Friday, September 11, 2009

"Inglourious Basterds" Review

"Inglourious Basterds" is a strange brew. Watching it with the misleading marketing in mind creates a sensation akin to downing a mild beer with the expectation of hard liquor. The flavor of Quentin Tarantino's latest is disorienting but familiar, surprisingly placid but intoxicating under the right palette.

The marginal intellect of the director's early work has diminished recently in favor all-out genre exploitation, and though both "Kill Bill" films are perfectly entertaining, they're undeniably shallow. And then there's "Death Proof," the novelty record of Tarantino's career. So if I suggest that "Basterds" has substance, take it with a grain of salt, we're still dissecting a Tarantino film.

Fortunately, the director has taken a giant leap back, which is a rare but accurate compliment. "Inglourious Basterds" is a film of extended, often rich and engrossing dialogue, juxtaposed with the requisite deplorable violence. Brad Pitt as Lieutenant Aldo Raine is front man for the predominantly Jewish-American "Basterds" squad, whose sole objective seems to be snuffing as many Nazi lives as possible.

And that's where the ads leave the film, which is thankfully short of its creative goal. The truth is "Inglourious Basterds" is about the premiere of Nazi propaganda film in a theater owned and operated by a Jewish woman whose family was executed at the hands of the Third Reich and a particularly charming "Jew Hunter" portrayed perfectly by German actor Christoph Waltz.

There's already buzz for 'Best Supporting Actor' surrounding Waltz as Colonel Hans Landa, which is interesting in the context of last year's nod to the late Heath Ledger as Joker in "The Dark Knight." Aspiring actors: be interesting villains! Waltz's performance is probably more award-worthy than Ledger's, but both are really triumphant cinematic baddies. The atmosphere when Waltz is on screen is thick and tensely palpable. He's responsible for the best moments of the film.

Still, Waltz is hardly all the film has going for it. As usual, Tarantino has crafted a genre-defying collage of ideas that clash in a hip punk sort of way. Oddball comedy follows nail-biting suspense and precedes outlandish shootouts. Yes, the world of Quentin Tarantino is derivative, unfocused, and hyper-active, but the man is a mad chemist with the precise, pre-mixed ingredients for potent, pungent fun.

It really is impossible to review the film without commenting on Tarantino's greater body of work or the man himself. There are three distinct stages to Tarantino criticism, and not everyone can make it past the second. The stages are as follows:

1) "That was bad-ass fuckin' awesome, bro!"
Stage 1 is a surface level response to sweet, awesome violence and a kick-ass soundtrack. You're a little bit interested in film, and mentioning that "Pulp Fiction" is your favorite movie scores you art-house cred with that hipster girl in second period you think is way hot.

2) "I've always found Tarantino's work vapid and egotistical."
With more than a basic knowledge of film, Tarantino's inspirations begin to reveal themselves, and the director appears an unimaginative fraud. His work says nothing about the human condition, enjoyed only by bottom-feeding morons.

3) "You know, I actually liked Kill Bill."
You concede that Tarantino is a director of considerable skill and questionable taste who makes exactly the films he intends to. Their purpose is purely entertainment and, love 'em or leave 'em, are appreciable for what they are.

But complaints of unoriginality and tactless pandering to style over substance took a backseat among the loudest and most harsh critics of Quentin Tarantino's latest, deriding the film for its disrespectful historical inaccuracies (big, big inaccuracies to be fair). Spoiler alert, Hitler gets whacked.

So yeah, that never happened, but what does it mean? Tarantino offs the dictator almost as an aside, without suggesting what that supposition means for the canon of World War II storytelling or even, really, for the world of Basterds themselves. Inasmuch, the film does feel disrespectful and worse, indulgent, but only until you approach its hypothesis of an unannounced alternative reality from an artistic standpoint.

Hitler is gunned down in his balcony seat at the movie premiere. Clearly, obviously, not the end that the real man met. Quentin Tarantino makes a greater statement (in a movie about a movie, no less) about historical fiction. What's the ratio of one to the other? Surely countless films purport themselves as historical dramas, but take as many liberties as service their narrative arcs. At the end of the day it's still a movie, and Tarantino just takes it all the way.

He's hardly a Da Vinci or Duchamp, but history's most memorable artists have similarly challenged the public's perception of a piece of art. That's also not to suggest "Inglourious Basterds" is a flawless film, as it suffers from occasional pacing hiccups and irksome stylistic inconsistencies. Still, it's an important film and unquestionably Tarantino's deepest work since, conservatively, "Jackie Brown."

His take on World War II is entirely his own, and probably won't win over many second stage Tarantino critics. Ones and threes, let's have a beer and have some fun.


1 comment:

  1. Okay, let's have a beer and arm-wrestle over this. I think you're being too kind with euphemisms like "occasional pacing hiccups" but your points are well taken.