Monday, November 9, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds
written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
starring: Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Brad Pitt, Eli Roth and Diane Kruger (among others)

This is a little late, I know. But this is a film that I cannot NOT write a review about, even if I did see it for the first time more than two months ago, and for the second time a little over three weeks ago. While there are some releases that I can merely slap a grade on, and otherwise ignore altogether (State of Play are your ears burning?) I cannot do that with this particular film. Regardless of your thoughts on Basterds and Tarantino in general, his films refuse to be brushed away and ignored, so audacious they are in their sensibilities. I'm not a Tarantino loyalist, but he has never made an uninteresting film. That's not a feat to which even many of my favorite filmmakers can lay claim (most of the good ones have a few Intolerable Cruelties for every Fargo they manage to crank out).

Inglourious Basterds begs in nearly every conceivable way to be polarizing, and I've yet to decide:
A. If that's a good thing
B. If that matters.

Several things are clear when watching this film. First of all, for all the accusations Tarantino receives for being a blowhard who is in love with his own writing, one can't deny his ability to write incredibly engaging and arresting scenes. The opening, a showcase for Christoph Waltz, scoops on tension like big mounds of dairy creme (not an arbitrary simile for those of us who have seen the film), until it all but collapses in on a good way (does that make sense?). And that scene in the basement? It read as mildly obnoxious the first go round, yet perfectly paced and beautifully acted the second time. It also made me think of Diane Kruger as an actress for the first time (actually it made me think of her for the first time). Secondly, Tarantino always surrounds himself with a good crew. The production designers should all receive a medal and maybe a cash prize for their work here, and if an Oscar nomination is not forthcoming, then they should rethink the entire ceremony entirely. Thirdly, the film's shameless rewriting of history serves as a great litmus test. Your response to the fact that it is not a factual accounts of events that took place "Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France," very much informs your response to the entire film. When watching the trailers, this aspect bugged the shit out of me. Tarantino sticks to his guns, though. The concept, as ridiculous and farcical as it is, never wavers a little bit, even as the movie clocks in at well over two and a half hours. The result is a highly enjoyable, well-executed film that's not without its faults, of which there are several.

Melanie Laurent's Shosanna (a terrific turn) doesn't get a fully realized arc, as her character never gets to have her "big moment" that the film is steadily building to. Avoiding obligatory scenes is often refreshing and enhancing for a film (think of No Country for Old Men where the climax actually takes place off-screen). Other times, there's just nowhere else to go, so much so that avoiding said scenes feels obnoxious and patently false. Then there are the Basterds themselves, so smugly giddy and cool, for they are in on the joke with Tarantino. Am I falsely talking about the Basterds when I should be talking about the actors that portray them (Pitt, Roth, BJ Novak, Samm Levine, etc, etc, etc)? Perhaps. A better question: Is there a difference? I think the lines are quite blurred here, particularly in the case of Brad Pitt who has never been more distractingly Brad Pitt than he is in this film (and remember, I actually like the guy). Pitt's tongue is so firmly wedged in cheek, that he may as well be winking as he reads his lines. I laughed, certainly. But he mostly served as a diversion from the story, which is surprisingly rich and intricate (or rather moreso than the trailer would leave you to believe).

None of these elements act as such a detriment to the film as a whole, probably because they are excesses and the film is arguably one big exercise in cinematic excess. But it is a glorious one at that. The criticisms of this film are hard to have missed. Its celebration of violence, its rewriting of history (already addressed) and the presence of Eli Roth (about which I remain conflicted for reasons I won't divulge here). The most interesting I heard was that "it takes a serious topic, like the Holocaust, and makes it into something fun and exciting." And I've heard this from more than one person, believe it or not. Inglourious Basterds is no more a film about the Holocaust than Gone with the Wind is a film about slavery. In both cases, the larger historical event only informs the events in their respective films in the most tangential that argument sort of falls apart under a microscope, dontcha think?

Grade: B+ (though I'm leaning towards A-)

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