You could hear the collective groan rising from the Universal HQ a few weeks back when Fox and James Cameron declared Aug. 21 “Avatar Day," offering one-and-all the chance to sample 15 minutes of the film free at IMAX theaters worldwide.
That’s because Aug. 21 is also the date Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds” bows in cinemas.
After the disappointing figures for “Grindhouse” in 2007, and with Universal embattled after a year of underperformers and outright duds, the last thing Tarantino and the studio need is half the Earth’s fanboys immersing themselves in the world of Pandora.
But “Inglourious Basterds” failing at the box office would be more than a disaster for them — it’d be a disaster for us.
That’s because movielovers need Tarantino to keep making films and on budgets that allow him the freedom to realize his ambitions.
And realize them he has in “Inglourious Basterds."
Without spoiling anything, the film concludes with a character declaring, “I think this just might be my masterpiece.”
Of course, just as he was in the magpie speech at the end of “Kill Bill Vol. 2," Tarantino’s speaking for himself.
It may sound grandiose but goddamn if he’s not onto something.
I know “Inglorious Basterds” got mixed reviews at Cannes but all I can say to those who didn’t like it is this: Which film were you watching?
This is full-strength Tarantino, his best since “Pulp Fiction" and perhaps even better — only repeated viewings and a few years’ perspective will settle that one.
While the “Kill Bills” and “Death Proof” were exciting and daring and amusing, their mastery of homage put the narratives and characters in the shade. It was like Tarantino had gotten four of the six faces of his cinematic Rubik’s Cube solved: a skill beyond most anyone else, but not quite up to his previous demonstrations of genius.
“Inglourious Basterds” is the solved puzzle, and not done by one of those speedy freaks who used to do it in 45 seconds on the TV news in the 1980s.
Instead, over two and a half hours, the auteur turns and twists, and sometimes seems to make moves that set us back, before the final, glorious bastardry of his extended “ta-da!”
As a war movie, it’s thrilling and brutal. But it’s a “war movie” — in the vein of “Objective Burma!” or “The Dirty Dozen” or “The Guns Of Navarone” — not a movie about the horrors of war like, say, “Saving Private Ryan” or “Black Hawk Down."
But, as a Tarantino joint, it’s also so much, much more. The movie’s in English, French and German, sometimes with ironic, witty subtitles. Some of these dialogue scenes extend for five, then 10, then 15 minutes. Rather than thinking “Get on with it," you revel in the richness, feast on the performances, get closer to the edge of your seat.
Then there are the 1970s style exploitation-movie fonts in super-titles, digressions about auterism, the Eli-Roth-directed movie-within-a-movie, brilliant visual references to F.W. Murnau’s “Faust” and Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns.
Thing is, it all feels organic to the story, rather than self-satisfied. Same goes for the music, comprised entirely of tracks from maestro composers’ work on other films. Most daring is the use of David Bowie and Giorgio Moroder’s “Cat People," but just see how beautifully, how hauntingly it works — and see if you don’t want to go straight to iTunes and get it on your iPod.
That’s just the half of it.
“Inglourious Basterds” is, typically, a risk. While Tarantino has Brad Pitt on point, he’s only one of an ensemble filled with actors little known to American moviegoers. And starting with Christoph Waltz’s indelible villain, who’s up there with Anton Chigurh in the charismatic-evil comedy stakes, they’re all superb.
Now, here’s the wild bit, not about the film but about the man himself.
Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” junket brought him this week to Melbourne and Sydney, where he attended red-carpet premieres and happily chatted to fans and did the usual interviews.
And last night Tarantino hosted Sydney’s “Popcorn Taxi," which shows new and old films and gives cinemagoers the chance to participate in Q&A sessions with filmmakers.
Thing is, in his 15-minute introduction and the 60-minute post-movie discussion not once did the words “Inglourious Basterds” pass his lips. That’s because, with less than two weeks to the film’s make-or-break release, Tarantino was showing 750 Aussies his own pristine 35mm print of 1987 “Ozploitation” crocodile horror “Dark Age."
Tarantino said this was hugely important to him because, thanks to the vagaries of international distribution, the movie had never been seen on the silver screen, or on video, in its country of origin.
“Dark Age” isn’t some cheesy obscurity, either. It stars John Jarratt, who’d later be the truly frightening serial killer of “Wolf Creek”, and it was the second film shot by Andrew Lesnie, who later won an Oscar for “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring."
Tarantino spent an hour respectfully chatting with Jarratt and his co-star Nikki Coghill, and graciously took questions from the audience.
It wasn’t some self-promotion in disguise; the discussion stayed on “Dark Age." It’s the action of someone who truly loves and lives and breathes movies.
And that’s part of “Inglourious Basterds” remit. Beyond being a five-star action-adventure, it’s also Tarantino’s way of sharing his cinephilia. And if when the smoke and fire and blood clears, it encourages people to find out more about F.W. Murnau, or provides another reason to give the next film starring the wonderful Mélanie Laurent a U.S. release, or even stirs someone to stage their own Aldo Ray retrospective, then Tarantino has accomplished his mission.
So, for QT’s work, from “Reservoir Dogs” onwards, and the movies and music they helped turn us on to, I think we should send the love back his way.
So that’s why, with no disrespect intended, I’m declaring “Quentin Tarantino Week” starting Aug. 14.
Pass it on.