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Oscar Flashback: Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Recommended for my viewing pleasure by my mother was Inglourious Basterds, which was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, for which Christoph Waltz won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and for which Quentin Tarantino was nominated for the Best Director Oscar and Best Original Screenplay Oscar; Wylie Stateman was nominated for the Best Sound Editing Oscar; Michael Minkler, Tony Lamberti and Mark Ulano were nominated for the Best Sound Mixing Oscar; Robert Richardson was nominated for the Best Cinematography Oscar; and Sally Menke was nominated for the Best Film Editing Oscar (film year, 2009; awarding year, 2010). The other nominees in these categories were:

Best Picture

The Hurt Locker (Winner)

Avatar
The Blind Side
District 9 *
An Education
Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" By Sapphire
A Serious Man
Up *
Up in the Air *

Best Supporting Actor

Invictus - Matt Damon
The Messenger - Woody Harrelson
The Last Station - Christopher Plummer
The Lovely Bones - Stanley Tucci

Best Director

The Hurt Locker - Kathryn Bigelow (Winner)

Avatar - James Cameron
Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" By Sapphire - Lee Daniels
Up in the Air - Jason Reitman *

Best Original Screenplay

The Hurt Locker (Winner)

The Messenger
A Serious Man
Up *

Best Sound Editing

The Hurt Locker (Winner)

Avatar
Star Trek *
Up *

Best Sound Mixing

The Hurt Locker (Winner)

Avatar
Star Trek *
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Best Cinematography

Avatar (Winner)

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince *
The Hurt Locker
The White Ribbon

Best Film Editing

The Hurt Locker (Winner)

Avatar
District 9 *
Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" By Sapphire

As I indicated in my review of Crazy Heart, while spending time with the fam' over the holidays (catching up, still), I became aware that my mother unexpectedly (and somewhat surprisingly) purchased several recent films for her personal collection. This included Inglourious Basterds, which was surprising because she cannot be considered a Quentin Tarantino fan by any stretch of anyone's imagination (she was not fond of Pulp Fiction, anyway, and has mostly, as a result, avoided some of his other films). This surprise instantly intrigued me. I said to myself: "Self, this film must be good if my mother felt it within her good graces to give QT another chance and then, later, to purchase said film for her eclectic collection." I would consider myself a QT fan (see also: Pulp Fiction, the Kill Bills), so I would have watched the film anyway. Plus, it helps that the film got nominated for a load of Oscars...yet only won one, sadly. Ah well...it's a thrill just to be nominated, yes? Add to that total the intriguingly misspelled and profane title, and, well, I had high expectations going in, most of which were handily met.

Inglourious Basterds has a defined plot, as penned by screenwriter Tarantino, but is punctuated by a series of disturbing but significant events. The film's first minutes are devoted to introducing the viewer to SS Colonel Hans Landa (Waltz), a high-ranking Nazi officer who deftly convinces a French farmer to betray the whereabouts of a Jewish family he is hiding as a sympathizer, only to watch as Landa orders his officers to proceed to execute the family on the spot, save for a young girl named Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), who Landa allows to escape. The film then cuts away to the spring of 1944, when First Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is ordered to recruit a regiment of eight Jewish-American soldiers. This unit's mission is to infiltrate enemy lines and bring fear to all German servicemen. Raine interprets that mission for his men in a slightly more specific translation: each soldier owes Raine 100 Nazi scalps, and they are to take no prisoners in order to achieve their prescribed quotas. These methods are quite effective, as the unit becomes known as the "Basterds," a name many ranking German officers know, fear, and despise. Meanwhile, Shosanna has assumed the name of Emmanuelle Mimieux and is operating a cinema in Paris. She meets a Nazi officer whose exploits are propagandized in a Reich-endorsed war film. Attracted to her without knowing she's really Jewish, the officer, Fredrick Zoller, convinces his superiors to allow his film to be shown at Emmanuelle's cinema. Yet, Shosanna, sees an opportunity for revenge for the death of her family when several high-ranking Nazi officials, including Landa, converge on the cinema. All the while, the Basterds' efforts are redirected toward the same cinema based on the reports of British intelligence, including the rumor that Hitler himself will be in attendance of the film's premiere. It is at this cinema, in its modest and virtually silent Parisian surrounds, that all stories and events collide in a cataclysmic climax.

Like all of Quentin Tarantino's other films, Inglourious Basterds interweaves several intersecting story-lines from different characters with seemingly at-odds motivations. By the time the different stories zero in to that triumphant and thrilling point at which they all legitimately combine, they appear to form a picture-perfect and neatly formed puzzle of story, intricately guided toward something that the viewer does not necessarily expect or see coming because Tarantino has a gift for fleshing out each character's arc seamlessly. The motivations for all of the principal characters are crystal clear: Landa is a "civilized" Nazi, seeking revenge against an enemy that was vilified for him by the people to whom he owes his allegiance, thus rendering him a begrudging (ish) villain in his own right; Raine is a barbaric American guiding his unit in the art of revenge through the sport of arguably gratuitous violence against those who would oppress those who have not been oppressed; and Shosanna/Emmanuelle is not necessarily seeking revenge for anything, though she may arguably be the most justified to want vengeance, wishing to maintain a quiet, unnoticed existence, until the opportunity becomes too great to pass up. Add to these rich layers Tarantino's gift for dialog, filled with gritty observations and subtle wordplay, and it seems a crime that the film did not win the Oscar for Original Screenplay (I think I said that at the time).

Some critiques of the film slam the film for being an irresponsible revenge fantasy, but the counter-argument to such criticism is, well, it's exactly that: fantasy. It's an imagining of what could have been, not a presentation of what was. It's high-art concept should, therefore, not be faulted, even if one has a problem with the idea that the European theater of WWII could be solved by the efforts of a few unknowns in an even more unknown Paris movie house, which is a subtly ironic milieu in and of itself.

There are two ways in which Tarantino's brilliant script is even more dazzlingly flushed out. The first is the brave and somewhat eccentric performances of the entire ensemble cast. Waltz deserved his Oscar. In this blurry study of the finer points of moral ambiguity, the heroes are villains, and the villains are heroes. Colonel Landa is a gentlemen among would-be scholars, the consummate officer, the most loyal in face if not in reality. His Nazi officer is likable, charming, worldly...and yet, his predispositions are never far from the fear and hatred of the party he is sworn to serve, nor is his temper and reactions to that fear ever deeper than just below the surface. His performance would have stolen every scene in the film, if that feat had not been made impossibly hard by Sir Brad Pitt (ha ha) and his wildly eccentric Aldo Raine. Complete with an accent that cannot possibly exist in reality, Raine is not as likable as Landa, and yet, he's supposed to be fighting for the good guys. Still, he has some of the most insanely twisted dialog in the entire piece, and so any lack of likability is never very steep. Laurent played her fiercely passionate character with nuance and fire. All of the supporting players similarly upheld the unusual tone of the film, regardless of how minute or quick each actor's appearance was.

The second way in which QT's script was brought to bear was through the one-two punch of Tarantino's trademarked stylistic direction and the creative genius of his cinematographer. There are some shots and frames that are no less than breathtaking. The film's climax may be one of the most gratifying and satisfying to have been committed to celluloid in quite a while, owing almost completely to its visual presentation. From the grayish hue coloring the bleak, war-torn outdoors to the vibrant, candlelit interiors and from the thoughtful placement of the camera depending on the character in focus, the entire film was shot nearly perfectly. It's not a coincidence that Inglourious Basterds has been labeled the best Tarantino film since Pulp Fiction (though I liked the Kill Bills...but what do I know).

The only downside to the direction, and, thusly, the only minor flaw to this film is that Tarantino's reliance upon his own director trademarks - the elements he *always* inserts or utilizes, like a painter's signature at the bottom of a painting or a musician's logo - tended to take one out of engagement with the film at choice points. From his overuse of "Mexican standoffs" for embattled characters to the opening credits, character insertions, his insistence on a self-cameo (why?), and common camera tricks, one gets the sense that their watching a Tarantino flick when watching this film as one might feel while watching his other films too. While that is not, in and of itself, necessarily a bad thing for QT fans, to the casual viewer, it may reek of arrogance (hey, I'm just calling it like I see it). At the least, it, sometimes jarringly, reminds the viewer of what it is they are doing and mars any potentially meaningful connection to the story. Fortunately, the film is so well performed and so visually stunning, the viewer can find his/her way back to the story at hand, but it's difficult not to feel like this has all been done before, even if the film is, in all the important ways, entirely different from Pulp Fiction or the Kill Bills.

In any event, Inglourious Basterds is an excellent film and, truly, one of Quentin Tarantino's best. Pulp Fiction is still better because, given the above, that's when QT's style felt freshest, but "Basterds" is ultimately entertaining and presents that revenge fantasy motif that rewards the viewer for his/her viewing efforts so completely. The film deserved a few more Oscars, at any rate. I haven't seen The Hurt Locker yet, so I can't make a judgment on whether it should have won the top prize, but the lack of a writing award for this film blows my mind. At any rate, I think Inglourious Basterds deserves an 8.5 on the patented ratings scale for being between very good but with minor flaws and perfectly entertaining. It also passes the test, ladies and gentlemen! I would like to own this film to go with those other QT films I keep mentioning because, whatever else Tarantino or his films may be, he makes some highly entertaining films that continue to entertain on repeat viewings and have never been (nor can they ever be) convincingly imitated or duplicated, and Inglourious Basterds is no exception.

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