Jul 29, 2019
Quentin Tarantino. What can you say that Samuel L. Jackson hasn’t said?
It seems weird, but this will be our first Tarantino feature to be reviewed by the podcast. However, it will also definitely not be the last. And based on the initial critical reviews for “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood”, it seems like it won’t be the last Tarantino film to be produced, either. I’ll talk more about my love for Tarantino in a minute, but for a couple other films in the same vein (and let’s face it, very likely directly influenced by Tarantino), check out “Brawl in Cell Block 99” (Episode #003) and “Green Room” (Episode #054). And for a few films that likely influenced Tarantino, check out “Five Deadly Venoms” (Episode #208), “The Conversation” (Episode #091), and the long take to top all long takes at the beginning of “Touch of Evil” (Episode #229).
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Here we go!
Today’s movie is “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood”, the ninth film written and directed by the legendary Quentin Tarantino. Set in 1969 Hollywood, the film follows TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), while the world around them begins to change rapidly. The film also includes Margot Robbie, Margaret Qualley, Dakota Fanning, Timothy Olyphant, Al Pacino, Harley Quinn Smith, Kurt Russell, and a slew of other stars, including the late Luke Perry.
Quentin Tarantino is one of my favorite writers and directors, ever since I rented a copy of “Pulp Fiction” at our local video store, and watched it a few dozen times with high school friends. Of course, as a young man, I was first drawn to the profanity, violence, and drug use, but as I finished my tenth viewing, I started to realize there was a lot more happening on the screen. No Internet existed at the time, and without many film-related periodicals to peruse, I had no idea how to articulate what I could sense innately each time the film played. I couldn’t explain why his characters felt so well-developed, or how well the framing was in each shot, or how well the so-called gimmicks were done, like chapter cards and out-of-sequence storytelling. I just knew that I liked it, and I liked it a lot more than most any other film I’d seen up until that point.
Nearly 25 years later, I think I know why I, and many other Tarantino fans, are drawn to his work. It’s not just the themes or the profanity or even the characters. Tarantino, much like Kevin Smith, is someone who understands film because he’s seen a LOT of films. He made his mark at first with a series of noir crime pictures, including “True Romance”, “Reservoir Dogs”, “Pulp Fiction”, “Natural Born Killers”, a segment in “Four Rooms”, and “Jackie Brown”. Afterwards, he went into a string of homages for genre films, including “Kill Bill” for kung-fu movies (a favorite around here), the “Grindhouse” double-feature with Robert Rodriguez for 1970s exploitation films, which spawned at least four other films from the mock trailers alone, “Inglourious Basterds” for World War II films, and “Django Unchained” and “The Hateful Eight” for frontier and western stories, with an obvious nod to the “Django” franchise of old. This impressive filmography is a testament to the forgotten or besmirched areas of Hollywood, films that didn’t always have critical acclaim, but did have huge audiences. And it’s a perfect springboard for his latest project.
“Once Upon A Time in Hollywood” takes us back to the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood, in the late 1960s when major studios were losing ground to the rise of new filmmakers and more independent cinema, including the infamous Roman Polanski, played by Rafal Zawierucha in the film. Younger audiences were flocking to independent and alternative cinema, moved by the changing social demographics, rejection of outdated notions of censorship, and rejection of stereotypical roles for men and women in film. New theaters and distributors, along with more overseas film industries, were making money hand over fist by eating up a huge portion of the cinema’s market share, and with the advent of television, fewer and fewer fans of the older films were heading to the cinema, especially when you can see your fading stars of yesteryear on the small screen in the comfort of your own home.
I feel like this period in time is a strange nexus point on which Tarantino stands in relation to Hollywood himself. His films are independently minded, but with major studio production values and skill. His films appeal salaciously to younger generations, but also appeal to older generations who remember similar films from yesteryear in the cinema. His films would turn minor distributors and players into major movers and shakers in the new millennium, but also gave homage to the stars which came before and even restarting a few careers in the process. And it provides the basis for Tarantino to write a very extended love letter to Hollywood then and now.
Like most Tarantino films, the strength of “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” is its characters, brought to life by expert casting. DiCaprio’s performance as Rick Dalton is nothing short of spectacular, encompassing the washed-up Golden Age actor role with a surprising mix of comedy and heartache. Against our better judgment, we end up feeling sorry for Dalton, who owns a home in the Hollywood Hills and poisons himself routinely with alcohol. Dalton’s well-rounded character is in stark contrast to intentional caricature Cliff Booth, who gets into a hilarious fight with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and plays the usual soft-spoken alpha male of yesteryear. Supporting characters weave in and out of the background, helping to drive the story towards the incredible final twenty minutes, although sometimes slowly making it from scene to scene, a privilege given to successful directors like Tarantino with massive production budgets, not to mention the incredible deal he secured after leaving The Weinstein Company in the wake of the horrendous sexual abuse scandal.
The massive budget would also be used to create some iconic shots around Hollywood, particularly Hollywood Boulevard’s makeover, the recreated signs of classic landmarks, and the still existing areas around town. This re-creation adds further authenticity to the entire film, and likely cost a significant portion of the budget, especially to get traffic on the 101 to look that empty. Everything feels like the end of the Golden Age, and that comes from someone who understands Hollywood via its many, many films and from working around and within the industry. It’s a classic film nerd’s dream, which is perhaps the too limited audience that can fully appreciate all the details in the film, although this film, overall, has the potential for Tarantino’s widest audience yet.
One more thought before we wrap up. Last year, Netflix released “The Other Side of the Wind” (Episode #310), the so-called “Holy Grail of Cinema” from the legendary Orson Welles. Unlike Tarantino, Welles made this film in three major shoots from 1970 to 1976, often fighting financial issues and his own creative genius. However, Welles was also focusing on the changing nature of Hollywood, particular at the end of the Golden Era, and captures a great many of the same themes within today’s film. I can think of no better measure by which to judge how well Tarantino was able to capture the time period. If you haven’t yet seen that unearthed gem, and you enjoyed today’s film, you should definitely do yourself a favor and check it out, along with the companion documentary, “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” (Episode #312).
“Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” is a stunning period piece set at the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and an extended love letter to Hollywood then and now. While the film eschews quite a bit of the usual Tarantino shock and awe, it more than makes up for it with an excellent vision and the incredible precision of Tarantino’s craft. Film nerds, along with Tarantino fans, should definitely check out this film.
Rotten Tomatoes: 92% (CERTIFIED FRESH)
Metacritic: 88 (MUST SEE)
One Movie Punch: 9.3/10
“Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” (2019) is rated R and is currently playing in theaters.