Friday, October 9, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: Learn to spell, Quentin

Elsewhere: The Factual Opinion. TV of the Weak. Dollhouse. Fringe. Read.

Link: The Peanuts "tribute" that Roger Langridge posted here is hilarious.

Non-comics: I rarely write about movies anymore, so here's a nice change. Spoilers ahead.

Inglourious Basterds
Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Nobody stages a tense conversation like Quentin Tarantino. He's done it in all his movies, to various effects, but he goes nuts with the technique here, starting with the opening scene, which sees a seemingly cheery chat between an SS officer nicknamed "The Jew Hunter" and a French farmer. It's the kind of scene that starts out seeming like something bad is going to happen, and then stretches out so long without coming to the point that the anxiety becomes near-unbearable. And that's just the first scene; the rest of the movie is filled with similar ones, from a bit in which undercover Allies try not to give themselves away in a bar filled with German soldiers while playing a silly guessing game, to a dinner scene where a woman theater owner is interrogated by Joseph Goebbels and that same SS officer from before about her venue, and even to an interrogation scene with the title characters in which the threat of horrible violence hangs over the subjects' heads like an ever-lowering pendulum. It's masterfully-paced filmmaking, as can be expected from Tarantino; he knows exactly how to manipulate viewers with every second that passes, until finally paying off expectations with the bursts of violence that everybody knew was coming.

And in addition to admiring the way Tarantino plys his craft, there's a lot of other content to ruminate on, like the way the promised Nazi-killing band of soldiers of the title are mostly marginalized, pushed off to the side in favor of a plot involving a Paris film premiere attended by several high-ranking Nazi officials, providing a chance to end the war well ahead of schedule. It's a bit of misdirection that starts with the very title of the movie; while Brad Pitt and his gang of psychos are present in the minds of most of the characters, they're less important than the Jewish woman who seizes the opportunity of having several hundred Nazis in her possession to wreak some terrible vengeance for what has been done to her family. This means that outside of one "chapter" in which we see the Basterds performing the deeds promised in the trailer (scalping, striking fear into Nazis, etc.), the movie centers around what happens in that theater, with different forces converging on it for the big finale. And what a finale it is, with all the promised violence exploding into some glorious mayhem and an enjoyably surprising ignorance of actual history in favor of the angry, vengeful, Hitler-killing fantasy that everyone who contemplates time travel has considered.

It's an immensely satisfying film all around, and in addition to the aforementioned tense face-offs and violent action, there's also some great acting, especially from Christoph Waltz as the cheerfully sadistic SS Colonel Hans Landa and Melanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus, the put-upon theater manager and erstwhile spirit of Judaic revenge. She especially embodies her role, barely containing panic and fright behind a facade of cynicism when facing Landa, the man who killed her family, and later exhibiting a chillingly hard-edged lust for murder. Everyone else does great work as well, with the only weak link, if you want to call it that, being Brad Pitt's scenery-chewing turn as the ridiculously-Southern-accented leader of the Basterds, and even that is an obvious choice of mannerisms; if nothing else, his attempt to speak some Italian is good for some laughs.

And Tarantino's flair for signature moments is in full effect as well, with occasional expository narration from Samuel L. Jackson, on-screen captions that look like something from the 70s, and lots of effective music choices and little references to other films (my favorite being a brief bit of score taken from Sammo Hung's Eastern Condors). But he uses plenty of other great ideas and techniques as well, with one amazing bit seeing Shosanna's face projected on a cloud of smoke, as if her ghost is cackling at the mayhem and death she's brought down on her oppressors. It's a glorious and beautifully done film; if Tarantino can continue to produce fascinating work like this, I'll be happy to watch his films for years to come.

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