Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Tonight I saw Inglourious Basterds, starring Brad Pitt and Christoph Waltz.

I was the perfect age to fall for Quentin Tarantino's magic when his first films hit the big screen. Reservoir Dogs happened in high school and Pulp Fiction defined college. I distinctly remember all of the "men" in my circle going to see Pulp Fiction opening night; then my polite boyfriend at the time taking me alone the following night, worried for my reaction. I apparently laughed harder than any of them had.

We could quote the 'Madonna' scene from Dogs in our sleep and the soundtracks of both films played constantly for the next four years throughout our apartments in Columbia, Missouri.

Now the most famous Missourian—Brad Pitt—is the star of QT's new flick about a Jewish-American group of soldiers (nicknamed the 'basterds') who, of course fictionally, terrorize Nazis who are occupying France (did I mention it's 1941?), scalping and killing them as savagely as they did their victims.

Pitt is intentionally funny as southern Lieutenant Aldo Raine. With a mustache like Hitler's and an accent that sounds as if Sling Blade and Dolly Parton had a child, he mugs throughout the movie pausing for laughs as often as we'll offer them (which I'll admit, is sort of frequently). Christoph Waltz who plays the Nazi Colonel Hans Landa, however, steals the show. His balance of slime, refined politeness and revolting evil comes out in a charming way that's somewhat difficult to explain, so I'll just say this: when the camera is near him, your focus is nowhere else. Not even on the former Sexiest Man Alive.

And of course, there is a damsel in distress by way of Shoshana (Melanie Laurent), the young Jewish girl who escaped the Colonel's wrath only to encounter him years later at her cinema in Paris. Her expressions and mannerisms play the role perfectly with minimal words and maximum intention. An especially great scene takes place over dessert with the Colonel.

Truthfully, there is a lot to like about this movie. With Ennio Morricone and David Bowie both appearing on the soundtrack, there is a distinctive flavor that accompanies each scene and beat almost perfectly, and the bold reds and blacks that paint the canvas of most Tarantino films are also present and effective.

But while his earlier hits and even the more recent Death Proof had a palpable pace, Basterds drags in many places that are intended to infuse tension.

There are also many 'shocking' violent scenes, but once you've gasped through the first bloody few, the remaining 15 or 20 seem glib. I dare say...they're gratuitous.

All in all, it's not really a war film or a crime caper or a black comedy. True to Tarantino's style, it's a wondersalad of all of the above without the major elements that make any of the genres work.

Clever dialog, superb actors and bad guys everyone wants to see 'get theirs' will go a long way, but unfortunately don't add up to a victorious directorial return to form.


Brian W. Fairbanks said...

A lot has been written about this film, but I don't think anyone has summed up its strengths and weaknesses better or more succinctly than you have. This is the best review I've read of this film, notable for neither shamelessly gushing (as I think Tarantino admirers sometimes do), nor bashing (as some of his critics, perhaps in reaction to his admirers, are prone to do).

After reading some of your other reviews, I find the same balanced, intelligent approach throughout. I discovered your site about a month ago, and I've been faithfully stopping by ever since. You are now my favorite film critic - and you're a terrific writer!

paul said...

Hear hear Tassoula, I think you've captured my exasperation with this film, and its director, beautifully.The first 20 minutes, that opening scene, was done so well I hunkered down in my seat and hoped...alas it was not to be. I'd like to see Tarantino do some short films, as set pieces are clearly a forte of his and come back to realising a film which says something. Until then I believe "wondersalad", great word, is all we'll get.