This will be my last review for a few weeks as I get ready for the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival (tiff.). I will post the list of films I will be seeing within the next few days. Look for a full recap of tiff. on this site in the coming weeks.
Quentin Tarantino is one of the few directors working today that evokes such a strong love/hate response from even the most casual moviegoer. Regardless of whether you think Tarantino is a true auteur or simply an over-hyped plagiarist; his films have greatly impacted the world of cinema or the last two decades. Although I am a big fan of Tarantino’s work his more recent films, while good, have not matched the high standards set by his first three films (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and the vastly underrated Jackie Brown). Fortunately Tarantino seems to be back on track as his new film, Inglourious Basterds, is one of the best films he has made yet.
Set during World War II in Nazi occupied France, Inglourious Basterds follows three separate stories whose characters will ultimately intertwine with violent consequences. The most dangerous character is by far Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz), who is more famously known as the “Jew Hunter”. Working for the Nazi regime Hans has a talent for tracking down Jews and the folks hiding them. Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) has seen the terror that Hans brings first hand as she escaped his grasp as a teen. Now an adult, Shosanna runs a local movie theatre while keeping her Jewish background a secret. Things get complicated when Shosanna inadvertently catches the eye of a young Nazi war hero, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). Smitten with Shosanna, Zoller convinces his superiors to hold a major Nazi gala at her theater. Little does Zoller know that the infamous “Basterds”, a group of Jewish-American soldiers, are planning to make an surprise appearance at the event as well. Led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), the Basterds sole purpose is to kill as many Nazis as possible, collecting the Nazi scalps like a badge of honor. With such a volatile group as the Basterds running around, the gala will truly be a night that no one in France shall ever forget.
It is no secret that Tarantino is a human sponge when it comes to film. His films are filled with various genre elements and references. Yet his earlier works still manage to keep the characters as the main focus. His latter films such as Kill Bill: Volumes 1 & 2 and Death Proof were more about the genres the characters were in rather than the characters themselves. With Inglourious Basterd Tarantino has found the perfect blend between storyteller and avid film geek. All the Tarantino quirks, such as the blaxploitation title sequence to introduce a character, actually help to enhance the film oppose to overpowering it. Even the over-the-top violent moments are rarely distracting; in fact they actually aides the subtler moments quiet well.
The interesting thing about Inglourious Basterds is that, for the numerous movie references and over-the-top moments, the quieter characters moments are what truly make this film great. There are several wonderful moments, such as the opening with Hans Landa and Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menchot), where characters are having the verbal equivalent of game of chess. Characters are constantly trying to outsmart each other within the film. Tarantino routinely shows that in war the mental battle is far more difficult and disturbing than the physical one. The two best examples of this are clearly Hans Landa and Shosanna.
Hans is by far one of the best villains to hit the screen in recent years. What makes him so terrifying is the fact that, behind his relatively calm demeanor, he is always thinking three steps ahead of his victims. Rarely do you see him actually do any physical harm in the film, yet you instantly feel uneasy whenever he appears on screen. Hans is so menacing even Shosanna has trouble keeping her composure when they run into each other years later. Similar to Hans, Shosanna strength is her mental prowess. As a result she ends up being more important to the film than The Basterds themselves. It is Shosanna’s actions that will ultimately impact the main players in the film.
Both Christopher Waltz and Mélanie Laurent provide exceptional performances. They steal the film from Brad Pitt and the rest of actors who make up the Basterds team. This is not to say that Pitt and the rest do not hold their own. In fact the majority of the cast is note perfect in their given roles. The weakest link, in my opinion, is Eli Roth as the “Bear Jew.” There are times when Roth overacting becomes a distraction but Tarantino wisely limits his screen time in comparison to the others actors. Still, this is a minor blip in an otherwise stellar film. I would even argue that Inglourious Basterds is equally as strong as Jackie Brown or Reservoir Dogs. I know some may consider that a bold and possibly blasphemous, statement but I think this film is just that good.
For more Big Thoughts From A Small Mind's 2009 Reviews