Friday, August 21, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: A Review

Inglourious Basterds: A Review
It's so rare that I get to see a movie in the theater, much less on opening night, but tonight I went to see the new Tarantino film with my old high school pal Carey. Fear not! This review is spoiler-free...

I was quite pleasantly surprised with this film, on several fronts. I went into the film not knowing much about it, but having some expectations, based loosely upon the Tarantino movies I've seen before. I was prepared to see a movie with over-the-top, comic-book type violence, tons of gore, tons of profanity, heavy on the "empty your head and enjoy the ride" sort of absurd popcorn-chomping fare. Now that I think on it, it wasn't very logical to craft such an assumption based on the previous Tarantino films I've seen, all of which have had noticeable amounts of meaty dialog and a certain level of thinly-veiled self-aware intelligence.

That having been said, my expectations were pleasantly dashed early on. This was no mindless shoot-em-up. In fact, a great deal of the film is dialog-driven - and most of that dialog is subtitled. The violence, when it does appear, is (in and of itself) not over-the-top or excessive in the least... it only seems that way because it happens so rarely, and usually after the tension has increased slowly and expertly. It feels ten times stronger because of the build-up.

The story in a nutshell: A revisionist re-telling of the downfall of the Third Reich. A squad of Jewish-American Nazi-killers are dropped into France during the German occupation to wreak havoc. An SS officer that fancies himself a detective is stationed in Paris, as the Fuhrer's go-to tracker, who wears with pride his nickname of The Jew Hunter. A Jewish woman that had escaped from the Jew Hunter a few years back (the rest of her family having been killed by him and his squad) is now a Paris theater owner, and incognito. The Third Reich's latest hero - a young sniper who killed a staggering amount of enemy soldiers in a battle the year before - is now stationed in Paris, and chances upon her theater, becoming smitten by her. Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels is in town to premiere his latest film for the Nazi hierarchy (including the Fuhrer himself), a movie based upon the battle that the young sniper fought the previous year. All of these players (and more) are set to converge, in a climax you have to see to believe.

There is some remarkable acting in the film - the stand out by far being Christoph Waltz, the actor that plays Col. Hans Landa, the SS officer stationed in France during the German occupation, aka "The Jew Hunter." His performance is terrific, not just for the way he acts with his whole person (you know how big I am on that), but how his performance doesn't falter, regardless of the language he is speaking. His character is a true polyglot, shifting from German to French to English to Italian with an effortlessness that is a joy to watch. I've heard his performance is already garnering awards and accolades - trust me, they are well-deserved. This is truly a stand-out performance that should be acknowledged come Oscar time next Spring.

Wish I could say the same of the big names in the cast. Brad Pitt and Eli Roth both carry their parts adequately, but are out-done by several other of the minor roles, including Til Schweiger (playing the powder keg part of Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz), Daniel Bruhl (as the young sniper Frederick Zoller), Michael Fassbender (turning in a sharp, nuanced performance as British secret agent Lt. Archie Hicox) and the two female leads, Melanie Laurent and Diane Kruger. Props to whoever cast this film.

I'm not the biggest Brad Pitt fan, but I certainly don't heap scorn upon him like many other self-important, self-christened cinemaphiles. He just didn't seem to really fit the part. It seemed a bit over-done... a problem amplified by the fact that so many of the other performances around him were so subtle and rich. He was supposed to be part American Indian, which was why he had his little crew of Jewish Nazi-Hunters gathering scalps off of those that they killed. But the Indian angle never clicked. He also had a wicked scar around his neck, from what I assumed was a failed hanging attempt at some point, but it was never explained. His accent and demeanor was amusing but never rang true. Again, if the rest of the cast had tried for the "Coen Brothers" type of wacky edge, Pitt's performance would have been more palatable. I like Pitt, just not necessarily in this film.

The script for the most part showed Tarantino's trademark polish. Nothing seemed tacked-on or "first draft" at all. It was very refined; the dialog well worth the effort of reading, when needed. The action was sharp, effective and surprisingly economical. Even the occasional quick dips into the (admittedly) jarring 'Quinten moments' didn't distract much from the film. An example: At one point, they are introducing the character of Hugo Stiglitz, and they cut to the character, freeze frame, and put his name in big, bold, gaudy letters across his image, and then a narrator comes on, saying something along the lines of "This is Hugo Stiglitz! Here's why he is so feared among the Nazis! Etc." followed by a flashback of sorts, giving a quick, schizophrenic bit of background on the character, before zipping back to the freeze frame, and then continuing with the film. There are a few of those moments sprinkled throughout the film, I suppose to keep the audience on its toes.

Also only sprinkled in was the profanity, which was nowhere near the level I thought it would be. Maybe it's because English wasn't the predominant language, I don't know. There were some brief, graphic scenes, usually involving scalping and/or the carving of swastikas into the forehead... and a scene involving a head and a baseball bat that was thankfully shot from a distance instead of up close. The "bat to the head" scene in The Untouchables (Deniro/Connery) was as gruesome, if not more.

In summary, I'm quite glad I saw it. It was nothing like I thought it would be, pleasantly surprising me on many levels, and definitely deserving another viewing, especially for Waltz's performance and for the breath-taking climax at the theater. Believe it or not, even at 2.5 hours, certain parts felt a little rushed. I look forward to the extended DVD, if they release one. I bet some great stuff was left on the cutting-room floor...


Joseph said...

I'm so glad you liked it, Dave. Saw it with Matt and John tonight and I loved it! I was surprised also, I honestly think Tarantino is a bit of a tool box. Christopher Waltz was amazing. I was expecting Kill Bill type violence too, glad it wasn't in there.

I didn't even notice the lack of action. The dialog and constant tension kept me thoroughly entertained the whole time. Some good one liner's also.

I loved the Hugo Stiglitz intro.

havah said...

I almost went to the movies tonight, but none of the titles grabbed my attention. Of course, this was showing, but I had no idea what it was about. Truth be told, all I could think of when I saw the title was that the spelling was wrong. I can be so anal sometimes. o_O

Anyway, thanks to your stellar review I am now educated and may watch it at some point in the future. do make a difference! ;)

Krista said...

Yep, my dad went to see this yesterday and he loved it! He said it was gory and funny, go figure. Great review.

logankstewart said...

Nice review. I really want to see this movie, and hopefully will within the next week or so.