Is Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" the most anticipated film of the year?
For some, most definitely, and even though our enthusiasm for the picture waned after initial frisson over the dazzlingly ambitious screenplay due to wonky, campy trailers and posters that suggested more Dimension Films crudity than Weinstein Company class (though yes, that's becoming relative at this point), we were still incredibly excited to see the film in Cannes, despite what many think.
However, sharpen your daggers at us now, better yet, carve hate into our foreheads, because "Inglourious Basterds"was unfortunately an underwhelming disappointment. Expectations are a bitch and ours were high at one point (after reading the script), but obviously our expectations were managed and the further lowered after yesterday's varied and mixed reviews (some liked it, a few loved it, some were cool on the film). Still we couldn't help, but hold out hope for marginal entertainment, but even that was slow-going and far few and between -- Tarantino's latest film was a mostly unimpressive and unsatisfying experience. Ironically, the story is rushed and unhurried (and we admit that's probably because we read the script).
Neither, the Eli-Roth actioner hinted at in posters and trailers, nor the comedy have some suggested, not even the post-modern pop-art piece of outrageous history-changing fiction, 'Basterds' felt uninspired, as if the audacious words that jumped off the page, could not leap themselves onto the screen in any kind of dynamic shape or form aside from a few brief moments. Surprisingly understated and muted, both stylistically and cinematically (at least for Tarantino), in theory, that's what we were looking for -- not a campy, goofy "Kill Bill," set in a Tarantino-built WWII film - and while there were some stylistic flourishes - chapters, title sequences, some brief slo-mo, arrows pointing out to characters, David Bowie anchronisms, and a brief blaxploitation-like character-intro set to Billy Preston - the picture is mostly what you've heard: a heavy talk fest that is not as delicious and wickedly sharp as Tarantino writing usually is. In fact, much of the talk, what should be the saving grace of the film falls flat and the story propeller rarely juts foreward with much verve or spark.
Closest to "Jackie Brown" in that respect (or the chattiness of "Kill Bill 2"), even a trimmed 'Basterds' (2.30 by our clock, though that's with credits, so 2.27 seems to be on the mark) is overlong and yet doesn't have enough time to spend with characters to flesh them out adequately. Some are onscreen for so little time, their appearance feels like a edit, hatch-job afterthought. The film can be marginally engaging, but infrequently a glued-to-your seat level of compelling storytelling.
And the stilted performances rarely rise above average interpretations of the material and some of them feel largely horizontal. In fact, at times 'Basterds,' feels downright dull. Diane Kruger is terrific, one of few who acted with zeal that doesn't feel like she was phoning it in (or was so rushed in their shooting days, they didn't have time to make any impact). Likewise, Daniel Bruhl's smitten Nazi war hero Frederick Zoller is as incredibly annoying, as his character was intended to be. But others are simply miscast and eyesore mistakes that everyone knew would be such from the beginning including Eli Roth, the presence-less Omar Doom as a Basterd who gets far more screentime than he deserves and Mike Meyers, who appearance plays out more like an Austin Powers cameo.
Melanie Laurent also puts in an admirable effort, but no one is genuinely exceptional aside from Waltz (who again is not as perfect as some suggested). There's also a lot of changes and cuts to the script, so some of the characters feel even more paper thin as they hardly have anything to say or do (is Samm Levine happy he flew to Germany to be onscreen for all of four minutes with one or two lines of dialogue for example?). You can't even call some of the caricatures, because they're almost non-existent. But something had to go, and therefore the film feels truncated and terse despite its slow pace and exorbitant length. Tarantino's first instinct to make the film a mini-series would have served the characters and story better, as he cannot seem to reconcile his need for clever wordplay and action as he did so winningly in "Pulp Fiction."
At his best, the beloved American director provides exhilarating, thrilling cinema, but there's nary a truly stunning sequence in the film. Action sequences are over in flash and one suspects there's a tremendously longer cut of the film out there somewhere, that frankly we'd love to see. Neither as funny, dramatic, or compelling as it hopes to be, the rhythm of the film coasts at an idle one, with a few outbursts of violence that fail to ignite with the explosiveness of the past. Even "Kill Bill," not at all our favorite Tarantino film is much more enjoyable, adroit and quick on its feet.
Many have worried about Brad Pitt's campiness in the trailers, but it's his vacillating accent and squinting mannerism tick (evident in practically every scene) that's the most distracting. He's neither as fun or charming on the screen and again, there feels like depth missing or cut, but then again, his rapid-pace delivery of the material didn't help. Another problem with the film is it lacks a solid anchor. While it's certainly an ensemble piece, Melanie Laurent's Shossana character is ostensibly supposed to be the emotional center of the film which is essentially motivated around revenge, but with Hans Landa (a lighthearted and preening Christophe Waltz, who might be the most interesting actor of the film, his queeny primping aside, but rarely feels fierce as a formative foe, aside from his preternaturally strong detective skills), and Pitt as the slow-drawlin' Raine all receiving almost equal screentime effectively canceling one another out -- it's difficult to find an axis to affix the narrative on other the plot-driven goal at the end.
The film illustrates, once again, that the director's best talents lie in writing as the direction of the film rarely tends to enliven and perhaps that's because the film is so filled with jabber, tête-à-têtes and verbal showdowns, there's only so much one can do.
Note: we're about 90% sure that Harvey Keitel does an uncredited voice cameo near the film's explosive conclusion (Samuel L. Jackson's jarring, out-of-nowhere narration which pops up twice is also uncredited, which does finally build up tension, but not to the nerve-wracking levels the film needs to really bang the finale into the wonderfully fireworks display one expected.
Musically, the film fails to shine as well with the best song in the film being the rousing, Ennio Morricone track in the closing credits, "Bastero Gondors Rabhia e Tarantella" from the 1973 Italian drama, "Allonsanfàn," which brims with a passionate and military-like clip that the picture is sorely missing.
'Basterds' smells like it could be a grower, which is probably its best longtime hope, but it's visibly apparent that it's not the "masterpiece" Tarantino hoped it would be, in fact far from it. One conversation we had with a friend before Cannes, mutually suggested the film was the do or die moment for Quentin's career. Either reclaim your mark now or forever be pigeonholed as a contemporary B-movie director, but 'Basterds', despite its constant Spaghetti Western and cinema movieness quotes and references (G.W Pabst, Leni Riefenstahl, '20s German cinema) is too much the genuine article to be dismissed as simply a genre film. Instead, "Inglourious Basterds," is Tarantino's idiosyncratic take on, but not wild and ludicrous, on WWII films and merely a minor misfire in his oeuvre. Surely, he will reload to live another day and is not dead in the water. A misstep for sure, but not a disaster. [C+]
As many have already said, with 70% of the film in German and French and little action or thrills, the picture is going to be a tough sell to American audiences, but should do OK internationally and you have to at least really admire Tarantino for his genuine, foreign film casting and ability to stick to the language (otherwise it really could have been ridiculous). We wish there just would have been some true vigor and life in what felt like a hurried and forced production and editing job.
Is Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" the most anticipated film of the year?