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Movie Review: Inglourious Basterds
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Inglourious Basterds movie posterInglourious Basterds
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Melanie Laurent, Diane Kruger, Daniel Bruhl, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbenderr, Til Schweiger, Samm Levine, B.J. Novak, Mike Myers
Rated R
Release date: August 21, 2009

I did not discover Quentin Tarantino at the same time everyone else did, but by the time his 1997 crime drama Jackie Brown, an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch, was released I knew who he was. I came by his movies on my own with my only knowledge of them being what I had read in magazines like Rolling Stone, Premiere, and Entertainment Weekly.

Pulp Fiction, his epic anthology of strangely believable adventures in the underworld, was the first. I rented that movie when it was first released on video but it took me all of the one-week rental period to watch it because I could not view it in the presence of my younger brother and sister. But as I watched Pulp Fiction, piece by piece every day before and after I went to school, I became captivated by what I was seeing and I began to understand why Quentin Tarantino was the talk of the town. Here was undoubtedly the most innovative and dynamic new filmmaker to emerge in a decade that had seen more than its fair share of cinematic underachievers and would see even more before the millennium came to a close. Tarantino’s films were heavily criticized for their violence but when weighed against the majority of the R-rated action fare that was coming out of Hollywood there was not much bloodshed at all. What gave the violence in Tarantino’s films its impact was its relative restraint. His films rely mostly on the integral developments of plot and character. When the violence does come, be it in a shocking gag (the accidental shooting of Marvin in Pulp Fiction) or an extended battle sequence (the House of Blue Leaves fight which takes up the majority of Kill Bill Volume 1’s third act), it feels like a cathartic release of tension and energy. Tarantino’s own personal celluloid orgasm, if you will.

The heart of Quentin Tarantino’s films has always been his gift for taking well-worn archetypes of cinema and pop culture and humanizing them through communication, whether it is a quick action or a lengthy monologue. Tarantino has always been known for writing scripts rich with wonderful wit that gives his characters dialogue that can twist average conversations into sheer poetry. The individuals who occupy the universe of Tarantino’s pulp and exploitation-soaked imagination are unique and intelligent enough to exist far beyond the limitations of cinematic cliché, their discussions enriched with honest musings on philosophy, religion, sexuality, and the pop culture that has been as much a part of their lives as it has been of ours. He was also one of those rare directors who could craft the perfect soundtracks to compliment their films.

After Tarantino became a household name many aspiring filmmakers came out of the woodwork hoping to emulate the formula that made his movies so popular. They knew the words but not the music. Most of these pretenders front-loaded their movies with screaming profanity, over-the-top violence, eclectic soundtracks, and painful attempts at “hip” dialogue. The difference between Tarantino and those who would aspire to follow in his footsteps is that Tarantino does not work in the formula convention that hopelessly hobbled the copycats. His movies can not be easily categorized. Quentin Tarantino is a scientist of the moving picture, brilliant but not completely, who has always marched to his own infectious beat. Even his lesser works spoke with the voice and attitude of a born cinematic artist.

Inglourious Basterds, his long-gestating epic World War II adventure, opens in 1941 with the words “Once upon a time… in Nazi-occupied France.” A French dairy farmer (Denis Menochet) is discovered to be hiding a Jewish family by the intelligent and methodical Nazi Colonel Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa (Christoph Waltz) and every member of the family is brutally executed by Landa’s troops. Only one manages to escape, Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent). She flees to Paris to live with relatives who own a stylish movie house. Four years later Shoshanna is now the owner of the theater and employs her lover Marcel (Jacky Ido) as the projectionist. Enthusiastic German soldier Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) has become a celebrity in the ranks of the Nazi for shooting three hundred enemy soldiers from a sniper’s nest inside a walled city. Hitler’s minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) has made a film about Zoller’s exploits called Nation’s Pride with the young soldier playing himself. Having been smitten by Shoshanna, Zoller appeals to Goebbels to hold the premiere of Nation’s Pride at her theater, to which Goebbels reluctantly agrees. Best of all the screening will be exclusive to only but the top dogs in the Third Reich. After years spent in hiding Shoshanna finally has her chance at getting revenge on the Nazis for the deaths of her beloved family members so she puts forth an elaborate plan of retribution with the help of Marcel.

Meanwhile a special unit of the military comprised of young Jewish-American soldiers and led by swaggering Lt. Aldo “The Apache” Raine (Brad Pitt) has been dropped behind enemy lines with only one clear mission: to kill as many Nazis as they can in the most brutal ways possible, and then to collect their scalps. The Germans have given them an appropriate nickname, the Basterds. The British military has gotten wind of the impending premiere of Nation’s Pride and dispatched film critic-turned-officer Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) to rendezvous with Raine’s unit and German film star/Allied spy Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) and carry out a sabotage mission of their own. On the night of Nation’s Pride big screen debut most of the major players in the story will converge on Shoshanna’s theater for the movie premiere to end them all, and with Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke) himself in attendance, the mission is bound to turn into a full-force clusterfuck of hot lead and cold fury.

Here it is ladies and gentlemen, the movie that Quentin Tarantino has been itching to get before the cameras long before he even made Kill Bill and Death Proof. Before he made this passion project a reality Tarantino was talking of assembling an all-star cast of Hollywood heavyweights and top rank actors to headline his dream combat epic. Names like Adam Sandler, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Willis, Leonardo Di Caprio, Sylvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger were bandied about before late last year when Tarantino announced his intentions to finally make Inglourious Basterds, which takes its name from a correctly spelled 1978 WWII B-movie adventure directed by Enzo G. Castellari, and have it ready in time for the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. The rush to start production meant that due to various scheduling conflicts and other casting difficulties Tarantino was not able to put together the ensemble cast of his (and our) fevered film geek imagination. It was all for the best because with one exception Tarantino decided to go with a cast of unknowns and little-knowns who fit their roles, be it major speaking parts or split-second cameos, perfectly. Real actors with genuine, mostly unexploited talent are given the chance to rip into another one of Tarantino’s trademark meaty screenplays and help the director’s wildly cinematic war fantasy reach the breaking point of its potential and then continue far beyond that point. The results are nothing short of glorious.

From the very beginning Quentin Tarantino boldly makes it clear that Inglourious Basterds is not meant to be some sanctimonious hymn to the American fighting spirit as it stood bravely against the ultimate tyranny meant to appeal chiefly to surviving members of the Greatest Generation and war junkies. As the movie’s teaser trailer proudly intoned, “You haven’t seen war… until you’ve seen it through the eyes… of Quentin Tarantino.” That’s exactly what this movie is. This a movie teeming with possibilities and fiercely animate with the desire to follow alternate paths rather than bowing to cinematic convention. This is Q.T.’s world baby, and you are just living in it so you best sit back and enjoy the ride. Each one of Tarantino’s past films were infused with the soul fire that powered the foreign art films and exploitation flicks the director grew up watching. Inglourious Basterds tips its hat on more than a few occasions to the Italian spaghetti westerns of the 1960’s and 1970’s and the time-honored “men on a mission” genre that included such World War II-set adventures as Where Eagles Dare, The Dirty Dozen, and Kelly’s Heroes, not to mention the 1978 Italian film that gave the film its name (albeit misspelled).

Tarantino’s films tend to drift in and out of deadly serious drama and tongue-in-cheek action so much the tone alterations can be a bit jarring. Split up into five chapters — “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France”, “Inglourious Basterds”, “German Night in Paris”, “Operation Kino”, and “Revenge of the Giant Face” — the movie’s storyline plays like a Magnolia-style series of interlocking episodes veering wildly between satirical action and somber revenge drama, but it all comes together nicely towards the end in a joyously insane finale and best of all it works. Everyone involved is obviously having a ball playing heroes, villains, dictators, and authority figures in Tarantino’s wartime tall tale. The Basterds themselves, particularly Eli Roth’s Sgt. Donnie Donowitz a.k.a. “The Bear Jew,” are designed to be figures of mythical brutality to Hitler’s evil empire. They could be the subjects of the kind of bedtime stories the Nazis tell to scare their children. The sections of the film involving the Basterds play like a violent send-up of macho war movies with quick and bloody bursts of action and tough guy dialogue, but the segments focusing on Shoshanna’s character and her plan for revenge seem darker and emotional. The entire movie has the power to affect you emotionally in some way so you are locked in for the journey.

Tarantino has always demonstrated an uncanny flair for conjuring up great scenes driven purely by dialogue and character, and there are more than a few scenes in Inglourious Basterds where he gets to show that his gift for masterful writing continues to grow. This is some of the best writing he has ever done. The opening scene ranks among the finest moments in Tarantino’s films and in any film released this year. In the span of less than twenty minutes the scene successfully establishes Colonel Hans Landa as the cruelest, smartest, and most charismatic screen villain since the Joker in last year’s blockbuster The Dark Knight. Christoph Waltz gives an award-worthy performance as a cold yet brilliant Nazi who does not operate out of hatred for the Jews but out of a egomaniacal desire to prove the vastness of his own intellect. The way Landa methodically breaks down the defenses of the dairy farmer into giving up the hiding place of the Dreyfus family through an ingratiating charm and disarming humor that steadily builds into outright intimidation is terrifying in its simplicity. Waltz’s delivery of Landa’s monstrous “rat monologue” left me with chills, the mark of a great performance in screen villainy.

Waltz’s performance is just the standout in a cast full of talented actors doing some of their best work here. Brad Pitt gives a genuine movie star performance full of smirking humor and swaggering cool as the battle-hardened leader of the Basterds. Pitt just enjoys kicking some ass and listening to him trying to speak crude Italian in Lt. Aldo Raine’s thicker-than-molasses Southern accent with a curled lip Elvis would be proud of is one of the movie’s comedic high points. Shame though that among the rest of the Basterds only Eli Roth and Til Schweiger get any real screen time to develop their characters. Roth, taking a break from directing horror films, takes on his biggest acting role to date as the head-bashing soldier Sgt. Donnie “The Bear Jew” Donowitz, which he invests a frightening sense of amusement in. Schweiger’s ice cool Nazi killer Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz (named for a well-known Spanish star of exploitation in the 1970’s and 1980’s) is probably the only other member of the Basterds besides Raine and Donnie who takes a ghoulish glee in his work and his performance is amusing in a frightening manner. Stiglitz is definitely the Charles Bronson figure of this movie and he gets a kickass introduction complete with snazzy title card. Schweiger plays Stiglitz as a man given over completely to his killer instinct. Diane Kruger is better than she has ever been before as the classy and brave Bridget von Hammersmark. Melanie Laurent’s haunting performance as the resilient Shoshanna puts a starkly human face on the war. We all know she is going to get some payback and it is fun to watch her work, but Laurent’s best moment in the movie is where her cover is in danger of being blown and how she deals with it afterward. These moments are superb and if there is any justice Laurent’s performance should be recognized come awards time. Michael Fassbender’s arch, mannered gentleman officer Hicox is a picture of iconic movie star cool. Daniel Bruhl’s lovelorn superstar Nazi sniper hits all the right notes of a naïve kid coming to grips with his own infamy. Sylvester Groth makes a suitably slimy Goebbels and Martin Wuttke’s performance as Hitler is all pitch-perfect petulant comic madness. Mike Myers lays on the old-age makeup and the fine English ham as the general overseeing Operation Kino. Keep an ear out for voiceover cameos from Samuel L. Jackson and another very well-known past collaborator of Quentin Tarantino.

Robert Richardson, who served as the cinematographer on Tarantino’s dazzling Kill Bill films, returns to work his photographic wizardry on the director’s vision of war-torn France. Richardson’s stellar work brings out the most intimate details in David Wasco’s production design. Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger of KNB EFX, more past Tarantino collaborators, keep the blood and gore flowing and the sets covered in dead, scalped Nazis and it is a devious wonder to behold. Tarantino’s longtime editor Sally Menke keeps the scenes moving at a pace that rarely drags. Once again Tarantino has eschewed a traditional musical score for a wonderfully eclectic soundtrack composed of an astonishing array of classic Ennio Morricone soundtrack scores from films such as The Big Gundown and The Battle of Algiers along with cues from Dimitri Tiomkin’s score to the 1960 film of The Alamo and even David Bowie’s “Putting Out Fire” from the soundtrack to the 1982 remake of Cat People makes an unexpected but welcome appearance.

Inglourious Basterds is Quentin Tarantino’s finest film since Jackie Brown and one of the best films of the year. It is a rousing epic adventure that feels both classical and fresh with the mark of a great filmmaker who continues to surprise.

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