Sunday, December 20, 2009

Inglourious Basterds: Grade B


Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Melanie Laurent, Diane Kruger. Writer-Director Quentin Tarantino. (English, German, and French – Subtitled)

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this movie is the marketing. The trailer, played endlessly on TV, shows Brad Pitt as a WWII officer barking out his unit’s “mission” to his band of men: to kill, maim, and mutilate Nazis. So we expect an action picture with plenty of death, mayhem, and blood from the director of the blood-soaked Kill Bill.

But the trailer is misleading. The movie is mostly about a Jewish cinema owner (Laurent) in occupied France who is forced to have a special showing of a German war film for all the German bigwigs, including Hitler. It is also about British and American spies among the Nazis. Pitt and his “Basterds” play only a small role in the story. A few Nazis are multilated as promised, but that is a sideshow.

The main story is not strong either. The Nazis watching the special movie are ultimately locked into the theater while it burns, but there is no real suspense or narrative drive. The picture is more like a series of loosely connected scenes that don’t add up to much.

But what scenes they are! They demonstrate Tarantino’s brilliance as a director. The opening scene, in which the nasty, but effusively polite and multilingual Nazi commander (Waltz) interrogates a French farmer about hiding Jews, has nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat tension, created entirely by the director. The German officer is polite and urbane, and there is no violence until the very last moment when machine guns shoot through the floorboards. Yet the precision with which the Captain unscrews his pen, writes in his ominous book, asks his questions, are rife with emotion. The farmer’s reactions are equally calibrated to create a very high tension scene in which nothing is going on but an inane conversation. That scene alone demonstrates Tarantino’s genius. And it is not the only one like that. There are dozens of scenes of equally stunning directorial mastery, including even an excellent barroom gunfight. That’s why you want to see this movie, for the directing.

Acting is very engaging by Pitt and Waltz, and the dialog is snappy, alternating between comedy and tragedy. Production values are first class, photography is faultless. But if a movie is suposed to be a vehicle for telling a story, this one falls flat. The characters are all two-dimensional so we don’t know or care anything about them. The war is way in the background and there are no new insights on that. Nazis are evil, as always. Human relationships are perfunctory. The narrative lacks suspense and forward momentum. The ending is trite. This is a failed exercise in storytelling, but as a director’s showcase, it is a winner.

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