REVIEW: Inglourious Basterds

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INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS
153 Minutes // USA // Universal Pictures
dir. Quentin Tarantino
Friday, August 21st, 2009 – Silvercity Brampton
starring: Christoph Waltz, Brad Pitt & Melanie Laurent

Earlier this week, Tarantino stated on a film channel that he and Paul Thomas Anderson have a healthy competition – each trying to oust the other in hopes of making their masterpiece and both finding inspiration within one and other. The film Quentin was referring to last was There Will Be Blood (my favourite film) and said that if this film (Inglourious Basterds) was considered to be his masterpiece then he’d have to thank P.T. Anderson for silently motivating him. Well he better pick up the phone quick and get Mr. Anderson on the line because I think he’s got his winner. This after two surprisingly charismatically volatile features by one of the defining faces of this generation.

Juxtapose to all other 60’s exploitation films – samurai movies, blaxploitation films and car-chase flicks among others – Tarantino continues his love of decades passed. This time with his Italian exploitation coated WWII feature Inglourious Basterds. The title originates from The Inglorious Bastards by Enzo G. Castellari, a 1978 feature about a group of death sentenced American soldiers battling their way to freedom against all those that stand in their way. Of course, the similarities between Tarantino’s feature and Castellairi’s are basically negligible and the title just stands as a homage to one of Tarantino’s many inspirations for making this feature.

The film starts off in pastoral France. A man named Perrier is working heartily outdoors with his daughters at his disposal until a cavalcade of German vehicles pull up to his modest home. A German colonel, Hans Landa (the already raved and Cannes Best Actor winner Christoph Waltz) steps out and the two have a long conversation in the man’s home. Humor is applied by to the tense conversation by introducing little inventions of 1941 – a pen that you have to manually apply ink to and an absurdly large pip – as well as a seemingly kind gesture towards the audience to rest their eyes from reading subtitles in one of the seemingly least important lines in cinema history “You speak English well I hear? Lets switch”. All of this is done so well to mislead the audience into believing none of it has purpose that it is now obvious that Tarantino has mastered the art of writing. This amount of intelligence and wit haven’t been applied to paper since Chayefsky.

In the end, the scene takes a turn and it’s revealed that the switch in language was an important plot point – and in fact, no laughing matter. After Landa manipulates Perrier into giving up the Jewish family he’d been protecting, the Nazi’s shoot them through the floorboards – one of the few instances where Tarantino doesn’t exploit the violence, but rather restrains from showing gallons of blood ooze from bullet holes. In the end, a young woman escapes the clutches of Landa and goes on to change her name to Shoshanna and own a cinema in urban France. This is really the only flaw that resonates after the film concludes because we never find out if Landa is true to his word. Such information would play a key factor in deciding your position of Landa’s treatment at the end, but alas, it is never revealed.

The film takes place over five chapters and never has a same character appear in back-to-back scenes. While simple in formula, it’s a bit more rigorous to piece together; keeping the 150 minutes brisk and each chapter more exciting than the last.

In chapter two, we come to learn about the group that the film’s marketing is all about – the bastards. Led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), this segment entirely consists of a group of Jewish men out for bloody revenge on the cause for their dystrophy and their leader in Mr. Raine. The group of eight men – shaved down to four in later stages due to unexplained events – are introduced to the audience as brutal killing machines and their only stage before being admitted to the minuscule, sanctioned US squad is to scalp 100 Nazi’s. Unlike the previous scene, Tarantino doesn’t pull back on the vividness of the men working their way up in ranks.

The only other heavy storyline begins in chapter three with Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) and the complacency of her commonplace life as a secret Jew. Soon after being introduced to her, her life is flipped upside down when she’s jolted into the Nazi limelight. This takes place when a romantic and famous Nazi soldier, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) falls for her and is unrelenting in his pursuit. Whilst discussing Nazi propaganda films, it’s made apparent that Shoshanna is still very much anti-Nazi and allows appreciating a Leni Riefenstahl film to blind her from what would be a positive friendship.

The emotional depth of Zoller is unexamined until the furloughs of his arc, but its evident that he’s the only Nazi with a grasp on humanity… and even he’s killed 300 men in combat. So as their friendship is brewing, Shoshanna is growing more and more unimpressed with Zoller and his accomplishments while Zoller is growing more and more intrigued with one of the few things as a hero, and now movie star, that he cannot obtain. It’s a delightful play on a prosaic concept, yet it never allows the grasp of convention to strip it of its dignity, even during its tragic conclusion.

As often expressed by the director/writer of the film, he feels that dialogue in films are far too phony and utilizes the interaction between characters to only further the plot. For the first time in watching any of his films, I felt this position on dialogue to be exercised to its most diligent. Felt because I had to go to the bathroom terribly five minutes in and only found myself one window of opportunity throughout the entire two and a half hours to make use of a speedy exit and return. Even then, I returned to my seat with ears of hearty laughter. With sparse, intelligible film references keeping cinefiles alert for hints of foreshadowing and the aforementioned wondrous use of dialogue, the amount of effort and precision Tarantino put into this script is the mark of a true genius at work.

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The ensemble is dainty, although not as impressive as it could have been. Pitt’s inclusion comes off solely as a marketing ploy in a performance where he neglects any of the Southern drawl and menace that infused his ’93 performance in Kalifornia. Aside from this disappointing turn, two lesser known foreign actors deliver Oscar caliber performances with ease. Christoph Waltz is electrifying and just as maniacal as say, Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men. His voice fluctuation in the English speaking parts are a hilarious gimmick in and of itself – he truly dominates this role. The other top fleet performance comes way of up and coming French actress Melanie Laurent who won big at the Cesar Awards (French Oscars) in 2006. The empowered, vendetta-fueled drive of her portrayal clashes poetically with the frailty that comes with romantic conflict bequeaths one of the years finest performances to lucky viewers. The rest of the cast is impressive, just not as equally as Waltz or Laurent.

In a few other minimally examined portions of the film you’ve got drunken Nazi soldiers, an actress who is double-agent for the British and an absurd look into the hierarchy of Nazi Germany and more importantly, their leader. Tarantino portrays Hitler as a bumbling, incessant fool who also is host to grave emotional issues (bi-polar perhaps) – one of the few instances where the Fuhrer hasn’t been interpreted as a imperturbable and knowledgeable man. The only instance that springs to mind is Sokorov’s character study of Hitler and Braun in Molokh.

With such a grandeur running time and proportionately divine segments, you’d be pretty surprised at how unadorned the intentions and theme of the feature is; although you can hardly call the reasoning less than admirable. From the get-go, Tarantino exploits the Nazi’s wrong doing by molding them into inhumane beasts and that you’ll seldom find an earnest one. Whether they be snitches, colonels, double-agents who are on the good side and especially the top ranking officials, they’re all heartless bastards and master manipulators. Through Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino inflicts a burning hatred for the Third Reich and everything it stands for – never giving them any benefit of doubt as Hollywood often does. All of this spouting hatred is summed up very tidily in Pitt’s opening monologue. And, of course, the theme “Vengeance is worth dying for” is divulged into pretty deeply considering the simplicity of the text.

As bewildering as it was to watch Hitler being depicted as dotty as he was, the final act outdoes it in lunacy. Every chapter builds up to this huge climax and Tarantino delivers. There’s a few moments of emotional manipulation, a lot of sardonic humor, plenty of foreshadowing and a whole barrel of suspense. The closing chapter of Inglourious Basterds elevates the great feature into Tarantino’s magnum opus and defines his craft as a filmmaker to the nth degree. In the end, Tarantino rewrites history (both literally and in his own book) and concludes his monument with illustrious desire; sufficient in leaving the audience in applause. [9/10]

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