The face of Jewish vengeance

(This character study is part of the Pompous Film Snob’s blog event, a myriad of character studies on the sociopaths, hookers, weirdies and more that populate Quentin Tarantino’s world of Film. Visit Frank’s blog post for the complete list.)

Trauma has a profound effect on Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent).

“When anger rises, think of the consequences.” ~~Confucius

Shoshanna Dreyfus, “Inglourious Basterds”

Anger is a dangerous emotion, one that can push people to their breaking points and beyond. But more dangerous than anger is the combination of anger and grief. Both are unpredictable at best; together, they pack enormous potential for explosion. And the longer anger and grief are repressed, the bigger the boom will be and the greater the fallout. In that respect, one story thread in Quentin Tarantino’s wildly revisionist/gloriously twisted WWII epic “Inglourious Basterds” — the story of bent-on-vengeance Jewish orphan Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent) — isn’t just splashy, lurid, violent entertainment. Shoshanna’s story is a case study (and maybe a bit of a cautionary tale, too) of how powerful repressed emotions can be.

The anger and grief that Shosana eventually feeds on to fuel her vengeful plot came to her honest. To avoid certain death in concentration camps, Shoshanna and her family fled their home and went on the run, hiding in any home that would take them. In the opening of “Inglourious Basterds,” Shoshanna’s family has found refuge underneath the floorboards of a home in France. They have learned to become good at disappearing into the scenery around them. But Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), infamously and deservedly known as “The Jew Hunter,” has tracked the family to their hiding spot and orders his subordinates to shoot. Shoshanna is the sole survivor of the bloodbath, and Landa lets her escape unscathed. He seems to understand that living is a far more effective punishment than a bullet to the back of the head. At the time all Shosana feels is fear, but years later her fear has turned into a rage that roils and churns underneath her placid, pleasant face. There are fleeting glimpses of this turmoil in her clipped, then harsh dismissals of young Nazi war hero Pvt. Zoller (Daniel Brühl), an overeager suitor who volunteers her theater as the spot for the premiere of a film about his exploits. Later, in an excruciatingly tense meeting with Landa — who probably recognizes her, but we can’t be certain; his cool stare belies everything and nothing — and Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) himself, she barely conceals her anxiety, then breaks down the moment Landa leaves the table. Laurent’s control in this pivotal scene is plain remarkable. The Jew Hunter’s sudden reappearance stirs up long-buried emotions and hammers a thin crack in her façade. That one small fissure is all it takes to for the anger and the grief to bubble their way up to the surface.

This is a film just for the Nazis.

When those feelings resurface, it doesn’t take long for Shosanna to shape them into a vengeful plot to end all plots. In a way, the same man who took away her power gives it back to her. The anger, the need for revenge, trumps the fear. The same woman who cowered in that café, the very picture of meekness, has become the quiet leader of la résistance. Shoshanna’s wrath spurs her to action, and the damage, intentional and collateral, is steep. She replaces her silence with a battle cry: “You are all going to die. And I want you to look deep into the face of the Jew that is going to do it!” At the end it’s less about taking down her family’s killer as it making every living Nazi feel her wrath.

That’s not to suggest that Tarantino fancies himself a shrink; probably he gets off on watching chicks kick ass and take names. This is a director lambasted by feminists for his macho, shootout-heavy films. Still, the fact is that script for script, Tarantino writes women scorned like nobody else in the business. With every film, the women unleash more and more hell. He got off to a rollicking start with Alabama (Patricia Arquette), the tough-as-nails prostitute who delivers a brutal lashing to the goon who’s hunted her down. The Bride/Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman), heroine of the “Kill Bill” films, dispatched every assassin who had a hand in her near-fatal shooting, including her mentor and lover. In 2009, Tarantino wrote his strongest character yet: a diminutive, delicate-looking woman who did her part and then some to give World War II the ending it should have had. She identified herself, to the Nazi glitterati trapped in the burning theater, being pelted with gunfire, as the face of Jewish vengeance. It is not a face — or a character — anyone will soon forget.

Pipe-measuring contest

Pompous Film Snob has been bitten by the blog event bug — warning! alliteration overload! — of late and has invited a host of us work-for-peanuts movie nutters to participate. The topic, I’m sure you’ll agree, is a lil beaut: Pick your favorite character (major, minor, etc.) from a Quentin Tarantino film (“True Romance” and “From Dusk Till Dawn” included) and do a character study.

(Hey, PFS, do you think you could have posed a more difficult question for Tarantino groupies?)

Pop by Frank’s blog next week — actual posting date TBA — to see if your favorite character made the cut and to find out what makes him or her tick. This blogger will be deconstructing the pathology of an “Inglourious Basterds” main player, but not the one you’d expect.

The face of Jewish vengeance wears red lipstick.

The Big 2-9

Aside from the fact that this day sealed my fate as the “Never Gets a ‘Happy Birthday’ from the Teacher or Your Classmates Because School’s Out for Summer Kid,” June 28 never seemed like a terribly interesting day to be born.

Until I realized that’s also the day sublimely talented actors Kathy Bates, John Cusack, the late Gilda Radner and the late Pat “Wax On, Wax Off” Morita headed toward the light of the birth canal. June 28 also gave King Henry VIII to England (bet that’s one pregnant lady the Great Holy Aardvark wishes he could have uninseminated). And June 28 happens to be the only day every year where the month and the day are different perfect numbers*.

But really, the only reason I ever get all jacked up is because the 28th of June is when the World’s Greatest Director — the reason I love movies and the reason I have such a warped, wacko sense of humor — Mel “Lepetomane” Brooks classed up Planet Earth’s population.

This year, though, looks be far more exciting because Andy at Fandango Groovers hatched a brilliant idea: Write a post listing favorite films for every year I’ve been breathing. Later in 2010 Andy’s planning a blog event on this theme, so start thinking about your choices, readers. Without further adieu, here are my favorites from 1981-2010:

Ash will saw off your nose.

1981: “The Evil Dead” — Maybe directors did horror-comedy before Sam Raimi’s cult classic, but those movies did not feature the unstoppable Bruce Campbell as erstwhile hero Ash, who would later go on to coin the phrases “boomstick” and “hail to the king, baby.”

1982: “First Blood” — The first in the Rambo franchise, Sly Stallone’s “First Blood” combines jaw-dropping action, buckets of bloodshed and a surprisingly poignant message about the treatment of Vietnam vets in America.

1983: “The Big Chill” — College pals Glenn Close, Tom Berenger, William Hurt, Kevin Kline and Jeff Goldblum reunite to mourn a friend’s suicide. This much acting talent on one set is a recipe for goodness.

1984: “Blood Simple” (full review) — The fact that this is Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film is almost as astounding as the film itself. Almost.

1985: “The Breakfast Club” — The late John Hughes showed us, in this poignant ode to real teen issues, that lurking inside everyone there’s a princess, a jock, a brain, a basket case and a criminal in search of connection. And a little doobage.

1986: “Aliens” (full review) — Twenty-four years later and Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) remains a female action hero with smarts, guts and muscles. What a novel idea.

1987: “The Untouchables” — Most gangster movies offer plenty of bloody shoot-em-ups, slick double-crosses, dark double-breasted suits and bank accounts stuffed like you wouldn’t believe. Brian De Palma’s “Untouchables” also has something else: a conscience.

Velcome to vaxwork...

1988: “Waxwork” (full review) — There are crappy films, and then there are films that revel and delight in their own crappiness. Guess which kind “Waxwork” is.

1989: “Heathers” (full review) — No matter how cruel the queen bees in your school were, they don’t hold a candle to Idi Amin wannabe Heather Chandler.

1990: “GoodFellas” (full review) — Powered by the performances of Joe Pesci, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco, Robert De Niro and Ray Liotta, “GoodFellas” set the bar for gangster movies impossibly high.

1991: “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” – The follow-up to Cameron’s impressive “Terminator,” the sequel blasted the volume up to 11, boasted some thrilling chase scenes (the semi rundown is iconic) and reached the level of Whoa, I’ve Never Seen That Before! with its ice-cool villain T-1000 (Robert Patrick). 

1992: “Reservoir Dogs” (full review) — Quentin Tarantino gives the Cuisinart treatment to the traditional caper-gone-wrong and ends up making one of the most inventive films of the ’90s.

1993: “Schindler’s List” — Steven Spielberg’s sweeping, horrifying and heartbreaking retelling of the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) mission to rescue Jews during the Holocaust is emotionally punishing, but it’s a film that must be seen. It can change your life if you let it.

1994: “Pulp Fiction” (full review) — It’s got John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson as hitmen, a booty-shaking soundtrack and scene about Christopher Walken wearing a watch up his ass two years. That’s all you need to know. 

Will the real Keyser Soze please stand up?

1995: “The Usual Suspects” (full review) — Not only does Bryan Singer’s noirish, twisty thriller feature a killer-good ensemble cast (Kevin Spacey AND Gabriel Byrne AND Benicio del Toro AND Chazz Palminteri), “The Usual Suspects” also has the best twist ending. Ever written.

1996: “Fargo” (full review) — Dear Coen brothers: Thank you for showing me that it’s never impossible to take an old formula (best-laid plans gone to hell) and put a devious, violent spin on them. Sincerely, M. Carter @ the Movies

1997: “Chasing Amy” – Too few directors of romantic comedies have no interest in showing relationships as they actually are. Kevin Smith is not one of these directors. His “Chasing Amy” is raw, frank to the point of crudeness and deeply heartfelt, and it examines the problems all lovers — gay and straight — face.

1998: “The Opposite of Sex” – “The Opposite of Sex” is the best black comedy you’ve never seen. Don Roos puts the screws to the traditional narrated film formula with Dee Dee (Christina Ricci), a heroine who may be plucky but isn’t the least bit lovable. She’ll ransom your dead gay lover’s ashes and not think twice about it. 

Move Milton's (Stephen Root) desk to Storage Room B and see where that gets you.

1999: “Office Space” (full review) — Mike Judge takes a maze of cubicles and turns it into a feature-length film that’s the personification of Dante’s limbo, then sets it to a fantastic rap soundtrack. It’s good to be a gangsta.

2000: “Quills” (full review) — No other actors slips so effortlessly into the part of the villain as Geoffrey Rush can, and that mirthful, slightly evil glint in his eyes makes him the perfect (and only acceptable) choice to play the infamous Marquis de Sade.

2001: “The Believer” – Based on the true story of Dan Burros, a Jew who became a Neo-Nazi, Henry Bean’s “The Believer” looks unflinchingly at all aspects of faith and features what may be Ryan Gosling’s most gripping performance. Ever. 

2002: “City of God” – Fernando Meirelles’ crime drama plays out like an elegaic marriage of the best parts of Martin Scorsese’s “GoodFellas”  and Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” capturing the bloody, grim realities of a life lived in Brazil’s rough Cidade de Deus (City of God) favela.

2003: “Mystic River” – Author Dennis Lehane understands, deep down in his soul, the rhythms of Boston’s shady, bleak underworld. Director Clint Eastwood understands the people who have fallen through the cracks. Together, “Mystic River,” about three childhood friends dealing with a murder, they make an unbeatable team.

Javier Bardem's performance is anything but bleak.

2004: “Mar adentro” (full review) — Is it possible to make a film about a quadriplegic (Javier Bardem) who wants nothing more than to die and have that film turn out to be an affirmation of life? Look to “Mar adentro” for the answer.

2005: “The Constant Gardener” – Taut political/medical conspiracy thrillers ordinarily don’t offer emotions as complex as the plotlines. But director Fernando Meirelles etches characters (Rachel Weisz, Ralph Fiennes) who matter to each other, and so they matter to us.

2006: “The Lives of Others” (full review) — Movies about Big Brother rarely take the time to humanize the enemy, but director Henckel von Donnersmarck finds humanity even in the most ardent supporter (Ulrich Mühe) of suppressing free will.

2007: “No Country for Old Men” (full review) — Call it the Coens’ Law: Every time you think they’ve made their best movie ever, they top themselves. How they’ll top this gritty, violent and blackly funny caper is something this reviewer has gotta see.

2008: “The Dark Knight” – With “Batman Begins,” Christopher Nolan single-handedly revived a years-ailing franchise; in the inspired sequel — part Greek tragedy, part action flick, part sweeping character drama — he let Heath Ledger reinvent the iconic Joker in the spirit of creation.

Get in my bell-ay, Jew Hunter!

2009: “Inglourious Basterds” (full review) — In terms of sheer imagination and cojones, almost no director working today can match Quentin Tarantino, who in this misspelled epic rewrites the ending to WWII and gives cinema one of its greatest villains (Christoph Waltz).

2010: So far? “Shutter Island.” The predicted winner? “True Grit.”

*It’s my birthday and I’m giving you a math lesson. Can you say “nerd”?

Review: “True Romance” (1993)

“True Romance” has been called a fantasy, a violent, sexy fantasy. But let’s ix-nay P.C. talk and call the film what it really is: a violent, sexy teen boy’s wet dream. (Was it one from Quentin Tarantino’s personal collection? Don’t put it past him.) Not that there’s anything wrong with that, specifically if said dream is as action-packed and overstuffed with talent as “True Romance” is. Plus, there’s a flippant, postmodern cleverness to the script, which requires a character to say, while whipping his purple Cadillac into reverse in traffic, “We now return to ‘Bullit’ already in progress.”

That character is Clarence Worley (Christian Slater), an amiable guy who works in a Michigan comic book store, loves kung fu movies and waxes philosophic about Elvis. (“True Romance” begins with a conversation, this time about “Jailhouse Rock” showcasing the true essence of rockabilly, and Val Kilmer steps in as Clarence’s Guardian Elvis.) Clarence, like so many men in Tarantino’s movies, is a regular guy catapulted into extraordinary circumstances. What’s intriguing is that in every film the protagonists react differently to these gamechangers. In “True Romance,” it’s a chatty blonde named Alabama (Patricia Arquette) who upends Clarence’s life. They meet at a Sonny Chiba filmfest, there’s a shared moment over pie and soon they’re back at his place professing love. The trouble is that Alabama’s a prostitute — only four days in — with a pimp, Drexl (Gary Oldman) as delusional as he is sadistic. Oldman, barely recognizable in dreads, has a blast but doesn’t skimp on the sadism; Drexl is one scary hustler, even creepier than Harvey Keitel in “Taxi Driver.”

Since Clarence has been waiting his whole life for a twist like this, he seizes the opportunity to defend Alabama’s honor in a gleefully bloody fashion, a choice that leads to all manner of complications — including his accidental possession of a suitcase jammed with blow — that must be seen to be believed. Slater takes to the part with ease, glossing over Clarence’s good looks and getting right at his desire to be someone’s action hero. And that tango with Drexl provides him with plenty of opportunities. Into his quiet life come: a mafioso named Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken, witty perfection); a dealer missing his suitcase of coke (the always-intimidating James Gandolfini); Clarence’s estranged father Clifford (Dennis Hopper); Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek), a movie producer looking to buy the coke cheap and flip it; Lee’s squeamish assistant (Bronson Pinchot); and some cops (Tom Sizemore, Chris Penn) bent on busting up that deal. Mayhem abounds, and with more than a few scenes involving grisly violence (that Arquette, she can handle herself with a toilet seat).

What with all this bloodshed, energy and colorful types, “True Romance” has all the trappings of a zippy Tarantino trip. Script-wise, it is, but where the film falters is in its direction. Action man Tony Scott’s in control of this venture, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. There seems to be a sizable disconnect between the world Tarantino has designed and the way Scott presents that world. The action, designed with panache and scripted for überdark comedy, is played straight, with none of the sequences showing particular flair. Particularly during the third-act shootout/bloodbath, the obvious precursor to the finale of “Reservoir Dogs,” Scott seems content to stick to the sidewalk. “True Romance” suffers for it. A ballsy story like this deserves an Evel Knievel calling the shots. Sigh. Even Tarantino was once a starving artist dependent on play-it-safe established types, I suppose.

Leave it to Tarantino, though, to write a movie that rises above unimaginative direction. The who’s-who in 1990s cast — Samuel L. Jackson and Brad Pitt have cameos — also works like a dream, with Hopper accessing his subtle side (he has one?), Oldman devouring scenery and Walken stealing the show with a tête-à-tête (“I’m the Antichrist. You got me in a vendetta kind of mood,” he tells Hopper). And while feminist critics could have a field day with Alabama, somehow I don’t see her as a shrinking violet. She’s misguided, a little moony, but she’s tough and smart, an able Bonnie to Slater’s Clyde. And, besides, if you’re yearning for a megadose of reality, kindly refer back to Sentence No. 1.

Grade: B+

No. 23: “Reservoir Dogs” (1992)

“Somebody’s shoved a red-hot poker up our ass, and I want to know whose name is on the handle!” ~~Mr. Pink

Conversation seems like the antithesis of senseless violence; talking is what reasonable, sound-minded adults do. Quentin Tarantino’s world doesn’t work that way. Think back to 1994’s “Pulp Fiction,” where Pumpkin and Honey Bunny share a congenial pre-robbery breakfast, or to last year’s “Inglourious Basterds,” where Col. Hans Landa politely interrogates French farmer Pierre LaPadite. In Tarantino World, chats don’t lead to more chats, they precede or lead to bloodshed.

To understand the genesis of this jolting technique is to see “Reservoir Dogs,” Tarantino’s lean, mean blood-spattered tale about a diamond heist gone bad wrong. The opening sequence, set in a diner, merits special attention because it comically sets us up for a whiplash-inducing plot turnaround and introduces the criminals: Mr. White (Harvey Keitel); Mr. Orange (Tim Roth); Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen); Mr. Brown (Tarantino); Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi); Mr. Blue (Edward Bunker); Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn); and Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney), Eddie’s father. Initially we only know them as eight nameless friends in an L.A. diner and prattling on about the real meaning behind Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” (Mr. Brown’s thesis: “It’s a metaphor for big dicks!”) and the relative merits of food service tipping (“I don’t tip because society says I have to,” Mr. Pink argues). All this chatter seems funny but harmless, just a few guys shooting the breeze over coffee.

Not five minutes later Tarantino pulls the pin on the grenade in his pocket and blows all to hell that sense of friendly calm. It’s a gutsy move, and it pays off big-time, so disorienting us that we spend the rest of “Reservoir Dogs” scurrying around like drugged rats lost in a maze. And because this director presents nothing as-is and has a sincere opposition to straight storytelling, the finer points of the heist remain a mystery right up until the last. After the diner Tarantino throws us into a getaway car driven by White, with a screeching Orange in the backseat bleeding from a gunshot wound. They make it to a warehouse, the post-robbery meeting site, joined shortly after by Mr. Pink, who’s positive that the job was a police set-up. 

Remaining details come in fits and starts in no particular order: Joe, an aging but still fearsome gangster, hired White, Orange, Blue, Pink, Blonde and Brown to rob a jeweler. The plan went sour; now a few men are AWOL, Blue’s dead and Orange isn’t far behind. Saying more would do an unforgivable disservice to Tarantino’s rapidly changing script (he was “Memento” before “Memento” was cool). He structures “Reservoir Dogs” as a riddle for viewers to reason out, but he doesn’t leave it there. So Tarantino pumps in loads of violence — including a disturbing torture scene involving Mr. Blonde, a kidnapped cop (Kirk Baltz), a razor blade and gasoline set to Stealers Wheel’s upbeat “Stuck in the Middle with You” — and loads of profanity-laden dialogue, mostly keyed-up shouting matches but sometimes grimly funny exchanges (White’s pre-heist advice to Orange comes to mind). If Tarantino can do nothing else, he can write lines that make chuckle in that way where the laughter quickly gives way to nausea.

Another thing Tarantino does well? He knows how to pick ‘em. The crack team of actors in “Reservoir Dogs” might be one of the best ensemble casts ever*. Keitel and Roth play the two crooks with the most fleshed-out characters (White’s been working long enough he can afford to be kind to the newbie Orange, whom he defends as “a good kid”), and both do fine work. Madsen exudes the kind of ominous amorality that requires a shower to shake off. Tierney and Penn leave lasting impressions, molding powerful characters out of Joe and Eddie, while Buscemi, a skillful character actor, imbues Mr. Pink with a twitchy, wild-card comic energy best illustrated in a throwaway scene:

Mr. Pink: “You kill anybody?”
Mr. White: “A few cops.”
Mr. Pink: “No real people?”

Let that scene marinate for a minute, and suddenly the beauty of “Reservoir Dogs” hits you right between the eyes.

*This is a subject of debate between Ross and Ross.

Review: “Pulp Fiction” (1994)

Quentin Tarantino may be many things — perverted, profane, whipsmart, cocky, a little too enamored with his own cleverness — but subtle he is not. He’s not even in the ballpark. Matter of fact, if that ballpark blew up, he wouldn’t hear the sound for another three days. Nah, Tarantino’s a guts-glory-chicks-and-explosions kind of director, and that imagination of his? In the name of Le Royale with Cheese does it dream up some wild-n-twisted trips.

Mark “Pulp Fiction” down as one of the wildest. Every nanosecond of this humdinger’s 154 minutes contains something warped/crazy/effortlessly cool to behold: philosophical discussions about foot massages, the nature of miracles and a gold watche that has been places no watch should go; murders both coolly calculated and comically accidental; a frightful drug overdose; kinky sex (think S&M with an Alabama drawl and a gimp); and, last but not least, a sinfully delicious $5 milkshake. Random as this catalogue seems, Tarantino’s film is far more scattershot. The action doesn’t adhere to a simple timeline; instead, there are three stories that run parallel, then smash together, then diverge only to reconnect in ways that boggle the mind upon repeat viewings. “Pulp Fiction” is a genius noir/gangster combo that keeps us guessing. Guess long enough, though, and patterns start to emerge from the madness.

Sort of. Since Tarantino makes it nearly impossible to understand how these stories pool into a cohesive ending, let’s tackle one beast at a time. First, there’s “Vincent Vega and Marcellus Wallace’s Wife,” the tale of L.A. hitmen Vince (John Travolta) and Jules (a perfectly cast Samuel L. Jackson) heading to do a job ordered by their loose-cannon boss Marsellus (Ving Rhames). Since Marsellus recently threw a guy out a high-rise window for giving his wife Mia (Uma Thurman) a foot massage, Vince has the jitters about taking her out on the town. His plan is simple: “Chew my food with my mouth closed, laugh at her fucking jokes, and that’s it.” Of course, trouble has a tendency to follow Vince, so things don’t go that smoothly.

Smoothness doesn’t much like Butch (Bruce Willis) either, which we discover in “The Gold Watch.” A talented boxer with a sweetly innocent girlfriend (Maria de Medeiros), Butch shovels some dirt on his own grave by winning the fight Marsellus paid him to throw. But his neat double-cross turns messy through a series of freak coincidences, the most interesting involving two pawn shop owners who plumb forgot to pack their manners (not to mention their morality) when they left the Deep South. “The Gold Watch” leads into “The Bonnie Situation,” a conclusion of sorts where Tarantino himself shows up as Jimmie Dimmick, a pal of Jules who begrudgingly agrees to help him clean up an accidental hit (“my gun went off! I don’t know why!” insists the a brain matter-spattered Vance) with help from Winston Wolf (Harvey Keitel). What’s on Wolfe’s business card we can’t be sure, since the terse mystery man only offers “I solve problems” as his job description.

It’s offhand comments like these that demonstrate one of Tarantino’s greatest strengths: revealing character traits with one or two stray lines of dialogue. He’s a student of human nature, and he knows the ways people fill time by arguing over whether foot massages are sensual or wondering what cheeseburgers are called in France (see above). And yet everything these characters say tells us something about themselves or the story. Christopher Walken, in his lone scene, delivers a howling-good speech that seems like comic relief, but the subject — the gold watch — comes back into play. Jules spouts a nonsensical version of Ezekiel 25:17, but it reveals his own moral code. Thurman, who finds jumpy loneliness in Mia, parlays a terrible joke about tomatoes into a real connection with Vince. Haphazard though they seem, these lines are the threads that knit everything together.

What else dazzles about “Pulp Fiction”? There’s the abundance of lurid violence — much of it comical (including an uncomfortably funny rape scene), some of it truly shocking, none of it gratuitious. Jackson and Travolta are one hell of two-man team, while Willis registers a pulse and Eric Stoltz has wit to burn. Ultimately, though, it’s the manic, fearless force of Tarantino that makes “Pulp Fiction” a sweet, sweet joyride, indeed.

Grade: A

“Inglourious Basterds” a complex, gloriously twisted epic

A devil of a dealmaster: Christoph Waltz is a villain for the ages in "Inglourious Basterds."

A devil of a dealmaster: Christoph Waltz is a villain for the ages in "Inglourious Basterds."

Enthusiastic but not too bright, Sgt. Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz (Eli Roth) has a simple plan for killing the gaggle of Nazi glitterati gathered in a Parisian movie theater to see the latest propaganda film: “We punch those goons out, take their machine guns, and burst in there blasting!” My, how I do love a director who goes to the trouble to bury his movie-making philosophy in one line of dialogue. That Tarantino, always thinking three steps ahead, waiting to see who gets the joke, then kicking us in the teeth for thinking he’d make a movie that simple.

Yes, do not mistake ”Inglourious Basterds” for a bloody, unflinchingly tense, grandiose World War II shoot-’em-up even though that’s exactly what it is. (Attempting to keep track of the bodies could induce seizures.) But Tarantino’s tendency to hide things — on-purpose mistakes, inside jokes, trademarks, cameos cleverly hidden in makeup (is that Austin Powers?) or through voiceover narration – means things are not what they seem.  There are other elements at play that make “Inglourious Basterds” a big, complicated, layered, overblown and tremendously satisfying affair, including the crackin’-funny dialogue (re: “Say ‘auf Widersehen’ to your Nazi balls!”), the sight gags (note the pipe-measuring contest in the movie’s opening) and one hell of a viciously delightful villain in the form of Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, who snatches every scene).

Come to think of it, even the plot isn’t simple. It doubles, sometimes triples back on itself, and it’s got corrosive irony and “would you look at that?” coincidences practically dripping from every frame. Best to start with the overarching story, which involves the Basterds, a ragtag group of Nazi killers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (a scenery-munching Brad Pitt), a Tennessee good ole’ boy with a thick scar banding his throat and a fondness for Nazi scalps. Lots and lots of Nazi scalps. He and the Basterds — including Donowitz, Pfc. Smithson “Little Man” Utivich (B.J. Novak) and Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz (a mute, menacing Til Schweiger), a German who turned on his fellow Nazi soldiers – are in the business of killing Hitler’s henchmen in Nazi-occupied France. There’s another, more emotionally powerful story involving Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a Jew hell-bent on avenging the death of her family. A German marksman’s (Daniel Brühl) boyish crush on her leads to an unexpected opportunity when Shosanna’s theater becomes the locale for the premiere of Joseph Goebbel’s (Sylvester Groth) newest propaganda film. To say this leads to a “the plot thickens” moment would be the understatement of the century. Plots don’t get much denser.

Now let’s hush this talk of storylines – It would take hours to unravel all of those. Time to spill some ink on how all those elements meld. In true Tarantino fashion, not all of them do. For example, the music, timed perfectly for poetic death scenes and burn-it-down destruction, is spot-on. But except for Roth, Pitt, Novak and Schweiger (damn, I love that guy), the Basterds are largely anonymous. We know nothing about them, get no clues as to why they joined up in this murderous tomfoolery, and so their story feels disappointingly undeveloped. The same goes for Shoshanna — no development there. Laurent’s a French actress of formidable talent who gives Shosanna a lot of simmering rage, but the character’s still a total mystery to us. It’s as if her story is simply collateral damage, a regrettable casualty to be expected in a movie like “Inglourious Basterds” where Tarantino tries to accomplish so much.

But the characters we do get to know? What impressions they make. We get the likes of Donowitz, a wild-eyed totally unhinged oaf with “Anne Frank” carved into his Louisville slugger, and Pitt, who has a ball going whole-ham as Aldo Raine, a mountain boy redneck whose white-trash accent belies his cunning and wit. (He whips out quips like ”We got a German here who wants to die for his country! Oblige him.” without breaking a sweat.) The real prize here, though, is the Vienna-born Christoph Waltz, who runs away with the entire blasted movie. Tarantino may have gone and created one of cinema’s greatest villains in Col. Hans Landa, a smooth talker with an uncanny ability to read people, discover their weaknesses, exploit them and have a hearty chuckle in the process. He mocks, he sneers, he jokes, he lays traps and delights in watching the dumb (everyone’s dumber than he is) fall in them – there’s a bit of a showman in him.

Is it me, or does that sound a whole lot like some mad-genius director I know? And maybe his newest movie, too?
 
Grade: A-

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