Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino has been talking about his WWII film, Inglourious Basterds for a decade, and writing it for fifteen. A wild fantasy made up of elements of a combat adventure, alternate history, character comedy and exploitation horror, the film is not so much a running story as five segmented chapters revolving around a central nub.

First, a note on the film’s title which is Tarantino’s deliberate misspelling of an obscure 1978 Italian war adventure, his declared inspiration and the first of hundreds of references to other films Inglourious Basterds contains. The film proper opens with another, a nod to Sergio Leone in the scene-setting chapter heading “Once Upon A Time in Nazi Occupied France”, in which a French dairy farmer who is hiding a Jewish family is visited by the film’s bad guy, Nazi Colonel Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz). In a few deft strokes, the director lays out the scene as Landa interrogates Denis Menochet, who plays the dairy farmer, at his kitchen table. It is the best section in the film, brilliantly played, nerve-wracking and daring and among the finest in any Tarantino movie.

The story then switches to the exploits of Lt Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a tough-talking hillbilly soldier with an unexplained scar around his neck. Raine commands the Basterds, a specially-recruited squad of vengeful Jewish soldiers sent on a secret kill-on-sight mission behind enemy lines. He has charged each of his men to deliver him one hundred Nazi scalps; an act of barbarism intended to strike terror in the hearts of the German ranks. Of the eight men in the troop, only half are introduced to us by name and only a couple are given a back-story, evidence of the amount of editing Tarantino’s decade-long script required in order to release the film at a tolerable length.

In a parallel story, we meet Soshanna Dreyfuss (Melanie Laurent), a young Jewish girl who watched her family killed by the demonic Col. Landa and is living under an assumed identity as a French cinema-owner in Paris. The next three chapters combined tell the sometimes long-winded story of the Basterd’s finest hour; an audacious mission to bomb Soshanna’s cinema during the screening of a propaganda film attended by Hitler and his high command. Helping them is German movie-star turned spy Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), who presides over a massively over-extended sequence set in a French cellar bar where the Basterd’s and Michael Fassbender’s clipped British Lt Archie Hicox (a former film critic, no less) mingle nervously with the Nazi’s over a card game and a pint. Meanwhile, in Paris and unbeknownst to the Basterds, Soshanna has hatched her own plan to blow up the cinema, using a pile of highly combustible nitrate celluloid as explosive.

Even more than his last film Death Proof, a misjudged celebration of sleazy 1970s exploitation cinema, Inglourious Basterds is a love-note to cinema. Almost every major character has a direct connection to the world of film; there’s a producer and a critic, a cinema-owner and a projectionist, an actor and an actress. Although Tarantino’s most immediate reference point is gung-ho war caper The Dirty Dozen, Inglourious Basterds is composed of sketches derived from another dirty dozen entirely; an arch pastiche of obscure spaghetti westerns, forgotten B movies, gory giallo horrors and 1930s German expressionist drama.

If the fragmented story is tricky to follow, it proves impossible to keep pace with the director’s catalogue of influences, name-drops and cameo tributes. Best not to bother. The film is intended as an experience, not a lecture in cinema sub-genres or, given the licence the director takes with history, a documentary on WWII. Through the blur of homage, violence, gore and snappy backchat, what emerges is a vision of Tarantino’s alternate, hyper-realistic world, a place peopled by movie characters, where anything is possible. This is a film about sensation and spectacle. It’s about that indefinable, impalpable quality: cool.

Leaden in parts and talkative to the point of irritation, Inglourious Basterds is no masterpiece but it is still Tarantino’s best film since Jackie Brown. I am prepared to forgive the director his egotism, his fetishism, his know-it-all arrogance and his verbosity because when he is good, he is really very good indeed. There is the nagging sensation, however, that Tarantino is serving up junk food when he has all the ingredients for a sumptuous banquet.

Read my interview with Tarantino for Death Proof here

Mid-August Lunch

Mid-August Lunch is a miniature gem, a simple, unassuming comedy of manners that plays out over a sunny weekend in a few dusty streets in central Rome.

Gianni (played by writer and first-time director Gianni Di Gregorio) is a middle-aged bachelor who lives with his widowed, elderly mother (Valeria De Franciscis) in an old apartment block. Unemployed and undemanding, Gianni’s life revolves around looking after his mama. As the film opens, he is reading her to sleep, a chapter from The Three Musketeers. In the morning, he makes her breakfast. She accepts his ministrations with queenly grace. What time Gianni has outside the house is spent with his drinking buddy Viking (Luigi Marchetti), sipping wine in the shade outside the local shop.

The day before the August bank holiday known as the Ferragosto, when the citizens traditionally escape the city heat for the coast, Gianni’s landlord asks him to take care of his mother for the weekend. In exchange, he will settle some of the service charges Gianni has ignored for years. Strapped for cash, Gianni is forced to accept. Treacherously, the next morning, the landlord arrives with two old dears, the mother (Marina Cacciotti) and Aunt Maria (Maria Cali).

Overwhelmed by the prospect of a houseful of elderly women, Gianni feels a little faint, so he calls his friend, a doctor. After a reassuring examination and some wheedling smalltalk, the doctor foists his own mother on him, “just for one night”. Crammed together in the small apartment, at first, the four women bicker over access to the television and the dinner menu. Soon, however, they have bonded over palm-reading sessions around the kitchen table as Gianni runs around, catering to their every need.

Di Gregorio fills out his story with a series of offhand moments; a mortifying romantic fumble on the couch, a trip across the deserted city to buy fish from the banks of the Tiber, a much-debated recipe for pasta bake. Elegantly played and emotionally lively, Mid-August Lunch is might be small but it is perfectly formed, deftly revealing over the course of it’s seventy minute running time, the obsessions of the Italian male; mama, food and hypochondria.

A kitchen-sink comedy is not the sort of film you would expect from Di Gregorio, who co-wrote the gritty mafia drama Gomorrah (one of the best films of last year) with director Matteo Garrone, who produces here. As a director, Di Gregorio moves the camera around the cramped apartment with seamless grace but even in the golden summer sun, the results are at best, perfunctory. Still, it's not about chocolate-box photography, it's about character.

Astonishingly, none of the women have acted before. As the lead, and essentially playing himself, Di Gregorio maintains a good-natured stoicism, dealing with whatever minor dramas the old women throw in his face but the curtailed nature of the story, more an anecdote than a fully-fleshed drama, doesn’t allow Gianni much room to develop. He seems perfectly happy with things the way they are, and when they are as simple and pleasurable as this, who can blame him?


Movies have been trying to tell us for years that children are inherently evil. From little Patty in The Bad Seed to Damian in The Omen, via Rosemary’s Baby and The Children of the Corn, there is an entire nursery of demon movie kids whose only purpose is to wreak havoc when brought into ordinary families.

Families like the Coleman’s in Orphan; Kate (Vera Farmiga), John (Peter Sarsgaard) and their two children, 10 year-old Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and adorable six year-old Max (Aryana Engineer), who was born deaf. In an effort to put the pain of a recent miscarriage behind them, Kate and John plan to adopt a third child. On a tour of a local orphanage, they meet little Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), and strike up a rapport with the bright, intelligent child.

Russian-born Esther is unfailingly polite and immaculately turned out in Victorian pinafores with delicate frills. She paints with a talent beyond her years; naïve, faintly surreal canvases that cover her bedroom walls. She can sit down at a piano and belt out a lively Tchaikovsky number. So why, after only a few weeks in her new home, is her adoptive mother so scared of her? As the film’s poster proclaims, there is something wrong with Esther.

Bad things happen around the dark-eyed child with preternatural regularity. A school friend falls from a playground climbing frame, or a parked car rolls backwards down a steep hill. There is an unsettling air of examination in the child’s placid stare, and a queasy self-awareness in her eager innocence. Esther’s everyday conversations seem to carry a note of spiky threat or psychological cunning.

The Little Bo Peep outfits are one thing, but why does she insist on wearing thin black ribbons on her neck and wrists? And what’s with the tattered black Bible she carries everywhere? That can’t be good. When Kate begins to suspect that the source of all the family problems is the new cuckoo in the nest, she becomes a target for Esther’s devious manipulations.

is an effective and entertaining horror that generates enough old-fashioned dread to carry it through its many implausible moments. Although solid throughout, Farmiga and Sarsgaard are comprehensively out-acted by their much-younger co-stars, with newcomer Fuhrman in particular giving a delightfully mordant turn as the mini-monster.

Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra has never given any indication he had the talent to pull off a story like this in his previous films, the Paris Hilton-starring House of Wax and football sequel Goal II. Cleverly, rather than drown his story in flashy special effects, Collet-Serra relies on tried and trusted horror techniques, mostly played in-camera, to ratchet up the tension, topping the thrills with an audacious, elegantly played last-reel twist.


Pretentious, preposterous and utterly vile, Danish provocateur Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist is a graphic, Gothic chamber piece about a woman going through a violent mental breakdown. Buoyed by a wave of controversy since its debut at Cannes, the film is a great glob of self-loathing and despair, hurled directly onto the screen as a form of primal therapy.

After a set of provocative, hand-scrawled title cards that read ‘Lars Von Trier’ and ‘Antichrist’, respectively, the film opens with a prologue in which a married couple, known only as He and She (Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) make love in a room while, in another part of the house, their infant son falls to his death from an open window. Shot in black and white, entirely in slow-motion and scored with an aria from Handel, the sequence would be indistinguishable from a fancy perfume advertisement if it wasn’t for the flashes of unsimulated sex and splattered blood.

She descends into a spiral of guilt and depression so deep she is hospitalised and heavily medicated. Her husband, a therapist, insists he knows better, demands that she abandon her medication and undergo his own brand of talking therapy. The two make a trip to their remote country house, named Eden. There, he subjects her to endless, merciless psychobabble, relentlessly chipping away at her behaviour, beliefs and defences. He talks and talks, but nothing of what he says is memorable, or as it turns out, all that effective.

Antichrist is Von Trier’s version of the Fall of Man, his take on the passages in Genesis where Man is cast from Paradise and Satan is introduced to the world. Into that, the director adds his own greasy, malformed theses on the subjugation of women through history (dubbed ‘Gynocide’) and the process of undergoing psychotherapy. According to Von Trier’s Gnostic reasoning, it was Satan, not God, who created the world, so nobody should be surprised when bad things happen. Evil is part of the design, represented here by a spurious star-map showing three constellations; the deer, the fox and the raven. All three animals show up at various points in the narrative, in various forms of distress. By far the most startling, and inadvertently comic, is the talking fox, who pops up from a thicket to croak “chaos reigns” (in the director’s voice) at an unfazed Defoe.

The fox, as it turns out, is right. For his big finale, Von Trier takes a clumsy lurch into the voguish realms of the torture pornography found in Hostel or Saw. Haunted by visions of her child’s death and goaded into action by her husband’s incessant talking, She turns violent, knocking Him out, drilling a hole in his leg and inserting a millstone. Later, she takes a heavy wooden block to his crotch, castrating him, before mutilating her own genitals with a scissors.

Von Trier shows us these actions in graphic detail, seeming to delight in degrading his actors and repulsing his audience. The director is more concerned with putting his audience through the wringer than with saying anything interesting. For a film full of signs and signifiers, some more subtle than others, it is damning that the violence that Von Trier inflicts on his characters, and on us, carries no symbolic weight whatsoever. These scenes seem to exist only to allow Von Trier exact his own revenge on the characters. This is torture as a taunt, with the director goading the viewer into revulsion, wallowing in his own childish ability to upset, a repugnant, self-indulgent misanthropy.

Chaptered into four sections, each given a portentous title, there is no rhyme or reason to the events that occur, they happen at the whim of the director. In interviews at Cannes film festival, Von Trier claimed to have been in the throes of an incapacitating depression while writing Antichrist and there is evidence of a disturbed mind in every frame. Or at least, there is a facsimile of madness, which might well be the joke. This being a Von Trier film, there has to be a joke, however sour.

Von Trier saves the biggest laugh for the end titles, an incongruous dedication to Andrei Tarkovsky that should be an apology to David Lynch. There isn't a sniff of the Russian master anywhere, but there are allusions to Lynch’s films throughout Antichrist; strange machine noises, banks of circling fog, timeless slow-motion sequences, sinister landscapes and skies filled with star-maps. Other images recall the work of visual artists like Hieronymus Bosch or the Chapman Brothers; tangles of human limbs, misshapen creatures and nightmare visions of teeming humanity. Von Trier is free to make whatever film he likes, but he should at least make it his own.

Full marks for hype and top score for spectacle but as a film, Antichrist fails utterly and absolutely. Watching it is the equivalent of being beaten into submission. Its cruelty is unrelenting and terminally dull.