August 20, 2009
Let’s not beat around the bush. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is glorious!!!!! The film is so enjoyable, so entertaining, so smartly written, so well crafted, so beautifully lensed and so well acted that I didn’t want it to end. This is without a doubt the best film of Quentin Tarantino’s career and one of the best pictures of 2009, not to mention making it into my Top 50 all time faves. That little golden guy named Oscar will definitely come knocking at this door with nominations aplenty starting with Best Picture and Best Director and, dare I say, at this stage of the game, a sure fire winner with a Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Waltz. Simply superb!
All you cinephiles out there may recall from some years back a 1978 "macaroni combat film" by Enzo C. Castellari called "Inglorious Bastards" which told the story of a group of convicts which escape prison during an attack and head for the Swiss border, fleeing from both the Nazis and the Americans. Seems this film made quite an impression on a very impressionable young video clerk in Manhattan Beach, California, who determined that one day he would make his own "Inglorious Bastards." That young clerk was Quentin Tarantino. Starting his own script in 1998, despite completing 300+ handwritten pages of characters and introductions, years and other projects came between Tarantino and completion of his dream project. But it was those other projects that allowed him to purchase the complete rights to the original "Inglorious Bastards" and rather than do a remake, afforded him the freedom to create an entirely new work while still paying homage to Castellari, but putting his own brand on the film, calling it INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. (Note to students - do not look to Tarantino for proper spelling of words.)
The time - 1941. The place - Nazi-occupied Northern France. The goal of the Nazis - destroy the Jews. The goal of the allies - destroy the Third Reich and the Nazis. Divided into five chapters, our story begins with "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France." As strains of music well-familiar to Sergio Leone fans swell in the background, we meet the legendary Nazi, Colonel Hans Landa, the self-proclaimed "Jew Hunter", on a mission to locate a Jewish family he believes to be hidden in one of the rural farmhouses in France. With his entourage in tow, Landa interrogates the farmer, egomaniacally displaying his command of four languages while espousing his love for milk, farms, and the finer things in life, but adding a touch of Werner Klemperer’s Colonel Klink to the mix. Meanwhile, the very family he seeks are hidden under the floorboards beneath his feet. Determined to prove the validity of his nom de plume, with one phrase, one gesture, sensing his prey beneath him, has his men attack, massacring the family but for one - a young girl named Shosanna who flees into the peaceful beauty of countryside a la Maria von Trapp.
Moving ahead to 1943, the war still rages on and we meet up with Shosanna who has fled to Paris and taken on a new identity as the owner and operator of a movie theatre in Nazi-occupied Paris. No longer the dirty frightened child, she has grown into a confident, cool and collected woman with the air and demeanor of Katharine Hepburn. She is also beautiful and with that curse, catches the eye of Nazi war hero, Frederick Zoller, the self-proclaimed "German Sergeant York." (Folks, don’t fret - Gary Cooper he ain’t.) Seems that Zoller is also a bit of a movie buff, or so he thinks, given his fame thanks to the new film "Nation’s Pride" based on his alleged "real life" experience of taking out countless Allied soldiers single-handly from an eagle’s nest vantage point. Adding to his bragadocious nature is his relationship with the film’s director and Hitler’s right hand man, Joseph Goebbels. But while Shosanna is repulsed by Zoller and Goebbels, she sees a means to an end when Zoller convinces her to allow the Nazi’s to take over her theatre for the premiere of "Nation’s Pride" - a true WWII red carpet event for the rich, the famous and the upper echelon of the Third Reich.
Running around elsewhere in France is none other than Lt. Aldo Raine and his band of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS who have their own agenda - kill all the Nazis possible and once dead, scalp them like the American Indians did. Comprised of Jews from the States with family and friends who have fallen victim to Hitler or who are in hiding, the level of hatred and rage for the Nazis is unparalleled, particularly for Sgt. Donnie Donowitz, a barber from Boston with a love for Ted Williams, baseball, and bashing in the bodies of Nazis with a bat or iron pipe, whichever is handy. Adding a little mix to the menage is one former Nazi soldier whose hatred for Nazis rivals that of the allies.
Across the pond, "Operation Kino" is about to begin. Spearheaded by British film critic and commando, Lt. Archie Hicox, and utilizing the talents and beauty of Britain’s own secret agent, the beautiful German actress Bridget von Hammersmark, the two realize they need a little more help to pull off their audacious plan and call in the cavalry - the Basterds. With the timing of a Swiss watch, the group meets up in a little underground tavern as they discuss their plans to destroy the Reich at the premiere of Goebbels’ new film, "Nation’s Pride" , the very same premiere that will be held at Shosanna’s theatre and at which Hitler himself will be in attendance.
The casting of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is beyond perfection. Calling on an international gallery of talent, leading the pack is Brad Pitt as the Southern Jewish Lt. Aldo Raine. One of Pitt’s funniest performances, and arguably a supporting role, he is over-the-top backwoods U.S.A. machismo as he leads the Basterds across Europe, mandating 1000 scalps from each man under his command. His bravado and bravura every time he appears on screen in engagingly entertaining. Eli Roth easily tackles the role of Donowitz, "The Bear Jew." Packing on the pounds and incorporating his own love of baseball and Ted Williams into the role, Roth attributes his body bashing style to a Williams swing. BJ Novack, producer, writer and actor of "The Office" is a gem as PFC Smithson "Little Man" Utivich (and for commentary on this nickname be sure to check out my interview with the Basterds). Insecure, funny but devoted to the cause, Novack is a joy to watch.
Turning our attention overseas, look no further than Michael Fassbender. Born in Heidelberg, Germany, Fassbender was raised in Ireland but easily recalled the German language of his youth for the part of Brit Archie Hicox. Having established himself with a knack for military roles in "Band of Brothers" and the upcoming "Centurion" where he plays a Roman soldier, as Hicox, he brings an inflated bravura to the role, particularly when calling upon Hicox’s film knowledge as an integral part to the story. Melanie Laurent amazes as Shosanna. Coming into the project not speaking any English, in her first American film, she commands the screen and the language with ease. "Girlier" than most females in a Tarantino film, Laurent exudes a soft strength that escalates into the final chapter and explodes on screen with a fury. Diane Kruger, also a linguist, slinks into the role of Bridget von Hammersmark. Already known to American audiences as Abigail in "National Treasure", as von Hammersmark, she is a cross between Dietrich and Hildegard Knef, a famed German actress who was rumored to be a spy during the war. Working with costumer Anna Sheppard, her costumes only add to the confident mystery she brings to von Hammersmark.
While a truly ensemble piece, the real star of this film is Christopher Waltz as Colonel Hans Landa. The Vienna born Waltz is fluent in three languages and learned some Italian for the film. With a career spanning some 40 years in theatre and primarily German tv and films, Waltz now wows American audiences with his defining characterization of Landa. The most multi-textural and layered character I have seen on screen in many a year, Waltz runs the gamut of subcutaneous emotion and intrigue with his performance. He is astounding. Exuding a slick exterior of joviality and false niceness", his grin, his look, beckon a closer look into the insidious evil lurking beneath his smile. Simply captivating. Oscar gold is his for the taking.
Known for going his own way and taking risks, Tarantino does just that here as he rewrites history into what actually comes across what could have been a plausible end to the Third Reich. Carefully crafted, he leaves no stone unturned, no questions unanswered in this remarkable fantasy. Character driven and always character conscious, even without showing it onscreen here (look for a prequel folks), Tarantino makes certain that without entire histories, we still know the backstory of each character and how they arrived at this particular place in time. Very smartly written, the dialogue is funny and often tongue-in-cheek, the story twisted and entertaining. Irony reigns supreme. The characterizations are incredible and indelible. A real historian when it comes to film and his specific projects, Tarantino’s research here is impeccably detailed, allowing him to play with history and incorporate truth into the fiction. Joseph Goebbels was, in fact, one of the fathers of German cinema, particularly propaganda cinema during WWII. And to get those hairs on the back of your neck crawling, how about this bit of trivia - the sound stages where the part of the film was shot, including Shosanna’s theatre, were done on the very same soundstages where Goebbels shot his movies. Talk about irony. Well-tailored and well-told, the script flows with a coherence not generally found in Tarnatino’s films. But more than that, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS flows with believability and entertainment.
Technically, the film is flawless. Stunning and quite beautiful to behold, Robert Richardson’s cinematography is impeccable. Shot in 35mm, Richardson does some of his best work here with a myriad of sets, styles and tones providing us clean, crisp, razor sharp visual wonder. David Wasco’s production design is exquisite, particularly with the creation of Shosanna’s Art Deco theatre. Rich and lush, while every set is distinctively different, there is a cohesiveness and elegance that thematically ties it all together. Kudos to make-up artise Greg Nicotero who transformed Martin Wuttke, Sylvester Groth and Rod Taylor into Hitler, Goebbels and Churchill, respectively. Trust me when I say you will do a double take. And of course, Anna Sheppard’s period perfect costuming is exquisite perfection.
Essentially shot in sequence, pre-production started 14 days after Tarantino finished the final script. Important to Tarantino were the shooting locations. In addition to the Babelsberg Studio outside Berlin, locations were also selected in Bad Schandau near the Czech border and Fort Hahneberg, an actual military fort dating back to the days of Kaiser Wilhelm, here serving as the forests inhabited by the Basterds.
I would be remiss not to mention Eli Roth’s double duty as the filmmaker behind "Nation’s Pride". While we are only privy to possibly two minutes of his work, the seven minute short was completely designed, lensed and edited by Roth. A true friend, due to time and budget constraints, while Tarantino was shooting principal photographs, Roth volunteered to handle the black & white "Nation’s Pride" and squirreled himself away turning out a piece that has the look and essence of a 1940's WWII epic. Thankfully, we will get to his complete film within a film on the DVD.
A character unto itself, the soundtrack and score is priceless. A glorious amalgamation of classical, a little Ennio Morricone (try 8 selections), David Bowie, Billy Preston, Ray Charles, and some German and French works of the period, these tracks fuel the story, propelling it forward, setting the tone of each chapter and event and interweaving the visual components.
To paraphrase Lt. Aldo Raine’s himself, I think this just might be Tarantino’s masterpiece.