Monday, October 12, 2009

Monday Movie Day Reviews

Inglourious Basterds (2009): I'm unsure. Quentin Tarantino does that to me. For the most part, I hate his films. "Hate" is a strong word, and I don't say that about many directors, especially ones as critically acclaimed as Tarantino. But the first time I saw Pulp Fiction, I was appalled. So I gave Kill Bill a shot...and hated it. Then I tried Reservoir Dogs. Hated it. It took me three viewings to finally appreciate Pulp Fiction, and I'm not sure if I acquired a taste for it or simply became desensitized. I know, I know, all of Tarantino's films are praised for their incredible dialogue and nonlinear story arc. Yet I'm not convinced that repeatedly using the f-word while waxing philosophically about mundane life experiences or pop culture qualifies as "good dialogue." I could cuss up a storm while discussing the existential nature of a b.l.t. sandwich and it wouldn't make me "cool."

Well, maybe it would.

I share all this because I was not intending to see Inglourious Basterds in theaters. Nor did I expect to enjoy it as much as I did. Perhaps "enjoy" doesn't quite capture my reaction; perhaps "provoked" is more like it. It stirred something in me that few of Tarantino's films have done thus far: spiritual reflection.

First, let me acknowledge that this is an incredibly well-made film. This is World War II told through the eyes of Tarantino, a medley of genres and styles that somehow feel coherent by the end. Told in separate chapters, the film follows a myriad of characters across the war-torn European landscape until they all land in a Parisian movie theater. The characters are complex, quirky, and downright fascinating. The dialogue is quick, engaging, and fully embraced by the actors. This may be the best ensemble casts of a Tarantino film, with outstanding performances from some relatively unknown actors. Brad Pitt is completely upstaged by his costars--and he's pretty entertaining. Both Melanie Laurent as the heroine Shoshanna and Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa deserve Oscar nominations. I don't say that lightly. Waltz won the Best Actor award at Cannes earlier this year, and his very presence on film creates a marvelous tension. His opening scene is so incredibly tense that I was squirming in my seat. The art direction is phenomenal, the script is tight, the actors are talented, and everything seems to fall into place.

(Spoilers Ahead!)

My issue is not with the creative merits of the film--those are quite wonderful--but with the nebulous message the film is trying to send. The bloodbath of an ending--and yes, this film is quite violent--is purposefully set in a movie theater at the screening of a Nazi propaganda film celebrating a war hero's exploits on the battlefield. Here's my quandary: we're to be disgusted with the Nazis celebrating wanton violence, yet we're to cheer the Jewish Americans mowing down the Germans in a rain of bullets? We're to celebrate when Jews beat Nazis to death with baseball bats or carve swastikas in German foreheads? We're to delight in revenge? True, the characters enacting this revenge don't do so without serious consequences, but they're still the supposed heroes of the film.

Now, Inglourious Basterds cannot be reduced to these brief-yet-memorable scenes. Yet I can't help but wonder whether the film is celebrating violence or condemning it. When the smoke clears, it's all so nihilistic that I pondered if Tarantino's alternative history was worth watching. Why show us such interesting characters that will be shortly gunned-down? We have to ask ourselves, is violence ever redemptive? Is revenge worth celebrating, or does it always have its price? Is our entertainment by on-screen violence simply a 21st-century version of the Roman colosseum, a divulgence of the darkness that resides in the human heart?

I don't think it's coincidence that the final scene is from the perspective of the audience, looking up at a smiling Brad Pitt who has just carved a swastika into our forehead. He grins, and we should shudder. But I wonder how many viewers simply grinned right back, reveling in all the entertainment of the past 2 1/2 hours.

Inglourious Basterds has me thinking about some very deep issues about the human heart. I haven't come to any conclusions, apart from the fact that this is my favorite Tarantino film thus far. Like I said, I'm unsure. Perhaps that's exactly where I need to be, and exactly where Tarantino wants us to go.

1 comment:

  1. I agree about Christoph Waltz. especially going between french, english, german, and italian on a dime. he was my favorite part of the movie.