Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/23/19 14:33:42

5 stars (Awesome)

There has been much talk that after completing his next project, currently rumored to be, of all things, a “Star Trek” movie, Quentin Tarantino plans to retire from filmmaking altogether. While he has long spoken of stepping out of the game after making ten features, I have a sneaky suspicion that even if the “Trek” movie pans out, it may not prove to be his swan song after all. For one thing, it sounds more than a little odd that one of the most dependably unique and idiosyncratic filmmakers of our time would choose to bow out with a project not of his own design—this is not to say that a QT sci-fi joint wouldn’t be interesting, just that I would rather see one born entirely of his sensibility rather than one in which he applied said sensibility to someone else’s vision. Another reason, and one far more pertinent in the long run, is that with his ninth feature, “Once Upon a Time. . . in Hollywood,” he has created a film so daring, so audacious and so flat-out entertaining that to follow it up with a “Star Trek” film, no matter how good, would be like a musician presenting a grandly original opus as a penultimate work and following that with an album of bar-band covers—it could be entertaining but it would almost certainly seem like a bit of a comedown by comparison. And yes, “OUATIH” is just that kind of opus, a kaleidoscopic love letter to Tarantino’s beloved Hollywood set during one of its occasional periods of seismic change that may be the most daring of all his works to date and is certainly the most deeply felt.

Set over the course of three days in 1969, the first two in February and the last in August, the film opens with old interview footage that introduces us to Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), the star of the long-running TV western “Bounty Law,” and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick’s longtime stuntman and best friend. We quickly learn “Bounty Law” has been off the air for a few years, Rick’s hoped-for film career never quite panned out (although there was one tantalizingly close call with a true classic) and he now ekes out a living doing guest shots on other TV shows, usually as the villain who gets beaten up by the hero at the end of an hour. Although Rick is happy just to be working, he is shaken at a meeting at Musso and Franks with a bottom-feeder agent (Al Pacino) who correctly points out that by allowing himself to be a punching bag for the hot new stars, he is only hastening his irrelevancy to the industry, The agent’s solution is to suggest Rick go to Italy and do a couple of spaghetti Westerns—they might be low-rent but they are movies and they will allow him to play the hero. Although Cliff doesn’t see the problem—there are worse fates in his eyes than making a movie in Italy—but Rick is convinced that he is now all washed up. To further add to his sense of removal from the industry, the newlyweds living right next door to him are about as hot in Tinseltown as can be—she is an up-and-coming starlet who has already been in a couple of hit and he is the hottest director around. Who knows, Rick thinks, he could be one pool party away from being in the new film from the director of “Rosemary’s Baby.” Yes, his new neighbors on Cielo Drive are none other than Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).

Over the course of the next day, the three key characters more or less go their separate ways. Rick is off to shoot yet another villain role in yet another pilot, this one for the western “Lancer,”in which actor-turned-director Sam Wanamaker strains to give him a sort of hippie feel that makes him all but recognizable. At first, things are awkward—an evening filled with despair and whiskey sours will do that to you—but he eventually pulls himself together and we finally get the sense of a real actor lurking beneath his glib TV star veneer and journeyman career path—the kind of authentic personality that someone like Tarantino might go on to venerate years later and cast in his own films. Although a checkered and somewhat sordid past has left him with few job prospects other than driving Rick around and being his pal. Cliff goes about doing his thing with no worries or regrets and winds up picking up a hippie girl hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) and agreeing to take her back to the Spahn Movie Ranch, where he used to shoot “Bounty Law” and where Pussycat and her friends are now crashing. At first, it looks peaceful and friendly enough but when Cliff insists on being allowed to see George Spahn (Bruce Dern), the owner of the ranch and an old acquaintance, for himself, the mood takes a instant turn to the dark that finds him in a standoff with none other than Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning) and other followers of none other than Charles Manson (Damon Herriman), whom Cliff, without realizing it, has already seen turning up at Sharon’s home looking for the record producer that used to live there. As for Sharon, she is spending a day on her own that finds her picking up a hitchhiker of her own, purchasing a copy of Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” for her husband and attending a screening of her new film, the Dean Martin spy spoof “The Wrecking Crew,” where she sits barefoot (it is a Tarantino movie, after all) and basks in the audience laughter inspired by her pratfalls. (Indeed, this was arguably the high water mark of the often-dubious Matt Helm franchise and her endearing performance as the klutzy sidekick was one of the key reasons for that.) From this point, the film jumps forward in time to August 8, one of the most infamous dates of this particularly turbulent time, and I will leave for you to discover what happens next.

Although Tarantino himself was only six years old during the time when the events depicted were taking place, “OUATIH” is nevertheless steeped with a fascination with that particularly tumultuous period in Hollywood history—when the panic felt by the industry as the long-standing studio system began to crumble in the face of risky and hugely popular films like “The Graduate” and “Easy Rider” was mirrored by the panic felt in Los Angeles as a whole in the wake of the murders committed by Manson’s followers—to such an extent that it almost feels as if he is presenting the material from memory. With the help of cinematographer Robert Richardson (shooting on 35MM) and an army of technicians, Tarantino has recreated the physical details of LA at the time with stunning clarity. This is one of those films where you could press pause while watching the blu-ray and spend a good chunk of time just looking at all the details that have been packed into each frame—movie buffs will certainly thrill to gaze upon all the period-perfect movie posters and marquees on display. (“Romeo and Juliet” is the one that spans the time gap of the two parts of the film, a long run that seems impossible to believe at a time when even the biggest films tend to only have a shelf life of a few weeks.) That said, you don’t have to be versed in the nuances of the career of Sergio Corbucci (“the second-best director of spaghetti westerns”) to appreciate the recreation of 1969 Los Angeles because all of the elements—the cars, the clothes, the music—are presented in a loving and insanely detailed manner without fetishizing them or turning them into ironic jokes. God only knows how much time, money and effort it took to bring all of this to life but it was well worth it—this is the kind of film that you just want to bask in for hours.

As for the massive change that the film industry was undergoing during this period, Tarantino is able to explore that just as brilliantly through the eyes of his key characters. Rick is part of the old guard—he even grumbles about hippies now and then—and while he can see that things are changing, he finds himself unwilling or unable to fully shift with the times. (Even the Western genre that he is so attached to had been on its own last legs at this point with films like “The Wild Bunch” and the works of Sergio Leone subverting the traditional genre tropes and making people like him seem out of touch.) And yet, Tarantino never looks upon Rick as some kind of joke or relic. Instead, he is, with the possible exception of Max Cherry, Robert Forster’s character in “Jackie Brown,” the most openly vulnerable and sympathetic male character in the Tarantino canon—even though he is not without talent, he realizes that, barring some miracle, his time is over and he is plainly scared of what comes next. Meanwhile, Sharon floats around town with the kind of charm and ease befitting the It Girl of the moment. She may not have been the greatest actress at that point but her films (including the camp classic “Valley of the Dolls”) demonstrated that she was not only the perfect embodiment of the new freedoms but also had the kind of immediate and arresting screen presence that made you sit up and take notice. Although she is not on screen as long as Rick or Cliff, she is nevertheless a keenly felt presence throughout and not just because of our knowledge of the historical record.

Tarantino’s films are justly famous for their extended sequences involving endlessly quotable dialogue and fascinatingly colorful characters and “OUATIH” is certainly no exception. The opening scene between Rick and the agent is a hilarious marvel that finds two of the very best actors of their respective generations—DiCaprio and Pacino—going head to head with glorious results. There is an inspired monologue delivered by Steve McQueen (Damian Harris) at the Playboy Mansion about the relationship between Polanski, Tate and hairdresser Jay Sebring (Emilie Hirsch), who was Sharon’s former fiancee and is now the couple’s constant companion, that makes you want to see an entire film based around that story. At one point, we get a flashback to Cliff getting into a standoff with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of “The Green Hornet” that is technically irrelevant to the story at hand but which is nevertheless as integral to the film as a whole as anything else. (Cliff’s muttered punchline as it fades back to the current timeframe alone makes it worth the time.) The sequence at Spahn Ranch is an absolutely spellbinding piece of filmmaking in which Tarantino quietly but effectively turns the screws and builds the tension in ways that most horror filmmakers could only dream of achieving before releasing it in an especially efficient manner. In arguably the best scene in a film packed with great scenes, Rick is killing time on the “Lancer” set and finds himself getting into a conversation about acting and life with one of his co-stars, an eight-year-old girl (Julia Butters) who is a Method actor, a budding feminist and the presumed future of the industry. Again, it doesn’t add a lot to the narrative but between the great dialogue and the inspired byplay between the two actors, it may well be the single best scene that I have seen in a movie this year.

“OUATIH” is much less concerned with plot or narrative curlicues than the typical Tarantino joint—with its disparate cast of characters bouncing off of each other in unexpected ways, it feels at times more like a Robert Altman film than anything else. Nevertheless, it runs for nearly three hours without a single wasted moment to be had and much of that is due to the efforts of the extraordinary cast that he has assembled here. DiCaprio has given a lot of great performances throughout his career—more than he tends to get credit for, frankly—but this one is one of his very best. His Rick may be a bit of a dope and a hack but he makes us care and sympathize with him even when his complaints ring hollow and when he is spurred to making a true stand, his transformation is perfectly believable. Likewise, Pitt nails every one of his moments, investing Cliff with a laid-back charm that does not entirely cover up the darkness within him—if he is pushed, he is more than willing to respond with shocking efficiency. Playing Sharon Tate, Margot Robbie has an interesting challenge in that everyone knows who Sharon Tate is but that knowledge is almost exclusively tied into the facts surrounding her tragic and unfair demise. She may have less screen time than Pitt or DiCaprio but she pulls off the impressive act of taking someone known primarily for being a victim and making her into a real and recognizable person. In addition, Tarantino has cast seemingly half of the current SAG rolls in smaller parts and all of them make the most of their parts with Qualley, Dern and Luke Perry, who turns up in one scene as one of the “Lancer” actors, among the most notable standouts.

“Once Upon a Time. . . in Hollywood” is that rarity that moviegoers get to encounter perhaps once per summer—a big-scale film aimed at adult audiences that is designed to stand alone and not be a part of some elaborate future franchise. In a strange way, this period story turns out to be especially pertinent for today as it comes out at a point when the entertainment industry is undergoing yet another big shift that is leaving people scared and confused. Personally, I loved ever single frame of it and while it may be too soon to know if it might replace “Jackie Brown” as my favorite Tarantino film, it is good enough to at the very least inspire such thinking. Yes, some audiences may find it a little long in parts and even those who are attuned to Tarantino’s stretched-out rhythms may find certain plot developments to be odd at best and troubling at worst. (Discussion on these aspects should be tabled for a later time but suffice it to say, these developments of a sort that Tarantino has utilized before, though perhaps not to such extremes.) And yet, it all works and one of the greatest things about is watching him juggle so many elements, ideas and pet obsessions (suffice it to say, he has definitely chosen to lean into his well-documented foot fetish here) and then seeing him make each and every one pay off in impressive ways. More than any other film that I have seen this year, it reignites a love for the movies themselves that has been dulled lately by too many ripoffs, bummers and superhero sagas. It is a nostalgia trip, to be sure, but not just for those who lived through the summer of 1969—it serves as a reminder that there was a time when movies were more than just filmed deals. If Tarantino does decide to pack it in after his next film, moviegoers will be the poorer for it because as “OUATIH” demonstrates, we need filmmakers like him out there more than ever.

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