Saturday, August 22, 2009

"Inglourious Basterds"

Inglourious Basterds - Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, starring Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger, Eli Roth, and Melanie Laurent - Rated R

Tarantino is in top form with this one.

Inglourious Basterds, the latest from Quentin Tarantino, is exactly what you would expect from the director of Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction. The stylish World War II Nazi hunting movie is tense, violent, slow burning, hilarious, and jaw dropping. While this might be what a Tarantino fan would always expect, it's not necessarily the film that the previews promised. I've noticed more and more lately that ads for movies either give everything away, or are cut in such a way that they seem to be showcasing completely different films. The latter is the case with Basterds. If you saw the preview, you would expect that this is a Brad Pitt film. If you have to name a star of the film, I suppose you would say it was Pitt, but he's actually in less than half of the film.

The film starts in Nazi-occupied France. Col. Hans Landa, aka "Jew Hunter," played with equal parts menace and civility by Christoph Waltz, shows up at a dairy farmer's house to see if he is harboring Jews. It is set up by a reference to spaghetti westerns ("Once upon a Nazi-occupied France") and that sets the tone for the entire film. Ennio Morricone music blares as Landa approaches. An extremely tense conversation goes on for nearly fifteen minutes before Landa shows his true intention. That is what is so great about his character and the Oscar-worthy performance. Even though he's pleasant and polite, there's an unsettling undertone in every line of dialogue. This man is good at his job, which is where the Basterds come in.

As Lt. Aldo Raine, Brad Pitt gets to have a blast. His southern drawl is perfect as he talks about "killing NATzees." Some people might be put off by the over the top performance, but I enjoyed it. It's a great counterbalance to Waltz's understated portrayal. The other aspect that keeps the performance from becoming silly is the fact that the film doesn't stay with Aldo and the Basterds. As I said, that opening scene is lengthy as are the other tense scenes in the film that set up new characters and lay out the ground work for plans to take out the top ranks of the Third Reich. It's almost as if Tarantino wanted to lighten things up by going from insanely tense with Landa, to insanely funny with Raine. This might seem uneven to some, but it worked for me.

Viewers might be expecting more of an action film from the previews as well. This is a movie about killing Nazis, after all. But Tarantino has never been an all out action filmmaker and this film, despite the previews loaded with gunshots, is relatively light on the action. That's not to say it's boring, it's just that this film is two and a half hours long and the focus is on the tense buildup that leads to a shootout rather than the shootout itself. Remember, Tarantino's first film (Reservoir Dogs), was about the aftermath of a bank robbery and the robbery itself was never shown. He's interested in what happens before and after, and it makes the action memorable and powerful. In one scene there is a twenty minute set up to a shootout that is less than a minute long. When Tarantino does show violence, though, it is brutal and sometimes shocking. The "Nazi scalps" that Pitt requests in the trailer are provided and Eli Roth, as the "Bear Jew," gets to swing away at a Nazi's head with a baseball bat. Tarantino doesn't cut away for that one. We get to see a crazy-eyed Roth bludgeon the Nazi in sickening detail.

It's all part of Tarantino's style and this is not a typical World War II movie and should certainly not be viewed as such. In fact, looking at this movie in relation to other, more serious, WWII films would make it downright offensive and far too tongue in cheek. For instance, Hitler is a character in the film and I do mean character. To trivialize one of the most evil men in the history of the world is quite tricky, but it has happened before. Chaplin poked fun at Hitler in The Great Dictator and comic books from that era featured the likes of Captain America fighting the tyrant. If viewed in that light, this film is pitch perfect and you can ignore historical accuracy and have some fun with it (and I mean completely ignore historical accuracy). People want to see real life evil icons faced with violence and pleasing conclusions, not war trials and deaths in bunkers. Consider Inglourious Basterds as a World War II fantasy film and you probably won't come away offended or angry.

If there is one thing about the film that I took issue with, it wasn't the comical treatment of a serious time period, it was the lack of info given for the Basterds. You get hints at the history of the characters, like Hugo Stiglitz's amusing mini bio, but I wanted each soldier to get his own little story. A few of them don't have any lines, even. I suppose I was expecting more of a Dirty Dozen approach to the Basterds. I'm usually all for ambiguity, like the unexplained intentional misspelling of the group, but I wanted more background from Tarantino on this one. This is only a minor issue I had with this otherwise amazing film.

I'm a strong believer in having the proper expectations for a movie. It can make or break your enjoyment of the film. If you can ignore the previews and go in expecting a Quentin Tarantino film rather than a Brad Pitt movie, then you'll come away very pleased.

I have quite a few more things to get into in no particular order, so here's my addendum to this review:

This is a heavily subtitled movie, so be prepared to read rather than hear most of Tarantino's great dialogue. There is one amusing reference to foreign language early on, though. Landa and the dairy farmer speak French at the start of their conversation, then Landa suggests that they switch to English since they both speak it and his French isn't very good. I always think about the use of English in films that take place in situations where English is not the native tongue. Don't get me wrong, I would much rather hear a movie than read it, but I liked that this movie acknowledged that fact and switched to English. It's also very cool that the use of English in the scene added to the tension.

There are a few amusing references to Tarantino's other work as well. The film is divided into chapters a la Kill Bill, Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel make voice cameos, and he adds text in scenes to point out who some characters are. He throws in little asides as well, my favorite being Hugo Stiglitz's mini bio. I also liked Tarantino factoring in film in the plot as the climax takes place in a movie theater and there are a few conversations about film. Maybe it's him exaggerating the importance of film in society or something, I don't know, but I liked it.


  1. You've pretty much stated much of what I thought about it. Not only an entertaining romp but one of the best of the summmer.....maybe the year.

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