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August 22, 2009

Inglourious Basterds - Movie Review

I've been a big Quentin Tarentino fan for a long time, so when I heard that he was finally putting his baby to rest, the movie he's been wanting to do for a long time, I knew we had to go see it. The wife doesn't like war films, but there were two reasons why she didn't mind this one. First, it's Tarantino (she's been a fan longer than I have). Secondly, it was obvious from the trailers that any remote relationship with reality would be severed within the first few minutes of the film (she loves violent movies, but not movies that have anything to do with real horror and misery, like war flicks).

So what did we think?

Wow, that was...surreal.

Inglourious Basterds (and yes, you grammar-fiends, that is how the movie spells the words) has been called a Jewish revenge-fantasy, and given what happens in the movie, it's hard to really say that's not true. Brad Pitt plays Lt. Aldo Raine, head of an elite group of American Jewish soldiers parachuted into occupied France with the express purpose of killing (and scalping) Nazi soldiers. No distinction is made between regular German soldiers and SS soldiers (a historical debate I'm not getting into right now). As Raine so bluntly puts it the first time we see him, when he's reviewing his men:

"Each and every man under my command owes me one hundred Nazi scalps... and I want my scalps!"

The style is classic Tarantino, which means movie references all over the place, though thankfully not all of them are as blatant as his usually are. Even so, the ones that are in your face you will either love or hate, depending on how you feel about Tarantino. When characters in the movie are in a Mexican stand-off and they start debating exactly what a Mexican stand-off contains, you know you're in a Tarantino movie. When five characters are around a table talking about seemingly nothing, with the subtext and tension being thick enough to cut with a knife, you know you're in a Tarantino flick. And when the bullets start flying and blood goes everywhere, you know you're in a Tarantino flick. He has a style that is quite unique.

Style and dialogue are basically what make this movie for the viewer, too. Tarantino loves to have his characters sitting around talking, and it's few directors who can actually make that interesting. Tarantino manages it, however, mainly because almost every conversation has something going on in the background. When "Jew-Hunter" Colonel Hans Landa (the wonderful Christoph Waltz) is sharing a strudel with Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) and talking about Goebbels holding his film premiere in her theater, there is the underlying tension of whether or not he recognizes that she is the Jewish woman who escaped from him at the beginning of the movie. Tarantino uses quick camera cuts, and Laurent does an excellent job of looking seriously nervous, making the scene even more intense as you expect Landa to pull out his gun any moment.

Tarantino takes the history books out behind the woodshed and mercifully puts them out of their misery. Unlike many "historical" movies that play fast and loose with history even as young people in the audience think they're being fed what really happened, Inglourious Basterds doesn't even pretend to be realistic. Keep that in mind as the story unfolds. This is fantasy World War II at its best. You never know what might happen.

There were a couple of problems with the movie, though they didn't really affect my enjoyment of it. First, two of the Basterds just pretty much disappear after they show up for the first time. They are mentioned off-hand later, but we never see them again. It distracted me momentarily near the end of the film, but I did wonder what happened to them afterward.

Secondly, the tone of the movie is quite disjointed. It moves from excessively grim to hilariously funny and then back again, making you wonder if you should really be laughing at this. Sometimes this happens in the same scene! Just keep an eye out for Landa's pipe in the opening scene, the tense interview with the French farmer who Landa thinks is harboring Jews.

Finally, and this isn't so much a fault as just a comment about the movie, you never really get to know these characters except what little Tarantino wants you to know through their dialogue. None of the Basterds (with the slight exception of Raine, who we see more often) is given any motivation other than that they're part of a Jewish team of soldiers hunting Nazis. We see a bit more of Shosanna and the German soldier who is attracted to her both for her looks and for her interest in movies (which allows Tarantino to exercise his movie fetish and have it actually be part of the plot), but only enough give the plot purpose.

This is not a character movie. It's style and dialogue that will get you through it; that, and a little bit of action. Yes, the dialogue scenes sometimes go on a bit too long, as Tarantino exercises that fetish (he has a lot of movie fetishes). Yes, it's absurd, but it's Tarantino. It's supposed to be absurd. And it's damned fun to watch too.

Even the grim parts.


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