Universal // 2009 // 153 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // December 15th, 2009
"Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France..."
Once upon a time I was talking with a former professor about a book by an otherwise fantastic author which had disappointed me. He looked me straight in the eye and deadpanned: "The fault is yours." Needless to say, I was a bit taken aback by the statement, and it led me to read the book more carefully. I have since come to agree with this gentleman about the relative merits of the book in question. Now it is time for me to review Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino's ode to war films:
If you don't like Inglourious Basterds, the fault is yours.
I say that not because I (necessarily) think it's true, but in the hopes that you'll see Inglourious Basterds in a new way, with perhaps more careful attention. It's not merely a blood-soaked celebration of exploitation cinema, but a statement about art. For those of you who already love the film, know you have a kick-ass Blu-ray release to help you enjoy the film again.
Inglourious Basterds opens on French cow country, where the infamous "Jew Hunter" SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz, Goldeneye) has come to find a group of Jews hiding beneath a dairy farmer's house. After he ensures the family is below him, he orders their slaughter. The daughter of the family, Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent, The Beat That My Heart Skipped), escapes by running away. Three years later, she is living under an assumed name, managing a movie house. Meanwhile, a group of Jewish-American soldiers under the command of Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) has been storming the French countryside, bringing guerilla warfare to the Nazi army. When a famous young private who is in love with Shosanna convinces Joseph Goebbels to hold his latest premiere at her cinema, the lives of the Basterds and Shosanna will converge -- with explosive consequences for the German High Command.
Few filmmakers show how completely subjective and idiosyncratic film reviewing can be than Quentin Tarantino. Both his personality and his films are polarizing to most people, and his proponents and detractors are equally vociferous. I generally find myself in the "for" camp, but I am not nearly so vocal a proselytizer as many of his faithful. However, I can say that Inglorious Basterds is the biggest jewel in a crown that contains some of the most interesting cinema of the past two decades. Here's a short list of his accomplishments with this film:
With Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino has crafted, and Pitt and Waltz have inhabited, two of the most interesting characters of the past decade. Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine nails the essence of the crafty backwoods soldier, a figure that has been around since at least the Revolutionary War. He's someone who has learned to shove off the civilized trappings of war and get down to the brass tacks of winning. Pitt makes his character both utterly charming and completely ruthless. His accent teeters on the edge of going into high camp, but Pitt's otherwise grounded portrayal keeps us laughing with him instead of at him. On the other side of the same coin is SS Colonel Hans Landa, portrayed exquisitely by Christopher Waltz as the bastard son of Cary Elwes and Werner Herzog. Just as ruthless and charming as Raine, he adds the extra touch of being highly unpredictable, and thus highly dangerous. He is easily the scariest villain I've seen in ages, and the closest comparison I can think of is a Shakespearean villain like Iago.
Tarantino has also crafted some of the most memorable dialogue I've heard outside a comedy in quite a while. Pretty much everything that comes out of Brad Pitt's mouth could be a catchphrase, and he's only one character of many who get memorable lines. Sure, it's not terribly realistic, but neither is a Picasso painting.
More than most other films, Inglourious Basterds creates and maintains a credible alternate world. It's much like the one we are familiar with, but obviously the Basterds never existed (as with some of the film's other departures from history). What makes the film so incredible, though, is how easy it is to believe in this world. Shosanna, Private Zoller, Raine, and Bridget von Hammersmark all seem like real people with real stories. This feeling is aided by the fact that the film really only has a handful of scenes with only a few set pieces, and the two-and-a-half-hour running time feels like it has been cut from a much larger narrative. It's as if there's a nine-hour cut of Inglourious Basterds that Tarantino only screens for close friends, but we get the brilliant highlights here.
Speaking of those few scenes, Inglorious Basterds is really about five perfect films put into one big narrative. The opening scene at the French farm is about as perfect a study in tension as you'll ever find, topped only by a clandestine meeting between some of the Basterds, their German double agent, and a bunch of Nazis in a basement tavern. These scenes are combined with some of the Basterds' exploits and the story of Shosanna's cinema, which are like mini-movies on their own. All of these lead inevitably to a cinematic climax that is aching in its cathartic power.
Tarantino also deserves credit for the film's wonderful cinematographic choices, including different film stocks and editing techniques. All of these can be studied with great care thanks to this wonderful Blu-ray disc. Detail is high throughout the film, color saturation is spot-on (especially in some of the bloodier scenes), and black levels are deep and smooth. The booming surround track captures Tarantino's inspired musical choices and keeps the dialogue crisp and clear.
Although the extras lack a Tarantino commentary, they do an excellent job of both providing insight into the production, while also continuing its interesting, meta-cinematic project. We get extended and alternate scenes, a roundtable discussion between Tarantino, Pitt, and critic Elvis Mitchell, and two interviews with Rod Taylor. Going behind the scenes we have "Quentin Tarantino's Camera Angle," which is a collection of slates, as well as "Hi Sally," a series of extra footage where actors and crew give shout-outs to the film's editor. Then there's the complete cut of the film-within-a-film "Nation's Pride" as well as a documentary on how Eli Roth made it. You'll also find a brief featurette on the inspirational Inglorious Bastards, along with a poster gallery and the Basterds' trailer. A second disc includes a digital copy for use on portable devices. This disc is also compatible with pocketBlu, a program for the iPhone and iPod Touch which allows the device to act as a Blu-ray remote and as a downloader of bonus content.
Sure, it's boring, bombastic, and a host of other nasty B-words if you want to view it that way. But take Inglourious Basterds on its own cinematic terms and you might discover that there's a lot of good things lurking behind the exploitation facade.
Inglourious Basterds may be the ultimate statement on war films and what they can do for an audience. With a heady blend of brilliant characters, seriocomic revenge, and remarkably affecting violence, Tarantino has crafted a film that deserves multiple viewings and this fantastic Blu-ray release will keep fans occupied with the excellent audiovisual presentation and informative extras. Hopefully the film's detractors will give it another look on home video and grow to appreciate what may be Tarantino's masterpiece.
Not even close to guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* Top 100 Films: #52
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 153 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Roundtable Discussion
* Official Site
* Cinema Verdict Review