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Inglorious Basterds

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Starring Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Melanie Laurent

***

Ideally, Quentin Tarantino’s latest feature Inglorious Basterds should be seen twice, the first time to adjust to what it isn’t and the second to appreciate what it is. Part of the problem is that the film’s advertising campaign has sold it as if it were a spiritual sequel to Grindhouse—a gonzo, ultraviolent World War II tale of a band of renegade Jewish American soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) cutting a bloody swath through Europe in their quest to collect as many Nazi scalps as possible. In truth though, Inglorious Basterds is a slower, talkier affair that prizes the anticipation of bloodshed over the actual act of bloodshed. If I had to sum up the movie in typical Hollywood pitch-speak, I’d describe it as Once Upon a Time in the West meets My Dinner With Andre. Throughout its two-and-a-half hour runtime, the film juxtaposes Sergio Leone-style Mexican stand-offs (shot in gorgeous wide-screen by Tarantino’s Kill Bill cinematographer Bob Richardson) with intimate conversations conducted over drinks and/or a hearty meal.

The other thing moviegoers probably won’t be anticipating is that Brad Pitt and his squad of basterds aren’t the stars of the movie. Instead, they’re just one plot thread in a sprawling saga that also includes a young Jewish woman (Melanie Laurent) who escapes a Nazi ambush and ends up operating a Parisian movie theater; a British film critic turned upstanding soldier (Michael Fassbender) who is tasked with a dangerous assignment; and, best of all, a German officer (the marvelous Austrian actor Christoph Waltz) who always seems to be one step ahead of everyone around him. In interviews, Tarantino has said that, at one point, he had planned for Basterds to be a multi-part miniseries and that’s apparent from the dense narrative, which would take too long to summarize in full here. Instead, I’ll just say that the A-plot involves a top-secret plan to assassinate high-ranking Nazi officials (including Hitler himself) at a movie premiere—a mission that eventually allows all the film’s characters to assemble in one place for the picture’s grand (and genuinely surprising) finale.

However annoying Tarantino may be as a media celebrity, he’s still one of the best shooters in the business right now. There are moments in Inglorious Basterds that rank amongst his most impressive work, most notably an extended sequence in a cellar pub in which a group of Allied officers disguised as Nazis meet their informant (Diane Kruger) while trying to avoid detection by the actual Nazis drinking and carousing one table away. Tautly directed and wittily written, this nearly 20-minute sequence is classic Tarantino. And even when the script or performances aren’t clicking, the director’s expert visual eye keeps the viewer hooked. Whether he’s directly referencing images from such cinematic classics as The Searchers or framing a luscious French pastry in a tight close up, Tarantino rarely goes for the obvious shot.

For all its stylistic pleasures though, Inglorious Basterds is a curiously empty moviegoing experience, lacking much in the way of compelling drama or rich characterizations (Waltz’s wonderful work aside).  Or maybe I’m just saying that because I’ve spent the past decade hoping that Tarantino would make a movie as involving as his 1997 picture Jackie Brown. That film married his endless visual inventiveness with characters that seemed like actual human beings instead of Tarantino avatars. In the years since Jackie Brown though, the director has retreated further and further into his own headspace, producing movies like Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Death Proof, which are essentially feature-length pastiches of his own cinematic obsessions. (The one exception to this trend is Kill Bill Vol. 2, a darker and more emotionally complex than the first installment.) Inglorious Basterds is a meatier movie mash-up than his recent run of flicks, but it’s still first and foremost a platform for Tarantino to indulge his very particular whims.  That’s his prerogative of course and the result is rarely dull, but I’m ready to see Tarantino make another movie that forces him to reach beyond his DVD library.

Verdict: See It

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Also In Theaters:

Passing Strange

Directed by Spike Lee

Starring Stew, Daniel Breaker, de’Adre Aziza

****

If you, like me, passed up the opportunity to catch this Tony-award winning rock musical during its Broadway run, don’t make the same mistake with Spike Lee’s vibrant film adaptation. Actually, “adaptation” isn’t really the right word to describe the movie, since Lee’s Passing Strange is a filmed version of the stage play, with no cinematic enhancements apart from a few behind-the-scenes glimpses of the cast during intermission. This approach my bother some viewers, but personally I was thrilled that the director kept the focus where it belongs—on the production’s sparse, but compelling stagecraft and the musicianship of the ace house band, led by the musical’s co-writer and star, Stew. Based loosely on Stew’s own life, the play tells the story of an L.A. youth who leaves his middle-class life for a bohemian existence in Europe in the hope of finding that elusive thing he calls “the real.” Covering the on-stage action with multiple cameras, Lee immediately gets the audience grooving on Stew’s terrific score and also lays out the play’s narrative in a clear way. The only thing that the film version can’t do, of course, is give you the experience of being in that Broadway theater while the band rocks out and the crowd stomps and sings along. And believe me, Passing Strange is going to want to make you get up and dance.

Verdict: See It

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