(Dicaprio and Pitt cruising through Tinseltown, circa 1969) Image from USA Today and owned by Columbia Pictures and Heyday Films)
Leave it to Tarantino to make a film that really has no basic plot structure and allow it to be a mostly enthralling yet oddly laidback commentary on the state of Hollywood 50 years ago.
This is a Tarantino film that leans on the dialogue more heavily than any other film of his I’ve seen and I have not seen Jackie Brown, both Kill Bills, and Death Proof yet.
Inglorious Basterds surprised me by it’s admittingly quality “talkiness” when the previews, at least the first one, promised an uber violent Nazi slaying spectacle. Yes, many Nazis, including Hitler, bit many bullets, but the movie unfolds in a different manner than I expected.
Does Once upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino’s ninth movie(tenth if you consider Kill Bill Vol. 2 a second movie), leave me surprised at the trajectory it took?
Yes and no. I can say I found the results generally satisfying, so fear not for his true believers.
Like many if maybe all of his films, Once upon a Time in Hollywood is perhaps not truly understood in one viewing. He loves to throw hints and giveaways to what will happen that aren’t immediately apparent upon first viewing. He is an excellent craftsman of Chekhov’s Gun.
What I can say without really spilling any important beans, which is the unspoken rule of my job here, is that it centers on three things: the first being the surprisingly moving friendship/partnership between Dicaprio’s aging film/TV star Rick Dalton (A sympathetic spoof of Burt Reynolds and other Western TV stars of the era) and Pitt’s aged-like-delicious-fine-wine stunt double/chauffeur Cliff Booth (Reynolds stunt-double/co=worker Hal Needham).
The second involves the innocent day-to-day life of rising Hollywood actress Sharon Tate(played perfectly by Margot Robbie). The third is all the various power structures and obstacles that linger around Hollywood including the infamous yet still unknown Manson Family.
Despite the occasionally one sided nature of their friendship, Cliff and Rick represent two sides of the dying Golden Age of Hollywood as the hectic/revolutionary 70s’ approaches: Rick as the anxious,inflexible, afraid of change celebrity and Cliff as the unsung real hero of Hollywood productions that involve risk of injury even death, concerned as well but much more humble and willing to accept whatever his fate may be.
It becomes clear that while Tarantino has sympathy for the three leads of Dicaprio, Pitt and Robbie, he does have something of a pecking order of appreciation, which may spill into his own largely infatuated opinion of late 60s’ Hollywood. Rick Dalton is a vain crybaby who still faces understandable pressures from his own acting tics, like a very subtle stutter and misremembering lines.
He steadily realizes that the career he has lived, in a popular Western show called Bounty Law, reminiscent of Baby Boomer classics like The Rifleman and Wanted: Dead or Alive, cannot cut it anymore.
Cliff Booth acts as the good friend who largely keeps Rick from making the wrong decisions if he can help it and despite the appearance of Steve Mcqueen, portrayed by Damien Lewis, he is effortlessly the coolest person in the whole film.
If it wasn’t for a horrible rumor involving his love life, he would probably be fighting Rick for the spotlight. What I am trying to say is, is that not only would I welcome a drink with Pitt’s Cliff, he is the moral center of the movie, as close as a Tarantino film will allow.
The strengths of Dicaprio and Pitt’s arcs and performances prevents what could’ve been otherwise, a self indulgent yet visually comfortable show-and-tell of all the stuff that Tarantino wants to present to you about LA 69′. Speaking as someone who was born in 1993, the foot-loving director’s recreation of the City of Angels half a century ago is stunningly, obsessively complete.
Save for the clearly fictional additions that revolve around our lead’s show business careers, you couldn’t recreate a time or place better if you tried. I am hardly alone in the voices who are saying the same thing about OUATIH.
The movies showing at the theater’s are period accurate, the types of music, some of which I barely recognize like Paul Revere and the Raiders and stuff I’m glad was included like Deep Purple’s “Hush” exudes the atmosphere’s authenticity.
While it is unavoidably a film made in 2019, the quite noticeable film grain mixed with the historically accurate clothing, vehicles and look will at times trick the mind into believing you’re watching a forgotten movie from 1969. It is that good a touch-up.
Despite the consistent praise I’ve thrown towards an auteur like Tarantino and his latest film, those same niggling issues from earlier productions crop up once more and I would dare suggest the man would call them features, not bugs.
His films are known to drag, if only for the lengthy scenes that often involve conversations for a number of subjects not immediately relevant to the plot. I’ve not minded that much in the past, even with The Hateful Eight, but despite feeling even now that those long scenes still held a purpose, I would not have minded them still being lightly trimmed to speed things up.
Then again, one of Tarantino’s favorite directors is Sergio Leone. This movie itself is based off one of his classics, Once upon a Time in the West. Leone also loved taking his time and when you understand that and are in the right mindset, the slow burn stings far less.
That being said, one of Leone’s lesser known movies, A Fistful of Dynamite or Duck, You Sucker!, is too slow for its own good. Tarantino is paying his respects once more for the Italian master, so what did you expect?
One scene, however, involving Cliff Booth hitchhiking a member of the Manson Family back home to their lair at George Spahn Ranch, and his subsequent visit to check in on the elderly ranch manager, takes full advantage of that slow burn.
If anything, aside from further building up the impending danger from Charles Manson’s cult, it highlights that if he wanted to do so down the road, Quentin Tarantino would not be the worst choice to helm a horror film. Cliff, all alone save for the many evil-eyed Manson Family members, is truly scary.
I actually covered my ears in anticipation of a jump scare, whether it be from a blade or a gunshot directed at Cliff. Considering Pitt’s character is fictional, I figured maybe something truly terrible was about to unfold. Does something terrible unfold? Well, this isn’t a spoiler review, so I’m not saying, of course.
Though I promise not to spoil anything truly substantial that would ruin your viewing, it is really hard not to talk around the elephant in the room that is the controversial conclusion to Tarantino’s ninth movie.
The characters, the setting, the period in time I’ve mentioned as part of a light synopsis of the feature may already have keyed you in to what is that controversial aspect.
Again, no spoilers, but I will say that I accept that ending for what it is, and it was upon reflection a well thought out series of events. Remember that Tarantino is a master of Chekhov’s Gun. Say what you will about it, it didn’t come out of nowhere.
The tone certainly shifts, going into a violent, even darkly comedic place that left me and I imagine the audience stunned yet laughing all the same. Tarantino has guts, all right. Might as well show you his own after portraying other fictional people’s since his debut with Reservoir Dogs in 1992.
There is undeniably a thematic maybe even political statement in how Once upon a Time in Hollywood wraps up. It could be seen as heartfelt tribute, a wistful retroactive desire for retribution, a well disguised by the nerve of it all swan song for an era gone to the history books, alive only through celluloid and the still living memory of the time and place.
Once upon a Time in Hollywood manages not to be misguided in the end. It’s plot is perhaps disorderly, but its more charming and thought provoking in its structure than a jumbled, unprofessional mess.
Tarantino already has toyed with the three act structure to wonderful result with his ever quoted Pulp Fiction. This is not another Pulp Fiction. It’s a couple of days in the life for a couple of world weary Hollywood men that eventually leads somewhere very interesting, to put it lightly.
Tarantino is a proven provocateur, so maybe the biggest surprise the film has won’t be that surprising. Perhaps the surprise to glean is that when you look back at the whole thing, you’ll likely feel more positive than negative with Tarantino’s nerdy obsession of love for a period that was for many Americans, dark, cynical and lacking hope for the future.
That could also reflect our own dire outlooks for the world today that a film from the darkly complicated Vietnam-Manson era of America looks more inviting than it should be. Is Tarantino the guy that’s messed up or are we all?
Oh, before I go, Mike Moh’s take on Bruce Lee is impeccable. That one scene with him is almost worth price of admission alone. Simu Liu will be great as Shang-Chi I’m sure, but still.