Sunday, August 30, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Caught this last night with some friends and ended up enjoying it a lot more than I thought I was going to.

One thing I should say before moving on, the previews for Inglourious Basterds are ridiculously misleading. This is far from an action movie and at times, it almost callously subverts the tropes of a war movie. Major characters die quickly and easily, the heroes are shown to be as vicious and bloodthirsty as their enemies, and the action scenes are quick, brutal, and completely indiscriminate. There are long stretches of the film, including the amazing 20 minute long opening scene, where the characters do nothing more than sit around and talk. Despite all this, this is probably my favorite movie of the summer.

Tarantino's skill at writing dialogue is on full display here. While most scenes feature little action, tension is built to almost unbearable levels through the dialogue. Often these scenes result in a quick staccato of violence, but the dialogue keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat wondering how the heroes will extricate themselves from the situation. Given that this is a Tarantino film, they often don't. As the film inches towards it's completely insane climax, a large number of major and minor characters die.

The acting in Inglourious Basterds was a real highlight for me. Aside from Brad Pitt, the "Basterds" are all cast from non-traditional sources. Eli Roth is a (terrible) horror film director, BJ Novak is a writer (and castmember) for The Office, and Samm Levine was on Freaks and Geeks. The international cast especially Christoph Waltz, who did an amazing job as Hans Landa, were also quite good. Even Mike Myers of all people makes a cameo, which isn't nearly as terrible as it sounds.

I've read a lot of criticism of this film, and I think most of it comes from the terrible way in which it was marketed. As I've said, this isn't a war movie. In reality it is closer to a combination Spaghetti Western and French New Wave. In fact, these influences are made explicit in the soundtrack and cinematography. The trailer makes the film look like Defiance or Valkyrie or any of the other incredibly clich├ęd and mediocre World War Two films that have come out recently. Inglourious Basterds is really the antithesis of these films.

In fact, I'd argue that Inglourious Basterds is not even really about the war. Explicitly it's about two separate plots to kill high ranking members of the Nazi party, but as I was watching it, especially in the closing scenes, I kept thinking about how Inglourious Basterds is really a film about films. About the power of cinema to change and shape our perceptions of actual events. A propaganda film plays a central role in the plot, and even the hero of the film is eventually affected by it's content. If anything we are asked to root against the Nazis not just for the atrocities we see them commit, but for corrupting the cinema and using it as a tool for hate. Of course, I'm probably reading way too much into a film featuring a scene where a character from Boston beats a Nazi to death with a baseball bat while screaming about Ted Williams.

My own pretentious over-analysis of the film aside, Inglourious Basterds is worth seeing. I highly recommend it if even just to hear Brad Pitt's amazing Italian-by way of Tennessee-accent.

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