Review: Inglourious Basterds
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
It's great to have Quentin Tarantino back in the directorial saddle. The disappointments of 2007's relatively weak pet project “Death Proof” notwithstanding, his movies are steeped in a giddy, geeky love of cinema that no other working filmmaker's oeuvre can match. “Inglourious Basterds,” a wild and crazy WWII fever dream in which history is brazenly rewritten, is augmented by its creator's mad cinephilia, bringing it closer to the front lines than ever before.
Aside from integrating his usual B-movie affections (the intentionally misspelled title is pulled from an obscure 1978 picture), Tarantino makes the film industry an essential plot element of “Basterds,” which is set primarily in Nazi-occupied France in the early 1940s. In addition to an infamous, “Dirty Dozen”-like group of Nazi hunters, key characters include a theater owner, a director, a film critic, two movie stars and a projectionist – not exactly the type of folks you'd expect to find in a war movie. But this is Tarantino's war movie, and it takes place in a world where movies are regarded with as much gravity and significance as the war itself.
We have Shosanna Dreyfus (French actress Mélanie Laurent), a French Jew living under the radar in Paris where she runs a movie house passed down by her late aunt and uncle. Shosanna's immediate family has been slaughtered by the SS, and like Uma Thurman's bloodthirsty Beatrix Kiddo from “Kill Bill,” she's got a mind for revenge and the means to exact it. When the head honchos of the Third Reich – including Hitler himself – express an interest in using Shosanna's venue for the gala premiere of their latest pro-Nazi feature, the vengeful vixen and her co-worker/lover hatch a diabolically clever plan for retribution.
The ragtag clan of the title – a merciless outfit of American soldiers and German recruits dead-set on killing as many Nazis as possible and collecting their scalps – also gets wind of the premiere, and devises a separate mission to ambush the rare and vulnerable gathering of so many high-ranking enemy officers. Led by the wily, barbaric southerner, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), the Basterds are assisted by a film reviewer-turned-operative from British Intelligence (played by Michael Fassbender of “Hunger”) and an A-list German actress (played by Diane Kruger of “National Treasure”) who's turned on her country.
The biggest threat to all of the conspirators' success is Col. Hans Landa, the dreaded head of the SS who tracks down Jews like a malicious fox and is played with fearsome magnificence by Christoph Waltz, a multi-lingual Austria native whose work in “Basterds” won him the Best Actor prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and should put him in the running for this year's Supporting Actor Oscar. With great cunning and devilish glee, Waltz creates the best kind of villain: one whose formidable presence keeps you both in a constant state of unease and thoroughly entertained.
Though Waltz's turn is the most memorable, Tarantino gets fantastic performances from all of his well-cast actors (yes, including “Hostel” director Eli Roth, who I suppose is a perfectly logical choice to play an American Jew who delights in bashing people to a gooey pulp with a baseball bat). Pitt is far more interesting and effective here than he was in “Benjamin Button,” hilariously and convincingly embodying a red-blooded roughneck who, presumably, is as comfortable chugging beers as he is carving swastikas into his enemies' foreheads. Kruger – who, appropriately, is of German descent – has never been better. Fassbender is a cheeky delight as the critic under cover, and Laurent is but the latest in a long line of actresses who excel to heavenly heights under Tarantino's loving, conscientious care. Even Mike Myers, a performer I've all but written off, shows signs of Tarantino-inspired life in an ironic cameo appearance.
The amount of time that's passed since Tarantino last released a major movie becomes most palpable while watching his hallmark scenes of extended conversation. Few other filmmakers have the ability – or even the aspiration – to firmly hold the audience's attention through long segments in which characters simply talk. Dialogue has always been Tarantino's strongest suit, and “Basterds” wonderfully exemplifies his astute gift of gab. Although it is spliced with bursts of brutal action, this film is more or less a series of lengthy discussions, all of which are so absorbing that we barely notice just how many minutes have gone by. Tarantino always keeps the tension building within his scenes until he finally and faithfully delivers huge, exciting payoffs, which punctuate “Basterds” and supply it with an exuberant energy.
That energy is multiplied by Tarantino's stylish and savvy visual skills. His choice of the appropriate angle and camera movement for a given shot remains superior: he's a master at drawing you into the action (cinematographer Robert Richardson and editor Sally Menke also deserve plenty of praise). Though his work is especially geared to cult afficianados (to whom he is an estimable, venerated god), he possesses an uncommon sophistication and panache that can be appreciated by all film lovers and make him so much more than just a former video store clerk with a camera. And yet he is true to his geek roots. He has the sensibilities of both a film historian and a fantasy-obsessed teenager, and he somehow channels all of it into the creation of chic, sensationalist art. Who else could so dotingly ogle the gorgeousness of a female character as she dolls herself up, and then turn around and make that same character's death by a spray of bullets into its own thing of offbeat beauty?
My lament about the film's flaws is somewhat unfounded: the things that perturbed me in “Basterds” thrilled me in the “Kill Bill” saga. But, to me, the resurrection of so many familiar flourishes – the “Kill Bill” title sequence, the “Kill Bill” chapter stops, the “Kill Bill” Spanish guitar music – didn't register as an auteur's stamp, but as a rather pompous distraction. It is, albeit to a far lesser degree, the same problem I had with “Death Proof”: Tarantino is an extremely admirable moviemaker until his narcissism precedes his talents.
“Basterds” isn't my favorite Tarantino title, but it more than provides all the hardcore, uninhibited, celluloid-crazed merriment over which the director's fans salivate. Loaded with graphic violence and sensitive subject matter, it's bound to infuriate some, but those who can appreciate it for what it is – an intelligent, passionate and hysterical piece of pitch-black action-comedy – will bask in its twisted splendor. Don't let the title fool you: “Inglourious Basterds” has enough infectious cinematic glory to burn the house down.