Tarantino pleases himself with Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Tarantino fans rejoiced at the announcement of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and many are lauding it as a return to form for the acclaimed writer/director, but they’re missing the point.

Brad Pitt, Leonardo Di Caprio and Margot Robbie

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Tarantino’s form, shouldn’t be the focus. It’s more about the success of his early work allowing him the opportunity to be more self-indulgent in his later work. If you’re a fan of Tarantino, then you’re definitely open to relishing in these indulgences but if you’re not, this movie would not be the recommended gateway to his body of work.

English motherfucker! Do you speak it?

Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is Tarantino’s billet doux (that’s French for love letter) to an era of film he clearly adores. It also might be statement about the industry’s current situation and where he fits within.

To truly understand the movie is to first understand where the director comes from. This is a bloke who spent a good portion of his youth watching movies, going to acting classes and working in a video store (which many teenagers at the time thought would be a dream job). He started writing screenplays about things he liked based on what he saw.  That is why fans are so tapped into the guy as a writer and director. He’s a fan of movies first and a director second.

Or at least he was.

Everyone’s a critic!

It has been argued that with Tarantino’s success has come pretension, arrogance and perhaps a loss of the common touch.

His best and worst quality is that he stands firm on his right to create and direct the films he wants to make. That’s something he’s always done and he does it more with each new movie. Also if you’re raised by violent and exploitative movies (like the vast majority of us) what do you expect?

He’s remained steadfast addressing comments from peers like Spike Lee, who accused him of trivialising slavery with Django Unchained. He’s done the same with Once Upon a Time In Hollywood when tackling criticism over the portrayal of Bruce Lee.

Lee’s friend, basketball legend Kareem Abdul Jabar, states that it is racist and Lee’s own daughter Shannon claims her dad is misrepresented. Tarantino says his interpretation of Lee was based on facts, that he believed Lee was an arrogant guy and doubles down by claiming the right to take creative license for the purpose of the film. Fair enough too, it is a work of fiction.

Once upon a time…

Which brings us to the story. Set in Hollywood in 1969—toward the end of the summer of love under the looming shadow of the Manson Family murders—Once Upon a Time In Hollywood tells the story of Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski’s next door neighbour Rick Dalton. Rick’s a famous actor but his star is on the decline. His roles have moved from movies to TV and leading man to villain. Rick’s buddy Cliff Booth is an ex-green beret who works in Hollywood as a stunt man, mainly as Rick’s stunt double but spends more time these days as Rick’s driver and personal assistant. The film is about them trying to make their way around an industry that they are struggling to keep up with.

The cast

He’s spared no expense of the cast and they all deliver. Smaller parts include Al Pacino as film producer Marvin Schwarz, Luke Perry as actor Wayne Maunder, Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen, Timothy Olyphant as James Stacy, Mike Moh who is hilarious as Bruce Lee, Emile Hirsh as Jay Sebring and Damon Herriman as Charles Manson.

The actual city that was 1969 Los Angeles plays a starring role too and has been meticulously recreated, complete with cars, fashion, neon, studio backlots, and art deco architecture—even the infamous house at 10050 Cielo Drive looks exactly like the photos—and a lot of time is spent showing it off.

In the foreground we have Margaret Qualley as Manson Girl Pussycat, Margot Robbie who doesn’t have much dialogue but puts in a spirited performance as Sharon Tate and Leonardo Di Caprio and Brad Pitt who are simply brilliant as Rick and Cliff. We need more buddy movies with these guys.

Self-indulgent but authentic!

Thank goodness for DiCaprio and Pitt because this movie is 161 minutes long and has a lot of superfluous scenes that may have made the movie drag without their talent. There’s actually rumours going around about a working cut that’s over four hours long!  This is where Tarantino’s self-indulgence comes in.

The film is authentic in the context of the setting and the pace of movies made at that time. The reason why audiences may feel the movie drag is because these days scenes are about 2-3 minutes whereas in the 60s they were double that. That time is used to do things like linger on backgrounds, set up foregrounds and even drive between locations. There’s an excellent scene where Cliff leaves Rick’s house in the Hollywood hills and drives to his caravan outside a drive in in Van Nuys. The audience endures the entire trip, taking in all the scenery along the way. It hints at some classic driving scenes from films like North By Northwest or To Catch A Thief. Cliff’s journey wraps up with the ritual of him arriving home, fixing dinner for himself and his dog and watching TV. The whole sequence almost feels like it is taking place in real time.

OMG how meta!

It’s also incredibly meta, a movie that features scenes of actors playing actors watching themselves act is almost enough to cause a tear in the space-time continuum. However in the case of Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, this is actually quite delightful. Complete with standard Tarantino foot fetish shot—the man likes ladies feet, it’s well documented and if he can get them into his movies he will. Come to think of it this movie has got all the Quentin Tarantino tropes, leading men who hang out and talk way too much, female co-stars that don’t say a hell off a lot but look great in cut-off shorts, violence, bad language, a great soundtrack and more comedy than his other films.

One of Tarantino’s most famous quotes is “I didn’t go to film school, I went to films”, which is certainly something this hack critic with no formal journalism qualifications can appreciate. He has also said that, “trying to make a feature film yourself with no money is the best film school you can do”.

Maybe it’s time for a refresher course?

In this case, having too much money leads to some meandering storytelling that does little to justify the film’s duration. The movie sorts itself out by the excellent final act though. Whether or not audiences will still be invested by the time they get there depends on how much they like the rest of the movie.

The verdict

While Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is bloated with excess and is Tarantino at his most self-indulgent, it still beats something that has been crafted by a committee. It might not grab audiences in early scenes but much like Margot Robbie dancing in go go boots or Brad Pitt fixing your antenna on a hot day, it warrants a second look.


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