August 20, 2009

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Inglourious Basterds (R)
For everyone who ever wanted a Western but with Nazis and gore, Quentin Tarantino presents Inglourious Basterds, an absurd World War II action movie.

“Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France” — this is how the movie starts with its spaghetti Western music, its The Godfather fonts and its Clint Eastwood close-ups. In the opening scenes, we meet Nazi Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), known for hunting down Jews hiding from the Gestapo in the French countryside. He comes to a dairy farm where a man lives with his three beautiful daughters. What nefarious reason does Landa have for going there? Is the farmer Jewish? Is the Nazi after his daughters? At the end of a suspenseful, brutal and (shockingly) occasionally funny scene, we’ve learned something about the cruelty of Landa and the desperate circumstances of the people living in Nazi-occupied France.

Then we jump to 1944 to meet the “Basterds” — the U.S. Army soldiers under the command of Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), whose job it is to parachute into France and kill Nazis (“Nazis” rhyming with “patsies” in Aldo’s weird drawl). These men are charged with, he tells them, delivering to him 100 Nazi scalps each. The men — all Jewish, we learn — take to their task lustfully, happy for the chance for revenge. Just as Aldo — called Aldo the Apache by the Nazis — predicts, they are soon striking fear into the hearts of Nazi soldiers.

Meanwhile in Paris, a Jewish woman named Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) is living under an assumed name and running a movie theater. A German soldier, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), takes a shine to her and her theater and wants to use it to premiere the newest movie by Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth). Shosanna is at first horrified by all this Nazi contact but then she devises a plan — she will use the premiere as an opportunity to launch an attack on the highest echelons of the Nazi party.

As the Basterds and Shosanna are separately preparing for a grand attack on the Nazis, we see them come closer together, moving into position to either strike a blow against the Germans — or fall into the hands of Hans Landa. Who can be trusted? Who will betray the plans? Will the Nazis discover the Basterds? Will Landa recognize Shosanna, whom he tried to capture years earlier? All these threads of suspense tie together scenes of scheming, of near misses and sprung traps and, of course, of scalpings by the Basterds, who really took Aldo’s instructions to heart.

I’m not sure if Inglourious Basterds adds up to a good movie, but it contains several good set-piece scenes. The opening scene with Landa talking to the farmer, the scene where Shosanna sits paralyzed with fear while talking to Landa, the scene where a British soldier and a few of the Basterds are trying to pass as Germans while talking to a suspicious Nazi officer. These scenes feature riffs on the styles of movies past, feints and psych-outs and some of the most delightfully fun lines Tarantino has written in years. In fact, just about any time Waltz is on screen savoring Tarantino’s dialogue like he’s licking an ice cream cone, you’re guaranteed some wicked fun. These ornate packages of filmatic nerdery, playful language and operatic gore fit together to build a crazy, gaudy edifice from which you can absolutely not look away.

There’s also something gloriously absurd about these scenes, as Waltz, playing a mild-faced but blood-thirsty Nazi, flows gleefully between German, French and English and all but sings with politeness right before he kills someone. There is something absurd about nearly everything about the movie, from the Samuel L. Jackson narration to the sudden appearance of Mike Myers. With his crazy mustache (kind of a Clark Gable with extra cheese) and his Smoky Mountain (or whatever) accent, Brad Pitt is clearly having the time of his life. The movie is, at times, downright insane — quickly veering off the tracks of history to plunge into a never-ending chasm of alternate reality.

From the film references that will have you filling your Netflix queue with 1970s Westerns to the sadistic yet humorous strain running through all the violence, Inglourious Basterds offers one bizarre little discovery after another, the most surprising one being that, after years of tiring of the imitators, it still is a joy to see what Quentin Tarantino can do on film. B

Rated R for strong graphic violence, language and brief sexuality. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds is two hours and 32 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by The Weinstein Company.