Monday, August 17, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Woah! This is the first Tarantino film that I've actually been blown away by, and is easily my favourite of his films (knocking Jackie Brown off the top spot). The film is, without giving anything away, a new take on World War II; and by that I mean an alternate history, one that is outrageously funny and enthralling from start to finish, with quite a few shocks thrown in for good measure.

Taking place 'once upon a time in Nazi occupied France', the film is divided into 5 'chapters' that follow several different interweaving story threads and characters. The titular 'Basterds' are a team of Jewish American soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) who drop in to France to dish out bloody vengeance upon the Nazis, taking no prisoners and causing Hitler a major headache. Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) is a rather clever Nazi put in charge of hunting down the remaining Jews in France, a task he is exceptionally proficient at. Mélanie Laurent plays a Jewish woman, Shosanna, who survives the massacre of her family and hides in plain sight in Paris as the owner of a cinema, one that through fortuitous circumstances draws the Basterds, the Nazi top brass, and Col. Landa together.

One thing 'Inglourious Basterds' is not - despite outward appearances - is an action film. Sure, it's got some action in it and it is a violent revenge story, but for the most part it is a very dialogue heavy film that is made up of protracted conversations. That shouldn't be a put off because it's a Tarantino film, and the way these chapters and scenes are written as almost stand alone self contained mini stories that still gel together as part of a cohesive broader narrative, together with the snappy dialogue, is simply brilliant. It's sometimes tense, sometimes funny, and always engaging, with every character being layered and distinctive, even the very minor ones who pop into the film for a scene or two. And some of these scenes are nerve wracking, ratcheting up the tension minute by minute and keeping you on the edge of your seat. While the plot seems there to serve the characters, it's still excellent, albeit one that clearly takes place in an alternate, slightly surreal reality.

Of course, a great script doesn't equate to a great film without performances to go with it, and in this case the ensemble cast is uniformly excellent, with the standout being Waltz's ruthlessly brilliant and oddly amusing (and occasionally laugh out loud hilarious) and foppish Col. Landa. Sure, he gets the best lines in the film, but the delivery is simply fantastic. The rest of the cast is also in tune with the writing, playing it straight or slightly OTT as appropriate. Brad Pitt is great as Raine, a character that is unabashedly comical in nature, while at the other end of the spectrum Laurent's Jewish survivor is a much more serious and tragic character. There are also terrific minor standouts littered throughout the film, too many to really list out. The only weak link is a jarring appearance by Mike Myers, but I suppose it's only a problem if you're familiar with Mike Myers.

Everything about this film is praiseworthy, from the stylish visuals and editing to the music. One could argue that it runs a bit long, and in truth many of the scenes could easily be trimmed without detracting from the overall story, but part of the joy of watching this film is to witness these characters interacting and engaging in verbal combat, so in my mind the length is more a strength than a weakness! Inglourious Basterds is irreverent, occasionally extremely violent, and overall flat out brilliant and almost certainly unlike anything else you've seen before! Like I said, it's my favourite Tarantino film and among the most enjoyable cinematic experiences of the year for me. It makes me want to go back and re-watch all of his films again, just to reassess them!

[I'm not sure if I've come out of retirement here or not - this might be a one-off. Man, I'm rusty!]