Monday, August 24, 2009

Movie Review: Inglourious Basterds

Lately I feel like I'm shellin' out good grades like a teacher to a student she's dorkin'. I swear, though, there is a good chance The Hurt Locker, Moon, District 9, and Inglourious Basterds all end up on my top 10 of the year. In fact, I really can't see any of them missing the cut (sorry, should have said spoiler alert on that one). Don't worry, I promise to absolutely hate something soon and make fun of it using all kinds of disturbing metaphors and analogies, just like you expect from me. Not here, though. Here there be incredible praise:

Not Ze Nazi Movie Promised
Tarantino pulls a slow fast one with Inglourious Basterds
Ryan Syrek

The only challenger to perpetual title-holder Don King’s self-promoter crown, Quentin Tarantino bragged up Inglourious Basterds years before his pen ever impregnated his paper with words, promising The Dirty Dozen by way of Sergio Leone. Although strands of that idea permeate the DNA of the actual film, it turns out he oversold the project in its fetal stage. This isn’t to say that Tarantino’s latest mental offspring is stillborn, it’s just the product of a different creative lineage. To put it another way, Inglourious Basterds is an enthralling total bastard of a movie.

Tarantino pries himself free of the noose of historical accuracy with a simple title card that reads “once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France.” The violent fable opens on a picturesque cabin in the French countryside, where Colonel Hans Landa (Cristoph Waltz), aka the Jew Hunter, is living up to his namesake. Tarantino, who has never written a scene he couldn’t shoot twice as long, demonstrates his ability to use words for torturous effect. From the moment Landa’s nickname is revealed, to the scene’s conclusion nearly 20 minutes later, there is but one inevitable, tragic outcome for which the self-confessed sadistic director makes his audience practically beg. The result is that Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) is left an orphan who longs for revenge.

The second of the film’s five chapter arrives where Tarantino’s initial concept began, with Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) delivering a speech to a guerrilla squad of eight Jews enlisted by the U.S. to massacre Nazis in attempt to terrify the terrorizers. The legend of the Basterd’s deeds grows off-screen; audiences are told of the gang’s violent prowess, with only a single example of their brutality depicted and, even then, that scene begins after a great battle. It is here that the movie fully deviates from the promised battlefield-centric excursion into an entirely separate beast, one that feasts on meta-cinematic revenge.

Four years after Shosanna escaped the Jew Hunter, she meets Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a young soldier whose heroism landed him in the starring role of a movie based on his life directed by Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth). Shosanna has been living under an assumed identity and now owns a movie theater; Fredrick attempts to woo her by having Goebbels move his film’s premiere from Berlin to Shosanna’s theater. Shosanna sees her opportunity for revenge and sets forth a plan to incinerate her guests using burning film stock; simultaneously, the Basterds hear of the gathering and unknowingly set out to attack the venue. Thus, Inglourious Basterds is actually a relatively intimate, espionage-laden violent fairy tale, the moral of which is “it’s okay to cinematically do unto evil doers what they did unto others.”

Tarantino, himself not Jewish, unloads a righteous anger so powerful that the climax of the film threatens to create sympathy for the high-ranking Nazis. Those wringing their hands and lamenting the decision to fictionally flip the power paradigm and allow the Jew to pin the Nazi beneath his boot, should be reminded that these imaginary atrocities are just that. The film suggests in unequivocal terms that there is something therapeutic and powerful about using cinema, a tool the real Goebbels wielded with real-life menace, to fictionally eviscerate some of the worst people to ever live.

Beyond the growingly redundant “ain’t revenge grand” message that Tarantino has hammered home in each of his last three movies, the film has several breath-taking scenes, the most notable of which exploits a verbal inconsistency to the ultimate height of tension. These small moments, long known to be Tarantino’s wheelhouse, are wrung slowly for maximum effect, negating the action-oriented picture that the film’s trailers guaranteed. It is tough to complain about being sold a false bill of goods when the Ford Taurus you were promised turns out to be a Porsche, but it is still deceit.

What threatens to tear the whole thing apart is Tarantino’s obligation to include flair. The sporadic and distracting voiceover from Samuel Jackson, the ridiculous over-performance of Eli Roth and the out-of-place backstory of Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), the only Basterd to get such an honor, all work against the intimate and intricate web that had been weaved. Were it not for Pitt’s prowess and Waltz’s inevitably Oscar-nominated performance, the whole thing could have descended into the silly. Pitt’s performance alone makes one long for the movie that was seemingly offered, one that follows his gallows humor–wielding commander as he dispatches Nazi after Nazi. Thankfully, in this the age of sequels and prequels, such a thing is still possible.

Ironically, despite sporting a title directly taken from another film, Inglourious Basterds may be Tarantino’s most original work yet. Tonal inconsistencies and revenge fixation aside, it is riveting, traumatizing and challenging. Any movie that can be called unforgettable deserves respect, no matter how it was conceived.

Grade – A-

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Anonymous Mark said...

Saw it and agree with most of your comments.
You expect more from Quint. And didn't get it.
I think a C to -B is more like it. I think the A- is porking an old girlfriend cause you still like her and she was better to you in the past.

August 26, 2009  

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