Quentin Tarantino's latest is the gaudy, World War II revenge thriller Inglourious Basterds, and the (intentional) misspelling of the title is, I think, just about the only thing wrong with it.
This will not, however, be your opinion if you're offended - as you easily might be - by the writer/director choosing to play fast and loose with historical facts, and with his presentation of American soldiers as bloodthirsty savages, and with his rather perverse decision to make a murderous Nazi the most compelling, most purely likable character onscreen. But Tarantino isn't aiming for Schindler's List. He's aiming for pure sensation - visual, aural, gut-level - and at this he succeeds stupendously. At just over two and a half hours, and without a dull minute among them, Inglourious Basterds is a fantastically invigorating experience, brutal and intense and hilarious, and boasting the kinds of protracted, nail-biting suspense sequences that no American film director, Spielberg and Scorsese included, has ever pulled off better.
With its storyline that's broken into five chapters, and with its host of characters whose paths only converge in the final act, the film finds Tarantino juggling an amazing number of narrative balls. There are the "basterds" of the title, a group of gung-ho mercenaries - most of them Jewish - whose drawling commander (Brad Pitt in a funny, vital caricature) demands of them 100 Nazi scalps each. There's Shosanna (the beautifully grave Mélanie Laurent), the young, Jewish owner of a Paris movie house, desperate to avenge the massacre of her family. There's Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), the handsome SS solider currently starring in a movie based on his "heroic" exploits. There's Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), the German actress working as an undercover agent for the British. And there's the Nazi Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), whose superior detection skills have earned him the nickname "The Jew Hunter," and whose breezy, grinning charm masks the decadent malevolence beneath.
There's also so much more in this rollicking, only-in-Tarantinoland adventure: anachronistic music selections, frequent allusions to spaghetti-Western cinema, a Mike Myers cameo. (Listen closely, and you'll also catch the Tarantino return of Harvey Keitel.) But the glorious - or rather, glourious - too-muchness of it all is essential to the movie's appeal; Tarantino gives you such an onslaught of plot, incident, and character that the results are nearly dizzying. Astonishingly, though, it's never overwhelming. The auteur paces his scenes with a supremely elegant sense of control, particularly those in which the surface banality primes us for unimagined terror, and comic terror; he draws out the hypnotic silences until Inglourious Basterds seems to have no choice other than to explode. (The opening reel, in which Landa interrogates a farmhand about a missing family of Jews, is as exquisitely composed, timed, and performed as anything in Tarantino's oeuvre.)
Lushly photographed by Robert Richardson, the film features almost no end of memorable encounters and throwaway pleasures that you want to talk about for days: the Samuel L. Jackson voice-over, detailing the combustible elements of nitrate-based film stock; the basement rendezvous in which, of all people, a smooth British film critic (the marvelous Michael Fassbender) attempts to pass himself off as a Nazi officer, in front of a Nazi officer; the gasp-inducing eliminations of major characters at wholly unexpected moments; the jaw-dropper of a climax, which re-imagines history in the most ludicrous yet most emotionally satisfying way imaginable.
And you'll no doubt want to talk about the absolutely genius portrayal by Christoph Waltz, whose thunderously fine imagining of unimaginable evil is easily in line with Heath Ledger's Joker and Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh (and who might find himself similarly feted at next year's Oscars ceremony). I loved Inglorious Basterds so much that I even loved the one thing I hated about it: the wildly over-baked performance of director Eli Roth. With his hammy facial tics and obnoxious squawk of a voice, the man is unfailingly annoying as the pugnacious Sergeant Donny Donowitz, but if it took his appearance here to delay Roth's participation in yet another Hostel sequel, I'll consider it a more-than-fair trade.