Quentin Tarantino has become known for lovingly-filmed over-the-top violence. Consider his recent films "Death Proof" (part of the "Grindhouse" double feature) and the two-part "Kill Bill." What's easy to forget is that Tarantino also has a great ear for dialog. Sure, he's good with one-liners, but he also can reveal a great deal about his characters with long, rambling conversations.
"Inglourious Basterds," Tarantino's latest, has both long conversations and over-the-top violence. From the promotions of the film, it's easy to go in expecting wall-to-wall brutality a la "Kill Bill," but this is more in the vein of his earlier work. It takes a good 20 minutes (taken up mostly by a largely one-sided conversation between a Nazi colonel and a French dairy farmer) for anything to actually happen.
Once the film does get rolling, it does so with a vengeance. Long stretches of tense, well-crafted dialog are interspersed with shocking violence. The Basterds of the title are a group of American Jews led by Lt. Aldo "The Apache" Raine (Brad Pitt) and sent behind enemy lines in France to terrorize the Nazis which they do very, very effectively. They scalp the ones they kill and mutilate the ones they don't, and generally terrify the German army. There's a lot less screen time devoted to this than one might expect from the previews, but what we do see is Tarantino at his blood-spattered finest. The images aren't softened by repetition, they're burned into our memories with brutal
The main plot of the film revolves around the premier of a propaganda flick about a young Nazi sharpshooter who held off 300 allied troops in a small town in Italy. Most of the Nazi high command will be attending, so naturally the Basterds are assigned to kill everyone there (their plan to do so winds up putting three of them in formalwear, which leads to some Marx-Brothers-esque comedy). But there's someone else interested in killing all those Nazis, and that is the film's lovely femme fatale. Shosanna Dreyfus (MŽlanie Laurent) narrowly escaped Landa's slaughter of her family and is hiding in plain sight as a Frenchwoman and owner of the cinema where the film premier will be held.
Tarantino's characters are wonderfully larger-than-life, but they resonate with reality at the same time. Yes, they're over the top, but their motivations are ones we can understand and sympathize with. Pitt has the wisdom to play Raine as someone who really, really loves his job and doesn't take himself too seriously, and the result is a cheerfully intimidating butcher we can root for. Waltz steals just about every scene he's in as the film's prime villain and it's easy to see why he won the Best Actor award when "Inglourious Basterds" premiered at Cannes. His Col. Landa is charming and evil and ambitious, the kind of villain you can really love to hate.
As usual, Tarantino walks the line between creating strong female characters and fetishizing them. Shosanna is determined and smart, and Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a beautiful double agent working with the Basterds, is brave but foolish. They both feel real, but that doesn't stop Tarantino from putting one in a noir-ish red dress and a tiny black hat with a veil and filming her preparations for the big night with a lascivious eye.
Whether you'll like "Inglourious Basterds" or not probably depends on whether you like Tarantino's films or not. His directorial style is so extreme and consistent that it's generally easy to tell in advance if you'll enjoy his films: just remember what you thought of the other films he's made. World War II history purists will need to check their historical knowledge at the door. This film starts out, "Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France..." and is, at heart, a fairy tale or a spaghetti western. This is World War II as Tarantino sees it, not the one from your history books.
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Ealasaid A. Haas is a local film buff and freelance writer. Contact her at email@example.com, or check out her Web site: www.ealasaid.com.