Friday, August 28, 2009

'Basterds' is a mess, but it is a glorious one

Writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” a revisionist riff on World War II that plays like the ultimate revenge fantasy against Nazis, is a mishmash of tones, styles and ideas, which is practically the definition of a Tarantino movie. This time his penchant for pastiche slightly gets away from him, but even Tarantino not at his best is still better than most movies.

The advertising focuses, not surprisingly, on the film’s biggest star, Brad Pitt, but this is misleading as this is very much an ensemble piece. Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine is the leader of the titular group of (mostly) Jewish-American soldiers. Raine has ordered each of his men to kill and scalp 100 Nazi soldiers.

Although the film bears their group’s name, the Basterds are almost incidental for large parts of the film as if they are supporting players in their own movie. Half of the Basterds don’t even have dialogue. It seems like Tarantino became distracted by other characters and plot lines and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The film opens with a brilliant sequence set in German occupied France. This first segment, the film is broken up into chapters, centers on Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a German officer nicknamed the Jew Hunter, interrogating a French dairy farmer (Denis Menochet) about whether he is hiding a Jewish family.

Landa has a deceptively jovial way about him that is unsettling. He is like a cat gleefully pawing at his prey deciding whether and how to go in for the kill. Waltz, who won the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival, is astounding in this scene and throughout the film.

Waltz steals the film with his effortless charm. Some have claimed it is in poor taste to make a Nazi so charismatic, but his allure is lethal. The way Waltz switches from a pleasant grin to a deadly grimace is disturbing. It is an inspired characterization that reminds that sometimes evil comes with a smile.

This opening is largely played straight with Tarantino creating an atmosphere of taut suspense. The next chapter shifts gears and gives a first taste of the flamboyantly gory exploits of the Basterds.

The film switches back and forth between the two tones, and it is jarring. The conclusion morphs into an over-the-top caricature that is in stark contrast to the opening. The film is still hugely entertaining for large sections, but the tonal issues mar it from greatness.

Each of the film’s chapters work as self-contained pieces, but as a whole the film feels disjointed even when the plot threads presented in each segment come together in the final act involving the screening of a German propaganda film at a French cinema run by a vengeful Jew (the luminous Mélanie Laurent).

Tarantino has become increasingly in love with his words and his ideas so much so that he has a hard time sacrificing any of it, and this has become a liability. In “Kill Bill” he had so much material that the film was broken up into two separate volumes, which turned out to be a master stroke.

As one film, “Kill Bill” would have suffered from the same problems in tone that “Inglourious Basterds” does, but Tarantino’s two impulses were split with the most outrageous stuff going into “Vol. 1” while the more dialogue driven material went into “Vol. 2.” The same approach could’ve aided “Inglourious Basterds,” which was originally developed as a mini-series thus explaining the episodic nature of the film.

Even with its faults, when it is works, it works extremely well. Tarantino has an undeniably keen ear for dialogue. No one working today can write quite like he does. There is a gem of scene set in a tavern that is as good as anything in “Pulp Fiction” or “Reservoir Dogs.”

Mike Myers makes a great cameo appearance as a British general, and there’s a good performance from Diane Kruger showing more depth than she was afford the opportunity in the “National Treasure” movies.

Pitt continues to reveal himself as an astute comic character actor, and his Aldo Raine is another vivid and very funny characterization similar to, but completely different from, his work in “Snatch” and “Burn After Reading.” His introductory monologue is classic.

“Inglourious Basterds” is an overly ambitious film, but I’ll take a film with too many ideas over one with none any day. What Tarantino does here is certainly not for everyone, but for people on his same often warped wavelength there is much entertainment to be had.

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