‘Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France.’ So begins the long awaited film by Quentin Tarantino about a small, ruthless and dedicated unit of Jewish American soldiers hand picked by their leader, Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), during World War Two, for a very dangerous mission. They are to parachute into France just before the D-Day invasion and wreak havoc behind the German lines and show the enemy absolutely no mercy in “Inglourious Basterds.”
Not to be mistaken for the lighthearted 1978 Italian war movie, “Inglorious Bastards,” Quentin Tarantino writes and directs a fantasy World War 2 epic that has violence (lots of violence), drama, humor, pathos, flirtation, bravery, mutilation, betrayal and a whole bunch more.
Set in chapters, the several story threads unwind, starting with a visit by Colonel Hans “Jew Hunter” Landa - in an Oscar worthy performance by newcomer to the big screen Christoph Waltz - to a French dairy farmer. He asks for a glass of fresh milk, speaking flawless French, but soon switches to English. He cuts the dairyman a deal: If the farmer tells him the whereabouts of a hidden Jewish family, he and his daughters will be spared from arrest, torture and execution. The chapter ends in a rain of bullets with only one of the Jews, Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), escaping.
Chapter two introduces the Basterds as they are addressed by Lt. Raine. He tells them of their mission to drop behind enemy lines and wreak vengeance on the Nazis. His plan is to strike terror in the hearts of fascist troops and their leaders and Aldo orders each of his eager volunteers to bring him 100 Nazi scalps. The plan is a rousing success, even bringing the attention of the Fuehrer (Martin Wuttke) himself.
Chapter three brings us to the small Parisian movie theater run by Shosanna, now using the name of Emmanuelle Mimieux. A young German private, Frederich Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), tries to chat with her about movies while she changes the theater marquee. She rebuffs him, not wanting to be associated with the Nazis but he persists, intruding on her breakfast the next morning. She tries to set him straight but is constantly being interrupted by a steady flow of Nazis wanting to shake the soldier’s hand or ask for his autograph. Zoller, Shosanna is surprised to learn, is a hero of the Reich, having single-handedly killed nearly 300 American soldiers in Italy during a two-day battle.
A propaganda film, “Nation’s Pride” starring Zoller (a la Audie Murphy turn) reenacting his prodigious feat, is going to receive its gala debut in Paris and Zoller, trying to ingratiate himself to Shosanna, offers to use his influence with Nazi minister Joseph Goebbels to have her theater selected for the event.
Bring in beautiful German movie star and double agent Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), young British agent Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), the return of Col. Landa and more dead bodies than you can shake a stick at. Mix these varied characters, and many more, with the Basterds and Shosanna and the humongous assassination plot(s) and the result is a two and a half hour film that has little fat on it, making it an amusing pleasure watch. I say pleasure despite the copious amounts of murder, mayhem and mutilation – all done in vivid grisliness. (More sensitive eyes, beware.)
“Inglorius Basterds” is the best film that Tarantino has done since “Pulp Fiction” and shows the filmmaker’s evolving mastery at telling a rousing yarn. I have seen many complaints about the writer-director’s playing fast and loose with WW2 history. My response to that is: so what? This is, first, a fantasy from Quentin’s mind, not an attempt at historical accuracy. The idea of the Basterds is based on reality – the British fielded a small, behind the lines force to strike terror in the Nazi forces in France. However, this is just the jumping off point for the film. From there on in, though, is pure Tarantino imagination and is an original and fascinating epic action adventure.
The huge cast features A-list player Brad Pitt as its name draw but the actor is among equals in this exciting war drama that deftly brings all the varied story threads together. The Basterds cast includes Eli Roth, Til Schweiger (as a Nazi Nazi-killer enlisted by Raine), B.J. Novak, Gedeon Burkhard and Omar Doom as the Jewish hunters out for blood. Melanie Laurent lends a serious note to her Shosanna, a young woman who has plotted revenge for her murdered family for years. Diane Kruger is very good as the femme fatale actress working secretly for the Allies. Christoph Waltz, as I said, is terrific as the ruthless, suave Jew Hunter. The actor smoothly and fluently moves from German to French to English to Italian and gives Col. Landa full dimension. The supporting cast is terrific and too numerous to name and describe.
Behind the lens players are top notch. Cinematographer Robert Richardson, whose filmography includes, among many others, “Kill Bill (Vol. 1 & 2),” “Snow Falling on Cedars” and “Natural Born Killers,” further displays his mastery with the camera. Editing (Sally Menke), production design (David Wasco), costume (Anna B. Shephard) any the many other roles are expertly handled.
Tarantino fans, among many others, will have a great good time. I give it an A-.
Southern boy Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) hand picks a pack of Nazi scalpers of the Jewish persuasion and advises them that they will attack like his ancestral Apaches, using cruelty to make the Germans know and fear them and they do. With Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger, "King Arthur," "Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo"), notorious for having killed thirteen as an enlisted German, and Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth, "Hostel," "Death Proof"), known as 'The Bear Jew' and for his way with a baseball bat, in their ranks, Hitler himself is soon calling for the demise of "The Inglourious Basterds."
Writer/director Quentin Tarantino ("Pulp Fiction," "Grindhouse") is like a kid in a candy store reinventing WWII as a Spaghetti Western peopled with British film critics, vengeful Jewish cinema owners and beautiful German film stars turned British spy. His pièces de résistance are Cannes Best Actor winner Christoph Waltz ("Schussangst") as the glib and duplicitous Nazi Col. Hans Landa, aka 'The Jew Hunter,' and a wallop of a climax that reimagines a cinema auditorium as a Holocaust gas chamber by way of the throne of the great and powerful wizard of Oz. And he gets his foot fetishism in, too.
The film has a good old fashioned international cast (the credits even include that old chestnut, 'Guest starring') and is told in five chapters, the first of which has been getting most of the attention. It is here that we first meet Landa as he visits French farmer Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet, "Hannibal Rising") to see if he may be hiding the one unaccounted for Jewish family in the area. But what makes Landa so maliciously evil is his charming, bureaucratic banter. He fusses with pens and lists and talks about the redundancy of governmental service. He admires the farmers' daughters and his dairy produce. He asks if he may switch to English, apologizing for his perfectly mellifluous French, and at first we chuckle, thinking that this is Tarantino's clever way of switching off the subtitles. But then Landa's eyes go dead and we realize there is a far more sinister reason.
It is in the second chapter that we first meet Pitt's Raine, all jaw full of chaw like he's playing George Clooney playing Clark Gable in 'O Brother.' It's an entertaining performance, but this chapter is an uncomfortable mix of comedy and sadism. At least Raine gives us a reason, and one that seems to be working, for his squad's barbarism. In chapter 3 we remeet chapter 1's Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent, "Don't Worry, I'm Fine"), now the owner of a Parisian cinema and the ironic recipient of the attentions of German war hero Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl, "Good Bye Lenin!," "The Bourne Ultimatum"), a movie buff. (Tarantino the movie buff hides a neat reference to his character's secrets within the movie title she is affixing to her marquee, Henri-Georges Clouzot's "Le Corbeau.") Zoller won't give up on Shosanna and to her great surprise, she finds herself discussing her cinema as a premiere location for a film about him with none other than Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth, "The Reader"). In a devastatingly tense flip of chapter 1, Shosanna also must discuss security concerns with none other than Landa, who even orders her a glass of milk with her strudel ('Attendez la crema!'). Just as Shosanna begins to contemplate new uses for (incredibly flammable) nitrate film, chapter 4 outlines Operation Kino, a British plan much like Shosanna's own. The Errol Flynn-like Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender, "300," "Hunger") joins forces with some of Raines's own to meet German film star Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger, "Troy," "National Treasure: Book of Secrets") who is spying for the English, but her choice of meeting spot - a subterranean French tavern - turns out to be full of German soldiers celebrating the birth of Master Sgt. Wilhelm's (Alexander Fehling) son. Von Hammersmark is cool, playing a game of celebrity heads (where one is German author Karl May's Apache Chief Winnetou), but when Major Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl, "The Counterfeiters") makes his presence known, Hicox has trouble hiding his Englishness. All the players finally come together in chapter 5, in which Landa is suspicious of just about everyone. If there is one great disappointment in "Inglourious Basterds," it is that Landa learns the identity of everyone except the one person who would most like him to find out.
Tarantino's always been a great writer and the dialogue in this film snaps. After Landa plays Prince Charming with Hammersmark he notes 'If the shoe fits...' only to turn around with 'It feels like the shoe is on the other foot' a couple of scenes later. Kudos, too, for keeping the players speaking the languages they naturally would (Waltz landed his part with fluency in German, English and French, although his Italian's not bad either!). The Apache references are playfully integrated, but the film is positively dripping in self reference, from its cinema as ultimate Nazi killer to the different genres Tarantino utilizes. Music, as ever, is a feast from the Ennio Morricone pieces to David Bowie's "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)."
Tarantino is also known for reviving careers and his casting of Mike Meyers as an English general is surprise which Meyers pulls off with just the right amount of subtle humor. Everybody's good here. Even director buddy Eli Roth has a scary gleam in his eye (and a killer bit on Ted Williams and the Boston Red Sox). Diane Kruger has come into her own, proving she can really step up to the plate with the big boys. We know she's effective because we just hate to see her go. Laurent is also fine - watch her near nervous breakdown after holding it together sharing pastry with Landa - and Tarantino has immortalized her as a hologram in smoke, the 'big head' noted in the last chapter heading. Daniel Brühl pulls off an interesting dichotomy, the German war hero who may just not be such a bad guy while Diehl shades his commanding and deadly serious presence with self doubt.
"Inglourious" looks glorious. Cinematographer Robert Richardson ("Kill Bill") treats us to crisp images of bucolic countryside and autumnal forests. Interiors, which were created at Berlin's legendary Babelsberg Studios, have a naturally old period feel. Costumes are stunning and even witty (Kruger wears an elevated cast to match her heeled shoe to the premiere).
"Inglourious Basterds" may be pulp fiction, but it's a thrilling ride, a movie you can really sink into. It just may be Tarantino's most enjoyable movie since "Reservoir Dogs."
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