WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Set in occupied France during the waning days of World War II Inglourious Basterds jumps back and forth between different storylines over the course of several chapters before bringing them together for one intense utterly preposterous climax.
The “Basterds” of the film’s title refers to an elite group of Jewish-American soldiers assembled by Lt. Aldo Raine a no-nonsense descendent of Southern moonshiners whose assignment for his troops is simple: Each of them is tasked with gathering the scalps of 100 dead Nazi soldiers before the war is over. With each shocking act of retribution the Basterds perform word spreads of their savagery and by the time they arrive in occupied France their reputation is known to every enemy soldier.
Meanwhile Shosanna Dreyfus a French Jew who narrowly escaped the Gestapo death squad that murdered her immediate family has relocated to Paris and established a new identity as the owner of a local cinema. As Nazi patrols blanket the city she toils quietly under an assumed name awaiting the day when her own chance at retribution will come.
The destinies of Shosanna and the Basterds converge when Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels decides to hold the premiere of his latest propaganda film Nation’s Pride at Shosanna’s theater. With the aid of Bridget von Hammersmark a German film star secretly working as a double agent the Allies learn that no less than the entire Nazi High Command including Hitler will be in attendance. Confronted with the opportunity to deliver their unique brand of justice to the Fuhrer himself and end the war in one fell swoop the Basterds concoct a bold scheme to infiltrate the premiere rig the theater with dynamite and incinerate its inhabitants with one massive explosion.
WHO’S IN IT?
Always known for his unconventional approach to casting Inglourious Basterds director Quentin Tarantino assembled a characteristically eclectic group of actors for his latest effort mixing veterans with newcomers Americans with Europeans and superstars with virtual unknowns. Sporting a ridiculous mustache and an even more ridiculous Southern accent Brad Pitt leads the pack in the role of Aldo Raine while horror director Eli Roth (Hostel I and II) makes his acting debut as Raine’s sadistic right-hand man Sgt. Donny Donowitz. Other notable Basterds include B.J. Novak (The Office) Samm Levine (Freaks and Geeks) Paul Rust (I Love You Beth Cooper) and Omar Doom (Grindhouse).
It’s the cast’s European players who really distinguish Inglourious Basterds. German-born National Treasure star Diane Kruger makes the perfect 1940s matinee idol as the turncoat von Hammersmark while Irish-bred Michael Fassbender (Jonah Hex) oozes with old-school English haughtiness as her charming British co-conspirator Lt. Archie Hicox. Making an impressive English-language debut in Basterds as the quietly seething Shosanna is the luminous French star Melanie Laurent.
Rising above all of them with a truly Oscar-worthy performance is Austrian actor Christoph Waltz. Waltz is a revelation (to American audiences at least) as Col. Hans Landa the highly eccentric and brutally efficient leader of Nazi security efforts in France. Alternately hilarious and terrifying Waltz’s Landa is easily the most compelling big-screen villain since Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. Lest we forget Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for his performance. (Waltz for his part already snagged the best-actor prize at Cannes earlier this year.)
Nobody executes dramatic shifts in tone more effectively and powerfully than Tarantino and Inglourious Basterds transitions breathlessly between moments of high tension and high comedy brutal carnage and lighthearted whimsy — all of which are peppered with the director’s distinctive dialogue and trademark wit. The film is easily his best work since 1994's Pulp Fiction.
At over two-and-a-half hours there are moments when the pacing of Inglourious Basterds seriously drags. Tarantino is above all else an actor’s director and there are times that he becomes so enamored with a performance that he’ll allow a scene to extend well beyond the point that its resolution has become a foregone conclusion. How such an obviously ADD-addled guy like Tarantino can exhibit such disdain for brevity is beyond my comprehension.
WHERE ARE THE BASTERDS?
Contrary to the film’s ad campaign the Basterds are actually minor players in the storyline. Only Pitt and Roth are given a substantial amount of dialogue; Novak and the others have only a line or two — if they speak at all.
I won’t give anything away but suffice it to say that Inglourious Basterds’ storyline features a decidedly revisionist take on the events of World War II. Obviously historical accuracy wasn’t a priority for Tarantino — and it probably shouldn’t be for the viewer either.
Kill Bill Vol. 2 picks up where the first installment left off with The Bride (Uma Thurman) delivering a "refresh your memory" monologue as she drives to her next victim Budd (aka Sidewinder). These shots are cut through with flashbacks that tell the whole story of the "Massacre at Two Pines " and it's instant-gratification city. First we meet the wedding party the reverend and his wife and Rufus the piano player (Samuel L. Jackson in a cameo role). But most importantly we meet the elusive Bill (David Carradine) for the first time. (He appeared in the first film only in voiceover.) You know from the start that this movie isn't going to rely on the same suspense devices the first film did and you soon learn it doesn't rely as heavily on the blood and gore that so distinguished the first installment. The creatively shot and intelligently constructed opening scenes make Tarantino's epic of evil gripping right from the start in its own right. Amazingly considering the way she ripped her enemies apart in the first film The Bride doesn't always get her man in this one; Budd (Michael Madsen) actually gets the best of the Bride--at least temporarily--and entombs her in "The Lonely Grave of Paula Schultz " one of the most horrifying scenes of burial alive ever. Flash back to "The Cruel Tutelage" of kung-fu master Pei Mei (Gordon Liu) who taught The Bride how to break through wood planks with her fists from three inches away (which comes in handy now) and the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart technique (which will come in handy later). Freeing herself from her makeshift grave to do battle with her victims once more the Bride dispenses with both Budd and Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) who's conveniently appeared on the scene and it's on to the greatest battle of them all--it's time to Kill Bill
Thurman proves her calm cool collected mettle once more as The Bride (aka Beatrix Kiddo aka Black Mamba) plucking out eyeballs bloodying her fists punching wood exploding hearts and the like. But we also see her completely vulnerable during flashbacks to the time she spent in a coma after the attack (some gnarly stuff happens in the hospital but no spoilers forthcoming from this reviewer). And there's a softer side to Black Mamba when she's awake too. In another flashback we see The Bride on her last assignment before she quit the assassination business to become a wife and mom--the stick in her EPT has just turned blue when a rival assassin comes knocking through the door and it's a poignant moment (with a Tarantino edge) as she tries to protect her unborn child. Carradine's Bill is somehow less menacing than one might have expected but there's enough creepiness in the character for an audience to imagine what a real hard case he must have been in his glory days. Hannah enjoys a splendid comeback role as The Bride's fellow assassin and she's regal in her adherence to the warrior code they share. Madsen wears Sidewinder's cowboy hat and slouchy jeans like he was born to them and swills whisky like a ranch hand yet he still captures the wistfulness of the once-great fighter if somewhat ironically.
Fans of Tarantino's Pulp Fiction can start rejoicing. He's finally made a film that lives up to the standard he set back in 1990. All the influences on the first film are still very much in evidence here--Asian martial arts films in particular--but each chapter in this installment as in the previous has its own look creating a mix n' match patchwork feel that somehow manages to work in spite of itself. If there's one criticism it's that it indulges a bit in its own cleverness and that makes it a little too long. But Vol. 2 shouldn't see the big criticisms aimed at Vol. 1's dark gory violence; instead Vol. 2 finds kinship with its creator's first big hit in its story and characters. Sure it's overblown; sure everyone is evil on some level. That's the fun of it. And every now and then a little compassion comes through or a little humor and it captures the ridiculousness of human nastiness whether it's the petty arguments you had all day at work or all the slaughter that's been perpetrated with a Hattori Hanzo sword.