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Tarantino’s Gen X Ode to Hollywood Also-rans Dazzles and Disappoints
Quentin Tarantino has created a fetishistic cinematic grab-bag of self-referential filmic delights that soars more than it limps, but limp it does. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of chewy suspense, jaw-dropping performances, lush and grotesque visuals, and music cues to die for. Los Angeles has never looked better on film.
Then there’s this film’s thousands-of-cameos cast, each one bringing his or her A-game to the set. Spot if you can Dakota Fanning, Luke Perry, Michael Madsen, Clifton Collins Jr., Scoot McNairy, or Timothy Olyphant.
Yes this movie is a pure freaking joy.
Repeated viewings are all but mandatory. There are exquisite car driving sequences that transport you to a place in Cinema you didn’t know existed. “Once Upon A Time” contains a delicious treasure trove of juicy narrative details to relish even if the film doesn’t work as well as intended. The movie doesn’t earn its phantasmagoric climax of violence. An inexcusable burst of voice-over narration poops the pool. One more edit could elevate this film from an A- to an A. There is no such thing as a perfect movie. Tarantino seems to accept this as fact for his own idyllic creation.
Satirically, this is Quentin Tarantino’s most personal movie for a host generational reasons. Thematic onion-layers of pop culture references run deep, wide, and continuous. The fantasy is set during the looming cataclysmic moment of the 1969 Charles Manson murders that upended Hollywood culture and put a final nail in the fight-the-subjugation-of-the-man hippie movement that helped fuel Cinema movements such as Blaxploitation and Grindhouse.
Revenge is a prominent motivating value at play. ‘50s and ‘60s American television and movies taught its citizens to kill, and kill they did. At least, that’s one trenchant dig that one of Tarantino’s theme-speaking characters articulates before this film’s inevitable bloodletting begins. Tarantino rubs his critics’ noses in the dirt, and leaves the audience to contemplate a coup de grace of Grand Guignol spectacle that hits you in the guts. How numb to violence have we become as a society? You’ll get a quiz when you see this movie. If you want gratuitous violence, you’ll get your fill.
Sexual politics of the era goes under a microscope. You learn a lot about a man by the blowjob he refuses. Dig the cool vibe of Brad Pitt's and Leonardo DiCaprio's characters' airtight bromance. Their overflowing joy at playing Tarantino's dynamic comic creations is infectious. Neither actor has ever been so undeniably exquisite.
Right wing capitalist forces that paid ‘50s and ’60s era television to do questionable stuff like sell cigarettes to kids, are skewered within the context of the culture. Tarantino isn’t complaining. He’s telling it like it is/was from a kid who ate up every bit of an American culture that celebrated Bruce Lee, Evel Knievel, Clint Eastwood, and James Bond knock-offs (check out Richard Johnson in “Deadlier Than The Male,” the film that Tarantino screened on the beach in Cannes when he helmed the Palme d’ Or jury in 2004).
The maverick behind “Reservoir Dogs” takes a metaphoric approach to epochal cultural shifts that upended careers and realities overnight in a deceptively fragile Hollywood ecosystem. Poking fun at lazy actors, passionate directors, and even Bruce Lee, comes with the landscape of filtering American television and movie values of the era into a thematically and satirically rich movie. I dare say there is ten times more thematic and narrative detail in this film compared to any other that Hollywood has produced so far this year. Here is a lovingly prepared filmic buffet of entertainment influences that Tarantino digs for all of their silly and frequently perverse associations.
There’s a great party scene where Damian Lewis’s Steve McQueen points out Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) to a fellow partier, before switching his attention to Tate’s former fiancé Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsh). McQueen goes on to explain how Sebring still follows Tate around even though she broke off her engagement with him to become engaged to Roman Polanski. McQueen “never had a chance,” but he wanted one. Audiences into such Hollywood mythologies can chew on things like the famous actor who got away with killing his wife, Natalie. Enter Leonardo DiCaprio as television western series “Bounty Law” leading man Cliff Booth to chew scenery like toothpicks. Check out the actual ‘50s television series “Wanted Dead or Alive” with Steve McQueen for backstory.
Al Pacino delivers the film’s inciting incident in a hilarious comic turn playing talent manager Marvin Schwarzs. The bespectacled Mr. Schwarzs gives Cliff a head-spinning wakeup call about the terrible fate of Cliff’s fading career. Playing bad guys on a string of TV shows is a dead end. Whether or not Cliff heads to Italy to make spaghetti westerns with second tier directors, his days are numbered. The truth hits Cliff like a ton of bricks, but his longtime stuntman and personal assistant Rick Dalton (Brad Pitt) isn’t rattled by the inevitable demise of his bread-and-butter, namely Cliff Booth.
“Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood” is not Quentin Tarantino’s best film; it may not be his worst, that distinction goes to “Jackie Brown,” but this is his most flawed, possibly even knowingly, if not intentionally. You need grit to make a pearl.
Like Bob Dylan or Elvis Costello, Quentin Tarantino has always stayed ahead of culture. Hypernormalisation is catching up. Cliff Booth can’t make the transition from television to film that some of his peers have successfully done. This film comes at a time when Cinema is dying, if it isn’t already deceased.
Movie theaters are closing at a rapid rate because American culture has changed. Audiences don’t know how to act in theaters anymore. There’s always someone turning on a cell phone, or as was the case with the screening I attended, can’t be quiet for more than 40 seconds at a time before verbally commenting on the action on the screen. Hollywood is its own worst enemy. Making endless superhero franchise flicks aimed at 10-year-olds is burying the industry in its own filth. By that standard, "Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood" is a shining example of how different things could be.
Rated R. 161 mins.