As far as I'm concerned, I'm only so smart. I'm constantly reading the reviews of other film critics, and it's really easy to start feeling outclassed by the kinds of things other people are writing about movies. There's about 100 years of film history on the books, and even at best I know without a doubt that the majority of my knowledge barely covers a fifth of it. Thus, when I go to a film like Inglourious Basterds and the reaction of the audience around me makes me wonder if anyone out there is capable of watching this movie the way it's meant to be watched, I also naturally second-guess myself. Who am I to scoff at (much less be offended by) perceived idiots in the theater seats behind me? Am I better than them?
The truth, however, is that I can't help it. Inglourious Basterds may not be perfect, but most of it is just so good that I'm almost as put off hearing people criticize it as I would be if I'd made it myself. Somewhere in the middle of the movie (I was too engrossed by then to know exactly where), three undercover Basterds -- Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) and Capt. Wilhelm Wicki (Gedeon Burkhard) -- arrive at an underground bar to meet their double agent, actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger). Unfortunately, the bar is not empty: Solider Wilhelm (Alexander Fehling) has just become a father, and a group of German soldiers is there to celebrate. When the Basterds arrive, the soldiers are already playing a bar game with von Hammersmark, and to avoid suspicion, she forces the trio to stay.
The scene requires patience, but anyone paying any semblance of attention to the characters should find it almost unbearably tense. At the end of Roger Ebert's review of Jackie Brown -- Tarantino's most underrated film -- he says that anyone who says that film is too long has developed "cinematic attention deficit disorder", and since 1997, I feel like things have only worsened. I have seen several people online claiming that the scene is "boring", but I was transfixed. Tarantino masterfully uses every element at hand to ratchet up the stakes. There is Wilhelm himself, drunk and smitten with Bridget von Hammersmark, who pops up as she is about to reveal crucial information and requests an autograph. There is Stiglitz, who we have already learned killed at least 13 Nazis (none of which he gunned down at a distance). There is the British soldier Hicox, faking his German accent to the best of his abilities. And there are some wildcards, which I wouldn't dare spoil. The primary characters and the rest of Wilhelm's group in the background are set in the bar like a series of pulleys, giving and taking and grinding on one another with each new development, with Wilhelm sloshing his beer and someone slapping Stiglitz with their hat. Not only is it brilliant, but the payoff is phenomenal, and even that is just the setup for something else as the original scene gives way to another.
The Basterds are more than a force of nature. They're more like a ghost story told around a Nazi campfire. In the first (and one of the only) scenes in which we get to see all of the Basterds out in the field, we don't learn how they got there, where they came from or where they're going. They're just there, smashing skulls in with baseball bats and carving permanent scars into their terrified victims. On one hand, it's fairly gruesome; even if these are Nazis, it's still kind of twisted to sit in a theater and cheer at the sight of torture. On the other hand, there's no mistaking that Tarantino has made a slice of modern, winking propaganda when it comes to the Basterds themselves. There's a film within the film called Nation's Pride, and there are a couple of sly parallels drawn between the way the Nazis watch Nation's Pride and the real-life audience will watch Inglourious Basterds.
Hot on the bloody trail of the rogue military men is Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), who has been nicknamed "The Jew Hunter". Waltz gives a gloriously over-the-top performance, complete with ridiculous pipes and wide grins. Landa is so good at his job, he seems to have arrived at a point where he relishes it only because it amuses him to see the ways people try to sneak things past him. When a character gives a poorly-thought-out excuse, he can't contain himself, laughing loudly right in their face, and there's a slimy glee as he negotiates a deal with people in power.
When we first see Landa, he is at a small dairy farm in France, looking to find and kill the last few Jews in hiding. A girl named Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent) escapes, grows up and ends up running a movie theater in the center of France. Through no fault of her own, she finds her theater hosting the gala premiere of Nation's Pride at the behest of its' star, Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). Laurent is another one of Tarantino's trademark female heroes, strong in their resolve but not lacking in femininity. Her performance is quiet, but excellent, and she has a scene with Landa that churns the stomach with its building intensity. Shoshanna devises a plan to burn her theater to the ground on the same night of the premiere, unaware of the Basterds and their similar plan to blow the theater to pieces. When I saw the trailers for Inglourious Basterds, I wondered how Tarantino would pull off an ending, given the way history turned out. I won't say what ultimately happens, but rest assured, there are several complications.
"You know, Utivich, this just might be my masterpiece," proclaims Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) to one of the Basterds after doing something violent. Is Inglourious Basterds one of Tarantino's? Time will tell. While the writing is intelligent, I did think the dialogue was missing some of the clever spark of Tarantino's usual chatter (perhaps because the majority of the film is subtitled, although I think his verve would read as well as it sounds). I also felt that the pacing was a little weird; things like Stiglitz getting a full-blown introduction when none of the other Basterds do, and the twice-used narration seem thrown in for little reason. Director Eli Roth also has an extensive role, and frankly, as much as I love Cabin Fever, his acting is awful. But -- and I can only speak for myself -- this is two and a half hours of invigorating, surprising, over-the-top filmmaking that does so many original things that it reminds me why I watch films in the first place. The best thing I can do for those who just don't get it is offer an alternative: "slow", I can accept, but "boring" is the one thing this film could never, ever be.
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