Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – 5 stars

Image result for Once Upon a A time in Hollywood [poster

Twenty minutes in, my brother whispered to me, “I don’t know if this is going to be a good movie, but it’s a beautifully curated movie.”  He was dead on.  Quentin Tarantino doesn’t just re-create the look of 1969 Hollywood, he does it in a manner that somehow straddles classic homage and the hazy recollection of a local.  The town seems both wondrous and pedestrian.  Never were neon lights for Taco Bell or the Musso and Frank Grill so compelling.

Tarantino places two movie stars (Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt) in the midst of this mesmerizing visual portrait, the former playing a fading “almost made it” leading man reduced to working for cameos during “pilot season” and the latter his loyal stuntman/gofer.  And wouldn’t you know it, DiCaprio lives next to none other than Roman Polanksi and Sharon Tate, and hey, who was that scraggly hippie who skulked by the other day?

The film could have been cutesy or overly reverential, and when the likes of Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee and Mama Cass make appearances, I’ll admit, I was apprehensive.  But their scenes are both fun and important.  They assist in Tarantino’s portrait of Tinseltown as a much larger Mayberry, where everyone knows each other just to say howdy, but a lot of those everyones are someone.

Enmeshed in the slow-building run-up to the tragedy seared in our national consciousness (I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid I devoured Vincent Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter”, and somehow, those white cut-outs of the bodies on Cielo Drive were more horrifying than any actual murder photo) are the stories of DiCaprio, who has lost his swagger and is negotiating his way down; Pitt, a man with a notorious reputation necessarily affixed to the fading star; and Tate (Margot Robbie), the ingénue representing the audience, agog at the magic around her and so excited about her future she can barely contain herself.  There is not a minute of their stories that isn’t engaging, and Tarantino leisurely walks them though the company town.

This is also Tarantino’s funniest film.  His dialogue has always been crackling, but he has moved on from bravura speeches and cool pop culture references, instead writing much more measured and subtle, with real heartfelt exchanges (his last film, The Hateful Eight, was a quantum leap in his maturity as a writer).  And while excess is Tarantino’s hallmark, and often his downfall, you may not believe me, but this picture is an exercise in restraint.

I would like to say more, but I don’t want to spoil anything or preview one of the more enjoyable movies I have seen in years.   Go now.

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7 comments
  1. I’m surprised to see you give this film five stars. It’s one of Tarantino’s weakest efforts.

    The film may be “beautifully curated,” but the story is flat and uninteresting, and the dialogue – which is usually Tarantino’s strong point as a filmmaker – is forgettable. I can remember at least a dozen parts of dialogue in Pulp Fiction, and maybe half-a-dozen bits from films like Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown, but I can’t recall anything worth remembering in the banter between Pitt and DiCaprio’s characters. There’s a cute little exchange between a child actor and DiCaprio’s cowboy actor, but even the details of that are difficult to remember (as opposed to the cuteness of it).

    I liked the ending, but it came more than two-and-a-half hours into the film and by then the story had lost my interest.

    • Your comment is timely. I just happen to watch a good portion of Pulp Fiction, which is loaded with memorable exchanges and boffo Tarantinoisms. And I enjoyed them and they are a hallmark. But they also have limitations. I suppose man can live on clever pop culture references and funny meanderings about eating pig versus dog, the Royale with Cheese and the intimacy of a foot rub, or load up a film with so many quirky characters (“be cool, Honey Bunny”) that it amps what they sat in increasingly wild situations. But this is a more mature film, and while I agree, I can’t tally all the great lines, it’s not a blizzard of catchy cleverness type film, but a patient, more earnest period piece centered of a great friendship and two deft, hilarious performances that frankly sits better after viewing. What did you think of The Hateful Eight?

      • As for The Hateful Eight, I didn’t care for it. The last Tarantino movie I liked was Kill Bill. His more recent movies have been watchable, but not as entertaining as his earlier stuff.

  2. Pincher Martin said:

    I’m trying to re-post this comment for the third time. WordPress claims it has been posted, but I don’t see it. If it has been posted, then please delete this and any other duplicates.

    Your comment is timely. I just happen to watch a good portion of Pulp Fiction, which is loaded with memorable exchanges and boffo Tarantinoisms. And I enjoyed them and they are a hallmark. But they also have limitations.

    Imitation has hurt Pulp Fiction‘s freshness. That film, believe it or not, is twenty-five years old. It’s officially a classic. It’s even been selected for preservation by the National Film Registry.

    And like many classics, imitation of the film has dulled its originality. What do they say about Citizen Kane? That almost everything which was special about that movie no longer seems special because it has been copied so many times. Camera angles that had never been used so extensively before Citizen Kane, for example, have been used so routinely since then that no one even notices them anymore.

    After Pulp Fiction came out, everyone was trying to make another Pulp Fiction. The long dialogue sequences of mundane items that were punctuated by episodes of shocking violence seemed so fresh in 1994, but they were passé by the mid-oughties. No one did that kind of banter (or built up the shocks after the banter) quite like Tarantino, but enough people tried that even Tarantino moved away from it.

    But I’d rewatch Pulp Fiction before I’d watch Once Upon a Time in Hollywood again. Three hours of screen time with nary an interesting line of dialogue, or even the bloody havoc we’ve come to expect from Tarantino until the final twenty minutes, was just too much for me. It was like watching a documentary of the late nineteen-sixties’ Los Angeles. You hear an interesting old song; you see an interesting old advertisement; you see a lot of old cars – and its all narrated by two old Hollywood actors who talk about their mundane problems at work. Until the ending. Then “Splat.” That was good.

  3. I get you. I actually think the dialogue in Once Upon a Time and Hateful Eight is more refined and subtle than his prior work, which as scintillating but showy and which, I think, would have become problematic, maybe even self-parody. I have no beef with Pulp Fiction. To the contrary, it’s a top 20 film for movie, and it changed the way movies are made and written. I also reveled in the patience and the feel, laughed out loud numerous times, was in wonder at the way he treated Pitt and the “murder” of his wife, and was overjoyed by Tarantino’s reprieve at the end, I also loved the handling of Tate and the Pitt/DiCaprio relationship, which I found sweet, not a Tarantino hallmark.

    • Pincher Martin said:

      I actually think the dialogue in Once Upon a Time and Hateful Eight is more refined and subtle than his prior work, which as scintillating but showy and which, I think, would have become problematic, maybe even self-parody.

      I think Tarantino showed he could handle that kind of subtle and refined dialogue all the way back in Jackie Brown, which came out in 1997 and was his first major film after Pulp Fiction. Think of the relationship between Jackie and the bail bondsman, Max Cherry, as they sit in a dark bar and talk realistically about her options after she’s arrested for possession and smuggling. It’s both sweet in how it establishes the relationship between the two and it’s interesting in the way it advances the plot.

      I don’t think Jackie Brown is a classic, but I prefer it to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The pace in the 1997 film is slower, the dialogue less flashy, and the violence less graphic than in Pulp Fiction, but the story still works because it’s more interesting than spending two hours watching a couple of old Hollywood hands deal with their declining careers.

      • I liked Jackie Brown as well, but I believe it is his only adaptation (of an Elmore Leonard book), and it shows. It’s medium cool, very traditional and he provides a little zip but mostly plays it straight. It also has the advantage of being about criminals and rogues, cops and thieves. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is about actors, a town and a time. Even at the end, a dog provides the most mayhem.

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