Sunday, August 30, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Tarantino's new film is breathtakingly good. Ultimately, it's a movie about movies as wish-fulfillment and fantasy, but along the way, what looked like an action-adventure story turns out to be mostly suspense.

Basterds is not an easy movie, overly bloody with violence in some sections, seemingly overly talky in others. But Tarantino's clever pacing often defies expectations in a film that is not exactly what it seems. The movie shifts gears, drops occasional pieces of throwaway humor, and offers surprises: supposedly the story of a group of Jewish American soldiers wreaking vengenance in occupied France, it is more a long shaggy dog story setting up a climax defying viewer expectations and genre conventions.

The central conceit of the story is telling. In a movie theater in occupied Paris, characters watch a German war movie. So we find ourselves watching a war movie about people watching a war movie, based on an actual -- within the reality of the film -- historic event. Characters discuss the event, how they felt about it and how they feel about the film version.

Along the way, there are numerous nods to other films, including Chaplin's The Kid, The Time Machine, Battleship Potemkin, and The Last Metro. There is a truly quirky cameo by Mike Myers, some very nice work by many actors in supporting roles large and small and a oddly-mannered but strong performance by Brad Pitt as the apparently bloodthirsty Apache hillbilly who leads the Jewish soldiers. But the best work is by young French actress Mélanie Laurent, who plays a Jewish girl hiding in plain sight, and a great performance by Christoph Waltz as a truly diabolical Nazi detective.

There are no great philosophical revelations: Nazism was evil, and in war, even good people have to do terrible things. But Tarantino tells us a fascinating story, with suspense and heart, about how we feel about the stories we tell ourselves.