Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood

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Quentin Tarantino has made a love letter to old Hollywood. And to himself. He saw what P.T. Anderson did with Boogie Nights, the Coen’s with Hail, Caesar!, and Damien Chazelle with La La Land. He then said to himself — I can do that! I can make a movie showing what it’s like to make movies, and I can also throw in women’s bare feet, and some gory violence, and show neon signs that you saw in L.A. in the late ‘60s. It’s funny, because I can see every reference Tarantino throws on screen, and from which movies. That’s fine. It’s kind of like when Robin Thicke does the song Blurred Lines, and us old-time music lovers, say “Ah, Marvin Gaye.”

When he’s showing all the neon signs turning on at night, I’m sure he loved the amazing opening scene that started Nightcrawler (Jake Gyllenhaal) that did that. Yet, here’s what someone needs to sit down and explain to Tarantino. In Nightcrawler, it was absolutely beautiful. A stunning scene, showing us L.A. as it slowly wakes up from its night time slumber, albeit with a little bit of crime…and coming to life with businesses getting ready to start the day. Tarantino just wants to show us an old Der Wienerschnitzel sign (and about 10 other places he probably remembers from his youth).

It’s strange that I thought of his other movies while watching this. I thought of Pulp Fiction about 10 times. One time seeing an old Wheaties box in Cliff Booth’s (Brad Pitt) trailer. In Pulp, it was Eric Stoltz eating Fruit Brute (don’t look for it, that cereal hasn’t been on the market since the ‘70s). Or when we see how a character may have killed his wife, it’s reminiscent of a scene in Pulp Fiction when someone is accidentally shot.

There is a sadness and happiness, and a love of old Hollywood, that makes this film mostly enjoyable. It’s 1969, but we hear nothing about the moon landing or Woodstock (but we do hear Bill Cosby’s name on the radio). The film follows Sharon Tate (who was murdered by the Manson family), and aging film star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who’s gone from a popular Western TV show, to playing the heavy on various other shows. He drinks, smokes, and bitches about his career to Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who is his chauffeur, personal assistant, friend, and former stunt double. Dalton lives in the Hollywood Hills, next door to Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). It’s interesting that Polanski’s current wife is furious about how Hollywood has kicked him out of the Academy, but is using his character in this movie. She’s going to be angrier when a character takes the high road, when a gorgeous hippie (Margaret Qualley, the daughter of Andie McDowell) offers to do something sexual with Booth, but he refuses because she’s underage. A similar decision would’ve kept Polanski in Hollywood, but I digress.

It’s unfortunate that Tarantino didn’t give Margot Robbie (as Sharon Tate) enough to do. She steps into a theatre to see her picture The Wrecking Crew (Dean Martin), and of course takes off her go-go boots to put her bare feet on the seats, as is probably in the contract of any woman in a Tarantino picture. That scene, like EVERY SCENE in this movie, goes on way too long, and adds nothing to the narrative. Oh, and we get to see her dance several times. Once at the Playboy mansion, and another time to a Paul Revere and the Raiders album. She really, really liked Paul Revere and the Raiders. 

Tarantino is so hard to figure out. The first scene we get of Booth dropping Dalton off at home and driving back to his trailer —  in his ratty Karmann Ghia — on the Sunset Strip, and down other roads, with three different songs on the radio (Bob Seger’s Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man, Joe Cocker’s The Letter, and another I forgot). What is the point of that scene being so long? Sure, it’s Brad Pitt, and I’m guessing most people wouldn’t mind looking at his face as the wind blows his hair around, and cool neon lights in the background, but….

I did like how the radio stayed on in the background while the two guys were in the car talking. Some might be distracted by hearing the DJ or the old commercials, but it’s more realistic (and if you tried hard to listen to what the DJs were saying, also a fun bit of nostalgia).

The performances in this movie are outstanding. Al Pacino only has a few scenes, as an agent that wants to help Dalton resurrect his career…by doing Spaghetti Westerns.

The chemistry between Pitt and DiCaprio is great, and most of their scenes work.

There’s a scene with a young actress (Julia Butters), who is annoyingly precocious, but offers some great advice to Dalton, and gives him a compliment that brings him to tears. It’s terrific.

The scene you get in trailers with Bruce Lee are fun. Oh, and I love that Tarantino is so obsessed with Bruce Dern (as I am). He has a great scene, and…it caused a one hour debate with my wife about why they used The Rolling Stones song “Out of Time.” She thought it was because they showed Sharon Tate being pregnant, and the lyrics are saying “Baby, baby, baby you’re out of time” (and we know what’s going to happen with her and the Manson family that night). I insist it’s because the movie Coming Home started out with Dern jogging on the military base with that playing. I have a feeling we’re probably both right.

I do get distracted when Tarantino uses the same actors from other films. As perfect as Michael Madsen is as a sheriff in an old Western, I don’t want to think of Reservoir Dogs.

Zoe Bell, a stunt woman who worked for Tarantino, got a speaking role in Death Proof. I don’t want to be thinking about that when she now plays Kurt Russell’s wife — the guy she was fighting in Death Proof.

I thought of the movie Model Shop (1969), since the first car we see Booth drive is an MG, and since I just saw so much of that Jacques Demy film in the documentary Echo in the Canyon. Pitt’s character is also wandering around Hollywood the way the protagonist in that film does. My hunch was right on that when getting home, I saw a link in which Tarantino lists 10 movies you should see before Once Upon a Time, and he lists Model Shop. My response would be — dude, don’t give us homework. I still have a DVD in my car that someone let me borrow three years ago to watch, and it’s a movie I wanted to see. I don’t want to watch Billy Jack, and a number of other movies that inspired you. And most of the inspiration for things in his movies I can pick out. For example, I remember when watching Bad Times at the El Royale a few years ago and thinking how much Tarantino would love the movie. Well, in a scene in that when charismatic cult leader, played by Chris Hemsworth, dances around to Deep Purple’s “Hush”…I’m sure that gave Tarantino the idea to use that song in this movie. Tarantino is always so great with his soundtracks, whether it’s all the amazing tunes in Pulp Fiction, or the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs (Stuck in the Middle of You). Yet I think he’s losing his grip on song selection; when I heard Jim Croce’s “I Got a Name” in Django, and in this — two of the worst cover songs of all time. That would be Jose Feliciano doing “California Dreamin’” and Vanilla Fudge covering “You Keep Me Hanging On.” It is great hearing “Hungry” because, as I said…apparently Sharon Tate really really liked Paul Revere and the Raiders. And a lesser filmmaker would’ve had her playing The Beatles “White album.”

Aside from all the scenes that made me think of Tarantino’s other pictures (a flame thrower taking out Nazis, just as flames did in Inglorious), it’s frustrating that so many other scenes reminded me of other films. Watching Rick Dalton dancing on a TV show Hullabaloo…was a lot like Spinal Tap singing on a cheesy ‘60s show with “Flower People.”

Bruce Dern was in the movie 1969 (a terrific under-seen picture with Robert Downey, Jr. and Keifer Sutherland). I’m sure Tarantino was stoked that he could work with this ‘70s acting icon again.

For Spike Lee, who hates the fact that Tarantino uses the n-word in his movies, there’s not one in here, although he is rather insulting to Asians and Mexicans. Yet Lee has never cared if anyone else is offended in movies, so there probably won’t be a peep from him about this.

And why is it Tarantino has to show us everything he loves, in every one of his movies? He should concentrate on just making a great story — the way he did with Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. We don’t need to see women’s dirty feet, neon signs, and 25 different movie posters. Sure, at the movie theatre it made sense, but…why am I watching a movie trailer for one of the worst movies ever — C.C. and Company (Joe Namath, Ann-Margret)? Tarantino would say because it was such a cheesy, dumb movie, and that’s the point. Well, you’re asking audiences to spend over two and a half hours on this journey. It shouldn’t just be to see all the crap you like in life. I complained about how he had a 12 minute scene with two characters talking about old Italian film directors in Inglorious. Nobody else cares, or knows, who the people are he’s talking about in that scene. It’s typical self-indulgent filmmaking from QT.

It’s also distracting to see Kurt Russell again, since he’s been in two of his previous movies (Death Proof, Hateful Eight). And what in the world was the point of having him narrate a handful of scenes? That was so distracting. I get it, he was Snake Pliskin and you love that you can direct him, but…

Back to the movie. It’s entertaining enough to watch, but it’s very problematic. For example, my wife and I did not buy the Rick Dalton character crying and being so upset about certain things. I told her that was just Tarantino doing the Dirk Diggler character from Boogie Nights (right up to him talking into a mirror while being wasted).

This was shot in 35mm by Robert Richardson, and just like The Hateful Eight, is gorgeous to look at. Just like Hateful, it’s 35 minutes too long (this clocks in at two hours and 45 minutes). Especially since each scene goes on longer than it should, and a handful of scenes were unnecessary. Edits would have been easy.

A buddy of mine is furious that this movie is exploiting a horrific crime and he thinks it will glorify the Manson murders (they do play one of Charles Manson’s songs in it). That will turn off a few people, I suppose.

Overall, I didn’t mind sitting there for almost three hours, watching these characters and thinking about the year I was born and what it was like in Hollywood. Not sure how audiences will feel about it all, but the critics are currently loving it.

I’m giving it 2 ½ stars out of 5. My wife thinks it deserves 3 ½, but then…she’s been talking about Brad Pitt non-stop for the last three days. She would also add, “Why do you knock Tarantino for doing an unnecessarily long movie, when you’re doing a review that could’ve been done in two or three paragraphs?”


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