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Josh Reviews Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Seeing Pulp Fiction for the first time in the theater back in 1994 made me a Quentin Tarantino fan for life, and so I have been eagerly anticipating the release of his ninth film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.  A new Tarantino film as always a cause for excitement!  I was not disappointed.  I loved Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.  The film is longer than it needs to be, but I so enjoy Mr. Tarantino’s unique style of dialogue and direction that I would have happily spent many more hours living in the world he (re)created for the film.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is set in Hollywood in 1969, in the months and weeks before the murders of Sharon Tate and others by members of the Manson Family.  Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie, is a character in the film, but the film’s focus is on two fictional characters: aging cowboy actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his friend and stunt-man Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Rick became a star as the lead of a Western TV series called Bounty Law, but in the years since the show has ended he’s fallen on hard times, finding it harder and harder to get work.  Cliff has had similar trouble finding work as a stuntman; now he mostly earns his living by driving Rick around and helping him with various errands and chores.

There’s not too much actual plot to the film.  I’m OK with that!  For me, the joy is in luxuriating in the world that Mr. Tarantino has created.  I love spending time with these characters.  Both Mr. DiCaprio and Mr. Pitt are fantastic.  Their movie-star wattage is a perfect match for the terrific roles that Mr. Tarantino has written for them.  Like many of Quentin Tarantino’s films, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is filled with digressions and asides, and I love all of those little rivulets of story so much.  (One of my favorite sequences in the film is a lengthy flashback, while Brad Pitt’s Cliff fixes Rick’s antennae on the roof of his house, about how he got fired from his last stuntman job.)  As I noted above, one could say that the film is longer than it needs to be.  For a movie that’s around two hours and 45 minutes, there’s not a heck of a lot of actual plot/story to be found.  But I don’t care a whit.

The film is very funny.  Mr. Tarantino’s dialogue is, as always, a joy to unravel… and Mr. Tarantino sure knows exactly how to get the timing perfect on a comedic scene.  But there’s also a looming sense of dread hovering over the film, as we know from the moment that we first glimpse Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate that her story has a terrible ending.

While much of the film has a light tone, Mr. Tarantino reminds us in several sequences that he is one of the greatest modern masters of creating cinematic suspense.  The entire series of scenes in which Brad Pitt’s Cliff pokes around the Manson family compound was staggeringly suspenseful.

When considering the darker side to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I find myself returning again and again to the quick flashback to Cliff and his wife on a boat that seems to lend credence to the suggestion made, a few times in the film, that Cliff murdered his wife.  This is something I need to consider more deeply and unpack more upon further viewings of the film.  The idea that Cliff is a murderer undercuts much of the humor in the film and Mr. Pitt’s aw shucks performance.  It’s a very curious choice for Mr. Tarantino to have made.  What interests me about this is the idea that perhaps Mr. Tarantino wants to undermine any possible “heroes” in the film.  We know that Mr. DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton has flaws — that man has flaws a mile wide, even though we’re definitely rooting for Rick to get his shit together as the film unfolds.  Cliff could have come off as more one-dimensional — but even as we love him and are hoping that he’ll 1) escape from the Manson compound unscathed and 2) kick some ass at the very end, it’s as if Mr. Tarantino very consciously chose to remind us that Cliff might be as much of a bastard as the “villainous” Manson cult members.

If the film has a flaw for me, it’s that I wish that Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate was more of a main character with equal weight to Mr. DiCaprio and Mr. Pitt’s Rick and Cliff.  I really wanted to get to know Sharon far more than we did.  She skates through the film in a very superficial way; I wanted more.  I don’t think we really got to explore her as a character.  (I wonder if this is because Sharon Tate was a real person?  Was Mr. Tarantino reluctant to fictionalize her, and so that meant he felt he couldn’t write scenes for her the way he could for Rick and Cliff?)  I think the film’s ending would have landed more powerfully had we spent the movie investing as deeply in Sharon’s character as we did in Rick and Cliff’s.  (It would also have been nice to have had a more significant female presence in one Mr. Tarantino’s films, which generally skew very male-centric.)

I mentioned, above, the ending of Sharon Tate’s story.  I spent much of the film wondering how the film would end.  SPOILERS in this paragraph, so BEWARE!!  Still here?  I knew how Sharon Tate’s life ended in reality.  But as the film progressed, I started to ask myself how Rick and Cliff’s stories would intersect with that of the real-life Sharon Tate, and I began to wonder in the back of my head whether Mr. Tarantino was going to change what actually happened.  I thought back to the surprising ending of Inglorious Basterds, in which Mr. Tarantino rewrote the actual ending of WWII and a showed us Hitler and his cronies getting what they deserved.  To my delight, Mr. Tarantino took a similar route here in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood!  Having righted the wrongs of the Holocaust and WWII, Mr. Tarantino turned his eyes here to a tragedy of film history.  Now, thanks to Cliff and Rick’s interference, Sharon Tate survived.  I loved that ending!  (My only complaint was that the film ended on Rick, without cutting back to Cliff to see how he was doing following the grievous injury he’d suffered.)

Other thoughts:

* I loved seeing Kurt Russell as stunt coordinator Randy (a nice call-back to Mr. Russell’s role as Stuntman Mike in Mr. Tarantino’s Death Proof).  And I loved seeing Zoe Bell back on screen in a Tarantino film as Randy’s wife and fellow stunt coordinator, Janet.

* As usual for a Tarantino film, he fleshed out the story with wonderful small parts played by an impressive array of actors.  I’d have loved to have seen more of all of these actors and their characters!!  There’s Al Pacino as producer Marvin Schwarz; Bruce Dern as the elderly George Spahn; Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen; Margaret Qualley as “Pussycat”; Dakota Fanning as “Squeaky”; Mike Moh as Bruce Lee, and many more.

* Speaking of Mr. Moh as Bruce Lee, I can see why Bruce Lee’s family members have gotten upset at Lee’s portrayal in the film.  It is not a favorable depiction of him in that one scene with Cliff!  But that is such a funny scene, and Mr. Moh is so good in it!!

* I also quite enjoyed the late Luke Perry’s one scene as Wayne Maunder, who appears in a scene that Rick is filming.

* I’ve been accustomed to expect tremendous violence in a Quentin Tarantino film.  For the most part, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not a violent film… until the very end, when there are some moments of intense gore.  Frankly, I could have done without that extreme level of violence at the end.  It was a little much for me, and while it’s typical of Mr, Tarantino’s films, to me it felt a little out of place in this particular movie.

* For fans at home playing the “Quentin Tarantino loves women’s feet” game, there are quite a few glorious shots focusing on beautiful women’s feet in the film.  To each his own, I guess…!!

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a solid addition to Quentin Tarantino’s filmography.  I hope Mr. Tarantino doesn’t follow through on his stated desire to retire after directing his tenth film.  I hope we’ll all be treated to a new Tarantino film every few years for many years yet to come.

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