8/21/09

Review: Inglourious Basterds (2009)


Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is his least referential film, despite what some are saying. There are references to Spaghetti Westerns, films of the '40's, great war films, and more, but in all, it's a pretty straightforward revenge flick with lots of well-drawn characters, suspense, drama and action.

Basterds tells the parallel stories of a young Jewish girl, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent, understated but brilliant), whose family is coldly murdered by a Nazi colonel, Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, excellent), and a squad of Jewish Americans (and others) led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, perfect), who also come in contact with Landa on their open-ended mission to "kill Nat-zis."

Pitt is over-the-top hammy as Lt. Raine, reminiscent of his great performance in Burn After Reading. In both cases he made the decision to go for it and play it as broadly and unsubtly as possible, and it also serves the story of Basterds admirably.

Christoph Waltz, who plays Col. Landa, is a revelation. His character is sort of the same as the one Sharlto Copley played pretty well in District 9, but while Copley was compelling, Waltz is just incredible as a scheming Nazi Sherlock Holmes. It's easy to credit his acting win at Cannes for the role.

Among the rest of the Basterds, Eli Roth is notable as the tight-lipped "Bear Jew," Donny Donowitz. He conveys most of his part with his face, and though we would like to know more about him, this gives him a mysterious quality which is intriguing. Til Schweiger is very good as Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz, a German deserter who joins up with the crew, and Omar Doom has a nice comic quality as Omar Ulmer.

Other acting stand-outs are Diane Kruger as German actress Bridget von Hammersmark, Daniel Brühl as Nazi war hero sniper and movie star Fredrick Zoller, and, last but certainly not least, Martin Wuttke as Adolf Hitler, very believable in spite of some parodic qualites of the script.

Tarantino keeps one big surprise back, the revelation of which deflates a lot of built-up suspense as the audience moves ahead of the story and consults its own knowledge of history, a similar trick to Pulp Fiction's moving back and forth in time, or the way he altered the timing of a classic story ending for comedic effect in his Four Rooms contribution, "The Man from Hollywood." It works well, I won't spoil it for you.

What was missing? I'll tell you exactly. The film is noticeably unbalanced by a lack of information about Raine's squad. There is one flashback which is illuminating, but a bit more conversation, a training sequence for the squad, or another ride-along on one of their sabotage missions would have fixed this right up. It's too bad there's not more.

I like this movie a lot, even though it's not Tarantino's best, which tells you how much I like Tarantino. I'd place it below Jackie Brown, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, above both Kill Bill's if you count them separately, but below Kill Bill if you count them both together. I slid it into my Top Ten for the year so far, just between Ponyo and Watchmen.

Alex
The Magic of the Movies

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