Movie reviews recommends Tarantino's latest
The Good, The Bad and The Nazi.
That could be the subtitle for Quentin Tarantino's latest foray into sweet and tender filmmaking, "Inglourious Basterds." The title is a misspelling of a 1978 Italian movie directed by Enzo Castellari. A "macaroni combat film," it followed in the bloody footsteps of the Italian spaghetti Western popularized by Clint Eastwood and featuring the music of Ennio Morricone.
This film, even though it's set in France during World War II, also contains Morricone music. Sure, why not? Anyone familiar with Tarantino knows this cinephile loves cross-pollinating genres. He also adores populating his films with remembrances of movies past, and this film is no exception.
While some of these homages may be too obscure for most normal human beings -- one of the character's names refers to a Mexican actor famous in 1970s horror films -- the general moviegoing public should enjoy "Basterds." That is, if they don't mind Tarantino's penchant for loquacious scenes, a smidgeon of gruesome violence and little regard for history. Just don't expect a lot of gore and laugh-out-loud humor. This isn't "Pulp Fiction."
Fans of good acting will be in for a treat, however, and Tarantino's visual skills are on display here in full force, particularly the climactic scene where all hell breaks footloose and fancy free.
Basically, it's a fun time at the movies for the mildly disturbed.
As for the aforementioned Good, that would be Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), a French Jew who witnesses her family's murder by German soldiers and escapes to Paris where she runs a movie theater under a new identity.
The Bad would be Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who organizes a group of Jewish-American soldiers whose goal is to kill Germans in a barbaric fashion in order to strike fear into the enemy. They succeed.
Technically, Aldo is a good guy, but anyone who carves swastikas into victims' foreheads and encourages scalping might not fit everyone's description of a knight in shining armor. I guess you could say he's good in a bad way.
The Nazi is Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a ruthless SS officer known as the "Jew Hunter" for his skill in tracking down and killing Jews.
The movie begins with the words "once upon a time" a hint of the film's fabulist bent. We then see Landa interrogating a French dairy farmer to see if he's hiding any Jews. For reasons that slap reality in the face but make sense if the scene is going to work Landa tells the farmer he's exhausted his French vocabulary and wants to speak in English. The dairy farmer agrees and the conversation switches from French to English.
Now you may wonder how many dairy farmers in rural France in 1941 spoke English. I'm sure they existed, but if you know any, drop me a line. Anyway, if the characters continued speaking in French, the Jews hiding underneath the floorboards would know what was about to happen to them. The sole Jew to escape the ensuing slaughter is Shosanna.
The film then turns its attention to Raine and his Dirty Half-Dozen, give or take a few soldiers. They take little pity on a band of captured Germans and when one of the soldiers refuses to provide information, Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Newton's Eli Roth), known as "The Bear Jew," makes his entrance to dole out punishment with a baseball bat.
Here and elsewhere, Tarantino masterfully milks every ounce of dread and suspense out of a scene. For example, before we see Donny, we hear his baseball bat banging against a tunnel wall for what seems like an eternity. When Donny finally appears, he bashes the German's head in with the bat invoking the name of Boston Red Sox great Ted Williams as he swings. Sick and twisted yet it's vintage Tarantino. The film would have done better to give more screen time to this wrecking crew and less screen time to the talking heads.
Anyway, "Basterds" advances to 1944 and Shosanna, using the alias Emmanuelle Mimieux, becomes the object of desire of a German war hero, Fredrik Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), who killed hundreds of Allied soldiers from a sniper's nest. Not surprisingly, Shosanna wants nothing to do with him, but he won't take no for an answer. He forces her to lunch where she meets Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), the unctuous minister of propaganda who is promoting a film about Zoller called "Nation's Pride." She also meets pause for dramatic effect Landa, now a security chief. Fortunately, he doesn't recognize her, but their lengthy conversation at the lunch table comes served with an extra helping of tension.
When the decision is made to screen the film in her theater where it will be attended by Nazi bigwigs, including Hitler himself, Shosanna decides to exact her revenge by burning the theater to the ground with the Nazis trapped inside.
When the Allies hear about the screening, they send Raine and his men to Paris to set off their own deadly fireworks. To accompany them on the mission is a German-speaking British soldier, Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), and a spy, German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger).
Not everything goes according to plan, of course. Along the way, we witness yet another long scene, this time in a bar complete with a drinking game and a Tarantino specialty the Mexican standoff. It's "Reservoir Dogs" with guns pointed at groins. Ouch.
The most impressive acting performance in "Basterds" gets turned in by Waltz, who appears charming enough but would just as soon strangle you as smile at you. His Landa could also teach master classes in treachery. Laurent also deserves kudos as a woman haunted by the past and tortured in the present.
Pitt fans, however, should know that his screen time is limited. He does have fun with a Southern accent and a sadistic nature. If you're wondering why his character has a rope burn around his neck, keep wondering. It's never explained. One could assume if you survive a hanging, you might have anger issues.
In the cameo department, Mike Myers, wearing heavy makeup, plays a British general; Rod Taylor, who starred 46 years ago in "The Birds" with Tippi Hedren, plays Winston Churchill; and Samuel L. Jackson, one of the stars of "Pulp Fiction," provides occasional narration.
Clearly, "Basterds" isn't for everyone, as Tarantino is an acquired taste. I happen to enjoy his films, even his missteps, for the simple reason that his movies are so audacious. At a time where so many filmmakers play it safe and dumb their films down for public consumption, Tarantino dares to be daring. He hits, he misses, but he keeps firing, mixing substance and style with frantic panache.
Now if only someone could rein in his excesses. Trim the dialogue and "Basterds" not only becomes an hour shorter, it becomes stronger dramatically. Heck, it could even become glorious.
MetroWest Daily News
Starring Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz and Melanie Laurent
Rated R (for strong graphic violence, language and brief sexuality), 143 minutes
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino