The near-universal adoration of Quentin Tarantino has always somewhat perplexed me. While I still consider Pulp Fiction one of the 4 or 5 best movies of the 1990s, it’s the only one of his, either as director or writer, that I have any real love for. True, at times the dialog in Reservoir Dogs allows it to escape the monotonous and grueling death march of its overworked and underdone plot. And while I do have an abiding and inflexible love for True Romance, it’s almost entirely because of my near-obsession with The Brothers Scott and their bodies of work. The remainder of his oeuvre (that I’ve seen) is rife with sloppy, flabby messes, each bearing the overlong, under-edited mark of someone who was lauded as a genius too soon, and believed it. His current offering, Inglourious Basterds, proves that, while it’s too much to expect an old dog to learn new tricks, the older the dog, the more satisfied you are when they only urinate on the linoleum.
The plot here is straightforward, yet takes its sweet time in getting where it’s going. It involves a group of Jewish American commandos operating behind enemy lines in occupied France during WWII, a Jewish French movie theater operator, a Nazi Audie Murphy analogue, and finally, and most importantly, a Nazi colonel referred to as “The Jew Hunter.” Laying it out like that makes it sound far more complex than it is, but then I’m trying to be purposefully vague. I enjoyed the movie in large part because I didn’t know what to expect, not having read a single plot summary, and won’t be the one to steal that experience from someone else. Suffice to say that there are no twists and there are no turns, save one, and if you don’t see that coming halfway through the movie then you’ve either suffered a head injury or you’re more comfortable with movies that involve explorers named “Dora.” This movie echoes Macbeth: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
But the sound and the fury are the bread and the butter of the Tarantino fan, and here they are displayed in full regalia. As I said, the movie takes its sweet time, though that isn’t to say it’s languorous about it. There are not two silent minutes to rub together; the remaining 151 are all full to brimming with dialog, good, bad, indifferent, yet always there. And it is the dialog, and often the way it is delivered, that allows for grand moments where the movie is able to spread its wings and fly. These moments usually involve Christoph Waltz’s Jew Hunter, though almost as often involve Brad Pitt’s jut-jawed and monosyllabic Lt. Aldo Raine. Waltz’s performance was built up in the press, and it still surpassed expectations, mostly because it wasn’t at all what I was expecting; I was expecting a villain similar to No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh, but was given something else entirely. The rest of the cast is wildly uneven, varying from Mélanie Laurent’s able turn as Shosanna, the Jewish theater owner, to Mike Myers’ out of place cameo as a British intelligence officer. The worst offender, though, was undoubtedly Eli Roth. I have not seen Hostel, so I can’t judge him as a director, but now having seen his turn as “the Bear Jew”, I can unequivocally state that, as an actor, Mr. Roth would make for an excellent ditch digger, or any similar work that requires nothing whatsoever involving skill.
Believers in auteur theory (and I am one) like to point to Tarantino as their fair-haired boy because of his combined skill at cinematography, direction, and editing. Pulp Fiction broke ground with its non-linear editing and use of the long take. Kill Bill added a free-form crane camera that flowed through each fight scene independent of the architecture of the building. Here, Tarantino tones down a lot of his trademark flourishes, but throws in just enough to leave his mark. Of the complaints I have with his films, and they are legion, very rarely do they have to do with any technical aspect. Shots that pop in particular are the scenes in the lobby of the theater, echoing Hitchcock’s famous tracking shot in Notorious; the scene shot from a ceiling’s eye view, tracking Shoshanna as she moves through the theater; and the voyeuristic scene of Shosanna dressing for the big event, sort of a feminine version of the oft-mocked battle-preparation scenes in the second and third Rambo movies.
When the credits rolled, I found that I had enjoyed myself. Even at their best, Tarantino’s movies are never about plot, and only rarely about character. They are simply scenes in a milieu, strung together with whip-crack editing, and dialog that probably looks great in print but takes a special kind of actor to sell on moving film. Samuel L. Jackson is that kind of actor, and, luckily, so are Waltz and Pitt. Ultimately, the success of a Tarantino movie depends on whether or not the good scenes outnumber the scenes that a more brutal editor would simply cut. For every Pulp Fiction “adrenaline injection” scene he creates there are twenty Kill Bill “wiggle your toe” scenes. With very few exceptions, no toes are wiggled in this movie.
Tags: 4-star, Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Hitchcock, Hostel, Inglourious Basterds, Kill Bill, Macbeth, Mélanie Laurent, Mike Meyers, nazi, Notorious, Pulp Fiction, Rambo, Reservoir Dogs, Ridley Scott, Samuel L. Jackson, Tarantino, Tony Scott, True Romance