Thursday, August 20, 2009

Film review: Tarantino's 'Basterds' distinctive, but also idiotic

Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds.


By Hap Erstein

With a regard for history as erratic as his spelling, Quentin Tarantino brings us his idiosyncratic -- and occasionally idiotic -- vision of World War II, Inglourious Basterds, a fitfully amusing, frequently brutal spin on war movie clichés.

The title, swiped from an obscure 1978 Italian film, refers to a small group of Jewish-American viligante G.I.s airlifted into Nazi-occupied France. This Dirty Half-Dozen ambushes German soldiers, kills them and scalps them, in honor of their part-Native American commander Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, spouting a Tennessee accent). Another in the platoon apparently has no such ancestry, so he simply smashes in skulls with a baseball bat.

Tarantino rose to prominence in 1994 with Pulp Fiction, which spawned many less talented imitators but few worthy follow-up films on his own. He is certainly well-versed in the traditions of cinema lore, and according to this inglorious release, it is the movies themselves that are responsible for the fate of the war and of Adolf Hitler.

Do not write about this on your history exams, kids, but as Tarantino recalls matters, Joseph Goebbels, head of German propaganda films, seeks to premiere his latest masterpiece at a Paris movie palace. Since most of the Nazi inner circle, including Der Fuhrer, intend to attend, a British munitions expert plans to blow up the place, and the Basterds scheme to kill Hitler with celluloid -- setting the cinema on fire with a pile of highly combustible nitrate-based film.

If any if this sounds preposterous to you, you are getting the picture. Still, Tarantino remains a visual virtuoso, so the suspense-laden sequences leading up to the incendiary climax still impress, even if they lack a shred of credibility.

Perhaps the best part of the movie is the prologue, set in 1941, in which a merrily malevolent S.S. colonel (Christoph Waltz), calmly and methodically goes from French farmhouse to farmhouse, in search of hidden Jews. He stares down a stubborn farmer until he cracks, and mows down the family in the basement. All except a grown daughter named Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), who not only gets away, but makes it to Paris where she comes to own that show piece movie palace.

Facts may not matter to Tarantino, but irony is alive and well.

Clocking in at 2 hours and 32 minutes, Inglourious Basterds is edited indulgently, but there are several sequences full of the filmmaker’s rich, flavorful dialogue. One bizarre but memorable scene sees Gestapo officers, Allied spies and a famous German film star (Diane Kruger) sitting around a beer hall playing a parlor game of guess-the-celebrity, just prior to a bloody shootout.

Pitt plays a slightly more intelligent, far more violent version of his two-dimensional Burn After Reading character. Laurent is probably the most fleshed-out character and the striking young actress looks likely to come out of this film with considerable attention. Rod Taylor, of all people, shows up briefly as Winston Churchill and if you look real close, you might be able to spot Mike Myers as a British officer under a lot of makeup.

Reportedly, Tarantino has been working on the script of Inglourious Basterds for more than 10 years. Whether or not it is the film he wanted to make after all this time, maybe he has gotten his World War II statement out of his system.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. Studio: Universal Pictures; Director: Quentin Tarantino; Starrring: Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger; Rated: R: Opening: Friday, most area theaters.

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