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On Movies: 'Inglourious Basterds' is audacious film-making

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 20, 2009 - Quentin Tarantino is a notoriously bad speller, so maybe he is poking fun at himself by titling his latest movie "Inglourious Basterds." Or maybe he (and his lawyers) want to make it clear that his audacious, way-over-the-top new film is not a remake of the 1978 Italian exploitation flick "Inglorious Bastards," even if both movies are set during the World War II and feature tough guys being nasty to Nazis.

Not a problem. "Inglourious Basterds," a rousing if at times ungainly mixture of action movie and farce, of brutal realism and outrageous fantasy, is like no other movie you've ever seen, although it contains references to dozens of them. For example, the riveting opening scene, with Nazis searching for hidden Jews in a French farmhouse, makes reverent nods in the direction of the Westerns of Sergio Leone and John Ford, and even, I think, includes a visual link to the iconic Andrew Wyeth painting, "Christina's World" -- all the while keeping us on the edge of our seats.

That scene sets in motion one of the movie's two main plots, a narrative that follows the daring deeds of a Jewish girl named Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) in occupied France. The other main plot involves a squad of American Jewish vigilantes, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who specialize in capturing and slaughtering Nazis -- or as Aldo Raine puts it in his thick rural Tennessee accent, "Killin' Gnatsies!" (Film nut Tarantino probably expects the moviegoer to remember that Aldo Ray was a gruff-voice actor and World War II veteran who appeared as a tough but soulful sergeant in a number of war movies.)

The two plot lines converge in an explosive climax at a movie house in Paris run by Shosanna. That theater is where the Nazi high command, including Adolf Hitler and his top officials, Herman Goering and Joseph Goebbels, will gather to bask in military glory by watching a movie about a German soldier who killed hundreds of Allied soldiers. What happens at the theater is wondrous to behold if literally unbelievable, except in the alternate universe Tarantino has created.

In this movie, Tarantino refuses to play by the traditional rules of the movie genres he adores. Instead, he mixes them up into a dazzling pop confection. As "Basterds" rolls along on its twin narrative tracks, gripping realistic action will suddenly zoom into outrageous parody or plunge into slapstick. Tarantino seldom lets us forget for long that we are watching a movie, a self-referential one that truly fits that over-used term "post-modern."

When Aldo Raine takes out his Davy Crockett knife and carves a swastika into the forehead of a captured Nazi -- if the man survives the war, the lieutenant explains, he can't claim he was a civilian -- he pushes a scene that began with rugged realism into the realm of gross-out pulp-movie excess. It's hard not to laugh in shock and awe at the filmmaker's audacity -- on one level, the scene makes all the sense in the world, and who can argue with Raine's logic. On another level, it's blatant, bloody, pulp exploitation. Tarantino is pushing our emotional buttons and, at the same time, telling us he's doing it, telling us that what we're watching is only a movie, and he's running the show.

As you can probably tell, I enjoyed "Basterds," although on occasion I wanted to strangle Tarantino for being such an incorrigible, show-off brat. Although the movie would have benefited from some trimming of its two-and-a-half hour length, on the whole, it's lot of fun. But does it have a theme, other than that the Nazis were evil people and deserved to be treated badly? Is there deeper meaning? Not that I am aware of. Ask me what "Inglourious Basterds" is about, and all I can tell you is it's about 20 or 30 minutes too long.

Opens Friday, August 21


Seraphine, an uneducated cleaning woman in rural France, is devoutly religious, but she steals holy oil from the local Catholic church to form the base for the paints she mixes from blood and dirt and other natural materials. If there is one thing we know for sure about so-called Outsider artists, untrained and with no obvious influences, it is that they are compelled to create their art. Seraphine clearly epitomizes such an artist.

The French movie "Seraphine," directed by Martin Provost, is a passionate, luminous dramatized portrait of the seemingly simple woman who became known as Seraphine de Senlis. Her paintings of leaves and flowers, now displayed in museums around the world, vibrate with an eerie animal energy and at the same time exhibit an intricate, exquisite compositional balance.

The veteran French actress Yolande Moreau does a masterful job of portraying the stubborn, compulsive artist, seldom speaking, moving through her small French town with almost unstoppable determination, hard to communicate with, hard to like, ultimately impossible to ignore. The drama of the film centers on the joy and tragedy of Seraphine's relationship with the German art critic and collector Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), who discovered her and then, as World War I broke out, was forced to abandon her. Seldom has an artist's need to create been so convincingly portrayed.

Opens Friday, August 21

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.