Friday, August 21, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (*****)

Inglourious Basterds. 152 mins. R. Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Starring Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Diane Krueger, Eli Roth, and Mike Myers.

Coming off the mixed bag that was Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino is back in fine form with Inglourious Basterds, his best film since Pulp Fiction. Basterds is his war epic, and for better or worse, it's a Tarantino movie through and through. This thing has his imprint all over it. All the signature moves are there - the spaghetti western music, the foot fetishism, Samuel L. Jackson, and more. But he uses all of that to stylish effect and couples it with a stellar script full of intense, crackling dialogue, and two roles for women that stand out among all the brute violence and dark humor. Basterds resonates on several different levels, and for those expecting just another Dirty Dozen-type "men on a mission" flick, you're in for a treat because Basterds, among its many attributes, certainly doesn't play by any of the war movie rules.

In fact, much of the movie is not even devoted to the Basterds - a Jewish-American group of soldiers captained by non-Jew Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, at his loose comedic best) and out to kill as many Nazis as possible. Like many of his other movies, Tarantino splits the story into chapters, alternating the focus on different characters and then bringing everything together in the end. In fact, the real star of the movie here is French actress Melanie Laurent, who plays Shosanna Dreyfus, a French-Jewish girl who, at the beginning of the movie, narrowly escapes death at the hands of the "Jew Hunter" (the Oscar-bound Christoph Waltz) and later turns up as the owner of an ornate movie palace that figures prominently in the end. There are other storylines, and part of the thrill of the film, and Tarantino's genius, is that he takes you from one story to another and makes each one so enthralling that you don't want to leave. Each time he cuts to a different chapter, you're initially disappointed because what you had just seen was so enjoyable, but as each chapter unfolds, the story captivates and draws you in completely.

There are scenes in this movie that are instant classics. The beginning showdown between a French Farmer and the "Jew Hunter" is funny and intense, and a virtual master class on dialogue and character. The initial scene in the woods where the Basterds interrogate some Nazi prisoners is a comedic highlight. Another great scene takes place in a basement bar and results in an explosion of unexpected violence. The movie runs nearly three hours with previews, and many of these scenes are long, slow-burns that are drawn out to the point of breaking. But they don't.

Inglourious Basterds is by no means flawless. When Tarantino lets his freak flag fly at the end and rewrites history in one fell swoop, many may jump off the bandwagon. But I found it refreshing - there are so many movies these days that go to extremes to get every period detail right. Tarantino's ambitions are much more crowd-pleasing. Imagine Valkyrie but with a happy Hollywood ending. Basterds is a kitchen sink-type movie (Tarantino throws everything in that he can), but it works. Audiences will quickly find themselves in the hands of a defining filmmaker who creates entertaining Cinema (with a capital "C"). At times funny, horrifying, and heartbreaking, with excellent performances from Pitt, Laurent, Waltz (as one of the great movie villains), and even Diane Kruger, Basterds is easily on the short list for best movie of the year. Highly recommended.



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