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Inglourious Basterds (2009) Dir. Quentin Tarantino 17 August 2009

Posted by jordanfarley in Cinema Review.
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Everyone’s favourite film geek Quentin Tarantino is back this week with the sixth (or is that seventh?) film in his increasingly self indulgent body of work, but while Inglourious Basterds never reaches the lofty heights of his earlier masterpieces Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown (for my money Tarantino’s most mature, confident and best work to date) there’s a bloodbath full of things to like in this World War Two escapist fantasy.

The film follows a five-act structure similar to Kill Bill. The first (and best) introduces Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), nicknamed the “Jew Hunter” as he has been tasked with tracking down any unaccounted Jewish families in occupied France; and Shosanna Dreyfus a young girl who manages to escape from Landa after he massacres her family. Cut to some years later and young Shosanna has now become the proprietor of a cinema in France where Joseph Goebbels (the Reich Minister for Propaganda history buffs) wants to hold the premiere of his latest masterwork “Nation’s Pride”. Goebbels holds the film in such high regard that he invites not only all the high ranking members of the Nazi Party to the premier, but Hitler himself – a perfect opportunity for Shosanna to carry out her brutal vengeance. Also in Germany at this time are the Basterds, a rag tag group of American Jews and a Nazi defector led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who are operating a behind-enemy-lines apache resistance, scalping and defiling the bodies of any Nazi they find. They too see the premiere as the perfect opportunity to end the war in one fell swoop as the two plans come together in a final flame-fuelled reckoning.

As far as World War Two films go Tarantino’s version is much more fairy tale than revisionist history. At no point will you take proceedings seriously and at no point should you. The film is filled with tense and brutal stand out moments but what surprises most is just how funny it all is, more black comedy than the gung-ho action fare the title seems to promise. Take Landa, the film’s finest creation, played straight he would have been the caricature evil Nazi we’ve seen a hundred times before, but his slimy charm and the joy he seems to take in understanding exactly what people are planning at any given moment make him almost endearing and his brutal acts almost unexpected, but no less chilling.

The Basterds themselves are fun to watch during their brief time onscreen, with Brad Pitt revelling in the chance to play Lee Marvin in The Dirty Dozen in a world where subtlety and internal conflict are tossed out the window with reckless abandon. Nazi hunting is kept to a minimum; instead what we get is a lot of build up to a conclusion which Tarantino just about manages to pull off. Michael Fassbender (Bobby Sands in Hunger) is a delight to watch in his  chapter where he meets up with an actress (Diane Kruger) who is able to get the Basterds into the premiere, unfortunately Tarantino relies on the undercover-agents-almost-getting-caught-by-Nazis scenario one too many times and the scene fails to elicit the kind of response it should have.

The major problem with the film (as with Kill Bill) is that the five act structure works against it as a cohesive whole. While each chapter would no doubt make an excellent short film with a few tweaks, when they’re tied together with a loose narrative thread as they are here it all feels like a bit of a mess. Tarantino abandons the disjointed temporal narrative he is best known for in favour of a linear tale which never spends enough time with any one character to create the kind of connection you felt with the characters in his early works. It doesn’t help that they’re all one dimensional either – sketches of people with one single purpose for existing in this world. In fact the only character that doesn’t suffer from this debilitating weakness is Landa who proves to be a fiercely complex enigma throughout, self-interest is his ultimate motivation but it’s impossible to know from what angle he’ll strike next.

Like all Tarantino films you should go into Inglourious Basterds expecting to hear a lot of long-winded conversations between people who look different but all speak just like the video store film geek in the director’s chair. While this didn’t feel like a problem in the likes of Jackie Brown, where he created some of the most well rounded characters of his career, and although its nowhere near as indulgent as Death Proof clearly what Tarantino needs is a producer who is able to curb some of his most self indulgent tendencies, not the least of which is his increasingly annoying decision to create a hodgepodge soundtrack out of his record collection. Recycling Morricone et al just doesn’t have the same impact it used to and now serves only to pull you out of proceedings.

The cast do the best with what they’ve got and for the most part are quite successful, even Eli Roth (whose screen time is cut down to a minimum thankfully) manages to be quite entertaining in the farcical finale. Melanie Laurent as Shosanna shares the bulk of the screen time (along with Waltz) and pulls off the role flawlessly with her tortured past plain to see beneath the tough exterior. Pitt is entertaining but little more, and the rest of the cast (including Kruger, Fassbender and a bizarre Mike Myers cameo) appear all too briefly to have much of an impact.

Tarantino clearly still has talent as a film-maker, unfortunately after the box office failure of Jackie Brown he seems to be stuck in a rut, creating juvenile genre pastiches of the kinds of films he used to watch in his youth and that he presumes we will all love as a result. While I confess to enjoying Inglourious Basterds as much as all his post Jackie Brown work, like that body of work Basterds has a number of serious flaws which threaten to derail proceedings, not least of which is the fact that Tarantino unchained is a very messy fellow.

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