Sunday, August 23, 2009

What's Black and White and Dead All Over? - A Review of Inglourious Basterds

As I sit down to write my review of Inglourious Basterds, I realize that everything I write will be colored by the fact that I'm a devoted Tarantino fan. So regardless of what I say, if you find his previous films ridiculous or his violence gratuitous, you're probably going to feel the same way about this one. It's not a departure for him. Of course, for a fan, that's hardly a bad thing.

Pesky disclaimer aside, I will get down to the business of telling you everything you need to know about Tarantino's latest offering, Inglourious Basterds. The film follows an elite group of eight American soldiers as they enter Nazi-occupied France with the single goal of killing as many Nazis as they can. This hardcore killing team eventually becomes embroiled in a plot to assasinate Hitler and his top men. Brad Pitt stars as Lt. Aldo Raine, leader of the band of misfit American soldiers, and Diane Krueger plays Bridget von Hammersmark, a German actress turned American informant. To say more about the plot would give too much away, and let's face it, Tarantino's films aren't that plot driven anyway. He keeps it simple. Maybe that's why I like him (or at least his movies.)

As soon as the film opens, you are immediately aware that you are watching a Tarantino creation. The opening credits are in his usual throwback style, and the opening music is similar to that of his other movies. Immediately following the credits is the title for "Chapter 1." I have to admit that in the past I have found Tarantino's use (or overuse) of the chapter delineation to be a bit pretentious. I mean, we get it, Mr. Tarantino. You're different. You break all the rules. Whatever. For some reason, however, I found the use of chapters to be more effective in this movie. Maybe it was the fact that for once he used a chronological arrangment. Maybe it was the historical setting of the film. Whatever it was, I felt that the divisions were far more organic than some of his previously different-for-different's-sake chop jobs.

Once you get to the movie, there is no time to get bored or check your watch. There is action from Chapter 1, and it doesn't stop. While the opening scene is a bit slower than the rest of the movie, it still far from static and is absolutely necessary for set-up. With Chapter 2, we are introduced to the Basterds and their charasmatic, mountain-man leader, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt.) As in his performance in Burn After Reading, Pitt shows us that he is not about being the Hollywood glamor boy. He's flat out funny (and funny looking) from his first scene, and his performance never loses momentum. His accent, which might have sounded ridiculous in any other film, only served to add to his understated comedy.

Of course, I am talking about very dark humor. This film is not for the squeamish. The Basterds harvest the scalps from their Nazi conquests and have no qualms with torture to reach their ends. Inglourious Basterds does manage to avoid the cartoonish violence of Tarantino's previous offering, Kill Bill, where everyone was a bleeder. It is still extremely violent, however, the violence is tempered by the film's demonstration of the Nazi's evil deeds. There is no Valkyrie-esque gray area here. Nazis = bad, Everyone else = good. One of the things that makes this film different from some of the recent WWII movies is the satisfying revenge angle. The viewer doesn't have to deal with any annoying, conflicted, emotionally tortured Nazis. Every Nazi in the film is pure evil, and you can't help but cheer on the Basterds as they slaughter their way across France.

Perhaps one of my favorite aspects of the film is the clever, caricature-like portrayal of historical characters, both good and bad. Hitler rants and raves in a flamboyant cape, Goebbels preens in front of his mistress and her poodle, and Winston Churchill puffs his giant cigar. The people who are most real are not the ones pulling the strings; they are the people down in the trenches getting dirty. Brad Pitt may insist that Tarantino has defined, or perhaps redefined the WWII genre, but I submit that he pokes big funny holes in all the WWII movies that have gone before. It's apparently not enough for him to do it "his way." He has to point out the "ridiculous" (Pitt's word) in the old way.

While I did love this film, there was one aspect of which I was less than fond. The music. I know Tarantino prefers a very specific style of music that has become an easily recognizable characteristic of his films. In this historical flick, however, the soundtrack was anachronistic and, frankly, at times, distracting. It was as if Tarantino felt the need to keep reminding the viewer that they were watching one of his films.

Another curious inconsistency was the one character bio inserted partway into the film. If he had done this throughout, then it might have worked, but instead, I only saw one instance of his taking the viewer completely out of the film to give a comic book hero style introduction complete with massive font graphics of his name flashed across the screen.

Despite his new cast, Tarantino did find a place for his favorites. Samuel L. Jackson didn't appear in the movie, but he did do periodic narration. I wasn't sure if I loved the narration, which seemed a little too sporadic to be effective (or consistent), but ultimately, I wouldn't wish it gone, if only for sentimental reasons. After all, what is a Tarantino film without Jackson? Harvey Keitel also lends his voice to a scene, though it's very brief.

All these little criticisms do not add up to very much in the scheme of things, however. The movie was fun, fast, and vintage Tarantino. I went into the theater wanting to like it, and I actually did. It doesn't usually work out that way. While the movie may break new ground in WWII movies, I don't think Tarantino did anything significantly different from his usual M.O. That's okay with me, though. I go to one of his films expecting certain things, and he certainly delivered. I left satisfied, not only with the movie but also with the justice of it all. The body count is high, but so is the level of revenge. But most importantly, nobody fell in love, felt regret, or found a deeper truth. Oh, and you get to see Brad Pitt speak Italian with a Tennessee accent. Now that's why I go to the movies.

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