9 October 2009

Movie Review: Inglourious Basterds


Inglourious Basterds
2009, 153mins, R
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Cast includes: Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Melanie Laurent, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger
Release Date: 21st August 2009

In recent years Quentin Tarantino’s directorial career has taken a perplexing turn for the worst, amidst the undeserved “Kill Bill” hype and his inferior half of the “Grindhouse” debacle, fans of cinema seem to have lost their infatuation with the man. Tarantino has always imbued his work with a referential sting but the two aforementioned properties seemed built around his fanboy love of film rather than the characters, story and dialogue that he did so well in the 90’s. “Inglourious Basterds” then is a delight, a return to barnstorming form for Tarantino and quite possibly his most ambitious picture to date. Certainly from a cinematic viewpoint it’s his best film since “Pulp Fiction”, there are still homage’s aplenty and it’s obviously in love with itself, but this time the audience should have no trouble in sharing such a barmy affection.

The film follows two separate plot strands, which in typical Tarantino style become inexplicably interwoven. The first follows Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) a young Jewish woman who witnessed her family’s brutal murder at the hands of SS officer Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). After escaping Shosanna fled to Paris and when we pick up four years later she now owns a cinema, and harbours an understandable hatred of Hitler’s Nazi party. The other half of the film concerns itself with Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and his group of “basterds” Raine and his team of Jewish Americans have been dropped into France with one objective, kill every Nazi they find. Quickly growing a reputation amongst Hitler’s ranks the Basterds aren’t interested in collecting prisoners, but rather scalps, making them a source of fear and terror for any secluded German patrol or band of soldiers. The Basterds rendezvous with a British operative Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) and German double agent Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), the latter explaining that a propaganda premiere is set to held in Paris and that all the German high command including Hitler will be in attendance. The team formulate a plan to destroy the cinema in which the event will take place –which incidentally is that owned by Shosanna – who has a violent scheme of her own.

“Inglourious Basterds” is as much a comedy as anything else, albeit just about the bleakest variant that you’ll ever see. Tarantino has always melded intense violence and belly laughs together, his World War 2 epic no different in that respect. The Dialogue and performances are the greatest source of amusement whilst vicious bursts of action and scalping act as a sweet and effective counterbalance. Those expecting a straight laced and accurate historical thriller would be advised to rent “Valkyrie”, Tarantino having no interest in time-lines or text book style retellings. This is a fable and represents only fiction, a twisted and imaginative recount of the period through Tarantino’s crazed vision.

The only big name actor on show is Pitt and he does a good job, even if Melanie Laurent and Christoph Waltz steal the show. It’s easy amongst the constant media intrusion to forget that Pitt is an actor first, and a damned fine one at the best of times. Whilst I have no doubt that Tarantino’s writing had Raine as an interesting character from the first drafts, Pitt has to be commended for allowing the personality to flourish so vibrantly onscreen. He displays both his dramatic and physical attributes as a thespian, whilst also via the dialogue being able to exhibit a solid knack for comedic relief. The rest of the Basterds are debatably a little faceless, the biggest secondary role amongst them going to “Hostel” director Eli Roth. Toward the end of the film I began to warm toward Roth but his biggest scene occurs within the opening hour and for my money it’s overacted on his part far too heavily. Diane Kruger and Michael Fassbender are variable degrees of impressive in their respective roles, the latter now adding a Tarantino movie to his rapidly growing and already incredibly varied CV.

However there are two performances in “Inglourious Basterds” which not only work but are the sort which warrant academy consideration, those from Melanie Laurent and Christoph Waltz. Laurent shows a brilliant emotional range and represents a far more convincing heroine than Uma Thurman did in the “Kill Bill” flicks, Tarantino having refined and improved his abilities in writing strong female leads since then. Every scene that Laurent has brims with emotional resonance and meaningful conflict. Her arc is punctuated with far less action or comedic relief than that of the Basterds, yet through her sublime performance and the strong screenplay she keeps it just as exciting. The movie’s main antagonist is portrayed by Waltz, SS Officer Hans Landa or “The Jew Hunter” as the French have named him. Charismatic and menacing Waltz gives every scene he’s in a genuine sense of threat and tension, the character using his cold yet powerful sense of logic as his greatest weapon. It would have been easy to play Landa as a fairly two-dimensional character yet Waltz creates a rounded and truly terrifying villain, who of course has an affinity for milk and Strudel.

The Visual look and pace works surprisingly well, boredom is not a feeling likely to be conjured up by “Inglourious Basterds”. The movie pulses along wonderfully despite the admittedly epic 153 minute running time, Tarantino interchanging the stories using the mechanism of chapter switches. Even in his weaker outings it’s unquestionable that Tarantino consistently display’s a knack for visual inventiveness and narrative freshness, even if his new ideas don’t always gel. However his handling of “Inglourious Basterds” is flawless and his unique touches work a charm, inducing intentional giggles or adrenaline pumping suspense rather than irksome irritation. It goes without saying the various elements of comedy, action and vengeance are blended skillfully and with a measured respect for each, whilst often encouraging laughs there is no point where “Inglourious Basterds” descends into parody. Tarantino has taken the most vicious and brutal elements of war and been able to see humour in it, whilst still in keeping with the ferocious violence that such conflict demands.

The film is loaded with film buff references and allusions to past works, Tarantino’s considerable knowledge of cinema is as evident here as in any other work. Yet the screenplay for “Inglourious Basterds” is always more interested in creating an engaging storyline and enjoyable dialogue, Tarantino having sated his nebbish fanboy mannerisms through “Grindhouse”. As a result this is a far more satisfying diversion, a thriller which works purely on its own terms and doesn’t rely on winks and nudges from one nerd to another. The script that Tarantino has penned here is large in scope and scale and yet feels smooth and watchable, something that I would struggle to say concerning his other 21st century features.

A rampaging addition to both Tarantino’s resume and 2009 in general, “Inglourious Basterds” is a blisteringly entertaining masterwork. Combining moments of top class comedy, fist clenching tension and gun blazing action one of Hollywood’s most renowned mavericks has concocted one of his best works. In any other director’s hands the lack of historical accuracy and twisted genre flipping would seem odd and even a little perverse, but Tarantino handles it beautifully and delivers the sort of warped shenanigans audiences have come to expect. “Inglourious Basterds” is a joy from start to finish and a solid indication that the Tarantino of old might be done hibernating.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009


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