Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Review: "Inglourious Basterds"

The idea of a kooky, hyper-violent World War II comedy with Quentin Tarantino doing his usual mishmash of eclectic music and circuitous dialogue sounds like a delightful romp -- especially when paired with Brad Pitt as the Appalachian-twanging bandit leader of a group of Jewish-American soldiers sent behind enemy lines to wreak terror on the Nazis.

Except for one problem: The "Inglourious Basterds" are bit players in their own flick.

If you've watched the trailer for the new film written/directed by Tarantino, then you've already seen a good chunk of the entire screen time of Pitt and his crew. There's essentially one scene of them bashing in Nazi skulls, and away they go. They reappear a couple more times, but only as supporting figures in another plot line.

The bulk of the sometimes-thrilling, oft-onerous 2½-hour running time is occupied with four other characters: Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent), a Jewish girl hiding in the open as a Parisian cinema owner; Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), nicknamed the Jew Hunter, who kills her family in the film's opening sequence; Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a famous German film star secretly spying for the Brits; and Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a German war hero and star of a Joseph Goebbels propaganda film based on his battle exploits.

Landa is by far the most compelling of the foursome. As played by Waltz, the colonel is a slithery and cunning adversary, whose modus operandi is to engage his victim in social banter until he finds a weakness, and then burrow into that crack in their facade like a boll weevil.

Kruger has a pivotal role in the film's best sequence, a meeting between Hammersmark, a British agent and two of the Basterds in a basement pub to set a plot to blow up Shoshanna's theater, where Zoller's film is set to premiere. The scene starts on a frivolous note with churlish parlor games, but suspicion and hostility are ever so patiently ratcheted up. We can practically smell the fuse burning.

This is Tarantino at his best, using his gift with dialogue and mood to stir the waters, subtly at first but with increasing turbulence.

Less engaging is the Shoshanna/Zoller storyline, in which the German soldier becomes smitten with the clearly unreceptive French (he thinks) woman. This culminates in an impromptu lunch date between them and Goebbels that just goes on and on.

Oh yes, the Basterds. Pitt plays Lt. Aldo Raine, his accent dripping with Tennessee molasses, who demands his eight Jewish recruits each gift him with 100 Nazi scalps -- and he's not talking figurative scalps, as Tarantino demonstrates in one unnecessary close-up after another.

Sudden, gruesome violence is a signature ingredient of the Tarantino gumbo, and others also crop up. There's a kinetic scene set to deliberately incongruous music (in this case, David Bowie's "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)"). A Mexican standoff takes place -- in fact, two characters have a debate about whether they are engaged in one. And Diane Kruger gets to be the latest actress to showcase her feet for extended close-ups to serve Tarantino's icky fetish for females' lowest appendages.

The name "Inglourious Basterds" comes from a cheapie 1978 Italian flick starring Fred Williamson and Bo Svenson that was basically a knockoff of "The Dirty Dozen," and bears no resemblance to this film other than the wartime setting.

Like "Death Proof" and the "Kill Bill" duology, Tarantino's newest work is that of a blazing cinematic talent who only seems to be interested in making movies that satisfy his own off-kilter, retrograde fantasies. Perhaps one day he'll invite us in.

2.5 stars

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