Friday, August 21, 2009

The NYTimes Reviews "Inglourious Besterds"

I've been following this film's evolution at this blog (I, II, and last August) and here it is in the NYTimes:

Tarantino Avengers in Nazi Movieland

From the moment the charming, smiling, laughing Nazi in “Inglourious Basterds,” Quentin Tarantino’s latest cinematic happening, sweeps onto the screen, he owns this film even more than its maker...

...the American avenger, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), is a nod to the Hollywood actor Aldo Ray, a sandpaper-voiced 1950s Everyman who often seemed most at ease wearing Army fatigues, as he does in Anthony Mann’s 1957 masterpiece “Men in War.” (Mr. Ray’s widow, Johanna Ray, served as one of the casting directors for “Inglourious Basterds.”)

Raine leads a pack of Jewish avengers, the inglourious basterds of the misspelled title, who occupy one part of the sprawling narrative and whose numbers include a bat-wielding American nicknamed the Bear Jew (the director Eli Roth, dreadful). Also elbowing for attention is a young French Jew, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), who’s running a cinema in Paris under a pseudonym, and a German Army hero, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), who dangerously woos her, unaware of her true identity. There’s the British film critic turned spy, Lt. Archie Hicox (a very good Michael Fassbender), and the German movie star turned spy, Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger). Mostly, though, there is Landa, whose unctuous charm, beautifully modulated by Mr. Waltz, gives this unwieldy, dragging movie a much-needed periodic jolt.

Mr. Tarantino likes to take his sweet time — he can be a master of the slow windup — but rarely has one of his movies felt as interminable as this one and its 2 hours 32 minutes...

As usual Mr. Tarantino gives you a lot to chew on, though there’s plenty to gag on as well...Set against a sweeping stretch of green French countryside in 1941, it opens with a dairy farmer, Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet), chopping wood. As his ax looms ominously in the foreground of the shot, he readies himself for some unwelcome German visitors. Colonel Landa, nicknamed the Jew Hunter, has come looking for hidden prey, a task for which he is, as he explains in a long verbal jag, eminently suitable. Because Germans are like hawks, Landa explains, most cannot think like Jews, who are more like rats — a characterization that, of course, was a privileged metaphor and ideological instrument in the Nazi’s campaign against European Jewry.

The invocation of Jews as rats is ghastly — both times I’ve seen the movie I could almost hear the audience holding its collective breath — but Landa keeps smiling and talking and charming, and Mr. Waltz’s performance is so very good, so persuasive, seductive and, crucially, so distracting that you can readily move past the moment if you choose. Mr. Tarantino makes it easy to do just that by capping this exegesis with an abrupt sight gag: after asking the farmer if he can smoke, Landa pulls out a pipe so comically large it immediately undercuts his threat, transforming him from a ferocious Jew hunter into a silly man whose flamboyant pipe suggests he suffers from some masculinity issues.

The joke fades quickly, as they do in this film, because Landa has already guessed there are Jews hiding where you might expect to find rats, under the floorboards. Mr. Tarantino reveals them in their hiding place, the camera slipping through the floor to show the terrified family members prostrate, their hands over their mouths and eyes wide in fear. It’s a shocking moment partly because this image resonates with horror, but it’s also shocking because it comes cushioned with laughs. Yet the shock dissipates because the Jews are irrelevant here. What matters is how he builds the tension with unnerving quiet and a camera that circles Landa and the farmer like an ever-tightening rope. What matters, to Mr. Tarantino, is the filmmaking.

But too often in “Inglourious Basterds” the filmmaking falls short...The film’s most egregious failure — its giddy, at times gleeful embrace and narrative elevation of the seductive Nazi villain — can largely be explained as a problem of form...This isn’t to say that the film’s representation of National Socialism, its repellent invocation of the Holocaust crematoriums in the final blowout and calculated use of the Jews-as-rat metaphor are not vulgar in the extreme. Mr. Tarantino likes to push hard against accepted norms, as his chortling exploitation of spectacular violence and insistent use of a noxious epithet for blacks has shown in the past. But complaining about tastelessness in a Quentin Tarantino movie is about as pointless as carping about its hyperbolic violence: these are as much a constituent part of his work as the reams of dialogue. This is, after all, a man who has an Oscar for a movie with a monologue about a watch stashed in a rectum.

...Mr. Tarantino is really only serious about his own films, not history. In that sense “Inglourious Basterds,” which takes its title if not its misspellings from an Italian flick in “The Dirty Dozen” vein, is simply another testament to his movie love. The problem is that by making the star attraction of his latest film a most delightful Nazi, one whose smooth talk is as lovingly presented as his murderous violence, Mr. Tarantino has polluted that love.

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