WWII: Tarantino Style
Why look back at World War II if you can’t change a few things? Quentin Tarantino must have asked himself that question before taking on Inglourious Basterds. As a result, his latest film ends up being a violent fantasy of monumental proportions. Luckily, it contains a couple of the best cinematic scenes this year plus one of the most brilliant portrayals of a villain I’ve seen since Anthony Hopkins transformed himself into Hannibal Lecter for Silence of the Lambs. However, the movie fails to deliver the high quality of its superb opening scene throughout -- and, because of Christoph Waltz’s riveting performance as a ruthless Nazi Colonel, the movie tends to lag when he’s not on screen.
Landa (Waltz) calls himself a detective, but he’s really on a mission to find the hidden Jews in Nazi-occupied France. In the suspenseful opening scene, he shows concern for a dairy farmer and his family -- but Landa’s polite demeanor changes to pure evil in the blink of an eye. Fortunately, the young Shosanna (Melanie Laurent, simply wonderful in her U.S. debut) escapes his clutches. Making her way to Paris, she becomes the owner of a movie theater inherited from her aunt and uncle. Too bad Shosanna hasn’t seen the last of Landa.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, acting like a fugitive from the Beverly Hillbillies TV show here) has lined up a group of Jewish-American recruits called "The Basterds" for a program of no-holds-barred retaliation against the Nazis. Aldo, part Apache, even demands that each of his men bring him 100 Nazi scalps “or die trying.”
Tying both of these story elements together is the premier of a German propaganda film titled Nation’s Pride, scheduled to screen at Shosanna’s theater. This event becomes even more important when Hitler himself as well as members of his high command decide to attend. Shosanna now has the opportunity for revenge -- and on her own cinematic terms -- yet never suspecting that the Inglorious Basterds, aided by a famous German actress (played by the beautiful and talented Diane Kruger), also plan a surprise for Hitler at the Nation’s Pride screening. And, of course, the wily Colonel Landa shows up with his own nefarious agenda.
Along with the opening scene, these fascinating theater sequences reveal Tarantino’s true power as a filmmaker, which I think comes from his overwhelming passion for movies. I love the references to other films included in this one, especially the use of a “Big Head” homage to The Wizard of Oz and the allusions to old German movies/stars.
Now a word about the violence in Inglourious Basterds. As everyone knows, war is hell, so Tarantino doesn’t skimp on showing it in this film. There are bloody scalpings, a man brutally beaten to death with a bat, a vicious choking, massive shootings, etc. I admit closing my eyes during most of those scenes. Definitely not my cup of tea, but avid Tarantino fans will probably be pleased.
Regarding Brad Pitt’s performance, I can’t help thinking he was miscast in the role of Aldo Raine. His hillbilly accent doesn’t ring true, so he’s not quite believable in any of his conversations, and I failed to see the humor in his dialogue. Because Pitt -- who was very funny indeed in Burn After Reading -- carries so much baggage from his private life and other movies, perhaps an unknown actor would have been more convincing in this key part.
Still, Christoph Waltz’s chilling work makes Inglourious Basterds worth seeing, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many film buffs throughout the world enjoy Quentin Tarantino’s alternate version of World War II.
(Released by The Weinstein Company and rated “R” for strong graphic violence, language and brief sexuality).
For more information about Inglourious Basterds, please go to the Internet Movie Data Base or Rotten Tomatoes website.