Saturday, August 29, 2009

Inglourious Basterds ***

Inglourious Basterds
*** out of ****

When you go to see a Quentin Tarantino movie, you know you're in for something unusual. Inglourious Basterds is an unusual film even for him.
Tarantino takes his usual violent dialogue-filled formula- divided into chapters like literature- and sets it during World War II, in Nazi-occupied France. The plot of the film is far too complicated to explain here, but here is a brief overview: There is a vicious Nazi colonel, Hans Landa, looking for Jews in hiding throughout France. There is an 8-man squadron of Jewish-American soldiers who are dropped into France behind enemy lines and brutally kill all the Nazis they find. There is a violent Tennessee hick, Lt. Aldo Raine, who collects scalps leading this squadron. There is a young Jewish woman in Paris who escaped from Col. Landa four years earlier when he killed her entire family. She runs a movie theatre and is being romantically pursued by a young Nazi soldier who just happens to be a war hero to the Third Reich. There is a plan to kill Hitler and all his top officers that involves the American squadron, Landa, a French actress/British double agent, the young Jewish woman, and the theatre she owns. And that's not even half of the whole plot.
The film is extremely talky for a war film, but luckily, it's all patented Tarantino dialogue, which makes it almost addictive to listen to. (The film is heavily subtitled, but even this doesn't dull the words' flavor.) It is, of course, extremely violent, but much of the violence is done in a quick, comical, almost fantastical fashion. Because the film has only select moments of a musical score, Tarantino uses it quite effectively to bring the tension level up to almost unbearable heights at many points in the movie. But the thing that surprised me most was how funny the film was, the fact that all the violence is meant to be hilarious, a kind of guilty pleasure in watching men in Nazi uniforms get the crap beaten out of them. The bloody massacre climax is reminiscent of the prom scene in Carrie, although the rest of the film feels like a bizarre kind of Western.
While promotions for the film would have you believe Brad Pitt (as Raine, in a wonderful Southern drawl) is the lead, the film is truly an ensemble with many leads, several of them unknown foreign actors. Christoph Waltz is already getting Oscar buzz as Landa, full of polite chatter and a wide grin, embedded with the kind of calm that makes people uneasy. French actress Melanie Laurent is impressive as the revenge-driven Jewish woman. Eli Roth and The Office's B. J. Novak are member's of Pitt's battalion (the German army gives them each nicknames, with the group being dubbed the Bastards). In the film's strangest and most superfluous scene, Mike Myers appears as a British general laying out the plan to a soldier he's sending to the Bastards. His outrageous accent makes the whole scene seem like an old Saturday Night Live skit without any jokes. Fans of Tarantino will love the appearance of both Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel in uncredited voice cameos. As is usual with casts assembled by Tarantino, there are no slackers and everyone is brilliant in their roles, no matter how small. (Why didn't he cast himself in a small role, as usual?)
Ultimately, I could say that the film is too long, but it really isn't. Even though the film is infused with long periods of just people talking, the audience never seems to get bored. And these quiet periods make the violence that erupts all that more shocking and funny. The film- and Tarantino himself- is an odd sort of genius, a sick war thriller/comedy that fully delivers for those who have the stomach for it. It's natural to say that the film is not for every taste- all of his films are that way- but this one actually opens up to skeptics a lot more than his previous films do, making it one of his best works. (Pulp Fiction is the obvious exception.)
I would recommend this film to anyone who likes violent war films, black comedies, and- it goes without saying- fans of Quentin Tarantino. And Brad Pitt.

You can watch the trailer here:

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