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Triumph of the Ill Will

MOVIE REVIEW
Inglourious Basterds (2009)

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Francois Duhamel/The Weinstein Company

First and foremost, “Inglourious Basterds” is better than “Death Proof” - but then it would be some feat if it had actually been worse. This time, Quentin Tarantino's self-indulgence is relatively corralled, thanks to a bunch of voluntary narrative restraints that pretty much force the director to calm down. In “Death Proof,” Mr. Tarantino was in your ear constantly, fidgeting and giggling and nudging you in the ribs. There are whole stretches of “Basterds” where he shuts up. It must have been an almighty effort.

The problem is that he's achieved this zen condition by being relatively conventional. Or as conventional as a man with his crazy ear for speech patterns and keen eye for the female instep could ever be, when making a WWII epic set in a Nazi-occupied sector of the Twilight Zone.

The Basterds, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) are Allied soldiers on a mission to murder German soldiers and scalp them, or carve swastikas into the foreheads of those they don't actually kill. No real reason; they just are. They're a dirty half-dozen of scrawny Jewish manhood plus a German deserter built like a tank, and they have the Third Reich in a spin. They get handed the mission of a lifetime, the chance to assassinate the whole German high command – Hitler included – at a small Parisian cinema during a gala premiere. For reasons buried too deep in the plot to explain, the cinema owner is also planning to take out the attending Nazis, using a flamboyant assassination method hinging on the flammability of nitrate film stock. She is Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), who as a child witnessed the murder of her family by the vicious Col. Landa (Christoph Waltz), who will also be in attendance.

There is much, much more plot, and the film runs many, many minutes. Although the narrative is fairly linear, the dialogue spins off at great length into considerations of German cinema, the significance of regional accents and where to find a decent glass of milk when there's a war on. The film is punctuated by typical sideways jags into altogether different genres, and the voice of Samuel L. Jackson arrives for two blasts of streetwise narration unconnected to anything else at all. On a soundtrack that's already taken in Ennio Morricone and Stax, Shosanna's big moment is heralded by David Bowie singing Cat People (“Putting Out Fire”), which produced the biggest genuine surprise I've had at a Tarantino film in ages.

Wonderfully shot in a vivid and feverish palette, the film's climax has an image worth waiting a career for, a film projector beaming its image of a vengeful woman's face into a cloud of dust and rubble. And it's terrifically acted by almost everyone. Mr. Waltz is a mesmerizing villain, cunning and camp and theatrical, with something of Donald Moffat's grace about him (and a disconcerting tendency to look like comedian Rob Brydon), while Diane Kruger as a German film star is lighter on her feet than she's ever been before. The Allied forces can't compete with this kind of action, not when Mr. Pitt wrestles with a grim comedy accent that's no fun at all.

Chances are that by heading up-country into a flamboyantly skewed historical genre, and then filling it with information about the power of movies and asides about G. W. Pabst, Mr. Tarantino has left any mass audience far behind. Certainly anyone going to see Mr. Pitt will be horrified by the lack of screen time given to the Basterds, who become walk-ons in their own movie. But even if the Tarantino style has long since become a party piece, the jolt of seeing it transformed like this reminds you of how few directors love the sight of actors delivering dialogue as much as he does. Eventually though he can't contain himself any longer and the film ends in an apocalypse of destruction, a schoolboy joke of mayhem in which Eli Roth is called upon to not only save civilization, but to do some acting. You can imagine the results.

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS

Opens on Aug. 21 in the United States and on Aug. 19 in Britain.

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; director of photography, Robert Richardson; edited by Sally Menke; production designer, David Wasco; produced by Lawrence Bender; released by the Weinstein Company (United States) and Universal Pictures (Britain). In English, French, German and Italian. Running time: 2 hours 32 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 18 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Brad Pitt (Lt. Aldo Raine), Christoph Waltz (Col. Hans Landa), Eli Roth (Sgt. Donny Donowitz), Michael Fassbender (Lt. Archie Hicox), Diane Kruger (Bridget von Hammersmark), Daniel Brühl (Fredrick Zoller), Mélanie Laurent (Shosanna Dreyfus), Denis Menochet (Perrier LaPadite), Sylvester Groth (Joseph Goebbels), Mike Myers (Gen. Ed Fenech) and Rod Taylor (Winston Churchill).

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i'm looking forward to the newest mumbling alter-ego that Brad Pitt has concocted for this movie

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