Oh what a glourious war ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Monday, October 26, 2009

Oh what a glourious war

Inglourious Basterds
My rating:

When Quentin Tarantino made a big splash with his debut in the '90s, it largely passed me by. I enjoyed Reservoir Dogs, but didn't catch Pulp Fiction till about 10 years after its release. I watched Kill Bill vols. 1 and 2 more for the fight scenes than their director. All of these, I saw in the comfort of my home in VHS, VCD and DVD. I can understand why he has such a cultish following, though I wouldn't call myself a Tarantino fan. I enjoyed the ones I watched, but I'm not particularly eager to catch his other two films that I missed.

But the first of his that I saw on the big screen? Is awesome.

The Basterds, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), are a guerilla unit of American Jews operating in Nazi-occupied France. Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) is a Jewish survivor of her family's massacre, living in Paris as a cinema operator under an assumed name. A premiere of a new propaganda film is to be held at Shosanna's cinema, and will be attended by the Nazi top brass - and both of them plot to blow up the cinema and possibly end the war in one stroke. The Basterds will be aided by British Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) and German movie star Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), while Shosanna must deal with Private Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), a war hero who is infatuated with her - but hot on their heels is the famed Jew Hunter Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), the man who murdered Shosanna's family.

Sweet zombie Hitler, this is one tense movie. The opening scene is a visit by Landa to a French farm. It's long, it's slow, the conversation between the Nazi colonel and the farmer is often inane, yet all of it serves to ratchet up the suspense higher and higher. Tarantino repeats this trick another two or three times throughout the movie, yet it never fails - Hitchcock would be proud of the way he creates white-knuckle tension, releases it in a burst of explosive violence, then primes us again for the next setpiece. I've seen enough WW2 movies to know that the genre has a thing for undercover Allied spies desperately trying to bluff their way past suspicious SS officers, and the movie milks this trope but good.

The other thing that makes this a terrifically suspenseful film is its unpredictability. Tarantino has never been known for adhering to formula - as a matter of fact, something he is known for is killing off characters in brutal and shocking ways. A character who gets a nice introduction, whom the screenplay spends time developing, whom you get to know and like, may not necessarily survive to the end of the movie. (Or even the middle.) Some may find this annoying and affected, but I thought it worked. You honestly never know what's going to happen from minute to minute, and having watched and reviewed 50-odd films this year, may I say how refreshing that is. Don't even think your knowledge of how WW2 ended will do you much good here.

In many ways, this is a deliberately anachronistic film. I may be wrong, but I have the impression that the extent of Hitler's Final Solution wasn't widely known until after the war ended. Yet the Basterds are out for bloody payback, Shosanna is driven to avenge not only her family but all Jews, and there are numerous references to the Nazis' atrocities against the Jewish people. This is in many ways a Jewish revenge fantasy, right down to the over-the-top ending (which I'm trying not to spoil, even though quite a few reviews already have). Many war films portray the "enemy" side as honourable soldiers who are merely doing their duty, but not this one. Almost every Nazi is despicably evil, and those who aren't are only there to add texture to a particular scene; certainly not because Tarantino wanted to be fair in his depiction of them. Exploitative? Perhaps. Effective? Hell yes.

And it wouldn't be half as effective if it weren't for some amazing acting. Christoph Waltz won a Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival for this role, and he deserves it. He makes Col. Landa a deliciously riveting presence - you may hate the guy, but you'll love watching him. Expect every "Best Movie Villain" list to include him from now on. But for all the love Waltz has been getting, Melanie Laurent deserves plenty too. In many scenes, Tarantino lets his camera linger on a close-up of her face, and it's all on her ability to convey Shosanna's tortured emotions to carry the scene - and she knocks it out of the park each time. I'm a heterosexual male, and therefore I was more impressed by Laurent than even Waltz. Despite his top billing, Brad Pitt is merely competent; his role isn't nearly as well-written as these two. Diane Kruger and Michael Fassbender do notable jobs too - hell, there isn't a bad performance in the bunch, and plenty of great ones.

There are the usual Tarantino signature touches, such as chapter titles, playful little supers, flashbacks, even a voiceover. Fans will love them, but even non-fans - if you like thrillers at all - should be able to enjoy the sheer filmmaking craft on display here. I've been raving about the suspense factor, but honestly, there's some terrifically stylish direction here, especially during the final chapter and especially on and around Shosanna (and that dress she wears). Plus, of course, the irreplaceable pleasure of being riveted to your seat in anticipation of what the movie will show you next. I'm still not quite a member of the Cult of Tarantino yet, but if he makes a few more movies this good, I might pick up an application form.

NEXT REVIEW: Lembing Awang Pulang ke Dayang
Anticipation level: the Movie Gods giveth, and the Movie Gods taketh away


Anonymous said...

Atypically short review?

So you're not a QT fan huh. I wasn't one until I began watching his movies more than once. They not only have lasting quality, they actually improve on repeat viewings.

Anyway, if you're not a fan of characters spewing impossibly cool lines every time they open their mouths, you should check out Jackie Brown. It's by far his most restrained work, and features his most mature and realistic characters.

TMBF said...

Oops - what you saw was an unfinished review that I mistakenly posted last night. My bad.

Jackie Brown is one of the ones I haven't watched. Thinking about it.

Alia N. said...

I myself watched almost half of his movies, and i am a his huge fan. I think the way he directs is just superb, may i recommend other movies such as planet terror and death proof. These movies, was nt release in KL, bt the DVD's are already out.

I would call him the best. :)
I think ur review hits the spot, wouldnt do it any better :)

kudos 2 u :DD

Edmund Yeo said...

Alia: He didn't direct Planet Terror (Robert Rodriguez did).

But yes, I do think that Inglourious Basterds is probably QT's best film since Pulp Fiction.

McGarmott said...

This is the only Tarantino film I enjoyed. Don't worry about not being part of the Tarantino cult - there are FAR too many of those. At least one third of American film students name him as their fave film director (another third says Scorsese).