Wednesday, September 09, 2009

OK, this is late, but for me QT is the king of summer

As I was wondering how in the world to finally write something about Quentin Tarantino's simply insane "Inglourious Basterds," my easily distracted mind moved to thinking about the possible standards by which you can judge movies.

There are certainly many more than one that are valid, but for me it's always come down to simply this: Is this flick entertaining or not? And by that simple standard, QT's latest, and I think best, movie is wildly and often maddeningly so, and is therefore my favorite movie of 2009 so far.

Much of the praise I've seen for "Inglourious Basterds" (and except for the incredibly arrogant and equally vapid David Denby pretty much calling QT a retard, I haven't seen a lot of criticism) has centered on Christoph Waltz and the opening sequence, and with good reason.

Waltz just approaches his role as Hans Landa, aka "The Jew Hunter," with the most disturbing glee, and the opening gambit, set at a farmhouse in occupied France, is a model of what has always been QT's greatest strength, the ability to write extremely wordy scenes that never feel too wordy, since those words are turned into weapons that slowly and constantly raise the tension. Tarantino clearly knew he had a winner with this scene, since he released the script for it well in advance of the actual movie.

I can't take credit for this myself, but as my Facebook friend and devoted movie fan Ashok pointed out, many of the best scenes in "Inglourious Basterds" take place around tables, the real arena of action here.

And one such scene that I found even more dynamic than the opener comes when the titular Basterds are sent to pick up a German-actress-turned-counter-spy, played by Diane Kruger, at a French bar. The tension is both alleviated and sustained here by a sublimely silly game of celebrity Indian head poker so perfectly that when it all inevitably falls apart it just hits that much harder.

But as great as these and other set pieces are, they would all be wasted if they weren't used in the service of some truly inventive storytelling. I'm gonna have to assume from here on out that almost anyone who wants to see this has done so already (I was positively giddy to see that it came within a whisker of knocking "The Final Destination" from the top spot in week three.)

If you have, you know that what QT has unleashed here is nothing less grand than a revenge fantasy about taking down the Third Reich, and the chapters of "Inglourious Basterds" build as flawlessly as did those of "Pulp Fiction" (yes, I went there) to a grand finale that I guarantee will just be seared onto your eyeballs. I know it makes me more than a little sick, but both times I watched this, I started grinning as soon as I heard the first strains of David Bowie's "Cat People" ("putting out the fire with gasoline") and didn't stop until Shoshanna's face was being projected in smoke over all the carnage like the Wizard of Oz.

Now, all that said, "Inglourious Basterds" is far too ambitious to be perfect, and it certainly has its faults. The titular "Basterds" are just far too cartoonish for even a tale as crazy as this one, so thankfully they get the shortest chapter. Though I normally love Brad Pitt as a comedic actor, his Aldo Rayne just constantly grates as he seems to be channeling Karl Childers through the spirit of John Wayne.

And be warned: As with any QT movie, the violence here is just often way over the top. Even more than the finale, the scalping and, well, let's just say engraving of Nazi soldiers is more than enough to make even the most hardened person squirm.

But none of that was nearly enough to spoil the fun of this one for me. Even more than the dynamic set pieces or wild storytelling, it's just the spirit of this flick that sets it apart from anything else I've seen this summer. As my friend Randy Waters remarked as we were leaving the theater the first time I saw this, why stick to the facts for something as conventional and simply tame as "Valkyrie" when you can use your vivid imagination to twist history to your own ends?

I almost never clap at the end of movies unless the director is somehow in attendance, but I have to admit I did a little each time I heard Pitt utter that "masterpiece" remark, mostly because in spite of the hubris of it, I have to admit he's right: This is indeed Tarantino's masterpiece (at least so far) and thus my favorite movie of 2009 so far. Peace out.

P.S.: As part of my ongoing bid to do my minuscule part to promote glorious, traditional animation, here's the second trailer for "The Princess and the Frog," which just looks more and more like its gonna be a real winner.

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