Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino's last couple films, the Kill Bill series and Death Proof, were a bit different than his first few. They feel similar in a lot of ways, but they're ultimately genre films whereas his others were not, although they did pay homage to certain periods and styles. Based on advertisements, I thought Basterds might follow suit, as a sort of road/war movie featuring a band of hardened killers. And parts of the movie are exactly that. But only parts - the basterds are but one aspect of the two and a half hour film, one that I enjoyed immensely and just might have taken Pulp Fiction's place as my favorite by the eccentric director.

Tarantino has previously called Basterds a spaghetti western in WWII, and "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France" was once a considered title for the movie, and ended up as the name for the first chapter. Yeah, he's back to the chapters thing, and the film is a story in five parts. The first two are twenty minute vignettes that could work as shorts on their own, and basically establish the major players. There's Hans Landa, AKA "The Jew Hunter", the primary antagonist and quite possibly Tarantino's best character ever. Christoph Waltz turns in a completely stunning performance that got him an award at Cannes and should earn him some nominations next Spring. Shosanna Dreyfus is a French Jew who escaped death and runs a cinema. Lt. Aldo Raine is played to great humorous effect by Brad Pitt and leads the basterds, a unit of American Jews, to disrupt the Nazi war effort inside France. After these introductions, the next three chapters introduce, develop, and resolve the main plot - a new propaganda film (directed in real life by Eli Roth, creator of the Hostel series and starring as the enjoyably menacing and slightly crazy basterd known as "The Bear Jew" by the Germans) is being premiered in Paris, and a plan is concocted to burn it to the ground while a bunch of important Nazis are still inside. As you might guess with a Tarantino movie, there are multiple forces at work and things don't go quite as planned at any point.

As is his trademark, the movie features lots of long, leisurely conversations. The entire first chapter is a single scene where we learn to absolutely fear Landa, and all he does is drink some milk, smoke from an absurd pipe, and talk to a French farmer. There's a moment where they switch from French to English in a slightly clunky way, and you might think it's just the film excusing having foreign characters speak what the audience can understand. But it's just a clever subversion, as there's a specific reason the switch is made and the rest of the movie sees the majority of its dialogue be spoken by French people speaking French, German people speaking German, or whatever is appropriate. There's some humor in the subtitles too, as occasionally an obvious word will remain in its original language, such as "merci" appearing instead of "thank you". I was a bit surprised at the amount of foreign dialogue, but I appreciated it. The movie sure as hell ain't historically accurate, but it does feel fairly authentic, and the use of language goes a long way. Whereas Tarantino used dialogue in other films to mostly entertain the viewer and establish character, here it's all about building tension. A quite lengthy sequence in a German bar might have been interminable in less able hands, but I loved every minute as it slowly goes from funny, to uncomfortable, to downright dangerous. You can tell where it's going, but every step there can be excruciating.

I've seen a couple people praise the acting but dismiss Tarantino's direction, which seems foolish to me. You're not going to get a lot of good performances out of actors if you don't know how to direct them, unless they're seasoned thespians or something. When it's this universally good throughout the movie, maybe the guy behind it all deserves some credit. I mean, look at Diane Kruger. She's been in her share of movies, both in Hollywood and Germany, and she's never impressed anyone to my knowledge with anything but her looks. And here she is in Basterds, perfectly capturing the 40's movie star persona in one scene and completely desperate and disheveled in the next. She was seriously great, and she's just one of many, many actors you can say that about. The movie is shot pretty beautifully and traditionally by Tarantino, although it also has several touches of flair like the brief cutaway sequences narrated by Samuel L. Jackson and anachronistic music because while it doesn't make sense, damn it, this is his movie and he'll do what he wants. The soundtrack is mostly (entirely?) made up of songs taken from other movies, primarily those westerns, and it works pretty damn beautifully with the mood he creates. One scene in particular with Melanie Laurent, who's alternately charmingly sympathetic and frighteningly vengeful as Shosanna, as she prepares for something while a David Bowie song plays in the background is a great encapsulation of this. The brief gun fights are fairly normal if enjoyably chaotic and rapid, but it does tend to linger on some other violent moments, usually to brutal, darkly humorous effect. The climax is wonderfully explosive and hellish. The final scene, with Pitt in the same form he's been in the whole time and BJ Novak (most recognizable from The Office) as his calm companion, is a perfect ending to a film I seriously loved and can't wait to see again.

No comments: