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Posted: August 26, 2009

Tarantino conjures Nazi-hunting Jews in “Inglourious Basterds”

Brad Pitt leads cast in violent sendup of war films

Dave Taylor

This was an interesting week in the cineplex with a goofball kids movie that's quite a bit more funny for adults, and a revisionist World War II film from wunderkind Quentin Tarantino. The first is "Shorts" and it's a fast-paced riot of a film, while the second is the more serious "Inglourious Basterds," one of the more interesting World War II films to come out in quite a few years.

REVIEW: "Inglourious Basterds" 

The release of Inglourious Basterds marks the maturation of Quentin Tarantino as a filmmaker. His earlier works are typified by "Kill Bill" and "Pulp Fiction," interesting stories that are so extraordinarily violent that the graphic violence appears in lieu of story or character development.
"Inglorious Basterds" is the first Tarantino film I've really enjoyed.

Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is the leader of a group of Jewish soldiers drafted to go deep behind enemy lines and wreak havoc, not just killing Nazis but torturing and scalping them, creating fear and great anxiety in the German high command. Raine describes the "inglourious basterds" of his unit as a bushwhacking guerilla army and assures recruits that each "owes me 100 Nazi scalps".

The film opens with the evil and cunning SS Colonel Hans Landa (a standout role for Christoph Waltz) toying with French dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet) who is harboring a family of hunted Jewish farmers, including daughter Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent). Within a few minutes, it's clear who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, a necessary element in good war films, though there is definitely some moral ambiguity as the basterds prove a rowdy, violent bunch.

Tarantino is an unabashed fan of cinema, from the sublime classics to goofy stuff like Chinese martial arts films and even the hilarious marionette movie "Team America: World Police." As a result, most of his movies overtly play homage to a genre, and appreciation of that genre helps you understand many of the narrative devices he employs. For example, without having seen martial arts films, you'd be fairly baffled at some of the scene cuts and camerawork in "Kill Bill."

"Inglourious Basterds" pays homage to the classic Italian "spaghetti" westerns and war films and the movie is even more of a delight if you understand the language of those films. Your first clue? The production company is called Visiona Romantica though there's very little romantic about the film, so it's a deliberately ironic name, but, along with the slow, twangy guitar, that just adds to the fun of the film.

The movie unfolds in chapters entitled "Once Upon a Time...," "Inglourious Basterds," "German Night in Paris" and "Operation Kino," each almost acting as its own movie within the movie. The feel of the film, however, the sets, cinematography, wardrobe and color all contribute to a slightly self-mocking "War Film," in capital letters, of course. When German Nazi killer Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) is introduced, his name shows up on screen almost as a silent movie title.

There are also some great lines in the film too, notably when we're introduced to Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth), who relishes beating Nazi's with a baseball bat while dreaming of playing in Yankee stadium. Lt. Raine explains to the Nazi that they're going to let live post-ambush: "Watching Donny beat Nazis is the closest we get to going to the movies."

The overarching theme is revenge, which takes place with the basterds learning that the film "Nation's Pride" is going to premiere in France to an audience of German VIPs, including the film's star Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) and a variety of senior Gestapo officers. They hatch a plot, called Operation Kino, to blow up the theater during the screening, in a self-referential comment on the revisionist screening of Inglourious Basterds that we, the audience, watch.

As you might expect, there are complications and things don't unfold as planned, but unlike the recent dramatic WWII movie "Valkyrie" where any half-clued viewer already knew the ultimate outcome, in "Inglourious Basterds" the unraveling plot surprises at more than one turn and the ending proves quite satisfying, even if verisimilitude gets left behind.

And as always with a Tarantino film, keep an eye open for other films and how they appear, too. For example, the reference to "King Kong" was brilliant, see if you can figure out where Hitchcock's terrific "Sabotage" shows up, and pay attention to the film critic in the movie and his eventual demise.

The more I think about what Quentin Tarantino has accomplished with this most mature film work to date, the more I am impressed. If you're a student of film and can handle just a few minutes of shocking, graphic violence (and surprisingly little at that), then I strongly recommend "Inglourious Basterds" to you.

REVIEW: "Shorts"

If you've seen any of the Spy Kids movies, you already know that director Robert Rodriguez has a knack for making frenetic kids films that have extraordinary, wacky special effects, all harnessed -- often loosely -- into telling a story that's exciting and a bit goofy. There's a certain glossy sheen to his films, an extruded plastic sort of sense that's uniquely his, and it's delightful when it's not too far over the top.

His new film "Shorts" is definitely cut from the same cloth as "Spy Kids."  It's a frantically paced whirlwind of a movie where the narrative bounces around and the actors look like they're having just as much fun in their crazy universe as we are watching it. And it's hilarious. There were so many jokes, play on words, visual gags and more jammed into its brief 89 minutes that it was easily one of the most entertaining films I've seen this year.

The story is set in Black Falls, Texas, a small town that's dominated by Black Box Unlimited, a company that sells a gizmo that can transform itself into just about anything you might desire, from a cellphone to a dog groomer, can opener to a music player. It comes in three sizes: Super Grande, Grande and Niño, and its primary competitors are the Purple Pyramid and the Silver Cylinder.

The company is run by the evil Mr. Black (James Spader) who relishes his power and control, all the while trying to motivate employees to create the ultimate Black Box, version "X", that will do everything and be owned by every single person on the planet. Black has two children, the fabulously named Helvetica Black (Jolie Vanier) and her older brother, Cole Black (Devon Gearhart), and they're the bullies of the local school, particularly relishing the chance to pick on new-kid-in-town Toe Thompson (Jimmy Bennett), whose parents run the main development teams at the firm.

The film is told in a series of chapters with whimsical names, and starts out with a brilliant bit "Episode Zero: The Blinkers," about siblings (Cambell Westmoreland and Zoe Webb) who engage in an epic staring contest that lasts days. Then the movie titles start and you figure "ah, OK, that was a cute little vignette", but in fact the Blinker kids appear time and again throughout Shorts, often in the most hilarious ways.

That's very much the spirit of the entire film, too. It's a whirling blender of jokes and gags, even to the names of the children in the film: Nose Noseworthy (Jake Short) and the brothers Loogie (Trevor Gagnon), Lug (Rebel
Rodriguez) and Laser (Leo Howard).

The main character in the film is Toe Thompson, who is daily assaulted by Helvetica and her gang either on the way to or from school. It's not violent or too scary, but he does seem to frequently end up head-first in a trashcan. While being chased by the bullies through what appears to be an abandoned construction site, Cole Black inadvertantly picks up a rainbow colored rock and whacks Toe. When Toe comes to, he picks up the rock and looks admiringly at it, wishing he knew what it was.

It's a wishing rock and so his first wish is granted: He learns that it's a wishing rock. He and his buddies try out all sorts of silly wishes, including Loogie who wishes for a never-ending supply of candybars, just to have them shoot out of his pants pockets ceaselessly. Toe wishes for some true friends, producing tiny space aliens whose craft are capable of great feats, including whipping together some delicious deserts in the kitchen.

Soon Helvetica finds out about the stone and she naturally wants it, but then her father Mr. Black learns of the wishing stone and realizes that he can sidestep his business and just wish for mountains of cash, infinite power, and so on.

Meanwhile, the film stops, rewinds, fast forwards and bounces around so that we gradually understand all the people who have come in contact with the stone, the wishes they've made, and the result of those wishes. Needless to say, the outcome is often quite different from the stated intent of a given wish!

There are lots and lots of funny lines in this film. One of my favorites is when the tiny aliens in Toe's backpack transform his Black Box into an iPod and start playing rock music. The teacher looks up and says "I'm sorry, can you please stifle your inner High School Musical?"

Fair warning: I think the frantic pace and some of the slapstick imagery might be a bit too intense for younger children. My 9-year-old and 12-year-old would enjoy this film, but my 5-year-old is too young for this sort of pace, and would either get a headache or just tune it out. It's really nonstop, really a visual roller coaster of effects and gags, and for a parent, it's splendid fun, and for an older child the bits they miss don't detract from the story but I'd say six and under probably can't manage it.

Nonetheless, I applaud Rodriguez for his accomplishment with Shorts. With the effects of his Austin-based Troublemaker Studios, he's created a unique, wild film that might well be more fun for adults than kids anyway.

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Dave Taylor has been watching movies for as long as he can remember. Along the way he’s become a nationally recognized expert on technology, an accomplished writer, and award-winning public speaker and blogger. You can find his film writing at  www.DaveOnFilm.com and follow his film commentary on Twitter at @FilmBuzz or just email him at taylor@intuitive.com.

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