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Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Oscar's List

I hate it when people applaud at the end of movies. Maybe it’s because I often find myself screaming at them on the inside, wondering what it was about, for example, District 9 that said, “Yes! This is such a revolutionary motion picture that I must show not only appreciation, but gratitude!” Audiences will clap for the most surface-level bullshit (Dark Knight, I’m looking at you) that the gesture has become meaningless. As you can probably tell from most of the reviews here, I barely even like many of the movies I endure, so the idea of joyous clapping when the lights come up is pretty much a foreign concept to me. I applauded at the end of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.

What a fantastic film! For Tarantino die-hards, this is the one you’ve been waiting for: a return to his violent, dialogue-driven crime drama roots; yes, it’s a war picture, but at heart it’s also an elaborate caper movie, with as lively and varied a cast as you’re likely to see this decade. Though I’ve been a fan of QT’s work for the last decade (yes, even Death Proof), his last few efforts have seemed strained; Jackie Brown felt like Pulp Fiction via Mallrats, and Kill Bill was a wholly different beast than the writer/director had tackled before (I loved the result, by the way, but it beat with a different heart than his other forays into the criminal underworld). Leaving the theatre, I felt a mind-bent exuberance that I hadn’t felt since I was sixteen, after having seen Pulp Fiction for the first time; my wife asked about the dopey look on my face and—crude, but true—I told her that I’d cum in my soul.

Speaking of which, I’ll quit jerking off Tarantino and get down to the business of why the movie deserves such high praise. Simply put, this is the tightest script delivered by the best ensemble cast that I’ve seen in years. Inglorious Basterds is a mad, bloody piece of revisionist history that imagines a band of American soldiers—all Jewish, save for their Southern Lieutenant, Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt)—dropped into Nazi-occupied France in 1944; their mission: to strike terror into Nazi soldiers by committing unthinkable acts of violence against them. The opportunity of a lifetime presents itself when Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) decides to hold the premiere of his new propaganda film in a French theatre, with the entire Nazi high command in attendance. If you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve seen Pitt’s Raine recruiting his men, establishing the basic setup, as well as a crazed Hitler (Martin Wuttke) pounding his fist on a table; you may think this is a battle movie, full of raids and bravado, and you’d be wrong. The genius of the film and the incredibly reserved marketing campaign is that they tease the prospective audience with about a quarter of the film’s plot, which is so full of characters and developments that it fills 159 minutes to bursting.

I won’t go much further into the story details because you deserve to see this film fresh; there are a handful of jaw-dropping moments that should not be spoiled. Instead, I’d like to give a shout-out to some of the cast members who made me wish their characters had been real historical figures. First, of course, is Christoph Waltz, who plays Hans Landa, “The Jew Hunter”. His Nazi officer is the stuff of cinema legend, combining menace and joviality in a sinister performance that is effortlessly delivered in four languages (three in a single scene!). He won the top acting prize at Cannes this year, and if he doesn’t walk away with the Oscar—well, I’ll still watch the show, ‘cause I’m obsessed, but I’ll be very pissed off.

Next is Michael Fassbender, as British spy Archie Hicox. He’s a James Bond prototype who, once introduced, takes over the film and convinces the audience that he’s going to save the day; he also gets one of the weirdest character intros I’ve seen in awhile: he’s called into a secret meeting with a practically nonverbal Winston Churchill and a top commander played by Mike Myers in a performance that’s utterly ridiculous in its seriousness—imagine Austin Powers masquerading as Basil Exposition. The great thing about the Hicox character is that he’s a film critic in civilian life, which gives him a particular advantage in a British plot to foil the Nazis. Tarantino writes Hicox as a literate, passionate man, rather than the clueless snob that many filmgoers have in mind when they think of critics.

Lastly, there’s the utterly lovely, heartbreaking Melanie Laurent, who plays Shosanna Dreyfus. Inglorious Basterds is really her film. Shosanna owns the theatre that is selected to host Goebbels’ premiere, and her complicated relationship to the Nazis—to one in particular—drives the movie’s plot forward and makes a fascinating mess of the climax; I say “mess” flatteringly, because a series of accidents, double-crosses and good old fashioned fate combine to stamp Shosanna’s face firmly into the soul of the film and into our minds. Not once did I believe I was watching a performance by a gifted actress, so convinced was I that Melanie Laurent was a cunning, vulnerable woman. She puts the stars of conventional Hollywood rom-coms and “dramas” to shame with the film’s second Oscar-worthy portrayal.

There’s not a rotten actor in the bunch, and that includes Brad Pitt. His is definitely the lightest character in the film, in terms of depth, but his Southern-gentlemanly, hard-ass soldier bit anchors and mesmerizes with a voice and persona that’s like a living Sgt. Rock comic book crossed with Brando’s Don Corleone. It is in his scenes that Tarantino seems to ape the Cohen Brothers, constructing absurd situations that end horrifically, all with a reassuring wink.

There may be criticisms to level at Inglorious Basterds, but at present I can’t think of any. Certainly, the film leaves some lingering questions, but Tarantino keeps us swept up in the moment so well that we’re effectively distracted until after we've left the theatre. His love of filmmaking and film viewing needs to be more contagious than it is. I would rather have six movies like this come out in a year—ones dreamt of, pondered, and crafted—than the three hundred mediocre pieces of garbage that pass as entertainment (ironically, Basterds was shot on a very tight schedule). The point being that people tend to give a pass to lazy direction and writing (especially) because they’re so starved for spectacle that the quality bar is set lower and lower every month.

Quentin Tarantino thinks better of his audience. He knows that one doesn’t need to sacrifice intelligence for action; that not every scene has to be a plot marker on a pitch board; he allows his movies to breathe and in turn invites the audience to get restless, to get nervous, to feel they’ve got as much at stake in the characters’ decisions as the characters themselves. Inglorious Basterds is as smart a film as you’re likely to see, and not just because it has sub-titles for seventy-five percent of the running time. It’s the kind of movie that will make you stand up and demand better entertainment. It might even make you applaud.

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Reader Comments (1)

Quite well-written, and I'm fully agreed. I, too, applauded over the credits : )

August 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMarshall Bock

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