Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Posted: August 24, 2019 in Film reviews
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Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie.

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The year is 1969 and Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) is a former TV cowboy struggling to navigate an ever-changing Hollywood. Having failed to transition from TV to film, and with his show, Bounty Law, cancelled, he’s reduced to a succession of villain of the week parts in shows like The Man from UNCLE, FBI and The Green Hornet. A producer (Al Pacino) offers him a new opportunity, but it involves making spaghetti westerns in Italy and Rick feels like his career is going down the toilet.

His best friend is Cliff Booth (Pitt), another man whose career is on the slide. He’s Rick’s stuntman, but thanks to allegations against him nobody wants to use him, so he earns a living as Rick’s chuffer come handy man.

Living next door to Rick is director Roman Polanski, and his wife, Sharon Tate (Robbie). As the three characters make their way around Hollywood of the late sixties, an era of free love and hippies, little to they realise a dark cloud is heading their way, in the form of the soon to be notorious Manson family.

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“Hail Hydra.”

And so Tarantino’s ninth film arrives (or is it his tenth?) with the usual buzz around his genius and the usual controversies that always surface when Quentin makes a film. Some of the terms you’ll; hear bandied about in reviews of this film are as follows: glorious, stunning, Oscar worthy, self-indulgent, overlong, baggy, violent, tone deaf and so on and so on.

Luckily, I’ll filter all those other reviews into one, because it’s all those things and more. A baggy indulgence at times but still probably the most I’ve enjoyed a Tarantino film since Kill Bill volume 1. That I have certain issues with it, and find certain elements problematic, doesn’t detract from the fact that its made by a man at the top of his game, it’s just a man at the top of his game who should maybe consider making more use of the editing scissors.

What’s undeniable is that both DiCaprio and Pitt are brilliant. Tarantino allows them both to deploy their movie star good looks, but also their big screen presence. As Booth, Pitt is a laconic, laid back cowboy of a guy, albeit one who’s zen like sheen covers simmering rage beneath. Pitt has effortless cool, and looks annoyingly good for a guy in his mid-fifties!

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It’s DiCaprio who gets the meatier role however, having to play both Rick Dalton, and the characters he plays (including some lovely flashbacks and extras scenes.) On screen he’s a lovable nice, guy, rugged hero or slimy villain, but off-screen Rick Dalton is a mess and DiCaprio is brilliant. Dalton’s twitchy (note the stammer that comes out on occasion), paranoid, depressed, angry and too often drunk. It’s a great performance, and in fact both men bring not only their A game, but their A* game.

As Sharon Tate, Robbie gets third billing, but that should not be taken to indicate she has anywhere near the screen time or agency that Dalton and Booth have. For the most part she just bimbles around Hollywood, going to see her own movie, buying books for Roman Polanski and, well, killing time between parties. There are two ways to look at the portrayal of Tate in this film, and as with certain other elements which side you come down on may impact on your enjoyment. Tarantino’s argument is that he’s humanising someone history perceives only as a victim, instead he shows her enjoying her life, doing mundane things, and this, in itself, is an act of revenge against the Manson killers. The alternate view is that Tate is merely a cipher, a beautiful ideal rather than a living, breathing person. I think the truth falls somewhere in between, but any life in the character is down to Robbie who does wonders with very little.

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Sadly female characters get short changed throughout the film, they’re either pretty but slightly vacuous, they’d downright villainous (hard to quibble about this given most of the Manson family were women) or caricatures; I mean this is a film that features not one, but two shrewish, nagging wives straight out of central casting. The only female character allowed to show a hint of something different is Julia Butters as a precocious child actor, but even she exists only to flatter Dalton’s ego.

Worth noting that the only non-white character is Mike Moh’s Bruce Lee, and he isn’t portrayed well, Tarantino shows him as an arrogant braggard.

I’ve always felt that Tarantino is a better writer than director, which isn’t to say he isn’t a very good director, and several times during the film he displays his skill for all to see, in particular the scene where Pitt visits the Spahn ranch and meets the Manson family. It’s a masterclass in tension.

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Don’t go in there, Brad!

At other times there are scenes that clearly could have been cut, or at least trimmed, so accusations of indulgency are well founded. This is Tarantino’s love letter to sixties TV and film, and it strikes me he decided to have as much fun as possible with the premise and to hell with the cost, as such you could never describe this as a meticulously put together film. At times it’s a meandering mess, and yet conversely that’s where half the fun comes from, because it is fun to watch Dalton and Booth go about their daily business, and Tarantino’s evocation of 60s’ LA is wonderfully done, we could have maybe done with a trifle less of it.

For a Tarantino film there’s a surprising lack of violence… until the final act where Quentin makes up for it in spades. I have no problem with violence in films, but I do think Tarantino goes too far here, especially given that the violence meted out to male characters is filmed in a very different way to the violence meted out against women, one is obliquely shot, the other visceral and filmed in all its gory glory.

Throw into the mix a character we’re supposed to root for who might have killed his wife, and it seems a little tin eared for a film made by a man who (like many others, lets be fair here) turned a blind eye to Harvey Weinstein’s misdeeds.

The final act also features a change in tone, the humour broader, the violence cartoonish, and it does feel a little like a different film, but then this isn’t unusual for Tarantino. Kudos does have to be given for the most part, as to his handling of the historical unpleasantries. When it was first mooted that he was making a film about Tate and the Mansons I think a lot of people were worried, but it’s probably more respectful than most films that’ve touched on the subject.

A hugely enjoyable film featuring some great performances, but one that frustrates because it could have been so much better with some judicious editing and more consideration around how certain things would come across. Or maybe I’m reading too much into what’s basically just a wish fulfilment fairy-tale? You decide.

Irrespective of my issues, this is still top tier Tarantino for me and I’m looking forward to seeing it again.

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