Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: Tarantino's World War II Fever Dream

Quentin Tarantino always manages to deliver astonishing setpieces in his films, and Inglourious Basterds opens with one of his most masterful--an excruciating cat-and-mouse game between a French farmer and the movie's principal heavy, SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz).

The wonder of the sequence lies not in its Swiss-watch precision (we've come to expect as much from the motor-mouthed auteur), but in its subtle artistry. It begins in the most pastoral of south-of-France countrysides, and escalates with ambling leisure: Neither man raises his voice above the most gently-civil of conversational tones, and Tarantino avoids manipulation with music cues until the scene's climactic payoff. It is, in short, twelve minutes of pure, undiluted genius.

That opening promises a work of unparalleled maturity that, put bluntly, Tarantino doesn't quite follow up on. But if this World War II opus is just a typical Quentin Tarantino joint, that still renders it more ambitious, distinctive, and electrifying than 99.9% of the faceless product clogging multiplexes in these devalued times. And that's more than good enough for me.

Tarantino's detractors will surely find grist for their mill here. The director still hurtles ultraviolence at the screen with the childish enthusiasm of a grade-schooler jamming baby carrots up his nose in the lunchroom for laughs; and incorporating this approach into the very real horrors of Naziism and World War II Jewish persecution feels a little irresponsible.

The guy also takes a Molotov cocktail to historic accuracy. In the interest of making this a spoiler-free zone, let's just say that Quentin Tarantino may be the only director alive with the hubris to make up his own end to World War II (get ready for some ridiculous answers on the next World War II History quiz you give, high school teachers of America).

But it's hard to give a rat's ass about those nitpicky points. Tarantino crafts rare cinematic birds--his movies sport a distinctive and idiosynchratic sensibility that still connects with large audiences. In non-nerd-speak, that means he makes exactly the kinds of movies he wants to make, while still managing to get lots of butts into theater seats. Nice trick.

Damn, there's a lot to love here. Visually, it's far and away the most sumptuous thing Tarantino's committed to film, all period lushness filtered through vivid pop-art colors. And the soundtrack (largely borrowed Ennio Morricone pieces, peppered with anachronistic detours by David Bowie and others) puts the director's great taste in tunes front and center once again.

The director's trademark layering of disparate subplots, all tying together in the closing reel, continues to flourish. So in addition to the Jewish-American Nazi killers of the title, Tarantino throws in an engaging almost-romance, a plot to assassinate several key Third Reich players, one of the most entertaining (and brutal) Mexican Standoffs in movie history, a vendetta-fueled conflagration, and a smorgasbord of cinematic references. His scripted dialogue still sings, too (no one but no one today writes characters' voices with such a perfect combination of pulp showiness, humor, and emotional honesty).

Tarantino directs with such stylistic verve that it's easy to forget his Midas touch with his actors. Brad Pitt actually mines some comic gold as the cracker leader of the Basterds (talk about crafting a silk purse out of a thespian sow's ear), and I love Melanie Laurent's vulnerable avenging angel of a French jew. But the breakout character of the movie (Basterds' Jules Winnfield, if you will) has gotta be Waltz's alternately cultured and menacing Colonel Landa. He's the kind of quotable, charming, and deeply scary villain most mainstream movies (and more than a few Oscar voters) would kill for.

Basterds' pockets are so overstuffed that it's almost too much sometimes. Tarantino creates incidental characters so interesting and fun that it damn near stings when they disappear or die after just a few minutes of screen time (might I suggest a whole movie built around Til Schweiger's badassed Hugo Stiglitz, pretty please?). And the director's so enraptured in letting his characters talk (and talk...and talk...) that the verbal theatrics occasionally take their toll on the pacing.

That's where seeing it again pays off. And yes, I saw it twice in as many days.

Knowing exactly when the movie's going to slow down for character-based chitchat allows you to savor the music of Tarantino's dialogue. The brutality's a bit easier to swallow (or at least to turn away from) with hindsight. The uneven tone (It's over-the-top comic/bloody action junk food! No, wait...It's the moving story of a Jewish girl on the run...No, wait...) doesn't jerk you out of the moment. And dyed-in-the-wool nerds can relish the references more thoroughly. Just like any overstuffed banquet table, you get the most out of Inglourious Basterds by going back for seconds.

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