Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Inglorious Basterds: Delicious Indulgence

The reign of the summer blockbusters seems to have come to an end, and it has been a marvelous few weeks to be a movie lover!

Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009) In the opening scenes of Inglorious Basterds, Col. Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz), the notorious German "Jew Hunter," arrives at a small French farmhouse to "investigate" the possible presence of Jews in hiding. Banishing the farmer's three buxom daughters from the house, the two sit down, switch to English, and begin a delightful verbal game of cat and mouse. Landa is a pleasure to listen to, with words seeming to sparkle as they pass his lips, and is equally satisfying to watch, as he visibly takes great pleasure in the dialog Tarantino has furnished him with.

What Landa wants, Landa gets, and with a first blazing flourish of violence capped with one sweet but moment of release, Inglorious Basterds has begun.

Cut to England. Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is giving his boys - his ten basterds - a pep talk ahead of their deployment deep behind enemy lines on a mission with a sole purpose: to kill Nazis and collect their scalps. And in this film, that is synonymous with killing Germans - cause save one honorary basterd, Tarantino's script allows for only one kind of German: a dyed in the wool, Jew-hating, Hitler-lover Nazi. You will not find an Oscar Schindler (Schindler's List) or a Claus Von Stauffenberg (Valkyrie) in this film...

Game on
From this point on we follow twin stories that slowly converge: that of a mild-mannered young Jewish woman who improbably operates a cinema in Nazi-occupied Paris with the soul help of her African lover, and that of the swaggering basterds. These stories slowly converge towards a delightfully indulgent conflagration that encompasses the ultimate revenge fantasy of the twentieth century - one worthy of the pages of the Sgt. Rock or Sgt. Fury comics of my childhood.

Along the way the audience cringes at the sight of almost unimaginable violence, but always ends up laughing uproarously in a coup of black humor that few save Tarantino and perhaps the Coen Brothers are capable of pulling off . I think back to Pulp Fiction, and the audience roaring with shocked laughter after Jules (John Travolta) accidentally blows Marvin's (Phil LaMarr) head all over the back seat of the car.

And the Award for Best Actor Goes to...
Basterd's is an ambitious, big-budget, Hollywood movie, and there is no doubt that Brad Pitt is the big gun of the cast. His name is emblazoned on the poster and his cocky, redneck American swagger is all over the preview for Basterds. So when it comes to the best actor award for this film, it is seemingly his to give away - and he does.

I like Brad Pitt, I like many of his movies, and I like his character in this film. However, the bottom line is that I found his character pretty one-dimensional in Basterds. Sure he is supposed to be a caricature, but if this is the case he could surely have a little more fun with the role. He could knead it and punch it up into something as gloriously indulgent as the film it inhabits. But no, much as was the case in Burn After Reading, Pitt plays a delightful stereotype perfectly straight - faithfully rendering the typecast to the millimeter without seems to understand that its all in good fun.

So the award goes to ... Christopher Waltz as Col. Landa.

No, I'm not kidding. Waltz gets the fact that he is playing a stereotype, and he is out to have fun with it. He enunciates every word with glee, adds extra flourish to every motion, and drips Dr. Evil-level eeee-vil with every word he utters. Bravo! Tarantino's words become art when Waltz utters them...

Love it or hate it, as you will...
Aside from my measured disappointment with Brad Pitt, which in no way detracted from my enjoyment of the film as a whole, there is little to criticize in Basterds - you either love it or you hate it, period. I hinted before that I was less than pleased to see every German in the film save one portrayed as pure evil, but that is the type of film we are watching - it wouldn't work if you made the evil in Basterds in any way ambiguous or open to interpretation.

My last bit of praise for Basterds will be to commend Tarantino for making a WWII film in which Germans for the most part speak German, the French for the most part speak French, and the English speak English, red neck, a bit of German, and spaghetti Italian. Again, bravo.

Once Upon a Time
Basterds lays it all on the table within five seconds of the beginning, when those five magic words are painted across the screen in medieval script: Once upon a time.... Keep this in mind if you ever find yourself shaking your head (something I never thought to do even when some scenes got a little laborious): this film is indulgence, pure and simple. Roll with it...

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