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Bold, brash 'Basterds' yet another masterwork from Quentin Tarantino

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Posted: Friday, August 28, 2009 10:00 pm

It's always an unparalleled pleasure to go see a new Quentin Tarantino film, in part because there's never a fear that I'll see anything less than a masterpiece.

No other major American filmmaker working today - even the greatest, from Scorsese and Spielberg to newer voices like Anderson and Fincher - can claim that each and every one of his films attains the status of true greatness, so it's amazing to have at least one working director whose entire track record of films ("Reservoir Dogs," "Pulp Fiction," "Jackie Brown," "Kill Bill," "Death Proof" and now the nutty World War II revenge yarn "Inglourious Basterds") is comprised entirely of four-star works.

This extraordinary level of reliability is particularly striking when you consider that he has written all of his movies as well, with "Jackie Brown" as his only adapted screenplay.

Yet I sometimes get hassled about my continued enthusiasm for Tarantino's work, and I suspect this is because he's regarded in certain circles as little more than a peddler of amped-up pop smut.

He most certainly is that, but to focus only on this aspect of his work is to ignore the significant contributions he has made to the very language of film, both in terms of actual dialogue and more formal elements like music, narrative structure and chronology, and homage.

He's playful as hell (the highly debated misspelling of "Inglourious Basterds" being but one small example), kind of like an apolitical JeanLuc Godard - only way better.

Even more amazingly, he can inspire traditionally mainstream audiences to think about cinema itself in a different way - not as a depository of stand-alone films that exist in a vacuum and are periodically viewed as a means of brief escapism, but instead as an intercultural, interconnected tradition with a rich global history just begging to be expounded upon. In short, there's a reason I call him my favorite contemporary filmmaker, and it ain't because I like to watch body parts go flying.

Well, not just because. I mean, let's face it: Nobody does violence like Tarantino. Like a bastard spawn of Sam Peckinpah and Bugs Bunny, Tarantino has always shown an incredible knack for taking the objectively horrific (e.g. vicious beatings, gunshots to the head, disembowelments, whatnot) and turning it into a kind of hardcore slapstick art.

This brand of violence takes center stage in "Inglourious Basterds," although I suppose that comes with the territory when you're making a movie about a team of Jewish-American soldiers dubbed "The Bastards" running around Europe scalping Nazis.

Now, if you have a problem with a movie that depicts the graphic slaughter of National Socialists and then expects you to laugh giddily at the bloodshed, then I really don't know what I can say to convince you otherwise.

Personally, I can't think of any rational argument that would result in devoted Nazis being afforded any kind of consideration as human beings, so while you're busy living in the bubble of your own false morality, the rest of us will be sitting here laughing maniacally at gory, viscerally exhilarating scenes of Nazis being mowed down en masse while they're screaming for their lives. Somebody pass the popcorn.

Late in the film, there's a scene that depicts a theater full of Nazis having a similar reaction to Joseph Goebbles' propaganda piece "Nation's Pride," Tarantino's film-within-a-film that tells the "true" story of a German sniper who single-handedly killed hundreds of Allied troops in one battle.

The Nazis - Hitler and Goebbles among them - smile and laugh as the soldiers are brutally shot down, just as we in the audience have been taking such pleasure in watching the Germans perish. It's a sly, subversive scene that acknowledges the appearance of hypocrisy, but Tarantino never pretends there's any kind of real moral parallel to be drawn here. They are, after all, Nazis, and there truly is only one thing they're good for: dying for our entertainment.

Yessir, this is a straight-up, unapologetic revenge fantasy, and the weak of stomach need not apply. It should definitely be noted that the film is not a wall-to-wall Nazi massacre, as early trailers suggested (the bulk of the heavily subtitled film deals with intersecting plots to assassinate key leaders of the Third Reich while they're all gathered at the premiere of "Nation's Pride"), but when the action comes, it comes lightning-quick and spares no details.

And yes, when the violence is inflicted on Nazis, it's fun and adrenaline-pumping.

Yet there are other scenes of violence in the film - including the extended opening sequence, which centers on a French farm being searched for hidden Jews, and a lengthy scene mid-way through that teases the viewer with nigh-unbearable suspense for about 20 minutes before finally exploding in a 10-second flurry of mayhem - that are anything but funny.

"Inglourious Basterds"

**** (out of four)
2009, Quentin Tarantino, U.S., R

Scenes like these serve as not only a testament to Tarantino's continued growth as a filmmaker capable of skillfully showcasing different kinds of violence in varying contexts, but also as a rebuttal to those who claim that his films somehow cheapen the concept of life.

"Inglourious Basterds" has already established itself as an international hit, and hopefully this success bodes well for several of the movie's stars.

Obviously Brad Pitt (who headlines as Lt. Aldo Raine, the roughneck leader of The Bastards) doesn't need the boost, but there are members of his supporting cast that could benefit from this kind of exposure.

I'm thinking particularly of Til Schweiger, who plays the stone-faced German traitor Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz, and Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, the Hannibal Lecter-esque "Jew hunter" whose atrocities trigger the revenge plot at the center of the film.

Schweiger is just plain likable in a role with minimal dialogue, but engaging as he is, he and everyone in the film pales in comparison to Waltz, who won the best actor prize at Cannes this year and should be a lock for an Oscar nod as supporting actor.

It's a transfixing portrayal - scary and creepy and vile and smarmy and everything else one would expect from a high-ranking Nazi officer, but it's punctuated by some of the most daring and creative comic touches that I've ever seen in a performance that wasn't explicitly comical.

Like Heath Ledger's Joker in "The Dark Knight," Waltz's Landa is a troubling, enigmatic, enormously fascinating and unique villain that you can't wait to see come back on screen.

He's the most carefully constructed and skillfully grandiose characterization we've yet seen in a Tarantino film - yet another sign that the filmmaker's talents continue to grow.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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