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Dustin Putman

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Inglourious Basterds  (2009)
4 Stars
Directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Cast: Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Daniel Brühl, Til Schweiger, Gedeon Burkhard, Marcel, B.J. Novak, Omar Doom, August Diehl, Denis Menochet, Sylvester Groth, Martin Wuttke, Mike Myers, Julie Dreyfus, Richard Sammel, Alexander Fehling, Rod Taylor, Sonke Mohring, Samm Levine, Paul Rust, Michael Bacall.
2009 – 152 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong graphic violence, language and brief sexuality).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 11, 2009.
A few weeks prior to the release of "Inglourious Basterds," Rachel Nichols, star of the recent "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra," followed Quentin Tarantino as the second guest on "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" During the interview, she spoke about how the screenplay was so secretive that she wasn't allowed to read it before signing onto the film. With a smile on his face, Tarantino shot back that, quite the contrary, he is always eager to show his scripts to other people because he is actually proud of what he writes. It was a delicious dig at a Hollywood system that more often than not devises the cinematic equivalent of crap, pours millions upon millions of dollars into its special effects, star power and/or marketing, and then lures in a public only so happy to pay the ticket price for something new and shiny and terminally brain-dead. No matter how many distaff imitators there may be, no filmmaker working today comes close to writing or directing like Tarantino, a trailblazing auteur who shows a distinct passion for his projects and an appropriate reverence for the art form. Although he only works sparingly—his last feature film was 2004's "Kill Bill: Vol. II," not counting his respective "Death Proof" segment in 2007's "Grindhouse"—the long waits in between are well worth it. Better to tweak a screenplay into its best and brightest condition before shooting gets underway than to rush the process and deliver a mediocre product.

Like a masterpiece of a novel you don't want to end yet can't help but devour, "Inglourious Basterds" is fierce, fascinating, literate, ballsy, shocking, whimsical, devastating, brazenly inventive, and nothing less than wholly hypnotic. Divided into five chapters—a further contribution to its sumptuously erudite feel—the film is ecstasy for movie lovers, not only to soak up a piece of history that has been wickedly, some might say idealistically, revised, but also to lounge within the words and unforgettable personalities of characters that have been lusciously, painstakingly created. In a year when, thus far, there has been a fair share of fine films, but few truly great ones, "Inglourious Basterds" tears across the screen like it has something to prove. This could very well be Quentin Tarantino's highest achievement since 1994's "Pulp Fiction."

One of the many pleasures of "Inglourious Basterds" is in watching the interweaving storylines perceptibly unfold, moving ever closer to the same destination as the stakes are perilously raised. Set during World War II, a renegade troop of Jewish-American soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and bat-wielding right-hand man Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) cross into Nazi-occupied France as civilians with one clear-cut goal in mind: to scalp and kill Nazis, one hundred for every man in their squadron. As their radical brand of justice edges closer to Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke) and successor Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), movie palace owner Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), an undercover Jew going by the alias Emmanuelle Mimieux, is romantically pursued by German soldier Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). Zoller is about to see the release of "Nation's Pride," a propaganda documentary with himself as the subject, and wants Emmanuelle to host the lavish premiere. For a young woman whose entire family was murdered before her eyes three years earlier by S.S. "Jew-hunter" Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), she suddenly sees the screening as her one chance for revenge. Everybody who's anybody in the Nazi Party is scheduled to attend, and Shosanna is about to go to whatever length is necessary to give them a taste of their own bitter medicine.

Anyone questioning Quentin Tarantino's ability to command a scene need not look any further than the extended opening of "Inglourious Basterds." When dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet) is paid a visit by Col. Hans Landa, the working-class man invites him inside for a chat and a drink (that Landa requests milk, gulping it up with the insatiability of a malnourished infant being breast-fed, is creepy enough). The dialogue these two share, incorporated with the subtlety of their body language, is like a high-stakes game of Russian Roulette—quiet, drawn-out, and so intense the viewer almost forgets to breathe. At first, the audience is unsure of where things are going, but LaPadite, staying just barely calm and collected as he stuffs tobacco into his pipe, knows very well what Landa, a devout member of the Nazi Party, is fishing for. When the motive comes into focus—he suspects LaPadite of illegally harboring Jews in his home—it only adds to the pall of squirm-inducing dread. This segment, serving as something of a prologue, grabs one's attention by the throat.

What follows is phenomenal on every critical, emotional and subjective level, a motion picture that involves and deepens in each proceeding moment. At heart, "Inglourious Basterds" is a fable that combines the real-life horrors of WWII-era Nazism with a devious blast of wish-fulfillment. The way writer-director Quentin Tarantino skews truth with fiction, terror with black humor, and fatalism with tragedy is brilliant, a creativity-spewing tonal collage that must have had him smiling away at his computer as he penned it. That is surely the response of the viewer watching it, curious and giddy as to where the story will turn next. In one corner are the so-called "Inglourious Basterds" themselves, a make-shift gang of Jewish-American anarchists ready to end a reign long overdue for destruction. When they learn of the premiere screening of "Nation's Pride," they see it as their one and likely only chance at taking down the Third Reich; Hitler and all his heavy underlings will be there, and they have famed German-actress-cum-spy Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) as their "in" to the theater. In the other corner is the host of the evening, Shosanna Dreyfus, whom no one suspects has plans for the theater attendees even more extravagant and damaging than anything Lt. Aldo Raine could have thought up.

As the multilayered tale plays out, bursts of inspiration are as plentiful as fireworks on the Fourth of July. The ever-nearing sound of Sgt. Donowitz's bat smashing against the cement of a dark, dank tunnel after a German soldier refuses to give up his men's location to Lt. Raine is simply pulled off, yet leaves a memorably unsettling impression. Under the guise of Emmanuelle, Shosanna's unexpected run-in with Landa, himself possibly not recognizing her but she being very aware of who he is, is stunning in what is suggested without a word needing to be spoken about it. This moment, above all else, is the turning point for Shosanna from which there is no turning back. Coming face-to-face with evil while keeping her true feelings bottled up for the extent of her conversation with Landa gives her the equal parts courage and venom to begin her plotting of vengeance. A montage set-piece of Shosanna's preparations for the night of the premiere scored to David Bowie's "Cat People (Putting out the Fire)" is moody perfection. The complex tracking and panning shots set in the lush, two-level lobby of the theater during the pre-screening reception are mesmerizing. Indeed, the entire last half-hour is a stunner, culminating in some of the most chillingly ruthless but fittingly cathartic screen moments of the last few years.

Often judged solely on his matinee idol appeal and unfairly overlooked for his intuitive, chameleonic skills as an actor, Brad Pitt (2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") once again essays a complete character original. Now that Pitt is getting older, he is just right for the part of Lt. Aldo Raine, the lines on his face, aided by a prominent scar draping across Raine's neck, giving away the troubled life and painful indignities he has experienced throughout his years. Before one even takes into account the writing of the character, Pitt's appearance and quirky southern accent immediately deepen who he is and where he is coming from as he leads his fateful mission. As Sgt. Donny Donowitz, Eli Roth says little (a rarity for Tarantino's ensemble of players) and doesn't need to. Crazy-eyed and unflinching in Donowitz's penchant for brutality, the director-turned-actor slides without trouble into the world being portrayed and makes the most of it. As Bridget von Hammersmark, Diane Kruger (2007's "National Treasure: Book of Secrets") is glamorous and alluring, a woman whose deceit she hopes to cover up with her gorgeous, come-hither manifestation.

French actress Mélanie Laurent, making her English-language debut, is a striking find as Shosanna, her mind seemingly always at work even when she isn't speaking. Laurent's role is possibly the meatiest in the film, and she is riveting to watch as her character changes, transforms, and reaches an arc of blistering, destined finality by the end. It is German performer Christoph Waltz, however, who most viewers will be talking about afterwards. As Col. Hans Landa, Waltz is so coolly plausible and distinctively assured as this despicable, rotten-to-the-core, self-described "Jew-hunter" that, yes, his is comparable to Javier Bardem's magnetically chilling, Oscar-winning work in 2007's "No Country for Old Men." Finally, virtually disappearing under mounds of prosthetics and make-up, Mike Myers (2008's "The Love Guru") is terrific as British General Ed Fenech, proving that he is capable of much more than just slapstick shtick.

Knowledgeable about world cinema and its potential sways of power while at the same time loftily avant-garde in its delirious reconstruction of history, "Inglourious Basterds" is smart, defiant and hugely entertaining. Easily at, or near, the top of 2009's releases, the film smacks of Quentin Tarantino's handprint without coming off as self-aware. Thus, it is all the easier to become swept up in an intoxicating two-tier plot that keeps moving, moving, moving ever closer to an orgiastic, tautly staged conclusion of brimstone and bloodshed. By the end, you won't know whether to scream or cheer. "Inglourious Basterds" is commanding enough to inspire both reactions, followed by an instantaneous desire for another viewing.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman