Maverick Life

FILM REVIEW

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood: One-time video store clerk Tarantino pays homage

US film director Quentin Tarantino attends the Japan Premiere of the movie 'Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood' in Tokyo, Japan, 26 August 2019. The movie opens in Japanese cinemas on 30 August. EPA-EFE/FRANCK ROBICHON

As the story-telling genius approaches feature-film retirement, fans of Quentin Tarantino will be benchmarking each final movie effort against his previous classics. It’s hard not to when the defining movie writer/director of our generation intends to sign off from showbusiness after his 10th production is done. Just where this movie places for this author and an admitted fan is hard to decide after just one viewing.

At this stage of his career, watching a Quentin Tarantino movie can be like facing Shane Warne in a test match. So many of his scalps were taken not because of the ball, but because of the man. The name. Can a 160-minute feature epic about his passion, the movie industry and Hollywood culture, translate into an epic for fans and movie-goers?

It may seem strange to begin a review of a movie by talking about another. But Pulp Fiction defined just about everything including Tarantino’s career and a new genre of moviemaking. Pulp Fiction was a masterpiece, oozing characters with unforgettable dialogue and supported by a soundtrack to execute “every m0therf%cking last one of ya”. It set new standards in filmmaking and storytelling that few others have achieved in the 25 years since. (If it’s not in your Top 3 movies of all time, this author will never share his Netflix password with you). And so it becomes the gauge against which all other Tarantino efforts are measured.

It’s inevitable that Tarantino’s Hollywood and movie influences, aided by hours of binge-watching while working as a video-store clerk in the 1980s, would one day make it as the subject of his movies. A progression from the style tribute or artistic nod that embodied his earlier works, Once upon a time… follows the stories of fictional mid-level Hollywood workers, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), set in the six-month period of the last days of Hollywood’s Golden Era, in the 1960s. Both are desperately trying to avoid the oncoming career scrapheap headed their way, although Dalton is quickly revealed to be the more desperate of the two.

Dalton is a once-famous TV cowboy and Booth is his stunt-double. And bestie. And only.

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Tarantino mixes fictional with factual, interlacing real people, places and events with the dramatised. Real Hollywood casualties that make it into the movie include director Roman Polański (he of statutory rape and exile infamy), Bruce Lee (he of no introduction necessary), and Sharon Tate (she of Charles Manson cult victimhood).

It’s hard to describe this movie by traditional labelling standards. The best one can do is to force a few descriptors together, like: black-comedy meets suspense thrilling bromance mockumentary. The movie’s length allows enough time for various themes to play out, and yet, never feels too long or drawn out. The first gives the audience insight into the lives of actors who make it just above the city heights of Hollywood but not quite the heights of the A-listers and the real powerbrokers/earners of the movie industry, the men behind the camera.

We meet Dalton at a point in his career when a successful television series has been abandoned in order to follow his movie ambitions. Not quite a has-been, he grapples with his place in the movie world, and his alcoholism-induced insecurities. Seemingly stuck as a one-episode baddie in a string of television series, Dalton is reduced to being driven around town by his one and only friend, Booth, following a drunk-driving incident. Despite being lower down the pecking order of the movie business, Booth and Dalton carve out different leading performances in this movie. Each as powerful as they are different.

Dalton descends into a spiral of self-doubt as the realisation of his career status mixes with more than a dash of alcohol, tormenting his ability to remember his lines. A chance on-set meeting with (screen aged) eight-year-old Julia Butters inspires Dalton to get his acting shit together. His next scene is straight out of acting Inception, where DiCaprio, playing an actor who is busy acting, forgets his lines and asks for a cue. The audience has to really concentrate in order to remember which acting level is playing out in that moment.

Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth is more than a treat (evidenced by the whooping and clapping in the Labia theatre audience when he goes topless in a manly DIY scene). As a first-rate stunt-double to a second-rate actor, Booth is surprisingly secure in his place in the world and accepting of his supporting role to Dalton’s real-life character. “More than a brother, but less than a wife”, Booth’s relationship with Dalton becomes the central character of the movie, as their disparate realities play out on movie sets and off. Booth has a memorable scene with Bruce Lee that is simply brilliant screenwriting and storytelling, resulting in a burst of comedic brilliance. As a stuntman, Booth is more than just airhead muscle, slapping sense into an emotional Dalton and beefing up his fragile ego on more than one occasion. Cliff Booth is a paradox to Rick Dalton’s cliche.

Another theme to emerge from “Once upon a time…” is that of the female movie star in a town known for praise-singing all things fit and fleshy. It’s hard to tell whether Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Sharon Tate in the movie is an acknowledgement of the sexism of 1960s Hollywood, or an accentuation of it. Tate is literally barefoot and pregnant in one of the final scenes and goes through much of the movie with few speaking lines. She revels in watching her on-screen character, as a bumbling female support to Dean Martin, while wearing oversized spectacles and her yet again bare feet propped up on cinema chairs. Acting is, of course, more than just about delivering lines, but it’s tough to ignore the disparate depths of character development in this movie, especially when comparing eye-candy actors Pitt and Robbie.

And finally, there is the theme of intermixing the factual and fictional, epitomised in the scene where Booth (fictional) visits the Spahn ranch (factual) and encounters a group of young hippies who turn out to be Charles Manson cult followers (factual). The scene runs like a horror flick, which Tarantino himself describes as “Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a budget”. It is one of intense suspense and anticipation, with Tarantino’s fist reaching out from the screen and squeezing the audience’s lungs until we realise the fate of our parallel protagonist. Tarantino also spends time paying tribute to the Hollywood scene and landscape, using real movie posters, remastering scenes from actual movies and even showcasing the neon restaurant signage that dominated Los Angeles streets.

The film flows easily from one scene to the next, not jarred by the violence and vengeance that almost all of Tarantino’s previous movies are known for. That is saved for the penultimate scene where the sounds of bedlam do more than the visual assault on our senses. For all its violent glory, it also has a pretty comical plot link to an earlier scene in the movie that will leave the audience fired up with laughter.

So where to place Once upon a time… in the list of Top Tarantino efforts? This is an ode to a time of great personal influence told by the hand of an artistic genius. But it is without some of the elements that made his other movies generational classics. Yet, the performances are sublime, leaving this author wondering whether a movie about Hollywood culture is worthy of peerage against others with meatier subjects. It’ll take more 160-minute sittings to determine the answer, and it’ll be an entertaining exercise nonetheless. DM

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