Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Inglourious Basterds ***1/2

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth
Diane Kruger, Michael Fassbender, Mélanie Laurent, Daniel Brühl
Til Schweiger, Mike Myers, Julie Dreyfus
B.J. Novak, Gedeon Burkhard

Some believe that art has the ability to influence history and change its course. Quentin Tarantino takes this belief to the extreme by making a movie that literally changes the way history occurred.
"Inglourious Basterds" is a revenge fantasia that selfconsciously acknowledges its deep love for film while questioning the very notions of its existence.
Set in Nazi occupied France, the movie opens when SS Colonel Hans Landa (Waltz) arrives to the house of farmer Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet who in one scene gives the most haunting performance in the movie) searching for hidden Jews.
"The Jew Hunter" as Landa is known sits with Perrier as an ongrowing menace fills the air. We discover that the farmer is indeed housing Jews and after delivering a monstrous metaphor (only more monstrous because it makes Nazism "comprehensible") his team shoots the hidden family.
But he lets one of them escape, Shosanna Dreyfus (Laurent), who grows to become a theater owner in Paris still harboring a desire for revenge towards the Nazis.
Her opportunity comes when German soldier-turned movie star Fredrick Zoller (Brühl) is smitten by her and decides that he wants his movie premiere (a piece of propaganda called "Pride of the Nation") to be held in her theater.
With the assured presence of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) and the rumor that Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke) himself will attend the premier, Shosanna begins to plot a macabre plan that would finally settle differences between her and the SS.
But she ignores that there are more people with their sight set on her theater.
A special OSS army force known as the "Basterds", who specialize in killing Nazis, come up with a mission of their own to end the war in Shosanna's theater by blowing everyone up.
Led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt) the Basterds are comprised of Jewish Americans and Germans for whom Nazi killing is personal (Raine is of Native American descent, he's also known as "Aldo the Apache").
Among its most prominent members are, second in command, Donny "the Bear Jew" Donowitz (Roth who embodies raw macho qualities and mythical deity hatred) and Hugo Stiglitz (a fantastic Schweiger) a sociopath German officer who turned against the Nazis before being recruited by the Basterds.
Other allies include British Lt. Archie Hilcox (a scene stealing Fassbender, you end up wishing he was in the movie much more), a film critic turned soldier who goes undercover to France and German screen siren Bridget von Hammersmark (a luminous Kruger) performing Mata Hari duties for the Allies.
Tarantino frames both missions with surprising efficiency, establishing their differences without making them too episodic.
As usual he indulges his characters in overlong talks (the man lives for words) and complimentary flashbacks that provide more quirk to already eccentric characters (one vignette explaining the combustible qualities of nitrate film is a delightful piece of trivia).
However his maturity shows in the fact that this time more than ever his characters seem driven by something that exists outside the iconoclastic director.
With Shosanna for instance he goes beyond making her a "Quentin Tarantino creation" and more of an actual human being; the farfetchedness of her revenge plan makes sense with her.
Laurent of course helps make Shosanna so memorable, her performance is magnificent and moving. When she dresses for the night of the premiere, the combination of femme fatale glamor and hatred she channels like tribal cannibalism is especially powerful.
She shines in her scenes with Waltz who turns in a villain with instantly iconic characteristics. He plays him like a maniacal Mephistopheles who enunciates with contemptuous diplomacy.
His kind of sadism is the one that can make you be on the edge of your seat for ten minutes, only to have him leave without a single act of violence.
You understand why he is so feared by the people he hunts down. Waltz fills him with so much life that he literally jumps out of the screen.
And as for Tarantino-esque cameos, few things are as delightful as Rod Taylor and Samuel L. Jackson in blink and you'll miss them performances.
With them he reminds us, again, of his vast knowledge of cinema. In the opening scene he pays homage to Sergio Leone, Stanley Kramer and "The Searchers" within ten minutes and the rest of the film throws more B movie, macaroni combat and classic Hollywood movie references than you can even count.
What makes this movie different is that this time he's not in it merely for the geeky show-off-ness. He knows occult movies, we get it, but why should we care about it? With "Inglourious Basterds" he actually has something to say using this meta language.
For the first time he actually questions his points of view using the medium he knows the best.
In a scene where Zoller watches his movie he turns around to see how everyone is loving the way he inhumanly shoots other human beings following army orders.
As the others cheer his actions, he seems to become disgusted by this glorification of violence and we know he is being stirred by something unexpected.
For him it's perhaps his realization that the Nazis have imposed an agenda of hatred upon him and only now does he see beyond his political loyalties.
But as an audience member take a look around the room and see how other viewers are also relishing in hos the Basterds torture and murder Nazis.
Is "Pride of the Nation" self criticism with a wink?
Tarantino lets us know that he understands a line must be drawn between art and the artist's beliefs, even Shosanna acknowledges the genius of Leni Riefenstahl, but what compromise can be reached when mind and heart battle at the same time?
"Inglourious Basterds" only achieves brilliance when Tarantino, who has so far thrived in his B movie violence, wonders if he in fact has the last word on WWII.
Is his ending better than history's? Tarantino from the 90's would probably have made every possible attempt to justify his vision, this more mature filmmaker abstains from chewing the ideas for us and forces us to leave the movies with a dilemma: as pleasing as his resolution is, does it offer any actual redemption?

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