Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! This week two bold movies, both featuring international ensemble casts, make their debut. The first is Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s eagerly anticipated World War 2 epic. The other is Cold Souls, Sophie Barthes cerebral Being John Malkovich rip-off. The former is a dazzling success, the latter a modest one. Though varying in quality, you should pay little attention to the trailers. They’re somewhat misleading.
Inglourious Basterds is an audaciously entertaining yarn that’ll disappoint those who yearn for nonstop action and historical accuracy. Easily the director’s best since Jackie Brown, Tarantino borrows from multiple genres, and builds considerable suspense through nuanced dialogue. Its tone careens between humor and shock, empathy and bloodlust, civility and savagery. Yes, Brad Pitt gets top billing, though he does not dominate the screen. Tarantino has the patience to develop multiple plotlines, and half dozen characters (mostly speaking French and German) refreshingly update war movie archetypes. Ultimately audiences will best remember Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa, the year’s great villain.
It takes about twenty minutes for Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt) and his Basterds to appear onscreen. First Tarantino treats audiences to a masterful scene between Handa (nicknamed the “Jew Hunter”) and humble French farmer (Denis Menochet). The Jew Hunter exudes menace and authority through an unexpected way. His manner is disarmingly civil, and the farmer correctly observes Handa’s skill eclipses the need for verbal intimidation. Meanwhile, as the trailer promised, the Basterds scalp Nazis in France, achieving their desired effect. Nazis fear the elite squad, and respond with a propaganda campaign. Goebbels himself directed “Nations Pride,” a movie-within-a-movie detailing the exploits of a real-life German sniper (Daniel Brühl). When England discovers top Nazi brass will attend the Paris premier, they dispatch Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) on a spy mission, codenamed Operation Kino. As the escort of double agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), Hicox and the Basterds hope to infiltrate the premiere with explosives in tow. Little do they know Jewish theater owner Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) has plans of her own. Lacking explosives, Shosanna nonetheless knows just how quickly celluloid can burn.
Perhaps you’re familiar with a quote often attributed to Hitchcock (I’m paraphrasing): “Two sit at a table with a bomb underneath. The bomb goes off – that’s action. The bomb doesn’t go off – that’s suspense.” Tarantino has definitely taken this quote to heart. In addition to actual explosives, there are roughly five suspenseful scenes where characters sit at a table, and the “bomb” is whether Nazis will uncover Allied deception. Aside from the opening scene described above, the best table scene occurs in a basement bar, where Hicox (dressed in Nazi uniform) plays a game with von Hammersmark and other Nazi officers. Only the Good Guys realize the stakes, and the Bad Guys always seem like they’re on the verge of discovery. The director has admirable patience here – terse close-ups and subtle panic heightens the suspense. The scene culminates with brutality, and unrelenting build-up makes the payoff cathartic. Dialogue may dominate the movie, but Inglourious Basterds’ relatively brief action will sate audience’s bloodlust. It is swift and brutal, particularly when the Basterds have methods less creative than scalping. Tarantino wisely does not dwell on the Basterds’ cruelty. His skillful direction negates the need to linger, especially since the violence (while infrequent) peppers the screen right until the final shot.
The varied dialogue distinguishes Inglourious Basterds from Tarantino’s earlier efforts. In Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, the characters had similar attitudes, and spoke with the same rhythm. Here the characters come from varied backgrounds, so Raine’s Patton-esque syntax is wildly different than Hicox’s posh condescension. The actors embody their characters comfortably, and easily veer from comedy to pathos. Pitt in particular is the most resolutely badass, and his near-parody twang is the source the movie’s biggest laughs. As the theater owner, Mélanie Laurent is a believable heroine, and her profession gives Tarantino the chance to unleash his film nerdery (there are numerous references to early German filmmakers). Curiously, Laurent and Pitt’s characters provide the movie with a moral center, one that is resolutely vengeful and deceptively simple-minded. I could go on – Inglourious Basterds is so rich with ideas and entertainment, and I have barely touched upon the movie’s numerous successes. Let’s just say the movie delivers its promised Nazi murder porn, and oh so much more. This is one of the year’s best.
Paul Giamatti stars as himself in Cold Souls, a high-concept mindbender that strangely loses interest in its intriguing premise. Much like titular star of Being John Malkovich, Giamatti portrays a stereotype of himself, one that falls in line with his more popular characters. This Giamatti is neurotic and in the midst of a spiritual crisis. He’s starring in a theater production of Uncle Vanya, and the toll of portraying the lead proves too much. Through a New Yorker article, Paul learns of a clinic run that will extract a person’s soul. The clinic is run by Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), who calmly explains that a soulless person feels lighter and carefree. Of course Paul undergoes the procedure (the soul extractor looks like an MRI scanner), and much to his chagrin, his acting starts to suffer. He’s incapable of empathy, and his wife (Emily Watson) says he feels different. Unbeknownst to Paul, Dr. Flintstein is part of an international soul-smuggling operation. Russian mule Nina (Dina Korzun) steals Paul’s soul and transports it to St. Petersburg. Left with no recourse, Paul desperately follows the mule.
Writer/director Sophie Barthes casts her movie brilliantly. Paul Giamatti does a tricky thing with his role. Even in the universe of Cold Souls, the human soul is a difficult thing to understand*, and Giamatti’s subtle changes are instrumental to the movie’s success. Remember when Bart Simpson sells his soul to Millhouse? It’s like that, except with Giamatti’s trademark talent for self-deprecation. David Strathairn’s understated approach is appropriate for a character like Dr. Flintstein – a flat delivery is necessary for someone peddling such an outlandish service. Other actors, particularly Emily Watson and Flintstein’s assistant Lauren Ambrose, are criminally underused. Sadly, Cold Souls falls apart once Giamatti arrives in Russia. Up until that point, the movie cleverly explores philosophical questions, and even finds room for a joke or two (including one superb sight gag). It’s not as funny as trailer would have you believe, but it’s certainly amusing and cerebral. Once in Russia, Giamatti is single-minded in purpose, and a fish-out-of-water story is no substitute for existential intrigue. The story goes on autopilot and never recovers. It’s a shame, really – Barthes clearly is imaginative, and knows how elicit strong performances. Had she spent more time on an ending, her work could have easily rivaled Charlie Kaufman’s masterpiece.
* Flintstein informs Giamatti that souls are solid objects. There’s little rhyme or reason governing what shape they take. Giamatti’s looks like a chickpea. If my soul also resembled a legume, I’d be similarly pissed.