Friday, August 21, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker. Love him or hate him, the man has a passion and reverence for cinema as well as a definite style in crafting his own projects.

"Inglourious Basterds", the writer/director's latest, took more than a decade to come to the screen. The film is many things; one that it is not is boring. Insane and glorious, Tarantino has finally succeeded in crafting a film I can't help but love.

Although I've always respected Tarantino as a director (less so as a producer), and will easily admit to the quality of "Pulp Fiction", at times his career has taken him down paths I wasn't keen on following.

I had a mixed reaction to "Kill Bill: Vol. 1" and I've forgotten nearly everything associated with part two (except my disappointment).

I give him full credit in making strong choices with his stories and jumping in with both feet. Kill Bill just wasn't my type of crazy; Inglourious Basterds is. And, oh boy, is it crazy! What can you say about a movie where a man beats another to death with a baseball bat and American soldier (Brad Pitt) with a strong southern accent, and little knowledge of any foreign language, tries to pass himself off as an Italian to the Nazi brass?

If you're like me, you just smile, shake your head, and enjoy the ride. Although I was an appreciator of his work, until this point I wasn't really a fan of Tarantino. Inglourious Basterds won me over, both early and often, and now I can no longer make that claim.

I have a suspicion that, had he lived to see it, Frank Capra would have enjoyed this movie. Had the film been made sixty-years ago it would have been a perfect propaganda piece. It includes some intensely dramatic moments and short, but shockingly violent, scenes, but at its heart it's a comedy - and a damn funny one.

And while I will argue the film is a comedy, and the best the director has delivered, it's the dramatic scenes which are the most memorable, even haunting. Two in particular come to mind, both featuring Tarantino's trademark of long dialogues.

The first opens the film and involves Nazi officer (Christoph Waltz) discussing a missing Jewish family with one of their neighbors (Denis Menochet). I refuse to give away anything about the scene other than to say by its conclusion I was hooked.

The second scene takes place further into the film in a bar when the plans of the Basterds begin to go awry. Although it occurs much later, and focuses on an entirely different group of characters, it is no less powerful. Each scene not only gives us a slow build-up to an immediate payoff, but each outcome is woven into the larger storyline of the film.

I've gotten this far and not discussed the title characters, shame on me. The Basterds are a feared group of Jewish American soldiers, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt), whose very mention brings terror to the Nazis and throws Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke) into a tizzy. Known for their scalping of dead Nazis, and their even more notorious marking of those they let live, their exploits have become the stuff of legend.

The rest of the nefarious team includes "The Bear Jew" (Eli Roth, in a surprisingly good performance), Samm Levine, Omar Ulmer, Gedeon Burkhard, B. J. Novak, and Til Schweiger as Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz (who earns his own 70's style opening sequence). At points in the film the team is also helped by German actress turned Allied spy Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) and the roguishly charming Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender).

I'm a big fan of Kruger, who I'll admit carrying a small torch for. I mention this because as good as she is in the film she's overshadowed by an actress I hadn't even heard of before. The marvelous French actress Mélanie Laurent plays a theater owner mooned over by a Nazi war hero (Daniel Brühl) with her own plans for bringing the curtain down on the war. She's so good she nearly steals the film from Pitt (whose plays the Southern dry humor for all its worth) and Waltz (who owns the screen every time the "Jew Hunter" appears). There's one scene between Waltz and Laurent in a restaurant that which contains more tension than several full-length films I've seen this year.

And they are not alone as the film is filled from top to bottom with great performances. Even Michael Meyers, who shows up in a cameo as a British general in a piece of stunt casting, doesn't seem out of place.

I've also got to mention cinematographer Robert Richardson ("The Aviator," "Kill Bill," "The Good Shepherd"). As a period piece, even a comedic one, the look and feel is perfect. There are several small choices including the placement of camera and use of shadow which Richardson and Tarantino use to help tell their tale. And it's simply gorgeous. Everything, from the humorous to the more violent moments, is lovingly captured on film. The entire enterprise embraces a brutal gleeful absurdity that builds to an explosive conclusion.

My only real complaint with the film (other than the over-the-top Hitler) is the climax when the level of madness boils so far over that for a moment I was taken aback. However, by that point in the narrative I had long bought into the story and the moments following more make up for this short derailment.

I can't recommend the film highly enough and it easily falls into the category of one of the best films I have seen this year. You'll need a strong stomach to take some of the more violent moments, and a bit of whimsy to enjoy the more crazy elements. If you think you can manage that then this is a must-see. Fans of film, and not just those of Tarantino, should give "Inglourious Basterds" a good long look. I think you'll be glad you did.

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