together particularly well. And while a couple of moments may be a bit shocking, in the end it all seems so delirious you wonder what his point was.

It turns out that for all the violence and sinisterism in his movies, Tarantino is — surprise! — not an action director.

The other problem here is how Tarantino fashioned the end of his script. In terms of suspense, Tarantino makes a choice that is not so much quirky or unexpected, but simply odd.

The movie is called “Inglourious Basterds” and you are given to think that they are the heroes of the film. Their big job is to kill the members of the Nazi high command — this is not only their purpose and their pleasure, but also the climax of the film. But this goes awry and the Basterds are pretty much taken out of the hunt at the very end. They’re not only not the heroes, they’re pretty much held captive during the explosive ending.

It’s left to the beautiful Shosanna (Melanie Laurent, who has great range and is tough and touching) and her lover Marcel to actually pull off the plan. The funny thing is, we’re probably more emotionally connected with Shosanna than any specific member of the Basterds crew that we probably care more about her success in killing Hitler (and Landa, who killed her family) than we do theirs, but Tarantino throws in this switch so late in the game it’s tough to shift your emotional focus to her.

If I can make a comparison, it would be this: Let’s say we spent two hours watching the members of “The Dirty Dozen” get trained and prepped for their big mission (the entire premise of “Basterds” is taken straight out of the “Dirty Dozen” playbook, right down to collecting members of the Nazi command at a swanky function), and just minutes before the big plan was to begin John Cassavetes and Telly Savalas and Jim Brown and Charlie Bronson all got captured and suddenly actors you had never really seen before had to carry out the plan. That’s about (not quite, but about) what happens here.

The other thing is that the sets for the interior of the cinema where the ending takes place look really bad. If this was a conscious aesthetic choice I’m not sure what it means. But the balconies and the stairwell and the curving hallways of this place look cheap and badly painted. It looks like plaster of paris and balsa wood, and it feels like their set designer might have had to shove off to another project while these scenes were being filmed.

It seems like we had left off a Hollywood film with a high sheen and sense of design and landed in one of Tarantino’s beloved grindhouse flicks. That may have been the point, but it felt jarring to me.

I think the first two hours of this film are wonderfully written and beautifully acted by the principals (except for Brad Pitt and “Hostel” director Eli Roth), and the scenes bring back the leisurely yet pleasurable pace often found in “Jackie Brown.” And Tarantino brings off some great set pieces – the opening scene especially. In this scene the notorious Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) finds a Jewish family hiding out in a farmhouse. It’s amazingly tense and moody, and beautifully shot and edited. This is really old school Hollywood filmmaking here — you can just see that Tarantino really felt this one. Landa’s scene with Shosanna eating strudel is also terrific, and so is the long scene in the basement bar where we meet the beautiful double-agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger, smart and old school movie star gorgeous) and some of the Basterds who are trying to pass themselves off as German soldiers (how they get caught is a neat touch).

There’s some real tension in all of those scenes, yet again they are all chamber pieces.

After the first scene introducing us to Landa, we meet the Basterds in what surely must be the most aborted “let’s introduce the major characters of the movie” scene ever produced.

It’s reminiscent of the yard scenes in “The Dirty Dozen”, which I am sure is deliberate, but aside from Roth — who is known as The Bear Jew, and some guy named Hugo Stiglitz (in another set taken right out of “The Dirty Dozen”) — you have absolutely no idea who the other Basterds are, or even what their names are. To shy away from characterizations, even of the smallest parts, is not the Tarantino we know.

This film has gotten mixed reviews, but the film itself is mixed. The first two hours are great cinema, just pure examples of a talented writer and director finding a new color, but the end gets pretty well jumbled up.

A few critics have wondered what has happened to Tarantino, but that just seems silly. The guy has only made six feature films, and I think each one before this is great. It may be heresy for me to say I like “Jackie Brown” better than “Pulp Fiction“, but that’s really only because I don’t care for the Bruce Willis section of that movie. It’s still masterful stuff, but I didn’t quite get that boxing part, and the revenge on the hillbillies part. “Jackie Brown” is joyous, though, and “Kill Bill” — all of it — is executed without a hitch. There’s nothing wrong with that two-part picture. “Reservoir Dogs” is a heist classic. I liked “Death Proof” — it wasn’t trying to be anything more than what it was, which was a Saturday afternoon popcorn flick.

Part of the problem with “Basterds” may be this is another classic example of a director not able to pull off his lifelong dream project. Martin Scorsese spent years trying to make “Gangs of New York” and that was mixed. Richard Attenborough said he was born to direct the life of Charlie Chaplin and he turned it into a mess. Richard Pryor poured his life into “Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling.” Maybe these dream projects are better left on the shelf.

I think what will come out of this experience for Tarantino is he will simply have more assurance as a director and writer. My guess — my prediction — is that his next film will be the best one he has ever done.

(P.S.: My take on the much-debated deliberately misspelled title is this. The words “inglourious basterds” are etched into the butt end of Lt. Aldo Raine’s service rifle, which we see only partially and fleetingly in one scene. In fact, the typeface we see in the opening titles is the same script we see on the rifle. So it’s Aldo Raine’s name for his group, and his spelling of it. Lt Aldo Raine (an homage to the late actor Aldo Ray) – played by Pitt – is a part Apache hillbilly from Tennessee who, in the 1940s, might not have had the best education. His attempt to write those two words could reasonably come out like that.So that, we feel, is why the movie is spelled like it is.)


Diana On The Beach

August 30, 2007 § 1 Comment

By Lars Trodson

I remember the moment when my wife came in the TV room and told me that Princess Diana died. For whatever reason — in a gesture I cannot remember doing either before or since — I slapped both my hands over my eyes, and shook my head. “What?” I said. “That doesn’t make any sense.” And the reason I said that was because just a few days before I had seen a little article in a tabloid about Frank Sinatra, and I marveled at the idea that Sinatra was still alive, and now he had outlived Diana.

I was not a person who really paid any attention to the Royals. I was unaware that she had actually gotten divorced from Prince Charles, for instance. I saw her in magazines and on TV, and was captivated by her beauty, which seemed to improve exponentially every year. But I wasn’t immersed in the details. I watched the boys grow up.

I think part of my detachment was that in one magazine I had seen a picture of Diana and her kids playing at the beach. The three of them were in the water, and off to the right you saw a small army of photographers. It was an oddly creepy, assaultive sight, and I wondered who in the hell would be so interested in all these pictures of Diana ­ given that all those guys were also more or less getting the same shot.

It was a revealing photograph. In most instances of course we only see the picture of the celebrity, and we forget that there is actually a human being on the other side taking the picture. In the case of many celebrities, there are many photographers. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt when they are together and how the paparazzi must swarm.

It must be suffocating.

But I guess in my own way that is why I try not to star gaze too much. I know these celebrities — even the vast majority that I have no interest in — are trailed by amateur video bloggers and photogs and all the others who hang on to the fringe of stardom. If I’m the guy buying any one of the glossy celebrity magazines I know I’m opting into the culture that came of age when Diana was on the beach. And I don’t like it very much, but that’s just me.

Now, of course, death isn’t even able to afford some of these people any rest. I have this photograph of Marilyn Monroe in my house that was taken in 1953 and she looks both beautiful and frightened at the same time, and maybe that was how she was. But in the 45 years since she has died, she’s still being picked over and analyzed and picked apart, and sometimes you just want to say, Christ almighty, can’t we leave her alone?

And I think that same way about Diana sometimes. When I see a new book, or
TV special, or article, I wonder if she at last couldn’t get any rest. If it wasn’t time to simply leave her alone.

That, of course, is never going to happen, just as it didn’t happen when she was alive. Because now, when I see a picture of her, just as I did recently when I saw a lovely photograph of her sitting way out on the end of diving board of a yacht, I know she’s not alone; her solitude was an illusion. We were on the beach, too, on the shore, looking out, looking on, looking in.

The A-Listers

June 12, 2007 § 1 Comment

By Lars Trodson

So here we are, contemplating the fact that the most popular movie George Clooney and his pals may ever make in their careers is a remake of some eye candy from 1960.

The original “Ocean’s 11” has always left me with the impression of a newly enameled appliance: a pink washing machine or a cherry colored washer-dryer. There is nothing terribly important about it, but you’re kind of happy that it is around. That’s because the parts — the Frank Sinatras, the Dean Martins, the Sammy Davises — work smoothly and get the job done.

Watching the original film actually is almost the same as doing your laundry: It smells nice, it’s easy, and when it’s over you can’t quite remember when you actually undertook the task.

In the 1960 film, the sets are gaudy, the dialogue impossible (I get the feeling none of the leading actors actually rehearsed the script), and the women are imposingly attractive. It was the appeal of the boys, the Rat Pack, that carried the day. All of them together turned “Ocean’s 11” into a hit and into the cultural touchstone it is today.

Now that Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Don Cheadle — not to mention a small army of other actors — have turned the “Ocean’s 11” movie into a modern franchise, it’s important to remember one thing.

For Sinatra, Martin, Davis and the others, “Ocean’s 11” was a bauble, a thing to ad-lib during concerts, record dates, nightclub appearances, TV shows and radio gigs. For the guys appearing in the “Ocean” movies today: it is, sadly, their main gig.

At the time Sinatra made “Ocean’s 11” he was universally recognized as the guiding force behind some of the most significant and ground-breaking popular musical recordings of the day. Sinatra’s influence was not posthumous; by the time Gay Talese wrote his article for ‘Esquire’ — which was titled “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” — it was universally accepted that Sinatra had changed the tenor and import of popular music. This was six years after “Ocean’s 11.”

For Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, the same was also true: “Ocean’s 11” was a great vehicle to call attention to their day jobs, which was making records and performing in nightclubs. Dean Martin was a performer, and then a movie star.

When Matt Damon isn’t making an “Ocean” movie he’s…what? Making a “Bourne” movie?

Why is this so? Why do the remake in the first place? If Clooney, Pitt, Damon and Don Cheadle — as well as Elliott Gould and Carl Reiner, etc. — got together and said “let’s make a heist film and set it in Las Vegas”, all anyone would say is that they are following a grand movie tradition. Even if they were accused of ripping off “Ocean’s Eleven”, so what? At least, and this is most important, they would have created their own characters.

I thought the same thing as I watched, painfully, part of the remake of “The Pink Panther” with Steve Martin. Here we have, in our own generation, a truly gifted comedian and actor. Why couldn’t the creative minds active today create a character as unique to Martin as Clouseau was to Peter Sellers? Why does Martin only get the retread, when a generation ago Blake Edwards and the studio system allowed the writers to come up with a new movie character?

Cut back a few years and ask yourself the same thing about Samuel L. Jackson and his spin on “Shaft.” Jackson is one of the most charismatic movie stars working today and yet Richard Roundtree obviously worked in an era where he gets the original, and groundbreaking film, and our guy, our generation, gets the pallid remake.

Given that it wasn’t even technically a remake, why couldn’t the filmmakers and studio have enough confidence to say: Rather than remake “Shaft”, let’s create an entirely new private eye for Jackson and make a franchise out of that? But no. No confidence. No creativity. Only remakes and retreads and washouts.

I didn’t dislike either new “Ocean’s 11” films, but I won’t see the third, at least not in the theaters. These films are sleek and fashionable, but they don’t have the American sturdiness of the original. The Sinatra version may have been like doing your laundry, but the Clooney versions are like watching a DVD of you doing your laundry. It’s an echo — and that really shouldn’t be good enough for any of us.

Out of Order, Lost at Sea

June 11, 2007 § Leave a comment

By Mike Gillis

All the attention to “Ocean’s Thirteen” last week reminded me I was one of the few people to miss the first picture in the trilogy, “Ocean’s Eleven,” the 2001 loose remake of a hip 1960 outing of the same name. This weekend I had a chance to catch up, but not before accidentally renting “Ocean’s Twelve,” watching half of it and realizing I had missed the boat.

It’s a strange way to gauge a picture. Watching the second film first, I kept asking, of course, what the hell is going on? Will this make sense? That said, the film moves at a quick clip and boasts some solid performances by George Clooney, Elliott Gould, Andy Garcia, Matt Damon, and even Brad Pitt. It picks up where the first film leaves off: Casino owner Terry Benedict (Garcia), who lost a hundred-and-some-odd million in an intricately plotted heist masterminded by huckster Danny Ocean (Clooney) and 10 accomplices in “Ocean’s Eleven”, hunts down the thieves in “Ocean’s Twelve”.

Before realizing my own timeline was off, I wondered if director Steven Soderbergh chose to throw the “Ocean’s Twelve” timeline into a blender, as he’s done with other pictures, beginning with Benedict’s retribution. In the film’s opening act, Benedict tracks down all eleven thieves at various locations across the globe and gives them a deadline to pay back his stolen millions.

I had to stop the DVD about an hour into the picture to tend to other matters. Later on, looking at the movie’s case, I realized I had mistakenly watched the second picture in the trilogy. Apart from feeling like an idiot, it was a curious exercise in how modern movies are assembled, particularly sequels, which aim to appeal to people who have not seen the previous installments. Although it appears critics were not at all pleased with “Ocean’s Twelve,” favoring the first — and rightly so — and the third, Soderbergh does weave an engaging tale that maintains interest, despite some missing back story, at least for an hour. After watching the first picture, I’m not sure Soderbergh misses any important character development, despite some marvelous setups of “Ocean’s Eleven,” and seems to manage some flourishes that stand alone in the second while contributing to the first. It’s a lot of fun, if not a little too proud of itself.

The problem is this: Now that I’ve gone back and watched the first Ocean’s, which I found to be one of the more clever and entertaining heist pictures I’ve seen, I’m less interested in watching the rest of “Ocean’s Twelve.” I’m not sure why. Perhaps I was pleased with how “Ocean’s Eleven” wraps up, and getting this witty crew back together, plus one new thief per picture, cheapens the first somehow. I don’t know.

Perhaps I should just skip it and move on to “Ocean’s Thirteen.” I’m sure Soderbergh will help me catch up.

Buy it here:

Ocean’s Eleven (Widescreen Edition)

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