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Movie Review: Inglourious Basterds

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A new film by Quentin Tarantino isn't just another film, it's an event. Despite his talents at both writing and directing, along with his extreme adoration and knowledge of all things cinema, he's only made six films to date. Bursting onto the scene in the early '90s with the now iconic Reservoir Dogs, he then moved on to what many consider his masterpiece (and my personal favourite movie of all time), Pulp Fiction. Then came Jackie Brown, his most well-rounded film to date and one that goes underrated. Six years later he gave us Kill Bill, split into Vol.1 and Vol.2, and a few years after that, there was his seriously misunderstood and underrated half of the Grindhouse experience, Death Proof.

All of his movies consist mainly of dialogue — he's proven time and again that he excels at writing it — and despite its appearances, his sixth film, Inglourious Basterds, follows suit. Those expecting an action-packed war film need to look elsewhere as this is more about the talk than it is the walk. It's just lucky the guy responsible for the talking knows what he's saying.

Set in Nazi-occupied France during World War II, Inglorious Basterds (yes, the title is intentionally misspelled) follows a group of Jewish-American soldiers, known as "The Basterds," who make it their mission to brutally kill as many Nazi soldiers as they can, causing widespread fear among the enemy in the process. The Basterds soon run into a French-Jewish girl who runs a movie theatre that the group of soldiers target after they find out most of the Nazi command structure will be attending a première there.

Inglourious Basterds is a film that's been gestating for a long time. Much in the same vein as some of his other ideas (The Vega Brothers comes to mind, a project that would tell the backstory of John Travolta and Michael Madsen's brother characters from Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, respectively), Tarantino has been saying he'd do a war film for years, but nothing came of it until now. And what he has come up with is simultaneously unique and yet full of references to various other movies. He employs his usual tip of the hat to his influences, but in a decisively more subtle way than he usually does. This is a bit less of a pop culture-ish tale from Mr. Tarantino.

Filling the screen is a diverse array of actors and actresses from all different countries, from America and Britain to France and Germany. The cast features the likes of Brad Pitt (in top form as the leader of The Basterds, Lt. Aldo Raine), Eli Roth (making his proper acting debut), Michael Fassbender, Til Shweiger, Daniel Bruhl, Diane Kruger, and English-language newcomer Melanie Laurent. He even fits in Mike Myers as an army general (seriously), and Samuel L. Jackson as a narrator for part of the story. It's an odd and striking group of actors that Tarantino has assembled for his first ever tale of war, but just like his soundtracks, they work in context.

However, as good as the rest of the cast are, a special mention must go to Christoph Waltz as the methodical, exacting, and sadistic Colonel Hans Landa. He represents the focus of the enemy Nazis to The Basterds (even more than the little seen Hitler), and he absolutely steals every scene as well as the viewer's attention. Waltz was nominated and won the award for Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival this year for this role; it may seem strange from the outside looking in that the one award a film like this wins is for acting, but trust me, Waltz is astonishingly good. The character is about the best to grace the screen all year; it's really hard nowadays to create a unique character that stands on its own, and Tarantino has done that with Colonel Landa. I would even go as far to say he's one of the best characters of the last few years, if not of the whole decade so far.

As usual, the diverse and strange soundtrack Tarantino has used for Basterds is expertly chosen and, like the cast, it totally works within the context of the movie. There's a brilliant mix of musical score (albeit from already established movies) and normal music tracks, and will have you constantly thinking, "Where have I heard that song before?" but not quite being able to place it. Only Tarantino could have put Ennio Morricone and David Bowie in one movie and managed to make it work. He always manages to strike that perfect balance of songs that are of quality but aren't necessarily widely known. This is just another reason his movies are so special, and Inglourious Basterds is certainly no different.

Most of the film is made up of extended scenes of dialogue as opposed to bloody violent action scenes as you'd expect from how it's been marketed. The latter is understandable considering the Weinstein Company will want to make as much money as possible after their Grindhouse ended in financial failure. But I suspect most people who see this because of Tarantino's name will know what they're getting themselves in for.

The dialogue is whip sharp, precise and with many a memorable line spouted in a variety of different languages. Speaking of which, a lot of the movie is in either French or German, with English only being spoken whenever an English-speaking character talks or when Tarantino makes some sort of wink-wink joke. He has a bit of fun with the latter with a lot of the subtitles (for example, "oui" will come up on-screen instead of "yes" as English translation).

At over 150 minutes, and with the sheer amount of detail to be found here as per Tarantino's usual MO, some may see this as sheer indulgence on the director's part. And I guess in a way it is. However, if you're a fan of his style of filmmaking — smart dialogue over action, diverse and iconic characters, on and on — this will be movie heaven for you. I can tell you it absolutely was for me.

This is a film that you can tell has been made by a talented filmmaker who's also a fan of the medium. The "main event" takes place in a cinema, for god's sake! The film is filled with iconic characters, brilliant performances, superb dialogue, expertly chosen music, and just the right amount (enough but not too much) of blood and carnage. All the boxes are ticked for an enjoyable and technically superb motion picture. Ultimately Inglourious Basterds marks not only one of the best films of the year so far, but also a film that will endure over the years. Man, will Tarantino ever make a film that falls short of pure brilliance?

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