I THINK THIS JUST MIGHT BE MY MASTERPIECE
Movie Review – Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood
Review by Paul Preston
It’s been an uncharacteristic summer for me, one that’s seen quite a shift in my viewing habits. I may finally, after thirty years of careful movie-going, be tiring of the obligatory summer movies. I still haven’t seen Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, The Secret Life of Pets 2, Men in Black: International, Hobbs & Shaw and The Lion King and that may be due to my underwhelmed response to Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Dark Phoenix and Aladdin. I did enjoy Toy Story 4, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, and Spider-Man: Far From Home. But despite that, there is something going on here and it’s pretty obvious – sequel fatigue.
This is a studio-mandated slate of films. I like Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, I was a big fan of Thor: Ragnarok, but the focus-groups-said-people-are-still-interested, drummed-up urgency of another MIB movie couldn’t even get me TO the theater. In the summer, I’ll see everything! But this summer’s different.
What a treat to then be given a work of real urgency. A director’s vision that is on the screen only because a filmmaker HAD TO TELL HIS STORY. It’s also rare when something so personal can get two of the biggest movie stars on the planet and secure a summer release. Even Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood had to follow a parade of trailers reminding me how original it was. I was reminded that they’re rebooting Charlie’s Angels for the love of god, giving us a sequel to IT and I liked Jumanji and Zombieland so we get more of that. By the time the new film from Quentin Tarantino started, it couldn’t help but be fresh. And man, was it.
You have to buy into the title, “Once Upon a Time…”. This denotes a fairy tale, and that’s exactly what QT sets out to give us. He treats 1969 Hollywood practically like another planet, where pre-cell phone citizens engage in ample conversation, film and TV entertainment was king and the radio, and the DJs making the radio happen, could score your entire night.
In the middle of all this, we first meet Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), former TV star of Bounty Law, a TV western in the vein of The Rifleman or Wanted: Dead or Alive. Now, Rick is taking parts as the heavy and, as noted by producer Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino), that’s a path to never being a leading man again. Helping Rick deal with a new-found realization that he’s a “has-been” is his friend, gopher and stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).
Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood lives in the moments of a Hollywood before Charles Manson. Manson’s spectre lines the edges of the movie, reminding you (physically, in one moment, as well) he’s about to come punch a hole in the ‘60s Tinseltown scene that Tarantino is clearly in love with. There had been plenty of Hollywood scandals pre-Manson, including “Fatty” Arbuckle, Lana Turner, The Black Dahlia and more, but they played out individually, exposing the seedy side of those involved. The Manson murders were a condemnation of the scene as a whole, branding the indulgent socialites of the Hollywood Hills “piggies” and marking them for execution. Despite whatever disgraceful crimes came before 1969, there was still an innocence in the Hollywood dream factory that ended on August 9, 1969. There’s a scene late in the film where a character returns from walking his dog in the Hollywood Hills, shuts the door behind him and doesn’t lock it, and I thought, “That’s not gonna happen any more…”
With extremely confident storytelling, Tarantino sends Rick and Cliff into that dream factory and together, they…do stuff for about two hours. This is to say that if you want an over-arching plot to carry you from point A to point C, you won’t get it here. Tarantino is in love with these characters and sets up a storyline where they just knock about from situation to situation. The result is surprisingly easy-going from a screenwriter known for kinetic action sequences and vibrant underlying tension.
Rick is a constantly smoking, drinking as often as possible, volatile soul and Cliff is an emotional minimalist with a mysterious past but their friendship is never questioned. Like Mia and Seb in La La Land, these are two more characters I could just watch do things with a Los Angeles backdrop for hours on end. Tarantino’s is obviously a different L.A., one without traffic police, apparently, as Cliff and others speed up and down the hills and along Hollywood Blvd (meticulously re-created for the time period without computer graphics). These shots (and most throughout the film) are wonderfully staged by long time Tarantino DP Robert Richardson and they encapsulate a freewheeling, bewitching vibe.
Alongside their story, Tarantino offers up glimpses of the life of actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), dancing at the Playboy Mansion, living next door to Rick with her boyfriend, director Roman Polanski, and taking in one of her own movies in Westwood in a scene of simple purity. Unless you’ve been living in a cave in Chatsworth, you know Tate was murdered by the Manson Family and these scenes which hang on Tate’s modest joy and guilelessness build dread for sure, but also, build an overall despair for the career and the life that could have been. Tarantino owns The New Beverly Cinema in Hollywood and is routinely showing films from the era of Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood. It’s clear he’s in love with that era. I believe in showing her films and diving into her history, somewhere along the way Tarantino also fell in love with Sharon Tate, and this movie is his chance to save her, and punish those responsible for her demise with extreme prejudice.
Here’s where the kinetic action sequences and vibrant underlying tension I mentioned earlier show themselves. People are going to talk about the ending of this movie for a long time. And why not? There’s been nothing else like it on screen this year – a scene of gripping intensity and tension-releasing humor. It’s where the meandering Rick and Cliff friendship runs straight into history as three knife and gun-wielding murderers head up Cielo Dr. to Roman Polanski’s house. I had a panic attack, heart attack and a laughing attack in such close proximity I needed a medic. The simplicity of the scene that followed, the very final scene of the movie, broke my heart.
DiCaprio and Pitt are miraculous. Here are two guys at the top of their game (and have been for a while) who just refuse to coast. There’s a scene where DiCaprio is on the set of a new film called Lancer, he’s getting direction from Sam Wanamaker and smoking, coughing and trying to ingest coffee all at the same time, showing you just what a wreck he is in show-stopping fashion. Leo BRINGS IT in every movie he’s in and when Rick Dalton has to bring it in Once Upon a Time…, those scenes are mesmerizing. Blond and gorgeous, Pitt’s been compared to Robert Redford before, but the comparison that deserves mentioning is both actors’ ability to make heavy lifting look easy. Pitt strolls through the film easily taking on Cliff’s charm and a zen-like take on the industry and world around him, but when the going gets rough, he becomes the physical embodiment of that underlying tension where his character knows something’s amiss, but his demeanor keeps him an enigma. Cliff ends up at the Spahn Movie Ranch where the Manson Family is holed up. He’s worked there before and he knows something’s…off. Cliff and Pitt both do a slow dissection of the situation and the result is a scene that’s always about more than it’s about. And it’s riveting.
Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood is hypnotic, a true original and the culmination of all of Quentin Tarantino’s obsessions combined with all of Quentin Tarantino’s skills operating at their highest level.
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Release Date: July 26, 2019
Run Time: 161 Minutes
Distributor: Columbia Pictures