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Friday, January 1, 2010

Inglourious Basterds

I resisted seeing Inglourious Basterds when it was in theaters, and not just because of objections to its disregard for proper spelling. I had read some negative reviews which threw around such weighty phrases as "moral relativity" and "troubling violence" and assumed that the film was just over-stylized gore and not worth my time. I was very, very wrong.

While it's true that Tarantino's film ignores any questions about the meaning of it's title characters quest to scalp 100 Nazis each, it does so knowingly and cheerfully. Tarantino is telling a comic-book story of inherent good taking on inherent evil. There are no "good Nazis" in this movie, a dreary war movie cliche of recent times, when Hollywood seems to try and tell us that "deep down, we're really all the same." Tarantino says "Fuck that" and it's really fun to watch him do it.

The film is beautifully shot, right from the incredibly tense opening scene featuring Christoph Waltz's Col. Hans "The Jew Hunter" Landa conversing with a French Dairy farmer about the characteristics of the Jews and the quality of his milk all while trying to suss out whether or not the farmer is hiding Jews under his floorboards. (He is.) Waltz is terrifying in this scene and in his others throughout the film. He creates an unease in the other characters and in the audience despite seeming polite and even charming on the surface. Even when he lets Shosanna Dreyfuss escape his gunmen, it seems somehow an act of cruelty. It's an astonishing performance, and it's easy to see why there is so much Oscar talk surrounding Waltz, despite this being his first English-language film. (Waltz displays fluency in four languages as Landa, German, English, French and Italian, the last in an incredibly funny scene in the movie's fifth and final chapter.)

Next we're introduced to Aldo Raine and the Basterds. Pitt's Southern barking is comical but in a fun way, and the rest of his all-Jew unit are basically just there to terrify an equally cartoonish Hitler.

The real treats in the movie outside of Waltz and Pitt are the two leading ladies of the picture. Melanie Laurent is terrific as Shoshanna, a largely understated role. After escaping death, Shoshanna is a theater owner who is pursued by Germany's version of Audie Murphy, a war-hero turned film star. At first repulsed by his pursuit, Shoshanna decides to play along when the actor gets his movie's premiere switched into her little theater. The possibilities that come to her mind are too good to resist. She decides to try and kill all Nazis in attendance by setting fire to highly flammable 35mm film. She also films a movie of her own for the Nazis to watch as they burn.

Laurent's face expresses so much hurt, fear, and intense resolve. She is the figure the audience roots for, and there is mind-numbing suspense in watching her try to put her plan into action.

The other female role is that of German actress/spy Bridget von Hammersmark, played by Troy's Diane Kruger. Kruger is intoxicating in her introductory scene, a rendezvous with the German-speaking members of the Basterds (including Hugo Stiglitz, a psychotic ex-German soldier, and a British film expert sent in to help the Basterds blow up Shoshanna's theater on their own.) The meeting is thrown into chaos by the presence of a group of German soldiers celebrating one of their own becoming a father.

This scene is a testament to Tarantino's capabilities as a filmmaker. The scene is quite lengthy but the tension never lets up as the Basterds slowly give themselves away as impostors. The interview between the German commanding officer and the British Basterd is especially gripping. Kruger gamely tries to keep the plan from dissolving, charming the other soldiers into believing whatever lie she manages to concoct on the spot, but even she can only keep it up for so long.

The film's ending, when von Hammersmark and the remaining Basterds gamely limp into the movie premiere and Shoshanna and her black projectionist lover struggle to put their similarly-oriented plans into actions, is thrilling and surprisingly suspenseful. Tarantino has managed to create a world where anything is possible, damn the textbooks.

Inglourious Basterds is a beautifully shot, well-written and exceptionally acted thrill ride. There are maybe a few spots where Tarantino's flourishes serve to detract, such as Samuel Jackson's thankfully sporadic narration, but overall this is a masterwork made by someone with a clear love of movies and perhaps an overconfidence in their abilities. (It's no accident that film relies so much on movies for it's plot and resolution.) This is a great movie, 9.6 out of 10.

Next? I think I'm dipping back into Wes Anderson with The Darjeeling Limited, unless I finish the Chabon beforehand.

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