Television Western star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is finding himself increasingly irrelevant in 1969's evolving entertainment industry as his long time stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is witnessing strange things out on the old movie sets of Spahn Ranch "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood."
One of this year's most highly anticipated films from one of America's most divisive auteurs finally arrives and it is undisputedly the work of Quentin Tarantino. Chock full of the type of 1960's television and movie experience film geeks cherish, the film is an odd mix of movie stars at the tops of their game and character actors scrambling for inclusion; exemplary hair, makeup and costume but overly fetishized art direction; an
imaginary character dropped into a real film and a real actress being watched by the actress playing her and an ending that is supposed to be kept secret but than could be guessed by the most casual fan. Tarantino's 'if only' fantasy saves things he cherishes from oblivion with a fortuitous mistake and a devil-may-care bravado emboldened with an acid soaked cigarette.
Is it a masterpiece as many are saying? While the film is great entertainment, it often feels like Tarantino is repeating himself. There are more than one callback to "Inglourious Basterds" and the director's infamous foot fetish is cringe-inducingly off the charts. The film's vibe balances Dalton's anxiety with Booth's laid back amusement, both exaggerated in the film's final moments where the violence on display is as extreme
as anything Gaspar Noe has done. The only things we learn about Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is that she likes to dance, is thrilled to be cracking the movie business, prefers Paul Revere and the Raiders and keeps ex-fiancé Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) close after marrying Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). I thought it lesser Tarantino immediately after seeing it, yet find it growing on me with the exception of that over-the-top violence.
Everything is a mix of the real and imaginary. History, the characters and even props serve the filmmaker's whim (Dalton and Booth could be based on the famous friendship and partnership between Burt Reynolds and stuntman/filmmaker Hal Needham). We see constant contrast. Dalton lives in a ranch on Cielo Drive, right at the gate leading into 10050, whereas Booth lives in a ramshackle trailer behind the Van Nuys drive-in. The old and new are reflected in Dalton's hair, which begins as ornate pompadour and evolves into hippie chic or in Go Go booted 'Hullabaloo' dancers versus barefoot hippie chicks and even Dalton and Booth's convertibles, one a yellow Cadillac, the other a beat-up Karmann Ghia. Dalton's work in a black and white television oater evolves into Italian spaghetti Westerns.
DiCaprio and Pitt are great together, but while DiCaprio has his moments, most notably in a moment of vulnerability with an 8 year-old actress whose affirmation means everything, Pitt owns the film, whether flirting with the Family's Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) from behind Dalton's wheel or feeding his pit bull Brandy rat and raccoon flavored Wolf's Tooth dog food. He's full of amused confidence, whether beating the braggadocio out of Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) or facing off against a hostile Manson Family trying to prevent his checking in on George Spahn (Bruce Dern). Robbie is a shade too vibrant as the reserved Tate. Support is voluminous, some larger stars (Al Pacino as Marvin Schwarzs) having lesser impact than relative unknowns (Nicholas Hammond as Sam Wannamaker). Some, like Dakota Fanning, are almost unrecognizable (she plays a menacing Squeaky Fromme). Damian Lewis looks little like Steve McQueen yet he immediately evokes him in a short cameo at the Playboy mansion. Clifton Collins Jr. shows up to merely sit on a horse on a Western set.
The production is so soaked in its time, art direction can be overwhelming with its 'look at me!' tchotchkes. A montage of the era's dining establishments, leading up to Tate's entourage at El Coyote, is a pure nostalgia soak. Tarantino's regular cinematographer Robert Richardson, shooting in 35mm, colors the film of its time, one beautiful overhead crane shot taking us from Dalton floating in his pool with his stein full of whisky sours to Tate and Polanski roaring out of their gate (the high speed, twisty Hollywood Hills drive we follow cannot help but recall Uma Thurman's "Kill Bill" accident). The soundtrack features Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Mamas and the Papas and The Royal Guardsmen's 'Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron,' but no Beach Boys (Dennis Wilson had strong ties to Manson and his Family). Tarantino bridges a scene with the blind George Spahn with Jose Feliciano's cover of 'California Dreamin,' a weird in-joke. But its faults aside, Tarantino's clearly firing on all cylinders here, the movie's 165 minutes, even with its sprawl, always engrossing. You may not yearn for the days of hippies, hedonism and red-blooded heroism, but Tarantino sure makes you feel how much he does.
Robin gives "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" a B.
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