August 23, 2009

MOVIES: Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)

There are all sorts of reasons that people will be infuriated by Inglourious Basterds. It's too long, it's too talky, it's too violent, it's too self-absorbed, it rewrites history. Ignore those people; this is a terrific movie, one of the year's best.

Inglourious Basterds is a delirious, giddy, and deadly serious movie about the power of the movies. Movies are a weapon in this movie, not only in the metaphorical sense -- a Nazi propaganda film is central to the plot -- but in the spectacular action climax of the movie, a literal weapon as well. (Remember that old silver nitrate film stock was extraordinarily flammable.)

There are three central characters in the movie, and their stories weave around one another, with the three coming together only at the end. Brad Pitt (who is not nearly as much the star of the movie as the advertising would suggest) is Lt. Aldo "The Apache" Raine, who assembles a team of Jewish-American soldiers -- the Inglourious Basterds -- to go into Nazi-occupied France and kill as many Nazis as possible; "we in the Nat-zee killin' bidness," says Pitt, drawling broadly and hamming it up in grand style. Mélanie Laurent is Emmanuelle Mimieux, the owner of a Paris cinema that is the setting for the movie's epic ending; Laurent is delightful as a woman out for revenge at any cost.

And the spectacular Christoph Waltz steals the movie as SS Col. Hans Landa, latest in a long line of suave movie Nazis, oozing equal parts of charm and menace (in four languages, no less). He's featured in two of the movie's best set pieces; an interrogation of a French dairy farmer is almost Hitchcockian in the way it maintains and builds tension, and a restaurant scene with Laurent's Emmanuelle balances dry wit and terror in unexpected ways.

In smaller roles, Daniel Brühl is excellent as a German soldier determined to ride his war-hero celebrity as far as it will take him, Diane Kruger shines as a German actress, and Michael Fassbender has some fine moments as (only in a Tarantino movie) a heroic film critic.

There are relatively few moments of violence in Inglourious Basterds, but those few moments are quite intense, and if you're like me, you may be wincing and covering your eyes at two or three points in the movie.

The less said about the plot of the movie, the better. The final 40 minutes or so are a brilliant sequence, a spectacularly good buildup to an ending that rewrites history in a way that takes great chutzpah; some, no doubt, will find it inappropriate to the point of being offensive. But the movies are another world, Tarantino tells us, and if you can't have a happy ending in the movies, then what's the point?

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