Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Michael Fassbender, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger, Daniel Bruhl

Running Time: 152 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

There's usually a section in any bookstore where you can find those speculative fiction novels dealing with various alternate history scenarios. The victory of the South in the Civil War. The survival of the Byzantine Empire. Nazi Germany's victory in World War II. Quentin Tarantino uses the pages of those books as toilet paper in Inglourious Basterds, the alternate history to end all alternate histories, and easily his best film since Pulp Fiction. What everyone expected to be another one of his fun  B-movie tributes (this time to Spaghetti Westerns) over-performs considerably to become something far more, representing a giant leap forward for a director who was written off as peaking a while ago. It stands as his least indulgent, most assured effort, playing on all the strengths that were evident in his best work and finding a way to incorporate his cinematic influences and fanboy instincts into a film that's uniquely his. A substantial, focused work from a filmmaker who for the past decade has mostly been prone to taking crazy detours and marching to the beat of his own drum.

It wasn't until it ended that I realized most of the picture is in subtitles, not as if it matters because I was too enraptured in the story to even notice, hanging on every word in each tension filled scene. Tarantino milks every moment for all its worth but as impressive as it is, it's his ability for discovering and fostering underseen talent that reaches unthinkable heights. There's a brilliantly understated performance in this that even eclipses the film containing it, which is saying a lot considering the film itself is a near-masterpiece. This is the rare motion picture that will likely invite many repeated viewings to fully grasp all its crazy complexities and its ending, backdropped against an unforgettable final image, is as controversially cathartic a release as you hope a movie could deliver.

The film opens in German occupied France in 1941 with a visit to a dairy farm from "The Jew Hunter," Nazi Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). He suspects the farmer (Denis Menochet) is hiding Jews and after initiating a bizarre conversation about squirrels and rats, he kills the Dreyfus family, found hiding under the floorboards. All except one. Daughter Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) escapes and we catch up with her four years later when under an alias she now operates a small Paris cinema. All is fine until she encounters war hero Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), who's interested in her theater (and actually a lot more than that) for the premiere of the new Nazi propaganda picture, Nation's Pride, in which he stars and will be attended by Hitler and Joseph Goebbels. She agrees, plotting the ultimate revenge against the Nazis who murdered her family, provided her cover isn't blown first. Revenge is also on the minds of "The Basterds," a gang of Jews who kill and scalp Nazis. Led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), they have a dangerous plan of their own for the premiere involving infiltration from undercover former film critic Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) and a famous German film actress turned Allied double agent named Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger).

What's always been the long-running joke with Tarantino as a filmmaker, even amongst his most loyal supporters, is that he's a far better writer than director and that the guy just loves movies. That former criticism is called into question for the first time with this film while the latter isn't so much a criticism as it is the God's honest truth. But they've manifested themselves as criticisms mainly because he's spent the years following the enormous success of Pulp Fiction applying them to exciting diversions and genre tributes. That's not to say his day at the playground with a Jackie Brown, a Kill Bill or a Death Proof wouldn't be the equivalent of any other director's career best, but this one is more than that. Here he's really channeled and harnessed his self-indulgent tendencies and cinema obsession in the best possible way, applying them for more than just a good time (although this certainly delivers that in spades).

The love for movies does not only factor into the screenplay, for the first time it seems fully ingrained into the entire picture. Like Pulp Fiction, this is divided into chapters (five of them) but what's so curious about that is how each of them is so tightly constructed as to feel like five huge scenes. There are two or three huge ones while the rest wrap around it perfectly. Christoph Waltz is in most of them and his Landa is a Nazi unlike any we've seen depicted on film before. Rather than project him as pure evil personified, Waltz plays him as charming, intelligent and slick. His chief motivation really is simply doing his job and doing it well and it's that approach that makes the character so much more chillingly terrifying than it could possibly be otherwise. What Waltz does in the opening interrogation scene to get to the point he needs to with this character and jump start the story has to be seen (and heard) to be believed. Had he only appeared in those first ten minutes and nothing else he'd still have the Supporting Actor Oscar in the bag.

All the praise and awards attention for Waltz is justified but on equal ground, if not higher, is the work of newcomer Melanie Laurent as Shosanna. Part of why I'm so partial to it is that there are just so few strong starring roles available for women and it's something Tarantino has always excelled at writing, but takes to a new level here. Laurent doesn't have a lot of lines. Most of them are in foreign tongue. Yet she expresses all she needs to without words and just her eyes. A scene where Shosanna sits and eats with Landa, the man who murdered her family. As he questions her about the movie premiere the tension and suspense becomes unbearable. Just watch Laurent's face the entire time and when the scene ends witness her let it all out. She also expertly sells the most difficult part of the story--Shosanna's complicated, seemingly one-sided relationship with war hero Zoller, which we're not quite sure what to make of even right up until its tragic end.

At risk of overstating the case, Laurent gives the kind of iconic performance you can see being looked back on years from now as a landmark. The final image we get of her is so memorable it could very well be burned (literally) into our psyches. Considering this is an ensemble film I'm not sure which Oscar acting category she'd fit into but here's hoping they figure it out soon. And that's no knock on Diane Kruger as a separate review could be written exploring how Tarantino somehow managed to get such a thrilling performance out of an unproven actress barely memorable in the National Treasure movies. She's a surprise but Laurent's the heart and soul, so much so that movie actually suffers a little when she or Waltz aren't onscreen.

The Basterds are entertaining as hell, which is all they need to be and Brad Pitt (in a less pivotal role than you might expect) delivers a turn as broadly comic as his work in Burn After Reading. Of course, the most controversial casting decision is non-actor Eli Roth in the role of Staff Sergeant Donnie Donowitz (aka "The Bear Jew"), who takes a baseball bat to Nazis' heads. Roth really isn't asked to do a whole lot and this isn't a challenging part but he's adequate enough in it. The irony isn't lost that the "torture porn" director of Hostel brutally hands out the most controversial killing at the end of the film. There's a message in that somewhere. Make of it what you will.

The biggest accomplishment is that Tarantino takes the most sensitive, shameful subject imaginable and makes it fun. Barrels of fun. It's almost horrible to say, but true. And by having the Jews mimic the atrocities that were done to them by the Nazis and reversing the balance, he also forces to look at history in a way that goes beyond the normal black and white textbook depiction found in so many dry war epics, as uncomfortable as that may make us feel. It's a fascinating experiment because they become real people rather than labels or footnotes in history. As a result, this movie feels alive with an energy and importance. It's really a complete subversion of all genres and though its title may be inspired from Enzo Castellari's little seen 1978 war film The Inglorious Bastards, there's no mistaking this as a wholly original work. It's all Tarantino, who's back with a vengeance, and now has us wondering again if all the massive hype surrounding him was true.

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