Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How the War Should Have Been Won

Review of Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)

The tone is so gleefully vengeful in Inglourious Basterds it’s as if Quentin Tarantino is hunched over in hockey gear cherrypicking at the goal line, securing a victory for the Jewish oppressed.

His revisionist history of World War II – envisioning a Jewish-American team of Nazi scalpers led by Tennessee gentile Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) winning the war – is a glowing pop-art pastiche of epic proportions. Derivative of spaghetti westerns, exploitation cinema and ‘80s luxury glamour (courtesy of David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)” in an exquisite sequence), Inglourious Basterds is a deliriously calculated, thoroughly thrilling Jewish-American wet dream.

The film opens in Nazi-occupied France with a chilling, layered scene in which sinister Nazi Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) correctly suspects a farmer is hiding Jews. A few years later, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent, a sexy noir-ish ingenue), the sole escapee from this massacre, owns a movie theater in France and meets a Nazi war hero (Daniel Bruhl). He convinces Joseph Goebbels to hold the premiere of a new war film in her theater, setting off a chain of events.

This is QT playing around like a chef dabbling with confectionary delights, and of course cinema ultimately plays a major role in the course of American History: Vol. II.

The epic structure borrows chapter divisions from Tarantino’s last epic attempt Kill Bill, and the five chapters each willfully serve a specific purpose. Lengthy scenes are constructed brilliantly. Civil conversation, as intentionally tame as a drinking game with playing cards, escalates into interrogation and often results in an act of severe bloodshed influenced by Tarantino’s DePalma-style thirst for violence. The viewer gets antsy not bored for peripheral vision during a few long scenes.

Unlike QT’s creative slump Death Proof, the dialogue among a few seated characters trickles with boiling tension and all the animosity that’s left unsaid. Death Proof’s groups of Chatty Kathy girls rambled and lulled the viewer to sleep; Inglourious Basterds' war is fought with words and gestures, particularly how one counts to three.

On the acting front, Waltz is superb and, in the span of the first 10 minutes, represents the insidious distrust and bigotry of the Nazi army. Laurent, as the beautiful Shosanna, is outstanding and the film’s focal Jewish heroine.

The misleading title indicates that the Basterds are the film’s centerpiece, and though they’re a compelling, motley Jew crew, their exploits are only seen in segments. These snapshots don’t give us much of a backstory, and Aldo, the quirky, impassioned leader, is the biggest caricature of the lot. Pitt delivers a good performance, but if it wasn’t for Pitt’s casting (still not the best pick), his commanding presence when we first meet him delivering a Patton speech would be heavily deflated into a persona. He’s an amiable cardboard cut-out of a hero, but his personal motivation for such a risky operation is unexplored.

That the film is a bit overstuffed is a secondary thought, however. The viewer wants more of the Basterds, but there are no plot strands worth cutting to preserve its already 153-minute running time. Word is Tarantino has 500 additional pages of unproduced writing about the Basterds, a possible prequel that could just as easily fall by the wayside like the Pulp Fiction/Reservoir Dogs prequel The Vega Brothers and the Kill Bill follow-up with Vivica A. Fox’s growing daughter.

The finale in Shosanna’s theater is a fiery bullet-ridden tour-of-force of anxiety, fear and vengeance. The film unites the audience in a very popular cause and exploits all it can in enveloping us in giddy ecstasy of taking down Hitler. The pleasure and catharsis is so enthralling the past running time doesn’t seem taxing at all and you don’t wish it to end just yet.

Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s greatest effort since Jackie Brown, and the final line and final shot hit you like a smiling bullet.


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