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Inglourious Basterds

War is hell, sure, but then why are war movies entertaining as hell? Maybe that, too, is a fallacy, as the past couple of decades have brought us films that deconstructed the mythos of the American soldier, showing the fear and the grit through a lens of grey.

Then along comes Quentin Tarantino, once again reconstructing the exaggerated black and white surety of the grindhouse movies of his childhood. Except that even in his smugness, Tarantino's talent won't allow him to make it that simple.

On the surface, Inglourious Basterds looks like a bizarre revenge fantasy. Brad Pitt "stars" as Lieutenant Aldo Raine, a Kentucky soldier tasked with creating a squad of Jewish-American soldiers to rain terror down on the "Naatzis." Oh, it never happened, but there is something naggingly cool about the idea, and Pitt is a ghoulish and hilarious leader of this high concept squadron; it could only be a movie.

And that's what Tarantino seems to really be about, making a World War II movie that constantly reminds the viewer that it is, in fact, only a movie, while fighting with his own instinct to actually try and make some sort of important statement disguised as junk. More than just a movie invention, the Basterds (misspelled on Raine's rifle butt) don't even get to drive the heart of this film.

Instead, Tarantino treats them as outside forces, occasionally flashing over to them when a character in the real story mentions something about them. Though fun, they're not really all that interesting, all one-note stereotypes played for violent comedy even when the stakes are high. Three of the Basterds just disappear from the movie, as if Tarantino himself couldn't be bothered to remember who they are.

The complex characters, the ones we really care about, are locked in a cat and mouse game. It's easy to find sympathy and admiration for Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), whose family is killed by German soldiers in the excruciatingly tense opening scene. Even as she runs from Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), it's staged for maximum drama instead of reality, staying out in the open so Landa can ponder whether or not he will shoot her in the back.

What's surprising is how magnetic Landa turns out to be --and Waltz is suddenly at the age of 52 an actor to watch. He's something other than a villain we enjoy; there's something strangely reasonable to him. What's evil inside him is cold and small; he's just a man exceeding expectations at his job, and his job happens to be abetting genocide. Tarantino allows for ugly leering Nazis in portraying Josef Goebbels and Hitler himself, yet he keeps focusing on Germans we could almost empathize with before remembering which side they're on and what they've at best turned a blind eye to.

For four years after Shoshanna's escape, she finds herself the object of a young German soldier's affection. She now runs a cinema in Paris, and the baby-faced Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) has become instantly smitten with her. At first she resists his attentions, until she realizes that Zoller could be the key to avenging her family.

He's a war hero being made by Goebbels into a movie star, and Bruhl will never settle down long enough to determine whether or not the young man feels guilty about what he's done. Complex and charming, it would almost be satisfying if Shoshanna actually did fall for him.

All the while, Tarantino employs cinematic tricks to remind us, it's only a movie anyway, and any emotion we feel will be false. In his bravura opening, Tarantino plays with the convention of films that start in foreign languages and then find a trick to transfer over to English for the rest of the film. He finds a hilarious and obviously contrived variation and runs with it. Yet later he reverts to French and German with subtitles, because the trick just won't work anymore. At least a third of this movie isn't in English, nor could it logically be.

Even when he wants us swept up in his artistry, Tarantino dances back into believability. Scene after scene builds in suspense. Tarantino likes creating long well-written conversations that we know are only going to end in violence, and yet they keep on going until something or someone explodes. Often they're conversations about the pop culture of the forties, the writer cleverly parodying himself.

Then he'll throw Mike Meyers in a cameo appearance as a British soldier (with Rod Taylor - where has he been? - lurking as Winston Churchill). Suddenly we're almost in a Richard Lester war satire, before being jerked back into Tarantino's compelling human drama. And then the Basterds come in and beat the crap out of everybody for a while.

It's not a frustrating film, far from it. A lot more focused in intent than Kill Bill and much more satisfying than Death Proof, Inglourious Basterds pulls us along to a giddy conclusion. Yet it's hard to tell which Tarantino thinks is losing their moral grip - himself or us. Does he want us to be horrified by the violence of Eli Roth as "the Bear Jew," who beats Nazis to death with a baseball bat, or should we just roar along with him at the catharsis of the fantasy?

Tarantino may be questioning our love of cinematic violence even as he exults in it. Ultimately, Inglourious Basterds is chasing its own tail while waving it in our faces. Mixing high and low art, the writer/director has returned to the promise of his early days, but it's still hard to tell if he's used his admittedly prodigious talents to make a truly great film. I guess I'm going to have to see it again to be sure.

Derek McCaw

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