A film review by Craig J. Koban August 5, 2019

ONCE UPON A TIME 

IN HOLLYWOOD jjj
   

2019, R, 161 mins.

 

Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton  /  Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth  /  Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate  /  Al Pacino as Marvin Schwarzs  /  Kurt Russell as Randy  /  Timothy Olyphant as James Stacy  /  Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme  /  Luke Perry as Scott Lancer  /  Margaret Qualley as Pussycat  /  Damon Herriman as Charles Manson  /  Mike Moh as Bruce Lee  /  Emile Hirsch as Jay Sebring  /  Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen  /  Bruce Dern as George Spahn

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

 

 

 

Writer/director Quentin Tarantino was just a wee young lad in 1969 when he was growing up in the City of Angels, with both that year and location serving of prominent importance to his ninth directorial effort in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.   

Los Angeles is, of course, a legendary place deeply entrenched in moviemaking that, by the filmmaker's own admission, has indelibly shaped his life and career.  The film's title hints at not only its fairy tale trappings (as well as serving as a direct homage to two of the films by Sergio Leone, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and AMERICA, a couple of Tarantino's favorites), but it also evokes a time and a place of Hollywood's past - and Tarantino's youth - of old studio films of the Golden Age of the medium, all which came crashing down because of the shocking events on Cielo Drive in 1969, entrenched in tragic multiple murders that built to a loss of innocence in the industry. 

Of course, I'm talking of the infamous and grisly Charles Manson Family murders of then young and up and coming actress Sharon Tate (who, at the time, was in a relationship with director Roman Polanski) alongside two other family friends.  But ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is not an expose of Manson and the psychological underpinnings of his hellish actions, nor is it exclusively about Tate and the build up to her nightmarish fate.  No, Tarantino has lovingly and meticulously crafted a valentine here to late 60's L.A. and Hollywood, a time period that he passionately reveres and wishes he could have worked in, but obviously didn't.  

As an astute student of cinema history, the 56-year-old auteur is clearly fascinated with this integral transitional era for the art form, and ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is really about transporting viewers to this period and place and  - in pure Tarantino-ian fashion - telling multiple storylines featuring a kaleidoscope of colorful characters (some real, some not) and how they all unavoidably intersect during this mythical moviemaking time.  And like INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, Tarantino is framing his tale in history, but is also re-shaping it as well to suit his dramatic needs.  When I left ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA I knew that it showcased Tarantino in total confident command of his craft; he flawlessly recreates the past and delivers an affectionate ode to a bygone era.  There are some creative caveats alone the way (more on that in a bit), but this is a near masterpiece and easily one of the director's most deeply personal films on multiple levels. 

 

 

At its core, ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is less about Tate's intersection with the Manson Family then it is about an aging TV actor on the verge of career implosion and his relationship with his long-time stuntman BFF, with both men struggling to survive and maintain relevance in an industry era that would easily like to chew them up and spit them out to the fringe curb.  We're quickly introduced to the once iconic, but now falling western icon Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double/gofer/confidant Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), two characters completely made up by Tarantino, but ones that feel like amalgams of many real life Hollywood personas.  Rick was once the hottest actors on the small screen, but is now facing irrelevance with the changing tides of the industry and is forced to take low rent bad guy cameo roles to make ends meet.  Cliff steadfastly supports his buddy and business partner, despite his advancing depression and descent in alcoholism, but he nevertheless chauffeurs him everywhere he needs to be outside of his home...on Cielo Drive, right next door to - yup! - rising star Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Polanski.   

Rick desperately tries to keep his sanity in check, staving off suicidal impulses while partaking in his bottom feeding paycheck grabbing roles.  He does find a way out in the form of a big offer from a powerful producer (Al Pacino), who thinks that Rick would be a good fit for Italian made spaghetti westerns that are raking up money overseas.  Rick initially brushes him off, but then takes the mogul up on his offer, seeing as it might jump start his career.  Concurrent to Rick's struggles are Tate's starry eyed optimism of making it big in Hollywood, and with her star status rising (alongside being married to one of the hottest filmmakers of their time), her future looks bright.  These two stories are juxtaposed against Cliff, a semi-disgraced stuntman that may or may not have committed a heinous crime in his past that has led to him being blackballed off of many movie sets.  He has a chance meeting with a hippie named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), who has ties with Charles Manson (Damon Herriman). 

And the rest...is history. 

Or...is it? 

Tarantino rightfully deserves his legendary status for his splendid dialogue and well drawn, hard nosed characters (which pepper this one as well), but his films rarely get enough credit for their superlative production design and art direction.  ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is an astounding achievement in that latter respect.  There have been countless films, to be fair, that have attempted to re-create the sixties to varying degrees of success, but the decade has rarely felt as lived in and authentic as it does here.  Tarantino's replication of 1969 Los Angeles is one for the proverbial ages, and he gets every minute detail down just right - from the cars, clothes, props, and even subtle background details, like what's playing on the radio.  This is one of the most generous and inviting historical films I've ever seen, one that shows great flair and love in filling nearly every segment of the frame and soundtrack with sights and ambience that have a stark sense of immediacy: you really feel instantly whisked back fifty years.  Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson still understand, though, the need to balance period specific verisimilitude with a playful sense of make-believe, and there's this ethereal dreamlike quality to the film, almost to the point that it feels like it were made utilizing cameras and lenses of yesteryear.  ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD represents the narrative conglomeration of the real and unreal, but it also captures the magic of a decade in movie history unlike any before or since.   

Complimenting the film's aesthetic is the multi-tiered screenplay, with extra focus and running time being given to Rick and Cliff, who spend most of the film simply hanging out and enjoying each other's company when not facing the rigors of a studio system that doesn't really want them anymore.  A lot of the dark humor - and dramatic pathos - of ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD comes with Rick's anxiety plagued efforts to maintain himself as a bankable entity in Hollywood, which is mirrored by Cliff's burdensome status as well, whose past indiscretions have hurt his chances to secure work.  Cliff doesn't put up with any bull shit...no matter where it comes from, even if it's from Bruce Lee (Mike Moh, a dead ringer for the icon in many respects), which leads to one of the film's highlights in the form of an on-set altercation between the pair after Lee boasts about his physical and martial arts prowess.  There's been ample talk lately how Tarantino has disrespected the image of Lee in this film by portraying him as an arrogant behind-the-scenes thug that liked to pick fights, but it should be noted that this sequence in question is shown in flashback form in Cliff's mind, with the accuracy of his recollections being easily questionable and maybe even unreliable.  Plus, ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is not a documentary of its times; it leads too heavily into pure fantasy for that label to legitimately stick. 

This brings me to another controversy that has dogged this film, especially in the months leading up to its release: Tarantino's portrayal of his female characters, specifically Robbie's Tate.  Its true that, yes, Robbie doesn't get as much screentime as her male counterparts, nor is she given much dialogue in the film.  I don't think, tough, that Tarantino was engaging in creative misogyny.  Tate isn't so much presented here as a flesh and blood and compelling character, per se, as much as she's showcased in the film as a manifestation of the limitless promises that Hollywood offered up to young hopefuls during her time.  There's a dread inducing melancholy to be had in watching Tate here floating in and out of the film, especially considering what ultimately happened to her and her friends.  She's an endless beacon of radiant happiness and optimism, especially during one key moment when she goes to a local cinema to experience the audience reaction to her performance in THE WREAKING CREW.  The thematic juxtaposition Tarantino is doing here is noteworthy: She's poised for greater things whereas Rick has achieved greatness and has fallen off of casting agent's radars.  And witnessing the endlessly happy go lucky Tate being so blissfully unaware of what's to come in her short life is undeniably gut wrenching. 

I haven't said much about the performances, all of which are superlative, especially DiCaprio, who gives Rick a fragile edge as a once industry heavyweight that's been knocked out for the ten count too many times for his comfort.  DiCaprio has the tricky task of making Rick both amusingly pathetic and a source of sympathy.  Contrastingly, Pitt is in ultimate cool guy mode as Cliff, who gives a much more under the radar and nuanced performance than his co-star, evoking a man that knows he's a sidekick, but conducts himself with the cocksure demeanor of a leading man action hero throughout.  Robbie is effortlessly gorgeous and sincere in her portrayal of Tate, and the rest of the cast - which includes some previous Tarantino regulars like Kurt Russell and Bruce Dern as well as newcomers like Damian Lewis (in a brief, but memorable cameo as Steve McQueen) - help round off the film's already sprawling storyline.  My favorite supporting player comes in the form of Julia Butters as an ultra method child actress that helps bolster Rick's nagging low sense of career worth by proclaiming that his performance on set in a TV western (which she shared scenes with), was the "best acting" she's ever seen in her life.  DiCaprio's reaction is priceless. 

Everything comes to an unavoidable head at Cielo Drive and the horrendous day of the Manson murders, but, as mentioned earlier, ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD isn't compelled at all in honing in on this madman and what made him tick (he's actually barely in the film).  Rather, Tarantino is using Manson and his family's brutal killing spree as a background focal point that will bring all of his characters together in a climatic third act that will be discussed for years to come by film scholars and fans.  With one scripted flashforward Tarantino instantly takes us to the fateful day of August of '69 when the very pregnant Tate and her friends were unfortunate victims of the Manson Family doing "the devil's work."  I can't say much more about the final sections of this film, other than to say that there's...shall we say...a historically accurate version of this dreadful event...and the one Tarantino crafts, leading to multiple polarizing, if not endlessly fascinating what-if scenarios with never-ending branching off points.  ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD makes for a wonderful tonal companion film to INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, seeing as both highlight Tarantino playing within the sandbox of history by throwing his own toys into the mix.   

I was so ultimately taken in with Tarantino's audacious choices in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, joyously morphing fact and fiction, that it made it difficult for me to overlook some of his film's obvious faults, like its self indulgent and bloated running time.  At nearly three hours, this is an indefensibly long film that both purposely feels leisurely at times and unwieldy and undisciplined in other sections; the biggest sin of this film is it's lack of editorial discipline.  Still, there's so much bloody happening in ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA that it's also hard to fault Tarantino, and his second last feature film (if we are to believe his promise to quit after his tenth) has more unbridled ambition and unfettered gumption that just about every other film that hits the multiplex during the summer film season.  Most importantly, you sense Tarantino's undying passion for the material and time period in every shot and sequence, and even though his film builds towards shocking and bombastic violence, he somehow ends it all with a hint of nostalgic idealism and feel good hope.  He gives the Golden Age of Hollywood the Hollywood storybook ending it deserves, but didn't get.  And there's not many other directors today that could have worked with as many ingredients that ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD throws into the mixing bowl and somehow stirs it all together with such bold fluidity.  

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