Inglourious Basterds (2009)
By: Julian on September 7, 2009  |  Comments ()  |  Bookmark and Share
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Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, Michael Fassbender, Eli Roth, Christoph Waltz, Til Schweiger
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Country: USA
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"You know somethin'? This may just be my masterpiece."

Maybe not masterpiece, but Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino's labour of love for over a decade, is the director's best film since Pulp Fiction. Although its misspelled title is taken from the 1978 Enzo G Castellari film The Inglorious Bastards, Tarantino's picture is one of his most original, and with it, the motor-mouthed maestro has created one of the most wildly entertaining World War II films I've ever seen.

The film opens in 1941 and introduces Colonel Hans Landa (Chrisoph Waltz, who won a gong in Cannes for his performance and should win the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award in March), a merciless SS soldier who has earned the nickname 'the Jew Hunter', a moniker he attributes to his ability to "think like a Jew". Landa is in France questioning a dairy farmer who he suspects is hiding the Dreyfusses, the only unaccounted-for Jewish family in the area. Landa discovers that the family is hiding beneath the farmer's floorboards and he has his soldiers machinegun them. 18-year-old Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent) is the sole survivor and she manages to escape, to Landa's bloodcurdling cry of "au revoir, Shoshanna!"

We fast-forward three years and are introduced to the 'Basterds' – eight Jewish-American soldiers from the Office of Strategic Services led by 'Aldo the Apache', Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt). The objective of the Basterds is to wreak havoc and evoke fear within the Nazi ranks by killing German soldiers indiscriminately and scalping their corpses – Raine puts this particular predilection down to his Apache blood. Also among the Basterds is the Bear Jew (Eli Roth, in an amusingly histrionic performance), a cocky loudmouth whose trademark is bashing his victims' brains in with a baseball bat; and Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), a German imprisoned for killing thirteen Gestapo soldiers and busted out of a dank Nazi jail cell by Aldo's crew.

Shoshanna, meanwhile, has changed her name to Emmanuelle Mimieux and is running a film theatre in Paris. There, she meets Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a Nazi soldier who develops an obsession with her. She later discovers that Zoller is a war hero who massacred a huge number of Allied soldiers in a three-day long siege. His efforts have been commemorated by a propaganda film commissioned by Joseph Goebbels and, in an attempt to win Shoshanna's affections, Zoller convinces Goebbels to have the film premiere at her theatre. The guests of the premiere would comprise the upper echelon of the Nazi regime, including Goebbels and Hitler himself. Shoshanna goes along with the plan but, with the death of her family fresh in her mind, she devises a plot to incinerate the theatre while the movie is playing. The British also get wind of the plan, seeing it as an opportunity to end the war, and General Ed Fenech (Mike Myers) and Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Australian actor Rod Taylor) deploy Lieutenant Archie Hicox, a Third Reich film expert, to lead an attack on the theatre with the help of the Basterds.

Already we're about an hour into Inglourious Basterds' plot, so I'll refrain from giving anything else away, even though there's much more to it than that brief synopsis. The star of the show, even more so than Brad Pitt's sadistically violent and sardonic Aldo the Apache, is Christoph Waltz's Hans Landa. Landa is a character unlike any Tarantino has ever written before – he's pure, unadulterated evil, but that's hidden behind a veneer of affable light-heartedness so thick that it's easy to forget who Landa is and what he has done, particularly after the first scene. Some of it is played for laughs, but Landa is also Tarantino's fulcrum for the film's most intense dialogues – the scene between Landa and the dairy farmer in the film's opening chapter, 'Once Upon A Time... In Nazi Occupied France' just oozes tension.

That brings us nicely to Tarantino's new favourite cinematic device, the film as divided by chapters. Inglourious Basterds is cut into five, and thematically they're quite distinctive. Chapter Two, 'Inglourious Basterds', showcases the film's grisliest scenes. Tarantino doesn't let us off lightly – whether it's a scalping sequence (during which the camera doesn't shy away at all), or the Bear Jew thumping in a Nazi's skull until it pops, the violence in Inglourious Basterds fails to emulate the playfulness of Pulp Fiction or balletic exaggeration of Kill Bill: Volume 1; it's serious stuff. Chapters Three and Four, 'A German Night in Paris' and 'Operation Kino', which outline the plots of Shoshanna and the Basterds respectively to blow up the film premiere, are almost entirely in French or German. If there were any doubts about Tarantino's knack for dialogue, they can be entirely dispelled by watching these two chapters. Driven by a tremendous screenplay, Inglourious Basterds hardly ever lags, not even when we're watching drunken German soldiers bumble their way through a schnapps-fuelled game of celebrity heads, or Hans Landa extolling the virtues of his apricot strudel and cream.

Legendary cinematographer Robert Richardson, who worked extensively with Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese and lensed Tarantino's Kill Bill films, is on duty here, and some of the scenes are just spectacular. Inglourious Basterds is definitely QT's most sweeping picture, far more than what Kill Bill Volume 2 was with its Western and Eastern backdrops, and Richardson's hand lends the film an epic quality. Music also has to be mentioned in more-than-fleeting terms in any review for a Tarantino movie, given the director's intricate and highly thought-out architecture of the soundtrack. Tarantino has always maintained the music in his movies are just vaguely-themed mix tapes and this one's no exception. Original plans were to have Ennio Morricone score the film but the legendary composer opted to work on Giuseppe Tornatore's Baarìa. Instead, QT includes a number of Morricone cuts from Death Rides a Horse, Revolver and The Big Gundown (among others), as well as material by Lalo Schifrin, Riz Ortolani and Charles Bernstein. But the most unusual of Tarantino's selections is David Bowie's Cat People (Putting Out Fire) (the Cat People version, not the Let's Dance version), an anachronistic inclusion that Tarantino felt reflected Shoshanna's position in the film well.

I've compared Inglourious Basterds with other Tarantino movies but the reality is it's a totally different beast. The director's typical trademarks are all here – staccato bursts of extreme violence, an eclectic soundtrack, scalpel-sharp dialogue, black humour in spades and the foot fetish – but the manner of execution is unlike you've ever seen. The film was a mainstay in the Hollywood rumour mills for quite some time, with Tarantino being interviewed about it in 2001 and stars of the ilk of Adam Sandler and Michael Madsen rumoured to be attached. It was well worth the wait – Inglourious Basterds is the best film 2009 has had to offer thus far.
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