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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

REVIEW - "Inglourious Basterds" (2009)

Over the past week I’ve seen some moviegoers declare “District 9” as “The Dark Knight” of this summer. I shrugged, not exactly agreeing with such sentiment, but certainly not giving the comment much credit. And for good reason. It’s undeserved. While I doubt a summer blockbuster will ever reach the bar set by “The Dark Knight” in the next twenty years, I suppose we can still clamor about the closest cases and correlate the absurd comment to films on a yearly basis. And if the title, “This Year’s Dark Knight” is to go to any movie, it is “Inglourious Basterds.”

Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) leads a Jewish squad in to Nazi France to… “Do one thing and one thing only.” Kill Nazis. When they learn a Nazi film’s premiere will include Hitler himself they decide to take out the entire audience during the film. While their plans face casualties, particularly under the ruthless Col. Landa, they are also unaware of a Jewish girl’s plot to burn down her theater—Aiding the Basterds in their agenda.

So why on Earth would I declare this movie as “This Year’s Dark Knight?” Well, anyone who is a fan of Tarantino should be able to figure that out. Like the “The Dark Knight,” though less subtly, “Inglourious Basterds” harkens back to great 1970s and 1980s cinema. (Arguably two of the best decades of film.) Granted, all of Tarantino’s movies have a 70s aesthetic to them, but like the latest Bat-venture it seamlessly fuses raw, hard characters with painstakingly difficult moral dilemmas that give violence a newfound substance. The big difference is, “Basterds’” elements are all satirical. What? You thought Tarantino was going to create cookie-cutter, heartfelt war flick we’ve seen countless times before? I. Think. Not.

It is without regret or remorse that I laughed my throat sore as soon as Pitt’s Aldo Raine trampled the screen. Scenes of his merciless brutality and colorful vocabulary only seemed to excite the audience and I. But why was this character so interesting? Beyond his one-track attitude toward Nazis, he seemed rather one-dimensional. It wasn’t until his conversation with a Nazi prisoner that I realized what he was. When the officer declines to give Raine information, after the threat of a brutal beating from “The Bear Jew,” (Eli Roth) Raine replies, “Actually, Werner, we're all tickled to hear you say that. Quite frankly, watching Donny [The Bear Jew] beat Nazi's to death is the closest we ever get to going to the movies.” Suddenly Tarantino’s love for film skyrockets from the screen to my body. He’s fully aware what makes the audience tick, what they enjoy and how they enjoy it. But he is also aware of the desensitization that movies, even his own films, have been criticized for. Satire has never been brighter, ballsier and funnier as this scene runs to a violent finish.

As we hop from one lengthy scene to another, there’s something marvelous to be said about the writing for each character. Though many will argue the movie needed a sharper axe in the editing room, there truly isn’t anything I would have changed. For example, undercover British soldier Lt. Archie Hicox’s rendezvous with a German informant is interrupted by a Nazi soldier’s curiosity and need for company. The awkward scene is brought to life with long-winded shots of drinking, gaming and snooty comradery. What feels like a pointless exercise in how to shoot non-mobile characters with dialogue feels more like a long joke waiting for a punch line. Though the scene ends with most of the characters’ conversation left irrelevant, there’s something gratifying about sitting through it. It’s Tarantino’s style to outwit the audience’s emotions and bring their misguidance tumbling down on their heads. Here he succeeds like never before, ending everything with jaw dropping abruptness.

Because of the massive amount of attention given to even the tiniest characters, it’s hard not to chew up the screen if you’re in front of the camera. Every performance, one after another, is absolutely top notch. As if arming themselves for a Shakespearean tragedy, the cast of “Inglourious Basterds” is wrought with the most believable amount of tension to keep audiences gripped to the screen. While Pitt’s Aldo Raine ranks among his better performances, Christoph Waltz nearly steals the show with his portrayal of Col. Hans Landa. Smart, calculating and treacherous—It’s so much more interesting to give us a Nazi we can hate more than Hitler, instead of lazily allowing historical knowledge to fuel our feelings. Waltz may be up for a supporting actor nod as he is, by far, a stand out player in “Basterds.”

A rather underrated player is the gorgeous Mélanie Laurent’s revenge filled Shosanna Dreyfus. A character I ended up loving more than I thought, Laurent transformers herself from a petty Jewish survivor, to a full-fledged nightmare to the Nazi party. Although she is never aware of the Basterds, her presence in the film is a giant factor to how everything winds up by the end of the film.

Before the credits hit the screen, the last line audiences will hear is, “I think this just might be my masterpiece.” With that, I can only reply, “I think it just might be, Mr. Tarantino.” So lets strip away “This Year’s Dark Knight” nonsense, and even a line like “Tarantino’s best since Pulp Fiction.” By the end of the film I was convinced: This is Tarantino’s best. Ouch. Now that is bold isn’t it?

**** out of ****

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