Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds: a return to form
Orson Welles' self-description, "I started at the top and worked my way down", was beginning to fit Quentin Tarantino's career graph. Tarantino's debut, Reservoir Dogs, was electrifying; his next film, Pulp Fiction, a masterpiece. Jackie Brown, was pretty darn good, Kill Bill passable, and Death Proof pointless if occasionally amusing.
Now, with Inglourious Basterds, the man has resurrected his sagging reputation. Basterds is a self-indulgent movie that will appeal most to cinephiles, but possesses enough action, plot and character to keep wider audiences happy. I rate it above all but the first two of Tarantino's directorial efforts. Jackie Brown may be a better paced, better plotted film, but has none of the scope and lushness of Basterds (besides, audibility was an issue throughout the Pam Grier starrer).
The Basterds of the title are a group of Jewish, mainly American, soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who operate behind enemy lines during WWII, killing Nazis with notable brutality. Assisted by a German actress and a British film critic, they plot to eliminate the Nazi leadership during the premiere in Paris of a movie about a German war hero. The premiere is held in a theatre owned by a woman whose parents were killed under orders of the notorious 'Jew hunter' Col. Landa (Christoph Waltz), and who is plotting a massacre of her own.
From its opening shot, Basterds seeks to create apotheoses of movie stereotypes: the broken-nosed French peasant, the sophisticated but cruel Nazi, the blunt American and the plummy-accented Brit. We feel at each moment the presence of past WWII films, particularly those made in the sixties like The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, and The Battle of the Bulge.
As indicated by virtually everybody who has written about the film, Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa steals the show. The polyglot actor is the film's greatest asset, but also its greatest flaw, insofar as there is no performance to balance his. Pitt has some very good moments and some indifferent ones; his effort at a Tennessee accent becomes too apparent in the odd scene.
The climactic conflagration in the theatre is meant to be a huge catharsis, a film-maker's revenge on history as it were. I'd rate it seven on ten. It was satisfying enough, but didn't give me goose flesh.