Sunday, August 23, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds is pure Quentin Tarantino. This movie is exactly what you probably expect. Despite taking its name from a 1978 WWII movie, it bares a much closer resemblance to The Dirty Dozen. Boiling this movie down to one central idea is not difficult. Brad Pitt plays Lt. Aldo Raine, who leads a small band on a covert mission to kill as many nazis as possible. And in true Tarantino fashion, they do so as brutally as possible. Everything culminates in two separate assassination plots.

The movie certainly pays homage to the old Westerns, with a group of rough and tumble vigilantes taking matters into their own hands- a la The Wild Bunch. Though Inglourious Basterds forewent the initial character development found in The Dirty Dozen, and jumped straight into the action. In reality, we never do find anything out about most of the characters, keeping us fairly detached from the "Basterds" themselves. This seems to be a Tarantino trademark (I don't think I've ever really cared about any of his characters). This lack of development doesn't really bother me, as the characters are so outlandish, they're essentially caricatures.

This caricature is embodied most straightforwardly in Brad Pitt's character. The leader of the bastards brings his thick Tennessee drawl to everything (especially when he tries to pass himself off as Italian). The rest of his band (including Eli Roth, BJ Novak, and Omar Doom) offer up similar if more subtle (except Roth's foul mouthed, baseball bat wielding behemoth) performances. In reality, the only real nuanced role was that of Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a Jewish woman in France who witnessed the deaths of her entire family. It just so happens that she has a completely unrelated assassination plot, at the same exact time and place as the bastards'.

Tarantino makes his love of film known. He bends genres almost beyond the breaking point. Despite being rooted in the spaghetti westerns (with the obligatory "Once Upon a Time..." moniker) a scene dealing with a British operative and his commanding officer discussing the nuances of German cinema (yes, that is actually relevant to the story) would make Peter Sellers and George C. Scott proud. And during the effeminate interactions between Hitler, and his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels I could almost see Mel Brooks' hand at work. Not to mention the over-the-top German Corporal Lada, serving as an equally absurd counterpoint to Pitt's character. Tarantino's love of film embodies itself in all aspects of this movie. Many of the characters derive their names from directors, and assassination plots are intricately tied to- what else- the cinema. I must say, though, at some points it was a little unsettling sitting in a movie theater while watching the movie theater scenes.

Tarantino brings his trademark conversational wit full force here. The best scenes involve nothing more than people sitting around a table. The tension is palpable even though most of the dialog was in German or French. He manages to ratchet up the suspense of one party hiding something, and the other party closing in that secret. The shame is that all of these wonderful aspects of the movie don't mesh very well. This makes the film lack the cohesion that made some of his other movies so good. Inglourious Basterds isn't a bad movie by any means, it just doesn't rise any higher than an ample director's love letter to his favorite genres.


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