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"INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS"
(2009) (Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama/Action: An American leads a small team of Jewish Nazi killers through WWII era France, all as others of various backgrounds with various motives do their part to accomplish the same goal.
PLOT:
It's 1944 and Lt. Aldo Raine (BRAD PITT) and his small team of Jewish Americans -- a.k.a. the "inglourious basterds" -- have been making the lives of Nazis in France so miserable, what with scalping their victims and carving swastikas into the foreheads of those they let go, that Adolf Hitler (MARTIN WUTTKE) wants all of them captured and killed. But Aldo and his men, including Cpl. Wilhelm Wicki (GEDEON BURKHARD), Nazi turncoat Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz (TIL SCHWEIGER) and Sgt. Donny "The Bear Jew" Donowitz (ELI ROTH) -- best known for his baseball bat wielding ways -- have smartly avoided detection so far.

Their latest mission is to assist with a covert operation to assassinate Hitler at a screening of "Nation's Pride," the latest propaganda film from Joseph Goebbels (SYLVESTER GROTH). His star, real life German military hero Frederich Zoller (DANIEL BRÜHL), who plays himself in the pic, has become so smitten with a young French woman, Emmanuelle (MÉLANIE LAURENT), that he convinces Goebbels to have his premiere at the local theater she runs with her projectionist, Marcel (JACKY IDO).

Little do any of them know that her real name is Shosanna Dreyfus or that her entire family was murdered by German Colonel Hans Landa (CHRISTOPH WALTZ) years earlier. Notoriously known as "The Jew Hunter," Landa is quite good at ferreting out and killing the remaining Jews in France, and Shosanna is shocked when she ends up meeting him again through Zoller. Learning that he, Goebbels and even Hitler himself will be at the film premiere, she sets out to get her revenge.

But she's not the only one aiming to take advantage of the surprising collection of despised Nazis, as British intelligence officer Lt. Archie Hicox (MICHAEL FASSBENDER) is meeting German actress turned Allies conspirator, Bridget Von Hammersmark (DIANE KRUGER), to get into the screening. With Aldo and his men ready to assist them, the stage seems set for a strike that might put an end to the war, but they must contend with unexpected developments as well as Landa's ability to sniff out the enemy.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
Having grown up with a dad who was in the service during the 1940s, I was immersed in all things WWII related, from magazines from that era to TV shows and especially movies that covered the various battles and personalities of that pivotal time in both American and, obviously, world history.

Considering the number of films related to that subject matter, the problem with making a new one is that most of the stories have already been told (although a few smaller and/or lesser known true tales still manage to pop up now and then) and we clearly know how everything ultimately turns out.

That was somewhat of a problem with "Valkyrie" from last year in that we knew the plot to kill Hitler didn't work. In fact, none of them in real life was successful as the Fuehrer managed to avoid that only to eventually commit suicide in April 1945. While director Bryan Singer nonetheless managed to build some suspense despite our knowledge of the outcome, it wasn't perfect, and any movie that focused on another such assassination plot clearly and similarly wouldn't be able to build any sort of absolute suspense either.

But what if said film came from the hands of Quentin Tarantino, the accomplished director of the "Kill Bill" pics, "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction," an unabashed film geek and apparent repository of all things regarding film facts, personnel and trivia, who's known for bending when not breaking the rules of storytelling?

The filmmaker puts all of those skills to good, no, great use in "Inglourious Basterds," a fictionalized tale of various attempts to kill Hitler. Named after but not following the plot of the little seen 1978 Italian film "The Inglorious Bastards," the pic proves yet again that few writer/directors can match Tarantino for sheer cinematic storytelling bravado. Campy yet brutal, funny but suspenseful, and unlike most anything you'll probably see all year, the film is exhilarating and highly entertaining, but not for kids or the squeamish.

Like the director's other pics, this offering creates highly memorable and engaging characters and their stories, and possesses terrific dialogue, as well as all sorts of fine cinematic details that fellow film geeks will enjoy pointing out. But it also contains sudden, shocking and brutal outbursts of violence, highly stylized yet also quite disturbing unlike much of the same that Hollywood routinely utilizes.

The impressive aspect (among many) is that nothing's superfluous or wasted, as everything pays off in one way or another. Broken up into five titled chapters, the film introduces a large number of players, both big & small and heroic & villainous, and their various stories play out individually yet collectively in terms of coming together in some fashion by the time everything wraps up.

Equally as notable is that the filmmaker takes his time not only in allowing all of that to gel, but also for each scene to build on its own. That starts right from the get-go as a Nazi officer known as "The Jew Hunter" (Christoph Waltz in an Oscar worthy performance) arrives at a French farmhouse and wants to chat with the appropriately cautious farmer (Denis Menochet) about reports of locals sheltering Jews.

Unlike most such pics, we have no idea what's going to happen, and the sequence is thrilling yet disturbing as Colonel Landa does the calm and seemingly friendly but ultra menacing bit, either looking for cracks in his suspect's story or simply playing with him before dropping the hammer.

The same occurs later in the film when an SS officer (Aleksandrs Petukhovs) becomes suspicious of the strange sounding accent of a German officer (Michael Fassbender) who we know is really a British spy (and film critic!) meeting a German actress (Diane Kruger) who's secretly working with the allies. The sequence ultimately and obviously serves the overall film, but it's a glorious piece of filmmaking on its own, with the suspense building moment by moment until that's shattered by the aforementioned sudden blazing of guns.

Less suspenseful but more entertaining from a camp and over the top angle is the story and actions of the title characters, led by Brad Pitt who's just as brutal as his counterparts. Yet, since he's one of the good guys and is playing a good ol' boy from Tennessee, his character comes off as acceptable (to a degree) and certainly a highly entertaining blast to watch.

That also pretty much holds true for the overall film. There's the subplot featuring Mélanie Laurent as a covert French Jew who runs a movie palace and wants to get revenge on Landa, and gets the chance when a German war hero (Daniel Brühl) and film propagandist (Sylvester Groth) fall into her lap. During that and elsewhere, Tarantino has fun playing with the genre conventions (explaining a change in language spoken in one scene that then has a second payoff) and various bits of homage (including lifting or heavily borrowing bits of the score from one of my favorite WWII pics, "Kelly's Heroes").

While Tarantino is obviously wearing his film geekdom clearly on his sleeve while telling this tale, three bits briefly had me worried (one being Mike Myers in a cameo bit, but he thankfully doesn't go Austin Powers on us), with the latter two appearing in the same sequence. That's when Laurent's character is shown prepping for her big event (a pivotal plot point in the story) and the montage feels a bit too close to Uma Thurman doing the same in one (or both, I can't remember) of the "Kill Bill" films.

Then there's the inclusion of David Bowie's "Putting Out Fire," a 1982 song that clearly doesn't temporally belong in the film (and is best known as having appeared in the Paul Schrader's remake of "Cat People"). It also felt as if the director simply couldn't help himself from once again including an older, cool song into the proceedings regardless of the temporal disparity. But it actually works brilliantly, what with the "Putting out fire with gasoline" lyrics perfectly describing the plan in play.

In fact, the pic is one big metaphor about the power of film, from a storyteller being able to alter history with it to how it can be utilized as propaganda (by the Nazis with the film within the film, "Nation's Pride") and later used -- literally and symbolically -- to bring down one of film's and the world's worst villains.

All in all, this is a terrific piece of filmmaking as it works on a number of levels and features characters and sequences that will likely be seared into one's consciousness for some time. Thankfully dispelling my initial concerns regarding its mid August theatrical release, "Inglourious Basterds" might not be spelled right, but that's about the only thing it gets wrong. Not for the kids or the easily squeamish, but a masterful stroke for anyone else who likes powerful and highly engaging storytelling, the film is one of the best of the year. It rates as an 8 out of 10.




Reviewed August 6, 2009 / Posted August 21, 2009


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