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Arts and Entertainment

Movie Review: Inglourious Basterds

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The difficulty in reviewing a film like Inglourious Basterds is that it's really two films mashed up into one. One of those films concerns a young Jewish woman named Shoshanna who exacts a brilliant revenge against the Nazis who murdered her family. The other regards a group of mostly Jewish-American military assassins (the titular "Basterds") who scour the French countryside killing everyone in a German uniform. What's strangely problematic about Inglourious Basterds is that while the latter story is full of Quentin Tarantino's characteristic bluster and brio, you can't wait to get back to Shoshanna and find out what's happening with her life.

The film opens in Nazi-occupied France with the introduction of one Colonel Hans Landa the "Jew Hunter" (a weirdly compelling Christoph Waltz). He arrives at a farmhouse to ferret out a Jewish family that once lived in the area and is now, presumably, in hiding. In what may be the film's most meticulously crafted and measured sequence, Landa and the dairy farmer circle each other in conversation, one calmly digging to expose the truth while the other nervously strives to keep his secrets. Of course, Landa ultimately triumphs, but in a moment of singular irony, he inadvertently creates the agent of his own downfall by the very act of trying to destroy her.

Meantime, Lt. Aldo "The Apache" Raine (a nearly absurd Brad Pitt) is assembling a group of eight Jewish-American soldiers whose mission it is to slip into France under civilian guise and kill as many Nazis as possible. As Raine cruelly and bloodlessly drawls, "Every man under my command owes me one hundred Nazi scalps. And I want my scalps. All y'all will get me one hundred Nazi scalps, taken from the heads of one hundred dead Nazis...or you will die trying." While the men before him are -- with the exception of Eli Roth -- a physically unprepossessing lot, they all have that essential ingredient of any successful soldier: motivation.

And from there the story leaps forward as years pass, the Basterds cut a wide swath through the German ranks and Shoshanna slowly plots, then exacts her revenge. As is always the case with Tarantino's films, Inglourious Basterds is composed largely of lingering, talky set-pieces. Some are ingeniously propulsive (the drinking game, the conversation over strudel), while others feel labored and crude (the baseball bat scene, the interrogation of Raine by Landa). Similarly, the casting is all over the place -- some of it inspired (Waltz, Laurent); some of it mystifying (Roth, Myers). In short, it's pure Tarantino in all of his maddening glory.

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With Kill Bill and Death Proof, Tarantino seemed to have slipped into a genre trap from which he had no interest in escaping. While Inglourious Basterds retains some of those elements, it also feels like Quentin's freshest film since Jackie Brown. Perhaps its most thrilling characteristic is that, as in Jackie Brown and (especially) Pulp Fiction, no character is ever safe and death is always only a moment away. Further, the way in which Tarantino blatantly alters history to serve his own dramatic needs is silly in the best sense of the word. Tarantino may never reach the heights of his early career, but Inglourious Basterds is a damn good try.

Inglourious Basterds opens Friday