Thursday, January 9, 2020
"ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD" (2019) Review
"ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD" (2019) Review
When I had first learned that producer-director Quentin Tarantino had plans to make a movie about "Old Hollywood", I assumed that it would be set during the early 20th century - at least sometime between the 1920s and the 1940s. I had no idea that the movie would be set near the end of the 1960s.
The reason behind my initial assumption was that I have never considered the 1960s decade to be a part of . . . "Old Hollywood". For me, that era in film history had ended by the late 1950s. I eventually learned that a good number of movie stars - Rock Hudson being one of them - had retained contracts with the industries movie studios even during the Sixties. Even those who had transferred from movie to television productions. Then . . . I heard that the movie would be about the LaBianca-Tate Murders from August 1969. Familiar with the level of violence featured in past Tarantino movies, I was pretty determined to avoid this movie. I am used to the violence featured in the director's past movies. But I really could not see myself sitting in a movie theater and watching a re-creation of the murder of actress Sharon Tate, Hollywood hairdresser Jay Sebring and a few other friends at the hands of Charles Manson's Family. I had seen the 1976 movie, "HELTER SKELTER" when I was a kid. Once was enough and that was only a two-part television movie. But when I had eventually learned that "ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD" was a revisionist movie like his 2009 film, "INGLORIOUS BASTERDS", I decided to give it a chance.
"ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD" covered a six month period near the end of the 1960s - from February to August 1969. To be honest, the movie is divided into two time periods. Two-thirds of the movie is set during a 36-hour period in early Februrary 1969. The last third of the film is set during the afternoon and evening hours of August 8-9, 1969. The movie is about the experiences of two men - Hollywood television actor Rick Dalton and his friend/stunt man/chauffeur Cliff Booth. Following the cancellation of his television series, "Bounty Law", Rick had been making guest appearances in various television shows as villains. Casting agent Marvin Schwarz warns Rick that the longer he continues appearing in television episodes as the villain, his career will eventually die and no one will remember him from "Bounty Law". The agent suggests that Rick consider going to Europe to star in an Italian western or two. And Cliff find his career as a Hollywood stuntman over due to rumors that he may have killed his wife and an altercation with Bruce Lee on the set of "THE GREEN HORNET". Only his job as Rick's chauffeur/handyman has allowed Cliff to earn any cash, thanks to the actor's alcoholism and collection of DUIs that led to the removal his driver's license.
Rick has also acquired new neighbors - Polish-born director Roman Polanski and his actress wife Sharon Tate - both with Hollywood careers that seemed to be on the upswing. The couple had just began leasing the home of music producer Terry Melcher. Rick has dreams of befriending them as a means to revive his career. Meanwhile, he contemplates accepting Marvin's suggestion, while he begins work on his current job - a guest appearance as another villain in the pilot episode of the TV western called "LANCER". As for Cliff, he becomes acquainted with a beautiful hitchhiker named Pussycat. She turns out to be a member of the Manson Family, who are staying at Spahn Ranch, where he and Rick used to film "Bounty Law". Cliff's encounter with the ranch's owner, the blind and aging George Spahn and members of the Manson Family foreshadows a later encounter on that infamous night, six months later.
While contemplating his career, I noticed all of the four movies made by Quentin Tarantino in the past ten years were period pieces. All of them . . . from "INGLORIOUS BASTERDS" to this current film, "ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD". I would never consider the other three films as nostalgic, but a part of me cannot help but wonder if I could say the same about this latest one. The pacing for "ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD" struck me as a lot more detailed, relaxed and reflective than any of his previous movies. It almost seemed as if Tarantino was paying some kind of loving tribute to the end of the old Hollywood studio system. For me, this seemed like both a good thing and a bad one.
Tarantino always had a reputation for scenes that featured long stretches of dialogue or detailed action sequences. And yes, the pacing in his films - with the exception of scenes featuring action or revelations of previous mysteries - can be a tad slow upon first viewing. But "ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD" marked the first time I can recall such a small amount of violence or action. Tarantino seemed more evoking a sense of the past than in any other of his period films. For "ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD", it was a good thing for the film managed to permeate the end of the 1960s in Los Angeles and the Hollywood Studio system thanks to Tarantino's direction, Barbara Ling's superb production designs, Arianne Phillips' costume designs and the art direction led by Richard L. Johnson.
On the other hand, Tarantino's in-depth peek into Los Angeles 1969 also had a negative impact . . . a minor one, if I must be honest. This slow exploration also included a look into actress Sharon Tate's life . . . at least in the first two-thirds of the film. Basically, the movie reflected a peek into the daily life of the actress - attending a party at Hugh Hefner's Playboy mansion, visiting a bookstore in the Westwood Village, and watching her latest film ("THE WRECKING CREW") at the theater. I realize that Tarantino was trying to pay some kind of homage to Tate, but I found this . . . homage rather dragged the film's pacing.
There were two other aspects of "ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD" that I found troubling. One brief scene early in the film featured an appearance by Charles Manson at the Polanski-Tate home, searching for music producer Terry Melcher, who owned it. In real life, Manson had visited the house on several occasions, searching for the music producer. These visits had led to the Tate-LaBianca murders. But the movie only featured one visit by Manson and it happened early in the film . . . six months before the night of August 8-9. I believe this is where Tarantino's narrative structure for the film had failed. I belief the film's second act, which is set during that very night, should have began at least a few days or a week or two earlier, allowing one or two more visits by Manson to 10050 Cielo Drive and setting up his plan to send some of his followers to kill its inhabitants.
And there was Cliff's infamous fight with Bruce Lee that outraged a good number of critics and moviegoers and led them to accuse Tarantino of disrespct toward the actor/martial artist and racism. Many took umbrage at Tarantino's portrayal of Lee as a braggadocio who needed to be taken down by a white man in a fight - namely Cliff. If I must honest, I felt the same. I still do . . . somewhat. I recently discovered that one of the production companies backing the film is Bona Film Group, a Chinese organization controlled by Yu Dong and Jeffrey Chan. As producers and co-financiers of the film, why did Bona Film Group fail to protest against the Booth-Lee encounter? Did the company's executives have a personal grudge against the late martial artist? Was this lack of protest due to some unpopularity of Lee in mainland China? Or did the production company simply not cared? One minor nitpick . . . actor Mike Moh's hairstyle for Lee was a bit too long for that 1966 or 1967 flashback. Personally, I think Tarantino should have never added that scene in the first place. It was not that relevant to the film's overall narrative. Or he could have easily allowed Cliff to have a fight with a fictional character, instead of Lee . . . anything to avoid the unnecessary controversy that followed.
Despite these flaws, I really enjoyed "ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD". As I had stated earlier, I really enjoyed the film's atmospheric setting of the Hollywood community at the end of the 1960s. The movie also did an excellent job in conveying Tarantino's talent for creating a narrative structure for his films. The director allowed moviegoers a peak into a Hollywood industry that was in the process of change from the old studio system to the industry's American New Wave era between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s. This transistion was conveyed in the film not only marked by Rick Dalton's anxiety over his foundering career, but also capped by the Manson Family's attack upon Cielo Drive. However, Rick was not the only one anxious about his future. Cliff Booth faced professional oblivion following Rick's marriage to an Italian actress in the film's second half. Despite their close relationship, Rick made it obvious that he could not afford to keep Cliff in his employ. The night of August 8-9 was supposed to be his last night in Rick's employ. What is also interesting about this film is that like "THE HATEFUL EIGHT", it ended on an ambiguous note. Was Rick's career ever salvaged? Also, many have forgotten that on the following evening, Charles Manson himself led a second attack upon Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in Los Angeles' Los Feliz neighborhood. Did the revisionist ending of "ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD" prevent these murders? I wonder.
The movie also featured many sequences that I found very enjoyable to watch. They also help set up and maintain the film's narrative. These scenes included Marvin Schwarz's frank assessment of Rick's career, Polanski and Tate's appearance at a Playboy Mansion party, Rick's delightful interactions with an eight year-old actress named Trudi Fraser on the "LANCER" set that helped him turn in a memorable performance, Rick's breakdown in a trailer after flubbing his lines, and Cliff's meeting with Pussycat. But there were two scenes that really stood out for me. One of those scenes were Cliff's encounter with the Manson family at Spahn's Ranch seemed like Tarantino's take on what happened between "the family" and a stuntman named Donald Shea in late August 1969. I thought Tarantino did a superb job with this scene. It was well-paced, filled with a great deal of tension.
I can say the same about the movie's last sequence that featured the Manson Family's attack upon Cielo Drive during the night of August 8-9. This is where Tarantino' use of historical revision came into play. The director-writer used Rick's constant complaints about "hippies", his celebrity as a former television star and Cliff's previous encounter with the Manson Family to re-direct the latter's attack from the Polanski-Tate household to the Dalton household. And what unfolded was chaotic, occasionally funny and yes, very scary. It truly was a well shot and well-acted sequence.
"ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD" featured a good deal of cameos - probably a lot more than any previous Tarantino film (I could be wrong, since I have not seen all of his films). Making solid cameos were Damian Lewis, Michael Madsen, Timothy Olyphant (as actor James Stacy), Luke Perry (as actor Wayne Maunder), Damon Herriman (as Charles Manson), Ramón Franco, Lena Durnham, Rumer Willis, Martin Kove, Clu Galagher, Rebecca Gayheart, Brenda Vaccaro, Scoot McNairy, Clifton Collins, Jr., James Remar, and Toni Basil. The movie also featured some very memorable supporting performances - especially from the likes of Al Pacino, who delightfully portrayed casting agent Marvin Schwarz; an entertaining Kurt Russell who not only portrayed stunt gaffer Randy Miller, but also served as the film's narrator; Zoë Bell, who was equally entertaining as Randy's stunt gaffer wife Janet; Mike Moh, who gave a colorful performance as Bruce Lee; Lorenza Izzo, as Rick's wife Francesca Capucci; a rather frightening Dakota Fanning as Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, Manson family member; Austin Butler as the very intimidating Manson family member "Tex", Maya Hawke as "Flower Child"; Nicholas Hammond as actor-director Sam Wanamaker; Rafał Zawierucha as Roman Polanski; Julia Butters as the delightful child actor Trudi Fraser; a very charming Emile Hirsch as Jay Sebring; the always entertaining Bruce Dern as George Spahn; Damian Lewis, who was surprisingly effective as a witty Steve McQueen; and Margaret Qualley, who was very memorable as Manson Family member "Pussycat".
I will be the first admit that Tarantino made little use of Sharon Tate in this film. It was quite clear that her presence really served as a catalyst for Tarantino's story and possibly a muse. But I cannot deny that Margot Robbie gave a very charming and ellubient performance as the late actress. Brad Pitt, on the other hand, gave a very subtle yet memorable performance as former stuntman Cliff Booth, whose career had seen better days. This was due to the mysterious circumstances behind the death of Cliff's wife. Many believe he may have killed her and got away with the crime. And Pitt managed to reflect this ambiguity in his performance and in his eyes. There were times when it seemed there was a bit of a "cool superhero" element in the character that at times, made it a bit difficult for me to relate to him. But thanks to Pitt's natural screen persona and a very subtle performance, I was able to do so in the end.
If I had to choose the most complex character in the entire movie, it would have to be former television star Rick Dalton. And I cannot deny that Leonardo DiCaprio did an exceptional job of conveying this character to the movie screen. Thanks to DiCaprio's performance and Tarantino, Rick is such a conumdrum. One could label him as one of those actors from the late 1950s and early 1960s, who became television stars and later tried to make the transition to film. I have read many comments that Rick has a conservative outlook on his tastes and acting skills that will forever limit him from becoming a star in Hollywood's New Age in films. This is very apparent in Rick's pompadour hairstyle in the film's first half, his occasional rants against hippies and his reluctant to adapt to the new Hollywood. And yet . . . Rick eventually concedes to Schwarz's suggestion that he try Italian westerns, he changes his hairstyle and wardrobe to reflect the fashions of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and he seeks to make social connections with Polanski and Tate to further his career. Rick is also an alcoholic and might be bipolar. DiCaprio did an excellent job in conveying Rick's emotional state that reflect these traits.
"ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD" is not my favorite Quentin Tarantino film, it has became my favorite film of 2019. I do not think it has a chance of winning any of the big prizes during the awards season of 2019-2020. I have a deep suspicion that the media and the Hollywood community is not as enamoured of it as I am. Which is okay . . . to each his or her own. But damn it, the movie was superb. I have heard rumors that Tarantino plans to retire from filmmaking. Personally, I think this is a mistake on his part. Perhaps he wants to end his career on a high note. And "ONCE UPON A TIME . . . IN HOLLYWOOD" is certainly a reflection of it, thanks to Tarantino's direction, his screenplay, the movie's production values and especially the cast led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. But I hope that Tarantino continues to make movies.