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Inglourious Basterds

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Inglourious Basterds

Eli Roth and Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds

(The Weinstein Company)
Quentin Tarantino goes to war and comes back with Nazi scalps and a few indelible images. The gleeful misspellings of the title set the tone for a movie that's as audacious and contradictory as anything the former video store wunderkind has done. Already, there are cries of Holocaust denial, with Jonathan Rosenbaum comparing QT to Sarah Palin. Inglourious Basterds may indeed be morally troublesome, but unlike, say, Death Proof, it's also fiendishly entertaining.
Set "once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France," Inglorious Basterds concerns the exploits of a squad of Nazi-hunting soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a Tennessee-bred warrior who aims to instill fear in the way of an "Apache resistance." Thus the scalps. For their latest high stakes mission, the Basterds, among them Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), British film critic (Michael Fassbender), and a German actress/double agent (Diane Kruger), attempt to blow up a Paris movie theater during a premiere with Nazi Germany's high command in attendance. The theater's owner (Mélanie Laurent) has her own designs, hoping to exact revenge for the death of her family at the hands of SS man Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). War-hero-turned-movie-star Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) pursues her in the projection booth even while Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) and Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke) admire him onscreen.

Tarantino wouldn't be Tarantino if these events didn't unfold in elaborate set pieces that go on and on before exploding into vicious bursts of exquisitely-edited violence. Extended scenes in farm houses, cafes, and beer cellars luxuriate in peculiar detail, finely choreographed camera movements, and QT's patented hard-boiled dialogue. It's all very elegant, and if you thought that, over the course of his last few movies, Tarantino's trademark monologues had become a bit of a tiresome shtick, you'll be glad to hear that they're more purposeful, tense, and entertaining in Basterds. (Cannes-winner Christoph Waltz especially is terrific.)

Mélanie Laurent in Inglourious Basterds

(The Weinstein Company)
It all culminates in an inferno that pays twisted homage to the power of the cinema while simultaneously offering gruesome fictional retribution for the horrors of the Third Reich. The movie-theater-turned-death-chamber is set ablaze, and Jewish soldier Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) fires his machine gun into the helpless Nazi crowds while an immortal apparition of light and shadow hovers in the smoke above them.

Basterds is, no doubt, potent image-making by an almost frightfully gifted filmmaker. Tarantino spins the classic World War II flick, complete with cigar-chompin', grenade-tossing heroes, into a feverish inversion of history. Is it Holocaust denial? Of course not -- it's postmodern play, and it can mean just about anything you want it to. Is it fun? Mostly. What bothers me about Tarantino in general and Basterds in particular is the sameness of the dramatic situations: turn on any of his films, skip to any scene, and chances are, you'll see someone berating someone else. In the quintessential Tarantino scene, one badass character tells off another, less badass character, with style and admirable eloquence, until there is violence or the balance of power shifts. According to QT's movies, people only briefly, from time to time, stop establishing dominance through language in order to kill each other.

For a war movie, this bleak, almost barbaric, perspective makes perfect sense: SS officers question dairy farmers, superiors pull rank on subordinates, and to test her loyalty, Brad Pitt sinks his finger into a bullet hole in Diane Kruger's leg. The cruelty of this vision is borne out by history. In such a world, the only possible dramatic arc is revenge. For all its cinematic pleasures, curious characters, and cultural cross-referencing, Basterds leads nowhere more edifying than payback. I left the theater dazzled but wishing that Tarantino had found a way to satisfy more than our desire to see Nazis branded with Bowie knives and Hitler's face torn apart by machine gun fire.

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Starring: Brad Pitt, Eli Roth,Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Melanie Laurent
Director: Quntin Tarantino
Running Time: 2 hrs. 32 min.
Release Date: August 21st, 2009 (wide)
MPAA Rating: R for strong graphic violence, language and brief sexuality.
Distributors: The Weinstein Company
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