Thursday, September 3, 2009

Review: Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds (2009) is a strange and wonderful entry in the vast pantheon of World War II-based cinema. It is Quentin Tarantino's first film in five years, and it signals a new phase for the eccentric writer/director. His career so far is broken into these stages (including only films he has both written and directed): we've got the "Los Angeles Trilogy", consisting of Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), and Jackie Brown (1997), which, aside from being set in the same city, are each populated by ensembles of obsessively foul-mouthed, shady characters who get themselves into violent situations mostly through stupidity. Next we have the "Homage Trilogy", which includes Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004), and Death Proof (2007). Each of these, as the name of their grouping suggests, is a naked tribute to the genre flicks that Quentin grew up with (kung-fu in the case of the former two; grindhouse car horror with the latter). Whether his newest film is the first in a new set, or simply an island, of coarse remains to be seen.
Basterds happens in 5 chapters, the first of which opens on a farm in Nazi-occupied France. We are reminded, intentionally no doubt, of those sweeping, Western landscapes, from the lone farm house, to the laundry hanging out to dry, to the Nazi patrol in the distance coming towards our idyllic scene like a marauding posse. Leading this band of Nazis is Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a brilliant, slitheringly charismatic, jew-hunting German officer who serves as the film's antagonist and main attraction. Waltz is an Austrian actor who has mostly appeared on German-language television over the course of his 30+ year career; it's mind-boggling that this is his first American film, or that no one is already familiar with him outside of Central Europe. Christoph Waltz gives not only the best performance in Basterds, but of the year. This previously unknown master thespians threatens to displace Daniel Day-Lewis as the greatest actor of his generation. 
Half the reason to see Tarantino's latest is Landa; the other half is everyone else in the film. Despite Brad Pitt's name standing alone on the poster, the picture is really an ensemble piece, with not just one protagonist. Pitt cartoons it up as sarcastic hillbilly Aldo Raine, the leader of the eponymous "Inglourious Basterds", a group of eight Jewish-American soldiers who tear through France killing, scalping, and generally terrorizing the Nazi's. 
Joining the male dominated cast are Melanie Laurent as Shosanna, a secretly Jewish young Frenchwoman who runs a movie theatre in Paris while planning her revenge against the Nazis for murdering her family; and an unusually good Diane Kruger as German movie star Bridget von Hammersmark. 
With Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino has essentially filmed a master thesis on what cinema means to him. The entire film is really not much more than a series of extended, loosely connected dialogue scenes which all threaten to explode at any moment. He brings filmmaking down to one of its most essential elements: tension. Yes, there is humor, but this is largely a product, or perhaps a reaction, to the razor-tight tension that tethers us breathlessly to the screen; we need to laugh so we don't cry. Yes, there is violence, but this trope must be established to keep things from going slack, to keep us suspended. 
See it, and witness not only the mainstream introduction of a future acting legend, but also a master class in sophisticated, boisterously entertaining cinema. 

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