Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

once_upon_a_time_in_hollywood_ver7STARS2.5A new Quentin Tarantino film is an event.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has been billed as his ninth picture.  So apparently Kill Bill Vol 1 and 2 are now considered one film.  The auteur has declared his plans to retire after he has made 10 total.  Much of the critical establishment has worshiped at the altar of this much-lauded filmmaker.  Personally, I haven’t always been a fan of the way he succumbs to his excessive impulses.  His last production, The Hateful Eight, was a mean-spirited tale of truly reprehensible individuals.  To its credit, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is decidedly more good-natured.  It’s a tale that longs for a bygone era.  But that isn’t for the Golden Age of directors like William Wyler, Frank Capra, and George Cukor.  No Tarantino reveres the men of 1960s Hollywood like Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone and John Sturges who made manly movies.

The drama takes place in Los Angeles circa 1969 which was a turning point in the entertainment industry.  Easy Rider, Medium Cool and The Wild Bunch all came out that year.  The studio driven era of the past was giving way to a slew of cinematic revolutionaries that were pushing the envelope in what types of behavior could be portrayed on film.  Studios had always kept a tight reign on what could be depicted on screen.  That standard was quickly eroding due to a social conflict that was playing out in real life.  The Best Picture of 1969 was a whimsical musical – Oliver – the last G-rated movie to win the award in fact.  In 1970 it was the X rated Midnight Cowboy.  Contrasts don’t get more conspicuous than that.  This is all mere subtext however but it helps to appreciate the social environment that this film details.

Tarantino’s attention to detail in fabricating Los Angeles circa 1969 is visually flawless.  He favors practical effects over CGI.  There is exhausting attention to period detail and production designer Barbara Ling is the MVP on this picture as far as I’m concerned.  The time is lovingly recreated with painstaking accuracy.   The vehicles, the storefronts, the clothing, Hollywood Boulevard – it is an immersive and palpable atmosphere.  The movie employs a soundtrack of Top 40 hits and vintage radio commercials in an aural pastiche that recalls American Graffiti.  To Tarantino’s credit, he’s depicting a generation that occurred a whopping 50 years ago whereas George Lucas manifested a past that transpired a mere 11 years from his fabrication.  Still, American Graffiti was positively hypnotic compared to this formless rambling.  If set design were the whole movie, this would be the best film of the year.  However, movies also rely on pacing and that’s a major problem in this nearly 3-hour endurance test.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is like a patchwork quilt of interconnecting characters.  This is the saga of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) a fading actor, and his close buddy/stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Rick was once a successful star of TV westerns of the 50s and 60s but has seen his career decline as of late.  He’s currently guest-starring as the villain in an action series.  In contrast, the more level-headed Cliff, who also doubles as Rick’s valet, is more resigned to the fact that his best days are behind him.  Cliff hasn’t been able to get much work due to speculation surrounding his wife’s death.  The central relationship is loosely based on actor Burt Reynolds and his buddy Hal Needham, a stuntman as well as director, actor, and writer.   There’s also a superfluous story that involves actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), newlywed to director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha).  Her chronicle simply revolves around going to the cinema to watch herself in the Dean Martin spy comedy The Wrecking Crew. Her vacuous but beautiful face is enrapt at the sight of her own visage.  Except she’s watching genuine footage of the actual movie with the real Sharon Tate.  It’s an odd juxtaposition because Margot Robbie and Sharon Tate are clearly not the same people.

That’s the set-up, but what exactly is the story?  In this 3 hour tale, the account plods along at a leisurely pace that seems in no hurry to get anywhere in particular.  The fable operates as sort of a meandering series of vignettes in and around Los Angles.  The account largely focuses on the slumping career of Rick Dalton.  His interaction with a precocious young co-star named Trudi Fraser (Julia Butters) is a high point.  Her obsessive allegiance to her craft actually causes Rick to question his own dedication.  Another is Cliff’s bizarre run-in with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) who was starring in The Green Hornet at the time.  Tarantino is a fan of martial arts.  Cliff implausibly humiliates the Asian star in hand to hand combat.  I didn’t take this biased fantasy of Quentin’s as truth, although that doesn’t make the deceit any less compelling.  Moh’s portrayal is so over the top that the martial artist star still remains the most captivating presence on screen.  Actors Moh and Butters were my two favorite cameos in a sprawling cast that has many of them.  Well, human ones anyway. Brandy, the pit bull that plays Cliff Booth’s pet, bears a mention as well.  The drama has little narrative thrust so any one of these scenes could be excerpted and enjoyed independently or even excised completely and not affect the story.

The movie briefly springs to life in a fascinating diversion which concerns Cliff Booth and an underage teen hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley).  She invites him back to the ranch of George Spahn (Bruce Dern).  This is the desert commune/cult where she lives and works.  She invites him to stay and meet their friend Charles Manson (Damon Herriman). Booth is clearly distrustful of the hippies.  He insists on seeing the 80-year-old almost blind George for himself to make sure he isn’t being exploited.  It’s a captivating segment.

They say that this is Tarantino’s most personal work, but what exactly is this man idolizing?  If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Tarantino was pining for the days when America was bolstered by strong conservative values before the cultural mores were upended by the freethinkers of the “decadent” 1960s.  The production functions as a mournful lament.  These two men bemoan the liberal hippie culture that is infiltrating show business and indeed the rest of society.  At one point 4 young people pull up and park their car in Rick’s driveway.  Rick, who has had enough of these counterculture types, lunges from his doorway like a bat out of hell cursing.  He orders the youths to leave, uttering the word “hippie” almost like it’s a slur.  It’s a surprisingly sympathetic point of view for what these two middle-aged white guys represent in our post-2017 MeToo movement.  The fact that this is Quentin Tarantino’s first film without producer Harvey Weinstein provides some interesting underlying context.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s most amiable picture.  There is less bloodshed than you’d expect from a man who routinely fetishizes violence.  It’s only during the climax that this production ultimately submits to slaughter.  I must admit, knowing that Sharon Tate was 8 1/2 months pregnant with her unborn child when she was murdered along with coffee heiress Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson), hairstylist Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) and Polish screenwriter Wojciech Frykowski (Costa Ronin) gave me anxiety about where this movie was headed.  Leave it to Quentin to subvert expectations.  Inglourious Basterds is his most satisfying work.  There are parallels between that alternate take on history and this one.  However, where that film gradually builds toward its conclusion, this one simply meanders without focus or direction.  Only in the last 15 minutes do the characters come together in an action-filled (and yes extremely violent) altercation.  It’s the director’s classic presentation of wish fulfillment.  There is a point I suppose.   I sadly regret that once this movie started to show a pulse, it was all over.

07-25-19

18 Responses to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

  1. I have read positive and negative reviews. I can’t wait to see it myself — I’m a fan who likes a plot — so I predict I will fall into the unimpressed camp.

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    • I’ve noticed that most of the critics (like all of Tarantino’s works) have given it high praise. However, a lot of the moviegoers I know were less enthused. I’ll be interested to hear what you think.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I appreciate the way you elucidated the time and place of this movie. That’s really interesting for me, someone who has done a shameful little amount of research on the big movements in cinematic history. Had no idea 1969 was a year of any note, really. Shame on me!

    This movie has seemingly divided people like few Tarantino movies have. I can’t wait to see it. I think I’m gonna like it. I’m down for a “let’s all hang out in a Tarantino movie” kinda vibe. Lack of narrative propulsion shouldn’t harm my experience too much. (I say that now…..)

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  3. I gotta say I love so much about this movie. I won’t rehash my review but this drew me in like few Tarantino movies have.

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  4. Since you regard Inglorious Bastard as Tarantino’s most satisfying work, i thought we would have very different opinions on his movies. but I just got back from watching Once Upon a Time. and very much like your review, the movie was a let down. It also would have been nice if Pacino and Robbie were given more to do .

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    • Yeah Margot Robbie‘s part was so odd. Like I would’ve understood if it was a cameo but we watch her watch her own movie throughout the entire film. What was the point?

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      • that was a question I had several times during the movie. what is the point? of extensively watching Robbie strolling to the theater, talking to the ticket lady, posing, and sitting with barefeet. And then that same question also applies as we watch characters driving cars, posturing, and listening to music.

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  5. Reblogged this on KURT BRINDLEY and commented:
    I was going to write my own review for meandering mess of a movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but after yesterday’s disaster of a review I just didn’t have the heart… or pain tolerance. And let’s face it, you know and I know writing reviews isn’t exactly my forte, so…

    Instead I decided to reblog this wonderfully written review of the flick which mirrors my sentiments of the movie almost to a T by Fast Film Reviews for your entertainment and instruction.

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  6. Last quarter of the film was the most exciting. The rest was well done, but kind of drab. 3 stars

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  7. This is an excellent review. I particularly appreciated your sketch of the cinematic landscape in 1969 and how you drew comparisons with American Graffiti in so far as a movie that equally captures an era and time.

    However, I disagree with a lot of your points. I think there was a point to Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate. I think that she and Rick Dalton are two sides of the same Hollywood coin and both embody different ideals of the movie business. You can find out more by reading my review below.

    https://sgsonfilm.net/2019/08/18/review-once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-2019/

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    • I agree with you that her story was closely related to Rick Dalton’s. I just found the film meandering. Given that the movie was 3 hours, I would’be cut her part in the interest of a more compelling drama since her subplot was so undeveloped.

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