'Basterds' is A-movie film-making, B-movie storytelling

To call Quentin Tarantino's latest film, "Inglourious Basterds," a solid B-movie may seem a bit cranky. Even if it's accurate. It does, after all, have its A-movie moments. Two to be exact.

The opening of the film demonstrates Tarantino's unassailable talent as a writer-director. It's a set piece wherein a German SS colonel, Hans Landa (Christop Waltz), arrives at a French dairy farm to interview the farmer. The year is 1941 and the words, "Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France"¦" flash on the screen.

Landa, known as Hitler's Jew Hunter, arrives at the farm because he suspects the farmer of hiding a Jewish family. The scene, wonderfully framed inside the farmhouse, is filled with menace, even more chilling because of Landa's exaggerated civility and calm. In that moment, the colonel is a distillation of the evil perpetrated by the Nazis as they set about finding and then exterminating a people.

As Landa slowly drinks a cold glass of milk, while discoursing on Jews as rats, the camera pans to the cracks in the floorboards. It's quickly apparent that a family is lying just below, listening and watching, hands held over their mouths, as the moment unfolds. They are clearly terrified. This scene and its outcome could easily be a remarkable, stand-alone short possessing an intense arc and a perfect, if unexpected, denouement.

But because the film is divided into chapters, a new scene quickly begins which introduces the "glourious basterds," a small group of Jewish G.I.s, led by Lt. Aldo Raines (Brad Pitt), a Tennessee good old boy who wants not only to kill Nazis but take their scalps as well (literally and graphically). Pitt's over the top portrayal approaches caricature and the "basterds" flirt with farce. It's a surprising decision by Tarantino, for this group of behind-the-lines commandos (OSS) should be quietly lethal and profoundly serious about what's a stake, not simply a congregation of idiosyncratic psychopaths unleashed on the Third Reich.

It soon becomes evident that the hunt for Jews by Col. Landa will not be the contextual backdrop of the film, but merely an isolated vignette. And so the film abruptly jumps to 1944, the story now focused on Shoshana Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), owner of a small Paris cinema (inherited from her aunt and uncle), and pursued romantically by a German war hero, Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl).

The film then cuts to the second nicely constructed scene that takes place in a Parisian bistro, involving British and American soldiers dressed in Nazi uniforms, their mission being to contact German movie star Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a British undercover agent. Like the opening, this set piece is fraught with tension, is wonderfully shot, and even with its concluding Mexican standoff represents Tarantino at his best.

But where the film falls away is in its inability to tell a fully coherent story with compelling characters that connect with each other and with the audience. Ultimately, despite the vignettes, or because of the disparate vignettes, there is no there there; the film has no sustaining center.

Screenwriting of this ilk has, over the last decade, become a genre unto itself. These are loosely formed films amounting to no more than fractured experiences — this has usually been the province of the action movie — that require no reflective narrative, where character development and backstory and emotive interaction are residual and never central.

This is why Tarantino can almost blithely skirt the horror of the extermination of the Jews, perpetrated by monsters like Landa, and turn Landa, decked out in his tailored SS uniform and gleaming black riding boots, into the most attractive and authentic hustler in the film. For this is not a film about distilled evil but about scenarios leading to a blazing climax where revisionist history takes place inside a burning cinema in Paris. If "Schindler's List" is the yin, then "Inglourious Basterds" is the yang.

Perhaps another way to say this is that for all of Tarantino's skills at moviemaking, there is an absence of heart in his stories. Not to be confused with heat. Tarantino understands heat. He is, however, a master at visuals, at graphic violence, at set-ups that border on the outrageous or even farcical. As a filmmaker, he takes huge risks. Who would have though of making the Jew Hunter a suave and compelling character, one that all but steals the film? It's an interesting though repellent inversion. But then Tarantino, while a master filmmaker is not a master storyteller and that is no small thing; in fact, storytelling, even if nonlinear and a bit of a muddle, will always be the essence of fine filmmaking.

In the Loop

Winston Churchill once said, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried."

And because democracy is collaboration, a process of advise and consent, executed by human beings, it is deeply flawed. Too often democracy means governance by narrow, self-serving men and women who are ruled by the principles of careerism, vanity, duplicity, mendacity and venality. To name just a few. Many of these same folks are also downright incompetent, hence things can and do get messy.

And messy offers fertile ground for satire, as demonstrated in the British-made film "In the Loop," a high energy (never high brow), over-the-top, stinging send-up about the now infamous period leading up to the invasion of Iraq (though Iraq is never mentioned).

Good satire can be difficult to achieve, often reliant on biting humor, ridicule, and (good grief) irony. The air can often take leave of the satirical balloon and it will quickly deflate and fall into absurdity and silliness.

"In the Loop" doesn't, due to its staccato-like writing, with smart lines dropped like cluster bombs. It is both bitingly funny and scarily accurate. Britain ministers and directors of communication, in collusion with American undersecretaries and their sycophants, fashion a Baroque rationale for war, created out of whole cloth, based on unimpeachable intelligence, derived from a Middle East source, code name The Iceman. Of course, it's a house of cards, pure fiction, puffed up, spun, tweaked and reconstructed to resemble truth. No matter, apparently, that both British and American soldiers will be put in harm's way and irrevocable actions will result in blood and treasure being expended. Recall the United Nations presentation by Gen. Colin Powell, pointing to weapons of mass destruction on a split-screen high above the Chamber of Nations, or the ubiquitous color-coded alerts perpetrated by an administration that was the purveyor fear and catastrophe at every political turn.

This is not to say that "In the Loop" has a light touch or is in anyway subtle. It's a wonderfully blunt instrument, beginning with a bevy of Anglo-Saxon epithets, plumbed to great effect and delivered with an unequaled, spittle-ejecting, vituperative, practiced hostility by the Prime Minister's communication director, Malcom Tucker (Peter Capaldi). Capaldi's portrayal is but one example of a host of English and American actors who give nifty performances, each convincing, all assisting in creating a scaffolding of government that is laughably unsettling.

It's hard not to think of the Kabuki dance being played out today in Washington around health care. Like war, the stakes are high. And yet, the dissembling scenarios, the theatrical town hall meetings, complimented by wingnuts packing heat, all make "In the Loop" timeless and prescient while placing in relief the democratic process, which is, no doubt, akin to sausage making.

"In the Loop" is satire at its best: thought-provoking, exaggerated and delightfully humorous.

The Time Traveler's Wife

If time is a thin reed, or experienced as a Mobius strip allowing a traveler to leap forward and backward, think of the possibilities. Actually, Hollywood and literature have gone to this well often, and sometimes with compelling results. For some reason, "Back to the Future" comes to mind.

"The Time Traveler's Wife" takes all the inherent problems of time travel and embeds them in a tender and fragile love story and, all things considered, succeeds nicely.

Based on Audrey Niffenegger's bestseller, the film tells the story of Henry (Eric Bana) who, since boyhood, has, against his will, traveled in time, both into the past and into the future. All that he leaves behind is his clothing, arriving at his unknown destination naked.

Time travel is one of the most difficult and interesting tropes in film or literature. From the outset the audience must suspend its disbelief and all but lend a hand filling in any illogical holes. Actually, "The Time Traveler's Wife" manages quite well to deal with the multiple time-traveling surprises without falling into the trap of being nonsensical. Close, but not quite.

Henry's unexpected traveling is never presented as a stunning achievement; rather, it is viewed as something that is deeply problematical for Henry and his new wife, Clare (Rachel McAdams). They are deeply in love (Clare has loved Henry since she was very young) and at the most inopportune moments, some scary to be sure, Henry, without warning, vanishes like so much smoke. Just moments before they are to be married, Henry disappears only to return as an older version of his younger self (you see the problem). But these moments are never off-putting; intriguing, actually.

Every romantic story — "Titanic," "Ghost Story," "Love Story," "Romeo and Juliet" — has embedded in it the possibility of a tragic outcome. Hence the filmmakers must search for the sweet spot, that elusive geography where the couple fashions a bond so strong that the audience invests in their relationship as well. Absent that connection the film will merely seem a piece of shallow fiction or science fiction. With the sweet spot found, the film transcends and becomes deeply human.

Despite a few jarring moments, "The Time Traveler's Wife" achieves that emotional connection.

Of course, as a film it's not a perfect. The Niffenegger book would be all but impossible to fully adapt. But director Robert Schwentke makes a fine effort and, with the fine performances of Bana and McAdams, manages to find the sweet spot.

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