Saturday, August 22, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino


As evidenced by the title of Quentin Tarantino's latest film, Inglourious Basterds, not even the strict confinements of grammar and spelling can contain the eccentric filmmaker. Harbored lately, Basterds is Tarantino's first full film since 2004's Kill Bill Vol. 2 (you'll remember he co-directed the Grindhouse film with Robert Rodriguez in 2007). Always hip to conquer any genre he wishes, Tarantino now turns his eye toward World War II, though it probably isn't the World War II you learned about in high school. Instead, Tarantino shows us the war through the eyes of three distinctly charismatic and idiosyncratic characters.

The first is Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz--Best Actor winner at the Cannes Film Festival), a Nazi detective who's better known by his nickname: the Jew Hunter. Known for his charm, Landa has a talent for searching out Jews, and tasteful liking for killing them. The film opens with a wondrously-wordy scene in which Landa enters into the home of a French farmer whom he believes is hiding Jews. Never once does he udder a threatening word, but there is always the look of menace hiding deep within his eyes. With swift efficiency, Landa breaks down the farmer and finds the Jews where they are promptly executed.

That is, except for one: Shosanna Dreyfuss (Mélanie Laurent). She is able to out-run Landa after her entire family is massacred, and years later she has been able to make a living in Paris running a small cinema. Free from the Nazis, and now under the gentile pseudonym of Emmanuelle, Shosanna has found a respectable and safe living, that is until she captures the eye and heart of a Third Reich war hero, Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). Zoller insists that she accompany him to various Nazi gatherings, where she is once again face-to-face with Landa.

The other imp
ortant character is American Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who is the head of a special military battalion named "The Basterds". Consisting of eight men, all Jewish, their missions comprise of finding Nazis and murdering them cruelly. Raine himself has his own sadistic requirement: he insists that all encountered dead Nazis shall be scalped, and all living Nazis will have a swastika carved into their forehead. When the Basterds hear that a film premiere will be held harboring numerous key members of the Third Reich, they hope to blow it up.

Christoph Waltz as the wonderfully evil Col. Hans Landa

Many connections are made: the premiere is being held at Shosanna's theater, the film itself is based on Zoller's life, etc., but Tarantino is working something crafty here. Many Americans have made better WWII films, but none of them have been anything like this. It's not that Tarantino doesn't care about the real history of this country's most idealized war, it's just that it's more convenient for his characters if things happen in a fairly different way. Authenticity be damned, Tarantino's version makes for a much more entertaining movie.

Not that any of this is surprising, Tarantino has never made conventional films, and with each consecutive film, there seems to be an even bolder, more ambitious turn. There are the usual aspects of the Tarantino model: fantastic dialogue, unbelievably memorable characters, but most importantly, there is always space saved to tip its cap toward cinema itself. It's not an accident that Shosanna runs a cinema; it gives Tarantino the chance to flex his film-dweeb muscles and drop names like Louis B. Mayer and Max Linder. Can anybody else get away with adding a seemingly arbitrary sequence describing how 35mm film is incredibly flammable? There may be a few, but not many.

Oh, but those wonderful words, of which Tarantino seems to have an infinite artillery. When most people think of his films, they ponder sadistic violence, which is fair--his films have always indulged in intense bloodiness and extreme violence. What separates him from the torture porn exploitation artists like Eli Roth (who I only mention because he happens to have a major role in this film as one of the Basterds)? What makes Tarantino exceptional is his unmatched gift for words, and how they are able to create characters so wonderfully mannered, that they never fully divulge into caricature--though they come close.

Always known to have a gift with actors, Inglourious Basterds generates a handful of wonderful performances. Pitt's Aldo Raine is a comical farce of American arrogance and brutish macho-ness. Not to mention, it's a perfect example of how Pitt is at his best when he is at his silliest. French actress
Mélanie Laurent displays all kinds of fear, attraction, and vengeance-fueled anger, and underplays it all perfectly. The film's most exciting performance comes from Christoph Waltz, whose cruel, but calculated Col. Landa is beautiful rendering of exasperating personality veiling overwhelming sadism. Waltz should be looking at an Oscar nomination in late January.

Can a film be great when it's best moments all come within the first twenty-five minutes? Well, Inglourious Basterds seems to prove that it can. Sure the rowdiness occasionally seems campy, and the references to spaghetti westerns and 1940's Film Noir will not be caught by most audience members, but despite it all, Tarantino is able to craft a wonderfully rich screenplay which recreates the phrase "historical fiction". Possessing some of the best dialogue he's ever written, Basterds is a brilliant return to filmmaking from one our most neurotic, but rarest movie directors.

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