Saturday, August 22, 2009

'Inglourious Basterds' splatters WWII with Tarantino’s bizzaro take

By Steve Crum

On one hand, there is the vicious, Jew hunting Nazi colonel, and on the other, there is the bloodthirsty American lieutenant leading a group of Nazi-killing Jews. Inglourious Basterds is all about this and, well, all about this. These previous descriptive sentences understate the truth. After all, this is a Quentin Tarantino movie. Much more lies around the edges and within its structure than we expect.

A Tarantino written and directed work, like his Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bills, is a multi-channeled, media-referenced mass. Obviously, Tarantino’s brain cells are forever tapped into every pop song, commercial jingle, TV show, and movie, especially B-movie, he has ever seen or heard. Of course, Tarantino’s referential hooks then tweak our recollections, further enhancing--even distracting from--whatever plot line is occurring. But that teasing distraction is just what he wants to convey. Tarantino lays them in on a near subliminal level, so the result is a maybe not so curious blend of nostalgia and comfort. Invariably, it makes one smile, even while turning away during a grossly violent sequence.

Analyzing a Tarantino film is a happy distraction unto itself. What we get in Inglourious Basterds are the conventions of World War II spoofed, lampooned, and lambasted. It should cap the WWII film genre much the same as Mel Brooks did with horror movies (Young Frankenstein), westerns (Blazing Saddles), and Hitchcock thrillers (High Anxiety). Increase the graphic violence and language level, comparatively, for Inglourious Basterds. Incidentally, the misspelled title, called “an artistic flourish” by Tarantino, is but another off center inclusion. He refuses to explain it, leaving it to audience speculation. OK. So I feel free to say the film does have its share of characters who are glorified bastards as well as bastards not so glorified. This is simple observation, misspellings aside.

The film’s dark comedy is etched in the preamble: “Once upon a time (1941) in Nazi-occupied France....” Set up as if it were a fairy tale, let’s call it a very Grimm fairy tale, the story opens on a French farm in which a father is cutting wood as his daughters do chores in and outside their modest house. A small Nazi convoy drives up his long entrance, headed by SS Col. Hans Landa (brilliantly played by Christoph Waltz). Landa enters alone, and begins a cat and mouse style inquisition, now alone with the French farmer. It is a seemingly friendly chat they have, done with English subtitles. Yet the underlying tension is obvious. Landa suspects there are Jews hiding, probably in the very house in which the two sit as Landa sips fresh milk.

A Tarantino touch is a movie cliche as diversion; he has the colonel request the two speak in English since his French is not so sharp. The need for subtitles, which by the way are numerous throughout the film, is no longer necessary. This time-traveled my memory to the numerous WWII era films in which all Nazi soldiers spoke in King’s English as the British actors playing them. Again, a Tarantino tweak.

Landa immediately becomes the film’s center, even as we are introduced to the Pitt’s Nazi hating Lt. Aldo Raine. Again we get a Tarantino inside joke as he-man actor of the 1950’s Aldo Ray (Battle Cry, The Green Berets, and other war movies) is referenced. Raine’s Southern accent is not Aldo, however. It sounds, heavens to betsy, like George W. Bush, even down to his nicknaming everyone. Well, Bush is one of our wartime presidents, if that is any justification. But does Tarantino need justification? Nah.

Pitt’s characterization is outrageous and quite wonderful. No doubt he and Waltz will be Oscar nominated. Raine, a proud descendant of mountain man Jim Bridger, carries a Bowie knife for scalping, butchering and branding his captives, and his attitude is good ol’ boy, spit in your face contempt for the master race. His mission leads to Hitler himself, as well as all the top Nazi command, in an operation (called "Operation Kino") involving the premiere of a Nazi propaganda movie and a Jewish theater owner. Within the plot we meet Raine’s Dirty Dozen-like squad, made up of Jews with vendettas, including Eli Roth’s Sgt. Donny Donowitz aka “The Bear Jew.” He is introduced coming out of a cave banging his baseball bat (for Nazi brain bashing) against the walls, as the music of composer Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) sounds. It is showdown time.

Tarantino structures the episodic film in labeled chapters, as he has done in previous works. Chapter 3, for example is “A German Night in Paris.” Another chapter is “The Master Race at Play.” Mel Brooks had a similar line in his anti-Nazi laced The Producers: “A Gay Romp with Adolph and Eva....” Tripping along within the tanks, machine guns and dynamite are cameos by Samuel L. Jackson (a narrator), Mike Myers (British Gen. Ed Fenech), and Rod Taylor (!) as Sir Winston Churchill. Also listen for Tarantino’s unbilled voice as an American soldier in the Nazi movie-within-this-movie, titled Nation’s Pride.

Balancing the comedy and drama is deftly handled by a great supporting cast that includes Melanie Laurent’s Jewish projectionist Shosanna Drefus, and Diane Kruger as actress-spy Bridget von Hammersmark. The fast pace of the film trips along with increased absurdities. No way is Inglourious Basterds meant to be a History Channel version of WWII. However, the more knowledgeable you are about WWII history and 20th Century pop culture, the more you will appreciate this Tarantino absurdity.

What a wildly violent and memorable absurdity it is.
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On an A to F Grade Scale: A-
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