Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Year: 2019
Production Co: Bona Film Group
Studio: Sony
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Producer: David Heyman/Shannon McIntosh/Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Mike Moh, Damian Lewis, Luke Perry, Al Pacino, Nicholas Hammond, Lorenza Izzo, Damon Herriman, Lena Dunham, Maya Hawke, Harley Quinn Smith, Scoot McNairy, Clifton Collins Jr, Dreama Walker, Rumer Willis, Clu Galagher, Kurt Russell, Zoë Bell, Michael Madsen, James Remar, Adam West, Burt Ward

It's Tarantino's first true blockbuster, coming out amid the superheroes and sequels of the midyear season, making hundreds of millions and – if you can believe it – his second last movie ever.

Everything he's good at is here and the pleasures to be had are expected, but what's maybe more interesting is the study of a director at work at the absolute height of his powers, with nobody to tell him 'no'. George Lucas occupied the same position when he embarked on the Star Wars prequels, Michael Cimino with Heaven's Gate, and one can imagine Martin Scorsese enjoying similar carte blanche while he made the forthcoming The Irishman.

And while we wish great directors constantly had all the creative freedom in the world, there's sometimes a balance to be struck between a studio hack answering to the marketing committee at one end of the scale and utter creative indulgence like this at the other (especially when it leads to artifacts like Jar Jar Binks).

We know Tarantino's influences are many, but it feels like he threw absolutely every idea he could possibly connect to this story into the script. When you see Tim Roth named in the credits as being in a sequence that didn't make the film, you find it hard to believe Tarantino cut anything.

Like the title makes plain/warns, it's his Grand Unified Theory of Hollywood as an institution at this particular moment in time (1969), all of it seen through the eyes of former TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stuntman/right hand man Cliff Both (Brad Pitt).

The mission statement of the film is to show us how the old tropes, stars, characterisations and styles of the good guy/bad guy cowboy archetypes were dying out, how a generation of square jawed heroes suddenly found themselves redundant when long haired hippies, beatniks and moral grey areas were ascending to cultural power in entertainment.

But that's not all he wants to show us. We'll learn how TV shows were made on studio backlots, the language of Westerns, how the Hong Kong chop socky movement was encroaching on entertainment personified by Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), what parties at the Playboy Mansion looked like in the free love era, how we should celebrate Sharon Tate as a talent that was taken from the world too soon and a hundred other ways of life and industrial changes.

He wants to showcase a precocious young method actress (Julia Butters), a rogues gallery of young female talent as the Manson girls (including Lena Dunham, Dakota Fanning, Maya Hawke and Hayley Quinn Smith), find roles for actors and friends he loves from old movies (Clu Galagher, Zoe Bell), movie theatres he loved in his youth (Westwood's The Bruin) or include iconic real people like Damian Lewis as Steve Martin or Nicholas Hammond as Sam Wanamaker.

That means we get riffs like the extended sequences showing the making of a TV episode where Dalton is co-starring as the weekly villain opposite hero James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant), or the one where Booth is challenged to a fight by the grandstanding Lee. They're both overlong and do little to drive the core story forward, but in and of themselves they're perfectly enjoyable skits and vignettes that are as masterfully directed as you expect from Tarantino.

If there's an actual story he wants to tell, it seems to just be about the human face of Old Hollywood giving way to a new awareness and lost innocence, symbolised by the murders of Sharon Tate and her friends and houseguests by Manson's creepy acolytes. That's why the pivotal locations include Spahn ranch, where the Manson Family took over and holed up and Cielo Drive, where the fictional Dalton lives next door to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).

And despite the overstuffing, the plot to achieve that story is actually pretty thin. Dalton is feeling washed up with the decline of the TV cowboy era, reduced to bit parts and eventually flying to Italy to spend a year racking up credits in cheap spaghetti westerns. And all the while, a murderous menace is building on the other side of the Valley with the Mansons.

His buddy and stunt guy Cliff is curiously unaffected by all the goings on around him, coasting through changes in history and barely raising an eyebrow while he lives in a trailer with his tough dog and crappy coupe, an axe over his head as much as there's one over Dalton's.

The most interesting take on his character wasn't from the movie itself but a review. It considered him the modern incantation of the tough, no-nonsense cowboys like the kind Dalton used to play. What else is he during the confrontation with the Mansons at Spahn Ranch but the tough town sheriff who effortlessly shows them all who's boss?

Tate hangs off the side of the main story like an expanded cameo, and you'll understand the reporter at Cannes who questioned Tarantino about not using her very much. All she really has to do is impulsively go to a Westwood movie theatre that's playing one of her films (The Wrecking Crew). With her feet propped up to let Tarantino fully indulge his well-known fetish, she gets more enjoyment out of the audience reacting to her character than the movie itself.

It might be a Tarantino mission statement asserting something Hollywood creatives talk about a lot – that you never know how a movie will play until you see it with an audience. Maybe it's just his way of promoting and lionising the theatrical experience, a movie playing on 35mm film for a dark room full of strangers (an institution he fetishises as much as womens' feet).

Little about Tate has anything to do with Dalton, Booth and the rest of the tale, a fact that seems to confirm Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is less a story and more a declaration – this is the Hollywood Tarantino has loved all his moviegoing life, and he wants nothing more than to bring it life in lurid and living colour for your enjoyment.

And of course, it's full of Tarantino's usual hallmarks. One that you've no doubt heard by now is the same kind of comic book revisionist history we saw in Inglourious Basterds.

But his most beloved trope is the explosion of outrageous violence sparked off by the most innocuous of cues. In Basterds it was Michael Fassbender saying the name 'Stiglitz', in Pulp Fiction it was Butch (Bruce Willis) seeing Marcellus (Ving Rhames) crossing the road in front of him. Here it's Booth whistling a low command to his dog, Brandy.

It prompts a 60 second (or so) sequence of incredibly confronting brutality where the dog virtually rips one character limb from limb, another victim receives a full pet food can to the face from only feet away, someone is brutally and repeatedly beaten and another unfortunate is burned to a crisp by a flamethrower (after also being savaged by the dog).

Women aren't spared the assault, and bodies and blood litter the Hollywood Hills home in the aftermath. It prompts incredulous laughter in the cinema, but Tarantino never seems to be playing it strictly for laughs, staging cruelty so brutal it seems to be intended to make you squirm uncomfortably, especially when it's levelled against female characters.

Ironically, Tarantino is the ultimate celebrity audience member, and while the movie is such a hit with cineastes, critics and those who love the industry (as opposed to just movies themselves), a lot of the reaction from average moviegoers has been more about the negative aspects – self-indulgent, overlong, unfocused and desperately in need of editing.

It's also ironic that Rick Dalton goes to Italy to do spaghetti Western because they're so low rent – today, because of Tarantino's influence, they're the ultimate in cool. If Rick Dalton had been real and lived this long he'd be in his 80s or 90s, enjoying the same kind of retro adulation as Bruce Dern, Franco Nero or Robert Forster.

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