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TBTS Reviews: Inglourious Basterds

August 30, 2009

THIS REVIEW DOES NOT CONTAIN ANY MAJOR SPOILERS.

There is precious little I’d prefer to tell you about the plot of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, as Tarantino fans know full well that part of the fun in any new Tarantino film is not being able to foresee the trademark sidebars, artistic flourishes and elaborately converging storylines coming. His entire career has been one built from scratch, from a sheer enjoyment of film and all its stylistic tricks, and his films have always existed as giant stews consisting of parts of movies we can only assume Tarantino once saw and fell in love with.

How else can you explain the fact that Inglourious Basterds is a World War II film with a spaghetti western soundtrack, featuring David Bowie music and intermittently narrated by Samuel L. Jackson? Tarantino makes movies for people who love movies, and the fact that they happen to be good movies is just icing on the clever and very violent cake.

Brad Pitt is the face man of this endeavor, but the truth of the matter is that the title characters are, as per the norm in a QT film, just cogs in an elaborate machine, part of an ensemble of over-the-top characters whose individual agendas you know will converge upon one another in the final reel. The storylines, to sum briefly, include a team of Jewish-American soldiers working underground to kill as many Nazi soldiers as possible, a female french cinema owner whose opportunity for revenge falls right into her lap, and a verbose and cordial Nazi colonel whose fiendish skills of detection haven’t earned him the name “The Jew Hunter” for nothing.

The latter character, Col. Hans Landa (German actor Christoph Waltz), is the show-stealer here, a classic Tarantino creation of the Walken and Keitel mold. Waltz’s scenes, particularly a tense opening scene wherein he confronts and delicately questions a French dairy farmer, are consistently a treat. A lot has been made in the media of the fact that arguably the “coolest” character in the film is, in fact, a Nazi — one of the most collectively despised groups of individuals in world history. The rebuttal for that, for anyone who’s ever seen a Tarantino film before, is simply that this characterization is nothing new: Tarantino’s films have always been about making criminals, lowlifes and other rotten souls interesting, and Landa is a worthy addition to the director’s canon of such characters.

Pitt is all swagger and bravado as a mainly one-note character (Tarantino has never been known for his prowess with dynamic character shifts), channeling Clark Gable as Lieutenant Aldo “The Apache” Raine — and chews on the role with relish. French actress Melanie Laurent has a young Uma Thuman-esque quality about her as the Jew-in-hiding Shoshanna Dreyfus, and the final act — which centers around a deadly trap set for the Fuhrer himself — is an out-of-control, balls-to-the wall thrill.

While violence plays, obviously, a key role in a film about scalping Nazis, the most fun moments in the movie come from Tarantino’s patented patter. This may be one of the director’s talkiest films yet, and that’s not a bad thing at all. Few filmmakers can make a twenty minute stretch of dialogue as engrossing as Tarantino can, and it becomes ironic that in a movie based on bloody conflict and merciless revenge, the verbal sparring of characters matching wits creates the most squirmy, edge-of-seat moments. Tarantino could have included countless more scenes of physical violence in Basterds, but he lets his characters tear each other apart with verbal bullets instead; a tense tavern scene is the perfect example of the director’s quick-witted writing.

By the time the final act rolls around, you’ll have barely realized two hours have passed; Inglourious Basterds is as fun and engaging as it gets. Darkly comic, sharply written and giddily revisionist, the film clicks along happily — proportionally and strangely growing more fun even as the storyline grows more dire. And with Tarantino again at the helm, his anachronistic bag of tricks and everything-in-the-book mentality firmly in tow, you get the feeling that this is a guy having a great time making movies he likes, just for himself. The fact that we can enjoy them just as much is simply an added bonus.

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