Friday, August 21, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, and Melanie Laurent

I'm of the opinion that Mr. Tarantino has already made his greatest film, the masterpiece known as Pulp Fiction (1994). Like Orson Welles with Citizen Kane (1941), Tarantino reached the pinnacle of his success early and has nowhere else to go but down. Now in this case, much like Welles, down for him is better than most people's good films. Let's just be honest, how could he ever top Pulp Fiction? This is actually kind of a cool place for a life long film nerd like Tarantino to find himself; he has the opportunity to indulge every cinematic desire he has and make any project he dreams up a reality. He is able to just simply play while being confident that he has cemented his place in cinematic history with his second feature film.

This is both a blessing and a curse and it has never been more evident than in his latest film, Inglourious Basterds. The blessings are obvious, Tarantino has a great deal of knowledge and love for cinema and fills every frame of his films with that knowledge and love. I have to admit that for the most part it is fun watching Tarantino, a cinema geek, indulging his every whim.

From the opening shot this film feels like an epic. It opens on a small dairy farm in Paris where a farmer is chopping wood and his daughter is hanging laundry. They are visited by a Nazi officer named Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) who has earned his nickname "Jew Hunter" doing exactly what his name describes. This scene is wonderful and very reminiscent of the opening scene of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, (1966) where a serene landscape is disturbed by mayhem at the hand of a villain.

From that point we meet the "Basterds" who are led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), their job is to simply drop behind enemy lines and kill as many Nazis as possible. They are driven by their desire to strike fear into the entire Nazi party by committing acts of carnage. We also meet a Jewish cinema owner named Shosanna Dreyfus, (Melanie Laurent) whose family was slaughtered in the opening scene and a German actress named Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) who is a double agent working with the British to fight the Nazis. Also a British film critic named Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), who specializes in German film, is given the assignment to set up a meeting between the Basterds and Bridget. The climatic showdown takes place at a movie premiere for a Nazi propaganda film called "Nation's Pride," in which the entire Nazi high command attends, including Hitler himself.

So, in a film directed by a movie obsessed director an actress and film critic aid a bunch of soldiers in fighting the Nazi's at a movie theater. Not very subtle, and more than a little self indulgent, but a great deal of fun.

Tarantino is a writer/director and he is great at both jobs. He writes rich, detailed, and highly entertaining characters. These characters are the kind of characters that only exist in the movies and there is a reason why; they are legendary from the moment they arrive on the screen, larger than life than life in every way. They talk as if they know that every word they say will be quoted for decades to come.

As a director, Tarantino has an eye for casting that makes these characters come alive. Brad Pitt is highly entertaining in what is essentially a comedic performance. Pitt is a movie star because of his good looks, but he is a great actor because he is highly talented and committed to doing great work. There is glee in his performance and it is contagious. Melanie Laurent is the emotional center of this film. She witnessed the slaughter of her family and is now driven by revenge. She is willing to give up everything for a chance to make the Nazi's pay for their crimes. In addition, she has the screen presence of a classic movie star. Much has been said about the performance of Christoph Waltz since the film premiered at Cannes this past May. I don't have much more to add than to say that he is indeed great as the film's villain.

Yes, this film is a good deal of fun with some great performances and epic scenes but it is heavily weighed down by Tarantino's greatest indulgence: his love for his own dialogue. The man can write beautifully and he knows it. He writes twenty minute scenes full of dialogue that give great insight into the characters but eventually they stop the flow of the movie dead in it's tracks. After awhile the characters are just talking and the plot shifts into idle. I became bored at the inane conversations they began to have about anything and everything. That indulgence is the curse of this movie.

Everything else is so rich and exciting but the long scenes of dialogue make them fade into the background. I'm not complaining about Tarantino's dialogue because it can be very exciting, fun, and insightful. My complaint is that in this film it often fails to serve the rest of the film and slowly drags the entire story down. It tends to strike out on its own leaving the rest of the film behind.

Also, there are a few scenes in which Tarantino fails to skillfully balance the humor of one character with the sincerity of another. One specific scene is when Raines is interrogating a German officer named Sgt. Werner Rachtman (Richard Sammel). Raines makes Rachtman a deal that he will spare his life if he reveals the location of German snipers. Out of an admirable loyalty to his brothers in arms Rachtman refuses and Raines and the Basterds kill him. Pitt is playing this scene for laughs, as his character and the film dictates. Sammel is playing the scene with conviction and sincerity, as his character and the scene dictates for him. These two contrasting performances and contrasting directions in the scene are in conflict and as a result the scene becomes cruel and more than slightly disturbing.

Overall, I can't say that I enjoyed this film because of that over indulgence of Tarantino dialogue. It stalled the movie for me despite my enjoyment of Tarantino's cinematic indulgences. Replacing the word "indulgence" for the word "drunk" I would say that when Tarantino is a cinematic drunk he is the life of the party and you want to be around him. When he is drunk on the love of his own dialogue he kills the party by trying to bring attention to how great he thinks he is and how we should all celebrate him. Nobody likes a drunk who is desperate for adoration.

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