Tarantino Makes History with "Basterds"

Ever since the age of 12 when I tricked my grandmother into taking me to the theater to see Pulp Fiction, I have been a fan of Quentin Tarantino; however plagued I have been with doubts about his actual talent level ever since its follow-up, Jackie Brown. While that film has only appreciated with age, when I first saw it I wondered if he would ever be able to attain the greatness of Pulp Fiction ever again. The Kill Bill films and Death Proof were dumb fun, and never aspired to any higher goal than that, but to me they lacked what I would call The Tarantino Charm (Kill Bill 2 had its moments for me, though). This is why I am beyond thrilled to report that his latest film, a revisionist World War II shoot-em-up called Inglourious Basterds, is indeed a glorious return to form for the greatest director to emerge in the last 15 years.

I don't know what it is about his style, but Tarantino's movies always make me feel like I am watching something that was made 30 years ago, and in a good way. I think it has to do with the lighting that he uses, as well as tricks such as the accidentally-on-purpose film blemishes that were found throughout Grindhouse. The trademark dialogue is back too; the characters don't necessarily talk like real people, however they do talk like characters in movies should. He even finds a way to show off his genius by shoehorning in a few references to 1940's pop-culture, reminiscent of the table full of gangsters sitting around ruminating on Madonna in Reservoir Dogs. As a matter of fact, if Inglorious Basterds recalls any of Tarantino's earlier work, it would be that film.

Basterds opens with a French peasant farmer chopping wood in an idyllic farmland while his daughter dries clothes on a nearby clothesline. She is alerted by the sound of an approaching Nazi caravan, and from then forward the film achieves a level of tension that does not relent until the beginning of the next chapter, of which there are five. This tension often returns though, and is rampant throughout Basterds. It is most thick in scenes that have the involved characters sitting at tables and speaking quietly; voices, for the most part, are raised only in the films few moments of celebration.

Tarantino continues the fascination with blondes he's seemingly had since Jackie Brown, centering the film around the sublimely beautiful Melanie Laurent. Laurent plays Shoshana Dreyfus, an escaped Jew living under an assumed name in Nazi-occupied France, and whose movie theater the Nazis want to use for the climatic premiere of their latest propaganda film Nation's Pride. In another subplot that converges with all of the others that the film offers up, Shoshana is relentlessly courted by the film's star, Fredrick Zoller, who happens to also be a Nazi war hero himself.

The character of Shoshana is more central to the plot even than the eponymous Nazi-hunting Basterds (led by a hilariously scene-chewing Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo "The Apache" Raine), who get sort of shuffled off the side and are barely tangential to the plot. This works however because it turns Inglorious Basterds into a very different movie than you expect going in, and the results are a pleasant surprise to say the least. Consequently, when the Basterds are on screen, they quite literally steal the show.

Christolph Waltz portrays the film's most repulsively alluring character, Nazi detective Col. Hans Landa, with a terrifying smugness. His presence on screen will cause many to shift in their seats; no matter how pleasant his demeanor or how much he smiles, he has an underlying menace that simply cannot be concealed.

QT even sneaks in some effective stunt casting: see if you can identify who is behind the two disembodied voices heard in the film. Also amusing is the cameo by Mike Myers, playing a British Officer (imagine a rejected Austin Powers character) who briefs Michael's Fassbender's film critic-turned-spy while Winston Churchill sits in a corner and looks on silently. It is a very effective scene that, like many in Inglorious Basterds (and Tarantino films in general), stop the story completely without slowing the film down. All in the name of providing exposition which gives the following scenes more meaning.

And Basterds is easily Quentin Tarantino's most meaningful and sophisticated effort yet. Nation's Pride is a film-within-a-film that seems to consist of nothing but a Nazi sniper in a tower taking head-shot after head-shot at defenseless American Soldiers. The fictional audience simply laps up the display of gratuitous violence, much like the crowd that I sat in the theater with did during the film's ultra violent feel-good climax. It's at this moment that Inglourious Basterds poses a question about violence-as-entertainment that seems like it's barely meant to register; don't blame yourself for having too much fun to think about it.

Grade: A-

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