Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Wild and Crazy Nazis

Grade: A-

Coming to DVD today, Quentin Tarantino's epic World War II comedy action hit Inglourious Basterds, which I saw back in September but am writing about now. Depending on who you ask, it's either Tarantino's greatest work since Pulp Fiction, or a bit of a disappointment. To which I'd say, can't it be both? Thing is, IB is 90% brilliant, and what works is easily the most entertaining and creative stuff I've seen in movies this year. But it continually frustrates for refusing to go that extra 10%.

IB follows a number of different characters who all collide on one (very fictional) operation: a plot to assassinate Hitler and all of his top guys that SPOILER ALERT succeeds. Some of the wacky crew include: the titular basterds, a group of American Jews led by Southern accented Aldo the Apache (Brad Pitt, winning this year's least convincing Jew award) and "the Bear Jew" (horror meister Eli Roth). Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent), a French Jew who survived her family's death by Nazi to open a movie house and plot her revenge. Col. Landa (multi-lingual Christoph Waltz), a top Nazi hunter responsible for the previously mentioned family massacre. Plus a British spy (Michael Fassbender), a famous German actress (Diane Kruger), and....Mike Myers.

From Reservoir Dogs to Kill Bill, Tarantino has shown has ability to create iconic characters that great actors would love to play, and he succeeds again here across the board. Pitt leaves the blandness of Benjamin Button far behind as he hams up to hilarious effect as the uber-American Aldo. The women completely steal the movie, especially Laurent, who's so good you don't mind she has more screentime than any of the Americans. And some of the even more minor characters are so instantly fully realized you wish you could spend more time with them.

As for Christoph Waltz, he completely deserves all the praise he gets. He honestly deserves the Oscar just for the fact that he speaks FOUR languages FLUENTLY in the movie. As the Basterds make clear in one of the funniest scenes, most Americans can barely speak one. But on top of the languages, he also gives a completely brilliant performance as a jovial and charismatic Nazi who almost seems too nice to be a killer until he shows the menace hiding inside him. The lengthy opening scene, which seems at first a friendly call until his reason is gradually revealed, feels like a completed short film in itself. With the past two supporting actor Oscars going to villains the Joker and Anton Chigurgh, I think Waltz will cement the pattern.

Moving past the characters, there's a ton of stuff going on in the movie, and amazingly most of it works. Given this is Tarantino, there's a strong theme of movie appreciation, including the most celebrated line, "We respect directors in our country," as said by Shoshanna to her Zac Efron lookalike Nazi hero stalker. There's Tarantino's trademark dialogue, making even the lengthiest scenes zip on by in a very enjoyable fashion. There's a pleasant tone of comic camp, in some ways making this the movie I hoped Valkyrie would have been (but wasn't). And while I'm not usually one to advocate violence, there is something deeply satisfying in watching Nazis be killed. The final sequence where they pull off the operation is some of the finest vengeance porn I've seen.

So with so many great ideas, great scenes, great moments, and great characters, where's that 10% that doesn't quite get there? That it's all sometimes too much. As great as Tarantino's writing is, and I fully admit that it is, his celebrity has gotten big enough that he's become completely self-indulgent about it. The movie is comprised of five very lengthy sequences, despite the epic nature of the story, and single scenes drag on for 45 minutes at a time. Why? because Tarantino wants you to bask in the genius of his writing. In the opening scene, the sheer length builds the suspense and makes the scene better. But when the same technique is used later, it no longer feels fresh. You know from the start the scene will end in violence, so why drag it out for over a half hour to get there?

The over-writing feels like even more of a waste because of everything that was sacrificed to make time. Despite the trailers (and title), the actual Basterds could probably have been cut from the movie and the plot would be the same. We see their recruitment scene (shown in its entirety in the trailers), a single example of their scalping, and then it's on to the big assassination plot, which they play a relatively minor role in. The British spy and the German actress are really in charge, and Shoshanna turns out to be the real protagonist, having the better arc, more screentime, and the largest result on the finale.

The reason that's a problem is the Basterds are a great idea, and I would have liked to have seen a movie about them. There's such a mythology behind them - Aldo the Apache! The Bear Jew! - that it seems like we only see the surface of it. BJ Novak and Samm Levine barely seem to even have speaking parts as background Basterds. And Aldo feels more like a walking punchline than an actual character. With Shoshanna, Bridget, and Col. Landa all such real and interesting people, it's no wonder Tarantino would rather spend time with them, but it's also a shame.

So there you have it. Inglourious Basterds' biggest flaw is that it can't fit everything into a 2 hour, 40 minute running time (feels way shorter than Transformers). And that doesn't mean it needed to be a 6 hour miniseries, it means Tarantino needed to stop kissing his own ass and tell a tighter story. But if he did that, he wouldn't be Tarantino, and his movies invariably wouldn't be as good. Kill Bill probably didn't need to be two movies, but they are two great ones. As maddening as Tarantino can be, he's earned the right to get away with it, and Inglourious Basterds will end up as one of the most memorable movies of the year.

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