Film Review | Sunday, 30 August 2009
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A basterd’s work is never done

Aging auteurs make me wary. It’s one thing for a young upstart with fresh ideas to get lucky and make a little breakthrough film that reinvents cinema for a while. But can this feverish momentum of revolutionary creativity be sustained for very long, before succumbing to either self-indulgent tics that utterly bury the work in question, or selling out entirely?
Following the success of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Tarantino could have taken Hollywood’s money and ran: ran to one hackeneyed project to another, ran to productions that would make him boatloads of cash in exchange of very little effort at all, since he would have to exert only a fraction of his talent to produce something that is deemed passable by the Hollywood grind. But the heroically inspiring fact is that he didn’t. While his output has been hardly prolific, he has produced a set of memorable cult favourites that have defined contemporary pop culture and that perform that very difficult tightrope walk between the artistically edgy and unapologetically low-brow. And when he wasn’t actually making films himself, he engaged in a crusade to bring what he liked to the masses, championing little-known filmmakers with promise: without him, Western audiences would probably never have managed to get their eyeballs onto Zhang Yimou’s sumptuous kung-fu masterpiece Hero. So far, so admirable. But behind his manouverings over the early years of the noughties and beyond, before Kill Bill and well before his low-maintenance gem Death Proof, Tarantino was cooking up a beast of unprecedented proportions. Now over a decade in the making, Inglourious Basterds was always meant to be Tarantino’s take on the Dirty Dozenesque war film, but despite this very clear mission statement, he kept procrastinating: first with Kill Bill, then with Death Proof. He admitted to have become “too precious about the page” during an interview, and that the script was just growing and growing. How are we to take this evidence of a voracious muse? One need, of course, merely to look at the end result, and draw their own conclusions. As always, a Tarantino film will prove divisive, and this ambitious wallop of war-film pastiche may just be the most obnoxiously controversial film that the auteur has ever given us – and not for the usual reaons (violence), but purely on a stylistic level. Divided, as is customary for the director, into a series of chapters, the film begins ‘once upon a time…in Nazi-occupied France’ (which is really 1944), where the Germans are being undermined by the efforts of Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and his rag-tag team of ruthless Jewish guerillas, nicknamed the ‘Basterds’. Their efforts come to a head when a vindictive French-Jewish cinema owner, Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), though a series of unexpected events, manages to secure a screening of Joseph Goebbels’ (Sylvester Groth) latest propaganda film in her cinema, thereby attracting the entire Nazi high command into an enclosed space. With the help of a German double-agent, the popular actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), the Basterds learn about the gala night and get in on the action, but the cunning and lethal Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), aka ‘The Jew Hunter’, appears to be one step ahead of the game. As far as Tarantino films go, everything is there: the geeky film references, the unrestrained violence, crackling dialogue and an ensemble cast that truly bring their A-game to the production. But something crucial is missing. Wheras the vertiginous plots of his previous films would confidently converge at the end, offering an unconventional but still highly satisfying conclusion, Basterds is scattered simply because it is scattered. Tarantino seems to have bitten off far more than he can chew, or, rather, he seems unwilling to trim and tighten in any substantial way and instead leaves things hanging. That said, it’s still better than most of the trash that’s out there, and there are parts that will in fact leave you with that all-too-familiar adrenaline rush of cinematic joy that Tarantino is so accustomed to delivering, much like the jolt to the upper torso that the drugged out Uma Thurman is revitalised by in Pulp Fiction. Significantly, most of these scenes are ones in which the characters are seated and chatting: which was always the writer-director’s greatest strength. Here, it is employed to devastating effect in scenes where Landa sets about playfully intimidating our protagonists. Landa is a truly amazing creation, having all the psychosis of Reservoir Dogs’ Mr Blonde, the equally psychotic erudition of Bill combined with a unique Machiavellian power. Luckily, Waltz matches the role with a symmetrical virtuosity (Tarantino nearly pulled the plug on the film before he showed up), and Oscar rumours are, in this reviewer’s humble opinion at least, entirely justified. A master polyglot, he signals another glittering aspect of the otherwise patchy film, which is the playful juggling of languages (even the subtitles get jokey): English, French, German and even Italian (to hilarious effect) are utilised with a confidence of a true maestro. I only wish I could give it a five-star review, but its precedents are already glaring at me.

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