Somewhere between Jackie Brown and Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino became a parody of himself. Onscreen, the writer-director amped up his trademark buckets of dialogue and blood, particularly indulging his fetish for kung fu and babes who can kill as easily as they die. Offscreen, he often came across as tweaked-out and trashy, hardly credible as the genius behind the elegant Reservoir Dogs and epic Pulp Fiction.
But when a character delivers the final line in his latest, the World War II–era Inglourious Basterds—“This may be my masterpiece”—it feels as if Tarantino is giving the audience a wink and himself a pat on the back. Because you’ll likely realize that not once during its 150-plus minutes did you look at your watch. And that, though it’s not quite on par with the genre-busting Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s seventh film is just as assuredly paced and remarkably more mature.
Inglourious Basterds is not a remake of Italy’s correctly spelled 1978 movie, but that film did serve as something of a launching point for the script Tarantino reportedly worked on for a decade. Divided into chapters, its first one—with the Sergio Leone–inspired title “Once Upon a Time…in Nazi-Occupied France”—is one of its most brilliant. Here we meet Col. Hans Landa (Austrian actor Christoph Waltz), an impeccably mannered and educated Nazi who visits a French dairy farmer (Denis Menochet). Landa politely and interminably makes small talk, eventually inquiring about Jewish families who were once known to live in the area and letting slip that he’s become known among his cohorts as the “Jew Hunter.” The farmer tries to sweat out the call; the camera smoothly pans through the floorboards to the refugees hiding beneath. Landa’s goodbye is not a pretty one.
Before the scene’s brutal end, the mood is subdued yet tense, a tone masterfully evoked repeatedly throughout the film—particularly whenever the award-worthy Waltz is onscreen. Other characters include the title group themselves, a rabble of rogue American soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) who make it their mission to kill Nazis; a young Jewish woman named Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent) who escaped the aforementioned dairy farm to start a new life as the owner of a French cinema; and a German movie star (Diane Kruger) who serves as a double-agent for the British and American military. All share an interest in the film’s big event: The premiere of Nation’s Pride, a movie about an especially efficient Nazi soldier whose screening will be attended by Hitler and his top aides.
The subject matter, even with its toyed history, feels rather grown-up for Tarantino. But though his usual tics are toned down—after spinning out of control in Death Proof—Inglourious Basterds still bears his stamp. You’ll see Nazi scalps—per Lt. Raine’s orders—get hatcheted off the soldiers’ heads, and shootouts are vicious and thorough. There’s a smattering of “Royale with Cheese”–esque banter, such as when Landa talks at length about the differences between hawks (the Germans) and rats (those would be Jews). More distinctive is the script’s humor: Pitt gets to deliver most of it, and though his mugging verges on excess, he’s hilarious whether attempting to speak Italian (“Ban journo!”) or asking a well-known Nazi killer to join his group: “We just wanted to say we’re a big fan of your work.” (Pay close attention, and you’ll also hear vocal cameos from Tarantino vets Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel.) It all adds up to a tremendously satisfying package that may not project youthful exuberance but still oozes talent.
Cold Souls Directed by Sophie Barthes
There’s an episode of The Simpsons in which Bart sells his soul to his best friend for five bucks. Not really believing there is such a thing, he scribbles “Bart Simpson’s Soul” on one piece of paper and exchanges it for what he regards as a more valuable one. But soon he notices little differences in his life and starts to freak out, hunting that notebook scrap over several hours and several miles.
Cold Souls offers pretty much the same story, except here it’s an actor who chucks his inner being—and eventually feels empty and frantic without it. One imagines that writer-director Sophie Barthes intended her debut to be an earnest, Charlie Kaufman–esque examination of the human condition, not reminiscent of a lightly-lessoned subplot in an animated sitcom. But the result is still more ridiculous than thought-provoking.
Paul Giamatti stars as Paul Giamatti, which makes the film irritating from the start. He’s rehearsing for a stage production of Uncle Vanya and feels depressed and overwhelmed, unable to separate his own life from his character’s. His agent points him toward a New York City soul-extraction company—“Soul Storage” is even a category in the Yellow Pages—and Paul makes an appointment with Dr. Flintstein (David Strathairn), who will remove and store his soul for a small fee. The good doc even advises that it can be shipped to New Jersey “to avoid sales tax.” (That’s one of the movie’s few not-very-amusing attempts at levity; another is that Paul’s soul looks like a chickpea.)
Once Paul is spirit-free, he turns into a terrible actor and his wife (Emily Watson) tells him that he feels different, kind of “scaly.” He airs his concerns to Flintstein, but honestly answers “no” when the doctor asks, “Have you had one dark thought in the past week?” Still, Paul wants to be his old miserable self again, at which point the script delves further into a subplot involving a heretofore mysterious Russian woman (Dina Korzun), an overseas black market, and, yep, soul trafficking.
Cold Souls is thin in addition to being silly. Giamatti, the character, pre- and post-soul-removal may be amusing, and Giamatti, the real actor, tries to infuse the role with his specialty: nuanced angst. There’s also a germ of an interesting notion here, when Flinstein compares the soul to an unnecessary drag on one’s potential: “Some people never question their self-imposed limitations,” he says. But Barthes never develops this idea, instead focusing on Giamatti’s quest to get his chickpea back as well as the consequences of both “borrowing” and transporting souls. The apparent message? Stick with the one what brung ya. The unfortunate result? A film that’s a snooze.