Sunday, August 30, 2009

Inglorious Basterds

So I saw Inglorious Basterds, because when Quentin Tarantino makes a good movie, it's hard to ignore it, because it's probably a damn good movie. Tarantino may be the only person in Hollywood who enjoys his own insecurities. Fortunately for the rest of us, his talent - and ego - are greater than his nervous tics and personality quirks, so he can actually channel his bizarre obsessions in artistically productive ways. It's also quite helpful that his tendency towards self-indulgence is matched by a dedication to the craft of filmmaking. And it doesn't hurt that he's supported by a studio executive - Harvey Weinstein - with just about the same level of talent, ego, insecurities, and dedication to the craft.

Watching Inglorious Basterds, you get the feeling that Quentin Tarantino wakes up on the wrong side of ridiculous a little more than is really healthy. But you also get the feeling that one thing that pulls him back to the sublime is his technical brilliance, and his extraordinary command of pure technique. The cinematography particularly stands out. Much as I admire most of Pulp Fiction, I found the camera work uninspired. Not so here; Tarantino knows exactly how and when to take risks, and then pulls them off. There's not really anything flashy; it is simply superb. The same can be said of the performances. There is already much discussion of an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for Christopher Waltz as the Nazi Col. Hans Landa. He's certainly my favorite so far this year. I'm reminded of that old saying that the devil can be charming, and he almost makes you forget Hannah Ahrendt's observation that evil is banal. Until Tarantino cuts to shots of Hitler.

Brad Pitt won't be getting an Oscar nom, but only because he chose to deliberately go way over the top as Lt. Aldo Raine, the leader of the Basterds. This is one of Tarantino's riskiest bets, and it mostly pays off, but it definitely inches the film towards the absurd.

But then almost every other performance drags it back to wonderful. Melanie Laurent is a marvel as Shosanna Dreyfus, a Jew who runs a cinema in Paris. Diane Kruger shines as a German movie star. Tarantino's Promethean confidence in himself does wonders for his performers. His confidence is justified in part because he's providing them with the verbiage. One reason Brad Pitt can pull off a Tennessee accent that makes Bo and Luke Duke sound like Yankee frat boys is that he's interrogating German prisoners through the pen of Quentin Tarantino. It's not quite as memorable as Samuel L. Jackson's discourse on foot massages - which is one reason he's a movie star today - but it's still in the context of a Tarantino script.

Unfortunately for me, it's a little too much of a Quentin Tarantino script. What would a Tarantino script be without constant violence, highly choreographed gunfire, bodies everywhere? A more interesting movie, would be my guess. It's very tempting to analyze and criticize and comment and scrutinize and debate whatever message is in the movie, but I'm going to resist, not least because I don't think Tarantino himself really cares that much about a message. He's still having too much fun impressing himself and us.

Sitting in a bar afterwards, drinking a blueberry martini, I said to Peter, the friend that I had seen it with, "I'll be really impressed with Quentin Tarantino when he grows up." "But he never will," said Peter. Which with I could not help but agree.

Tarantino's technical ability as a filmmaker has progressed dramatically. He was always a brilliant writer, and he is now a craftsman of the highest order. But he is still too clever for his own good. I judge movies by their endings; whether or not everything comes together is the test, for me, of whether or not the director has had a clue what s/he is doing all along. The ending left me a little cold; the revenge fantasy felt too self-indulgent.

I can think of two reasons why Quentin Tarantino should ultimately grow up. One, because he will eventually be able to make the best movie that he possibly can, which I don't think he has done yet, and two, because then he might have a chance of winning the Oscar for Best Director.


christina :) said...

Great review John! I'm looking forward to seeing the film! I like what you said about judging a movie by its ending. Very interesting.

Anonymous said...

I saw it last night john and am still digesting....the scene in the restaurant when Colonel Landa and Shoshannah are eating the strudel is still giving me the creeps. Disturbingly brilliant....
Great review!!!