August 22, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (08/22/09)

Lettergrade: B+

There are several really good sequences in Inglourious Basterds, but it didn't quite sizzle for me like some of Quentin Taratino's other movies have. In particular, I guess I'm unfairly comparing this picture to the wildly entertaining Kill Bill movies, which seemed to somewhat set the template for this phase of his career. By that, I mean that Bill was very self-conscious, stylized cinema that switched film stocks furiously, and liberally borrowed from the wide spectrum of pop-culture and classic genré movies on a ridiculously grand scale, right down to cannibalizing its entire film score from old Spaghetti westerns and obscure action / horror flicks.

The thing with Kill Bill is that it was able to do all this with a great deal of joy and heart -- something that was largely absent from Deathproof, his almost stogy half of 2007's Grindhouse double-bill that he shared with Robert Rodriguez. In that one, there was a lot of amusing chatter, but precious few moments that took your breath away. Somewhere among all the bulky dialogue and the kitschy cinema tricks, the heart of the picture got lost.

Basterds is considerably more subtle than those movies in terms of style, but lands somewhere between the two when it comes to emotional beats that really connect. The strong character moments and the trademark Tarantino kitch that he does inject work beautifully, but I found myself wanting much more of each. I'm in the rare minority of people I know who was really impressed that after Pulp Fiction, a brassy one-of-a-kind, in-your-face masterpiece with a ton of youth appeal, he chose to make Jackie Brown, a more traditional heist picture based on an Elmore Leonard novel with two obscure b-movie actors from the 70s in the lead roles. I admired that instead of hitting the same buttons that people responded to in his last picture, he chose to do something mature and thoughtful that his new audience might not necessarily like. Perhaps at long last, I can somewhat understand why fans of Pulp felt a bit let down by Jackie: Because he's recently struck a few chords that I really like, I guess I was left a little frustrated that he decided to slow things down a bit and try something new.

Among the elements that really work in this picture is much of the wonderful supporting cast, including, in particular, Austrian-born actor Christoph Waltz who steals every scene he's in as the charmingly vile Nazi Col. Hans Landa, otherly known as the "Jew Hunter." Another exceptional standout is Mélanie Laurent, who plays an escaped Jewish girl hiding in Paris after Landa murders her family early in the picture.

The Basterds themselves, a team of Jewish American soldiers who have been dropped into Nazi occupied France in order to savagely murder as many Germans as they can, are led by Brad Pitt. Although I generally like him as an actor, this felt like a rare role in which he was miscast. His accent is hysterical, but he's also one of the few characters on screen who never fully disappears into his role. Tarantino is so good at casting exceptional actors for key parts in his films, sometimes out of complete obscurity and/or career purgatory. Landing Pitt for one of the leads might have been enough to get the movie green-lit, but something tells me they might have been better off had someone else gotten the part.

But a lot of this is just minor bitching. It's a Tarantino movie: They're usually interesting and worth going out of your way to see, and this one is too. Many groups started complaining about this one already: Jewish commentators about the anti-Semitic undertones, historians about Tarantino's, um, liberal interpretation of the end of the war, and audiences in general about the horrific scalping scenes and overall violence. But like most Taratino movies, at it's best it's really remarkable cinema, and at worst... well, it's still a hell of a lot of fun.

My review of Grindhouse

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