Saturday, September 26, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

My hardcore fans (all three of you) may remember my favorite movie villains list from last year. Indeed, one of my foremost loves in all fiction remains a great antagonist, and although it's a little unwieldy and has some minor flaws, Inglourious Basterds succeeds as one of the year's best films and a fine entry into Tarantino's canon almost entirely on the back of its big bad Nazi. Not Hitler, who appears in the form of a cartoonish, histrionic parody, but Christopher Waltz's Colonel Hans Landa, called "The Jew Hunter."

Infuriatingly slimy and suave, sadistic, opportunistic, prone to sudden violence but gifted with a keen detective's sense that would impress Sherlock himself, Landa is the best movie villain of 2009 and one of the best of the decade (I would say the best in years, but on the heels of Anton Chigurh and the Joker, that wouldn't quite be true). He's this movie's ace in the hole, lending every moment of his screentime equal parts entertainment and dread. But don't take my uncouth word for it. From the mouth of Quentin Tarantino himself: "Hans Landa is one of the greatest characters I have ever written, and one of the greatest characters that I will ever write."

With that quote, Tarantino shows why he remains an infuriating conundrum; he's such a smug and arrogant and superior little shit, his own biggest fan (as usual, The Onion perfects it), and I would love to hate his work. Being able to rightfully lambast the pointy chin's Death Proof a couple years back as the overwritten, plodding bore it was was downright cathartic. But what can I say? Tarantino is irritatingly 100% correct. Hans Landa is one of his greatest characters, behind only Pulp Fiction's Jules Winnfield and maaayyybe Kill Bill's Beatrix 'The Bride' Kiddo, and he and Tarantino's sharp dialogue make this a great film.

Of course, even the best villain will lose his edge if overextended, and Landa is balanced out by two protagonists who share the load in stories that hover on the edge of one another without ever truly meshing. One is Brad Pitt's Lt. Aldo Raine, leader of the Nazi-scalping guerilla unit the Inglourious Basterds. Unlike Waltz, Pitt never truly disappears into the role. You'll never look at him and think "Raine" before you think "Pitt." But it's a hugely entertaining (if wildly over-the-top) performance nevertheless, right down to his brilliantly bad accent. Pitt is a strange paradox; always so flat and bland and dull whenever he attempts to play the kind-hearted hero (to the point of being a cure for insomnia in Benjamin Button), but always hilarious as off-kilter villains and anti-heroes.

The other protagonist is Mélanie Laurent's Shosanna, a young Jewish woman escaped from Hans Landa's mass butchery and hungry for revenge. The trailers entirely ignored her in favor of trying to misrepresent the movie as Kill Bill in World War II, but she's in no way a side character — she has as much if not a hair more screentime than Pitt and the Basterds. Ironically, as a blonde chick seeking vengeance, she isn't entirely unlike Beatrix Kiddo herself.

Beyond our three archetypal leads, a couple of side characters — namely the baseball-bat wielding "Bear Jew" and a sexy German double agent — are also extremely memorable. But if the film has a flaw it's that all the rest of the Basterds are window dressing, despite the two and a half-hour runtime giving plenty of room to remedy that. Some are elaborately set up only for no payoff, and others (including Freaks and Geeks's Samm Levine, who I was excited to see in this kind of film) unceremoniously disappear between scenes, never to be seen again. I was, however, happy to see The Office's B.J. Novak playing a visible role in the third act, sharing a scene with Hans Landa and even getting a few funny lines in.

Despite the previously mentioned deceptive trailer's insistence, this isn't really an action movie. There's bullets and knives and gore, sure, but the ratio of talk to violence is far more Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction than Kill Bill. It's not really a war movie either, despite being set in WWII. This is a tension movie; somewhere between drama and thriller. Scenes tend to stretch long, thick with bubbling dread and black humor, and frequently end with one or more characters reduced to corpses on either or both sides.

This is usually done well, especially in the movie's first sequence where we're introduced to Landa and learn over the course of one lengthy and eventually bloody conversation why he's called "The Jew Hunter." It's one of the year's best scenes and one of cinema's great villain establishments. On the other hand, a scene in a tavern devolves into rambling discussion of King Kong and wears out its welcome, the only scene where Tarantino loses control and easily the movie's dullest stretch. But even that one ends excitingly. The scenes and conversations in this movie run very, very long by contemporary standards, and I bet it has less scenes than virtually any movie this year, let alone films of its length, and it's a bold and interesting structure.

Much talk has also been made of the, shall we say, historically inaccurate ending. A big surprise to be sure, and one I could discuss at length, but in the end it came down to one question: is the movie more entertaining with it than it would have been without? Most definitely. 'Nuff said.

I think this film will stand the test of time, perhaps not to the same degree as the singular Pulp Fiction, but probably on par with Kill Bill and Reservoir Dogs. I doubt it will be much imitated, but Waltz is already being courted to play villains in other, bigger-budget Hollywood action flicks, and his instant stardom may be its greatest immediate contribution to the cinematic landscape. A Best Original Screenplay Oscar win and Best Picture nomination (but not win) aren't out of the question, but what I would really like to see is Waltz winning Best Supporting Actor. That would be three years running the year's best onscreen villain picked up that particular trophy, and as a lover of the villain, that's a new tradition I can happily get behind.

4 Stars out of 5

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