August 23, 2009

Review: 'Inglourious Basterds' Trips the Light Fantastique

"I think [Quentin Tarantino is] doing exactly what an artist should do, which is offer an alternative perspective on our world."  Christoph Waltz

Sometimes you watch a movie and sometimes, just sometimes, you are rewarded for years of dedication to the art of cinema and witness an unabashed love letter to all things film, like with Inglourious Basterds [sic]. Prominent video store clerk turned acclaimed Oscar-winning writer and director Quentin Tarantino returns behind the camera with his long-gestating, Jewish wish-fulfillment revenge fantasy that has been a decade in the making.

Tarantino has created his own work of reverse-Nazi propaganda based on rumours and ideals of French and American Jewish WWII vengeance remarked by some as "kosher porn". Tarantino's bastardization of history here, whether adored or not, is truly a work of artistic confidence. His adoration, passion, and knowledge of the film medium bleeds from the projector onto the screen so purely it could only come (once upon a time) from the mind of Quentin Tarantino.

Be warned, the film is being marketed in a rather duplicitous fashion. Inglourious Basterds is an art film, through and through, about the history of film as much as it is about war that consists mostly of foreign characters spouting sharp dialogue used in place of action. It is a slow, tense character and dialogue-based picture paced and constructed around a period war setting, a war movie sans the war. The Basterds, the actual group of American G.I.s led by Brad Pitt playing Lt. Aldo "The Apache" Raine, provide comic relief as side characters that move the story forward but remain largely unknown.

We really follow the revenge story arc of a Jewish-French girl in hiding (Shosanna played by Mélanie Laurent). It is as if while making her escape, Shosanna passed out in the woods and dreamed up a great fantasy of alternate events akin to The Wizard of Oz. The action and physical conflict are minimal but what violence there is, is truly graphic and intense as Tarantino (at his best) controls the camera meticulously to build incredible tension and suspense. While sometimes violent, incredulous, and over-indulgent, Inglourious Basterds is comically smart and witty with its intelligent and thoughtful humour.

Everything here is about irony as historical figures, events, and even casting is used to sublimate expectations and speak to the audience head on. His careful use of language and dialogue are skillfully crafted as French, German, and English dialogue is seamlessly and interchangeably employed without confusion or loss of fidelity. The artfully spoken languages heard by mostly authentic actors inhibiting their genuine ancestries and nationalities adds legitimacy as the story starts to get more ridiculous.

Acts of revenge and violence are compellingly brutal. Much of the acting in the Inglourious Basterds ensemble is all-around superb with some top notch performances. The cast of wonderfully constructed characters here seem all justified in carrying out their acts of vengeance with the exception of the powerfully captivating Nazi Hans Landa, “The Jew Hunter”, masterfully played by Christoph Waltz, who embodies the role of a true villain in all his evilness, menace, charm, and wit as the ultimate detective far too intelligent for defeat.

Inglourious Basterds plays as an ambitious, post-modern commentary on the tradition of war and film. Tarantino clearly comments on the nature of film criticism and appreciation. In fact, one character, Lt. Archie Hicox played by Michael Fassbender, plays an important pre-war film critic who then becomes the most suave, debonair British covert agent in history. The film is intimately aware it is a film and uses that to its advantage sublimely. Cinephiles might notice the title card in Tarantino's own handwriting taken straight from the cover page of his widely-circulated shooting script.

Two characters have a typical Tarantino discussion about (German) film and pop culture in period speaking French that works on so many levels. The five chapters (or one act play-like short films) that make up the narrative are methodically crafted and articulated with detail and precision that conveys a purely cinematic experience on and of film. The chapters work as a series of interconnected short films loosely tied together in a very theatrical nature.

For a long film, there are few scenes, actual conversations, and set pieces. Dialogue is used to build suspense and build towards a climatic pay off of incredible tension. This is a truly, highly unconventional work of film appreciation as the role of cinema as art plays a central role in the plot mechanics that encompasses a wide array of fascinating characters. The entrance into this world is slow and subtle before it forcefully sets up its anarchistic events forward quite fluidly. To say this is not like any other war film, while almost too accurate, is misleading as Tarantino sort of literally postulates how "cinema can save the world," with a kind of unexpected visceral conclusion.

Unless intimately familiar with the inner workings of the mind of Mr. Tarantino (and not necessarily his body of work), it is difficult to predict what the film ultimately delivers, a deep machination on film as life and art wrapped around an unpredictable ride of revisionist history where the Jews fight back hard against tyranny. There is so much subtext and ideology to delve into as the themes and workings of the film offer so much rich commenting upon the role of war, vengeance, violence, and film. The imagery is illuminating as Tarantino visualizes cinematic metaphors for Jewish extermination, acts of burning in eternal hellfire, and an Orwellian future.

While adhering to much of his familiar filmmaking troupes, Tarantino has maturely shed some of his hip, pop culture pastiche to pay homage to his influences remarkably well while ratcheting up other cinematic tricks in a self-indulgently delicious fashion as he manages to adhere to genre filmmaking while lifting it up beyond almost resembling high art. With great bravado and complete confidence lacking any candor whatsoever, this auteur bravely yet boldly stares directly into the camera and declares to his audience, "I think this might just be my masterpiece."

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