Can a Quentin Tarantino Movie Save the World? 

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Inglourious Basterds
Directed by Quentin Tarantino

A quintessential Tarantino move is the rap session at gunpoint, by which prolonged, often trivial chatter postpones the moment of reckoning. It’s suspense that draws attention to itself, with a detectable erotic charge in its verbally displaced sadism, but it’s also about the death-defying power of the speaker — usually, like Tarantino, a tale-teller. Inglourious Basterds opens with such a scene, set on a gorgeously shot French farm. Drawing out his quarry by drawing out his role as unctuous guest, Nazi Colonel Landa (Christoph Waltz) questions the farmer about a hidden Jewish family. The sole survivor of this hunt, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), will escape and, somehow, run a marquee cinema in Paris. While the Jewish death squad led by Brad Pitt’s twangy Aldo Raine yields passable grindhouse kicks, Tarantino’s heart lies in Shosanna’s later story of grisly resistance, which her cinephiliac imagination makes possible.

Rounding things out is a British spy sortie led by a film critic, but Basterds doesn’t ride on blindsiding story collisions. Nor, really, loop-de-looping dialogue (which, Animatronically whirring into action, paralyzes many scenes), nor filmmaking razzle-dazzle. Though the comic-book vividness is lovingly curated, Tarantino’s latest self-referential universe bumps up against history, and film history from Aldrich to Kubrick. Besides the self-consciousness and proud multilingualism, Basterds doesn’t clamber atop the sheer tonnage of past war movies and do the truly unexpected. The bombout-rubble graffiti taunt of the title remains unfulfilled.

As for storied villains, Tarantino of course meets his match, but his Landa is notably far more interesting than his Hitler — partly thanks to Waltz’s superb sly control. Basterds joins together two wish fulfillments: the trash savant’s usual urge to include all that cool stuff he’s been itching to put in, and the cold-comfort fantasy of killing Der Führer. It’s been an awkward fit for many critics, but Shosanna’s exhausted solemnity plays well off the little-boy glee of the filmmaker. Like a Resistance drama mutated through American spectacle, her Grand Guignol revenge turns moviehouse into charnel house, in a turnabout that’s more obscene than Tarantino acknowledges.

As often in the director’s work, the freshest stuff sneaks in back, like the way saboteur Shosanna must constantly parry the flirtations of a courtly German soldier ­— ­­also a movie star, as is the limey spy’s UFA-inspired German accomplice, and on and on. There is something to the filmmaker’s telescoped history of brutality in cinema, how war movie and Western, revenge exploitation and snappy period costuming, mate and fight and blur. But it’s unlikely that the boisterous but baggy Basterds will be considered, in Aldo Raine’s word, a masterpiece.

Opens August 21

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