Tuesday, September 08, 2009

495 - Inglorious Basterds review

Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” begins with the caption “Once upon a time in occupied France.” It’s a typically Tarantino-esque piece of cleverness, as the world his film takes place in is not the same one of our history, but just how different it is will surprise many and delight even more. It’s a Second World War of chatty officers and colorful refugees, where gorgeous cinephiles strike at the heart of the Third Reich and where the Americans are nearly as murderous as the Germans.

As 1994’s “Pulp Fiction” reached dizzying highs of cinematic joy and pop zeitgeist, “Inglourious Basterds” (intentionally misspelled) plays the same sort of games with our expectations of what a movie set in the middle of World War 2 should be, weaving a complex narrative compromised of an eclectic group of people whose goals are to support Nazi Germany or destroy it. Tarantino doesn’t so much rewrite history as he does ignore it, telling a his own story unimpeded by the facts. He spent a decade writing the script, and it’s his most accomplished since “Pulp Fiction,” and perhaps even more challenging. Some accuse him of thieving from other films, but in reality he’s simply honest about his inspirations, about his boundless affection for the medium. Some will hate “Inglourious Basterds” for its gruesomeness and eccentricity, but at least as many should love it for the same reasons. Tarantino isn’t selling World War 2 rebottled as pop art, but the popular American perception of the war, reshaped and spelled out the way we wish it had been.

The titular “Basterds” are a team of American soldiers (primarily Jewish) lead by Lt. Aldo Raine, a crafty Tennessee redneck played by tongue-in-cheek by Brad Pitt. Dropped into France to commence guerilla warfare, the Basterds have a minimum number of Nazi scalps to collect, and are so vicious that they’re known Reich-wide for their brutality (Raine carves swastikas in the foreheads of surviving Germans, an act evocative of concentration camp tattoos). Also known for brutality is SD Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a man nicknamed “The Jew Hunter” for his proficiency at catching Jewish refugees in hiding.

Over in Paris is Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), a theater owner who once escaped Landa’s massacre of her family, and a cast of characters including but not limited to an English commando who’s also film critic, a German war hero, and Adolf Hitler. Their various plans all lead them to Shosanna’s theater, where nothing but violence can result, though few are involved with the others, but the importance of the matter at hand means they all have virtually identical objectives.

Tarantino has long been a metronome for actors, allowing talent ranging from the A-list to the unknown to thrive. Pitt’s scenery chewing performance here is funny and appropriately over the top, but his record as an actor willing to pick offbeat roles means that the surprise is reserved exclusively for his co-stars. Waltz has deservedly received special attention for his silky, blood-curdling turn as a revered Nazi, though just as notable to me was Diane Kruger, the German model-turned-actress whose usual function is restricted to eye candy. Here she’s a famous German actress turned Allied spy, and she’s at the center of a brilliant, lengthy scene that sees the Basterds’ mission hitting unforeseen cultural barriers.

Even as Tarantino’s characters are giddily verbose, his scenes here are a methodically paced slow burn, a combination of loquaciousness and suspense that becomes delightfully unbearable. I’m unaware of any other working filmmaker who manages to make films that possess such a breathless patience with itself, a love of “movieness” that ensures his films are about themselves in the best sort of way.

Whether or not the scenes end in bloodshed or dialogue, they are all punctuated by a gloriously appropriate exclamation point. Viewers should consider the film’s final line, a proud declaration that’s coming as much from Tarantino’s mouth as it is the actor’s, and ask themselves if he’s not right.

5 out of 5

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