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Tarantino excels in Basterds

By Elvis D''Silva
October 02, 2009 11:48 IST
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Among the filmmakers walking the Earth today, there are very few who possess styles so unique that their names become (positive) adjectives. Quentin Tarantino is definitely one of them. And I understand why the man might enjoy one of the most enviable positions in all filmdom.

Only Tarantino could have handed in a script for a movie like Inglourious Basterds and not had studio executives laugh in his face as they escorted him out. Only he could have then got carte blanche on how to make such a movie and have a major motion picture star like Brad Pitt agree to star in it. Only he could rewrite history as audaciously as he does in this movie. Because only he has been able to build a career out of just five feature-length films over 17 years and still has people (audiences and critics alike) eagerly anticipating his next offering.

Here are the things QT does in this movie that go against the grain of conventional wisdom. A large chunk of Basterds is in languages other than English -- I have never seen so many people craning their necks to catch each and every subtitle the way they did while watching this movie. A large chunk of this movie is based on conversations in cramped places -- you might think that could render the proceedings boring but I assure you, you have never watched the pouring of a glass of milk be more suspenseful.

To try and discuss the plot of Inglourious Basterds is to try and define this movie on narrower terms than the ones on which it wishes to engage with the audience. Remember how his previous movie was about one woman's quest to kill the man who tried to kill her? This one could be defined as the efforts of a small group of (mostly) Jewish soldiers trying to kill all the Nazis. See how simplistic that sounds? It is also not the whole truth.

No, this movie is about feelings, and how in the hands of a masterful filmmaker, those feelings can be stirred up and swirled around and made tense beyond bearable belief. You know that feeling of release you can sometimes get from screaming into a pillow? Or punching a wall? It is there in this movie. That feeling of triumph from watching your favourite sports team win? That one is there too. The dread that comes from knowing that bad things are going to happen to characters you didn't even know you cared about? Yup, that's there as well.

In a sense, this movie feels like a Greatest Hits collection for the director. The chapter-based storytelling from the Kill Bill movies is back. The hyper-violence that punctuates the cool conversations never went away. Quirky characters? Check. Convoluted conversational reasoning that ends in surprising ways? Check. Using an odd detail to tremendous effect? Check. Surprising cameo appearances by old favourites? Check. There is no doubt about it, Inglourious Basterds is a Quentin Tarantino movie and like in every previous case, the movie gives the world performances that will endure the test of time and taste.

The character of Colonel Landa is a juicy part and Austrian actor Christoph Waltz treats the opportunity with such relish that one might be afraid to encounter the man in public, even on a sunny street with other people present. In the way he conducts himself as a coin's flip between suave and animalistic is fascinating, and a little frightening, to watch.

As Private Fredrick Zoller, Daniel Bruhl does a great job of playing an almost nerdy German soldier who just so happens to be a war hero. Unlike other writers/directors, Tarantino peels that onion completely and exposes all the layers in such a character.

In the way Shosanna (a luminous Mélanie Laurent), the survivor of one of Landa's massacres, manages her silences while still portraying hauteur, she is more a Tarantino heroine than even Uma Thurman's Beatrix Kiddo was in the Kill Bill movies. This kind of grace and spine simply does not coexist in today's American actresses. And it is always a pleasant surprise to make the cinematic acquaintance of a character that one might imagine wanting to have a real-life conversation with.

Did you notice that I haven't said much about either Brad Pitt or the group of soldiers he leads? That is mostly because the Basterds aren't the real focus of this movie. Sure they are around and sure they talk funny and kill fast but the movie's title is probably just so that the cheeky Mr Tarantino could get that word on movie theatre marquees all over the world.

And Mr Pitt has definitely essayed better roles than this one. I don't know why his jaw is set that way throughout the movie. I don't know why he is doing a new variant on the near-incoherence he brought to his character in Snatch. Stock expressions, stock physical tics, stock dialogue delivery -- so no idea why he had to play Aldo the Apache.

Tarantino has been thwarting expectations for close to two decades now. Yet this might be the first time that he ends a movie on a note that has the audience's complete support. Enough people felt that the final confrontation between The Bride and Bill was too quick. Not so this time -- this time it feels like he paced it right.

Is Inglourious Basterds a flawless movie? No. Is it Tarantino's best yet? No (that would still be Pulp Fiction). Is it a movie you have to watch? Yes. Inventive and entertaining storytelling rarely come in the same package anymore so when a movie comes along that does both, you've got to go see it. You know how there has been all this talk about how going to cinemas is no longer the powerful shared experience it used to be? Forget about it.

When Tarantino is at the helm, he isn't just directing the actors -- he is also controlling the emotions of the audience. Sometimes all one can do is give in and be swept away by the artistry of a master puppeteer.

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Elvis D''Silva