Skip to main content

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
(2019)

(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

It’s additionally a sign of something, although I don’t know that it’s anything good, that Tarantino has reached such rarefied heights that Hollywood’s being seriously talked about in some quarters as a contender for the Best Picture Oscar. Or perhaps that’s merely reflective of the current dearth of significantly original or quality material. I mean, I’ll give Hollywood credit for this, despite the entirely – intentionally – derivative title, and that revisionist ending repeat of Inglourious Basterds: it doesn’t feel like any other movie out there, even among its director’s own oeuvre. That’s not necessarily a vote of confidence, for many and various reasons, but it is an interesting thing, and from that perspective, Hollywood might be his most fascinating film since, well Pulp Fiction, probably. Certainly, since Roger Avary ceased being involved with his scripts.

Interesting and fascinating aren’t necessarily in the best interests of telling a great story, of course. There are plenty of interesting and fascinating failures out there that singularly don’t do that, and Tarantino’s ninth film has a lot more in common with massive follies than it does the kind of picture suggesting an auteur operating at the peak of their powers. You can see more clearly than ever with Hollywood how it’s almost an accident that Tarantino fell into the biggest sandpit possible to be able to play with his imagination-spawned toys. Forget about a Vega Brothers or a Kill Bill Vol. 3; the fact that he’s even talked about making some episodes of Bounty Law (and has written five) – fat chance – indicates a potentially endless universe on his part melding Hollywood fact and fiction, one where he’s happy to opine on the ins and outs of whether stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) could beat Bruce Lee in a fight (and lest the furore over this seems misspent – and hilarious and riveting as the sequence is – the concerns over implied racism in an all-American fictional guy being able to whoop Bruce’s ass are not an unreasonable, however big a fan Tarantino professes to be of the martial arts star).

The first two hours of Hollywood meander contentedly in an entirely unfocussed fashion, to the point where you begin to wonder if Tarantino is purposefully taking the piss, that you’re the subject of some elaborate joke whereby he’s seeing how long he can tantalise you, the viewer, before you realise than no, actually, he isn’tgoing anywhere with any of this (that sensation still hasn’t entirely left me). I mean, he does, sort of, go somewhere, but it’s the biggest shaggy dog story there is, for a payoff that’s something of a purple patch.

Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is well-past his career best, a former TV series headliner now reduced to villain guest spots and the prospect of going to Italy to star in spaghetti westerns (which, despite Tarantino’s veneration, are hardly a badge of pride unless directed by Leone; I’ve never been much of a Corbucci fan). We follow Dalton through his meetings with Al Pacino’s agent Marvin Schwartz (a great Pacino part, increasingly pot luck these days), in which he sets out for the not exactly Brainiac Dalton why his career is on a terminal trajectory, and onto the set of Lancer for a protracted, often painful bad guy spot. There’s some very amusing/excruciating material here, from Dalton spending a clutch of scenes doing little more than stammering, spitting, hacking and chain smoking, to fluffing his lines and furiously engaging in a self-berating in his trailer, to an acting pep talk from Julia Butters’ child star that culminates in his being touchingly/ mockingly validated.

None of this seems àpropos anything much at all, particularly when we jump forward six months and Dalton’s back from Italy with a wife (Lorenza Izzo) and the inevitability of having to let Cliff go. Indeed, bringing in Kurt Russell (well, Kurt’s already there for a cameo) to narrate the chronology of the events of the day of the (first) Manson murders, only entwined with and irrevocably affected by the wild card of Dalton and Booth, adds to the impression that Quentin’s suddenly remembered he’s supposed to be telling a story here, so he’d better bring the threads together in something approaching a manner that resembles coherence, yet actually seems to be waywardly emphasising happenstance.

Instead of busting in on Tate et al, it’s Dalton’s house they invade, with resulting brutal consequences for the trio. And the upshot for Dalton, besides getting to use his flamethrower for real (previously used in a movie that wouldn’t have looked out of place at the climax of Basterds), is that he gets inducted into a new family, having inadvertently saved Tate from the Manson one. Who knows what Polanski pictures Rick’ll appear in, or what advice Cliff may give Roman about steering clear of underage liaisons.

Rick Dalton: It's official, old buddy. I'm a has-been.
DiCaprio is having a ball, in a role where he’s able to bring to the fore the full arsenal of self-conscious (as in, hoisted by the petard of their own perceived self-worth and lack thereof) actorly tics and quirks. It’s probably the most fun he’s been outside of Jordan Belforth (although Django Unchained is also on the leader board). And he and Pitt perfectly complement each other.

Every way in which Dalton is highly strung and on edge, Booth is contrastingly laid back and unflappable (I love the moment where he and Dalton go to their farewell meal, and – having been privy to the murky suggestions regarding the fate of his former spouse – someone he knows at a nearby table quips “Hey, how’s the wife?”) Pitt is uber-cool here, so much so, he’s able to rock a white denim ensemble; his personal life consists of a dog and a trailer – and, naturally, comic books – and a reliance on the slumming it Dalton for subsistence, but he is, to all outward appearances, existentially at peace. What we’re supposed to make of that unreadable confidence is a different matter; he is, intentionally, inscrutable in the sense of many a steely-eyed hero of the period; Tarantino provides enough ambiguity that he could be a blithe sociopath (it's definitely a role you could imagine Madsen in, in a low budget take), but one to be inversely celebrated by his audience in the Dirty Harry sense of movie cool.

Bruce Lee: It was a friendly contest. He barely touched me.

The Bruce Lee scene, apart from anything else re Bruce, serves to emphasise Cliff really is a badass, such that when the climax comes in all its gory glory, we really aren’t surprised at his one-man carnage army. Most amusing, however, is the manner in which this forms a bookend to Pitt’s first Tarantino role, in True Romance, where his couch-potato stoner Floyd – reputedly not so far from Pitt’s actual narcotic diet of choice – responds to a home invasion with a passive “Don’t condescend to me, man. I’ll fuckin’ kill ya, man” while capable of nothing of the sort. Here, Cliff is similarly uncertain as to whether those entering Rick’s house are the result of a drug-fuelled hallucination – he has just smoked an acid-dipped cigarette – before responding decisively when it becomes evident they are (I particularly love the use of dog food tin as a weapon, since he’s been holding it throughout the preceding stages of the confrontation).

The sequence is all kinds of absurd, going even beyond its positioning as cathartic overkill into the sublimely ridiculous when the flamethrower makes an appearance, and it underlines that Tarantino is still the big kid trying to push “cool” buttons, to see whether you’re actually willing to stick with him and his idea of that cool, no matter how much he tries to test your patience en route (and there is a lot of that) or throws curveballs.

I mean, everything with Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate is a perfectly formed contrast, in grooming and presentment, to the scummy, scuzzy poverty-row Manson family, and she’s presented as something of an innocent, a wholesome naïf, who takes wide-eyed pleasure in watching her own (well, the actual Tate’s) performance in a shitty Matt Helm picture and the audience’s response to her performance. Is there any point to the protracted sequence, aside from underlying the worlds-apart culture clashes (and showing the actual Tate)?

Probably not, excepting that Quentin gets to parade his ongoing foot fetish via Sharon’s dirty tootsies (which have hitherto been disguised by immaculate white ankle boots – Tarantino’s immaculate side of the 60s is straight out of Austin Powers). In themselves juxtaposed with his foot fetish for Manson girl Pussycat (Margaret Qualley of The Leftovers). One might think Tarantino is suggesting Tate’s too perfect to have been despoiled the way she was (hence the happy ending version), but then he’ll throw in a line from Steve McQueen (a really good Damian Lewis cameo) noting how he didn’t stand a chance with her because she only goes for men who look like twelve-year-old boys. Are the criticisms of Robbie’s Tate as a character valid? Well, it rather depends what you think Tate is doing in the movie or representing. I’d say she has strong presence, which you don’t necessarily need to achieve by copious dialogue or dramatic incident. I’m less convinced we needed to pay so much attention to her toes, though.

There’s negligible narrative cohesion, let alone tension during the film’s first three quarters, the sole exception being Cliff’s visit to the Spahn Ranch, an eccentric episode pregnant with potential backwater threat, excepting that you never doubt he’ll be fine up against Manson’s crew. Indeed, the underlined irony is that, when he does get to see ranch owner George Spahn (a splendidly irascible Bruce Dern), the latter’s entirely happy with his lot, and everything Squeaky (Dakota Fanning, superbly obnoxious) says is accurate (and factually accurate). Also notable here is Baz Lurhmann’s forthcoming Elvis, Austin Butler, as Tex (later to show up at Dalton’s house and get savaged by Cliff’s dog).

I was struck by the manner in which Tarantino seems intent on making everything about his Hollywood edifice subtly off-kilter, such that deducing any undiluted perspective on his part is iffy. Which is entirely in keeping with his generally unbeholden approach. For example, the suggestion that the Family trio may not even have been instructed to commit the killings by Charles – compounded by the fact that Manson features in only one scene, as if Tarantino somehow wishes to separate the mythical figure from the acts themselves – and it might have all been down to Tex. And the curious choice to pick Lancer as the TV show to focus on, given the tragedies and subsequent ignominy of its real-life star (played by Timothy Olyphant).

There seems to be underlying sense here that everything is tainted, whatever the surface sheen or supposed certainties, and the seemingly most obvious truths aren’t necessarily so. Tarantino loves to ruffle feathers, most consistently with the n-word, but here with a continual spew of disparagement of hippies – hilariously so, admittedly, in respect of Dalton’s drunken raging, but hey they’re would-be murderers, right, albeit ones inspired by Rick’s own murderous onscreen legend, so deserve it – and admonitions not to cry in front of Mexicans. He revels in an unreconstructed, reactionary world – and in this context, slightly bizarrely, the world of old Hollywood being saved by the prevention of the Manson murders – flagrantly so when it comes to inflicting ultra-violence on women at the hands of antihero who may or may not have offed his wife on purpose, as if to say “I will not bow to the whims of the moment” (and because, let’s face it, he has always expounded a certain beta-wish-I-was-alpha faux machismo).

Obviously, the parade of cameos is a lot of fun – others include Luke Perry, Michael Madsen, Lena Dunham and Scoot McNairy – although I completely didn’t twig Sam Wanamaker was Nicholas Hammond. Every time Zöe Bell appears in a Tarantino offering, however, it only compounds my conviction that great stuntwoman she may be, but she’s an appalling actor. I had great fun with the soundtrack too. Some choices are on the obvious side – Mrs Robinson – but equally, others that are – Out of Time – instantly seem indelible to the movie. And there’s a sense that, driving around Los Angeles with Cliff, as we do for much of the time, we’re being asked to simply dip into whatever’s on the radio at that moment.

There isn’t much in the way of recognisable trademark dialogue here, but instead, there’s a different kind of immersion in a Tarantino world. Truth be told, I think leaping headlong twice into revisionist history (hyperviolent fairy tale) narratives the way he has is one time too many, since it ensures he has well and truly severed the slender thread that had him vouchsafed as relevant. Which won’t stop the faithful from proclaiming his ridiculous doodles are awards worthy. I’m not remotely convinced that any of the acclaim fostered on Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is deserved, but I nevertheless have to credit Tarantino’s chutzpah in pulling off something so brazenly, inimitably indulgent.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

How do you like that – Cuddles knew all the time!

The Pleasure Garden (1925)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s first credit as director, and his account of the production difficulties, as related to Francois Truffaut, is by and large more pleasurable than The Pleasure Garden itself. The Italian location shoot in involved the confiscation of undeclared film stock, having to recast a key role and borrowing money from the star when Hitch ran out of the stuff.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Anything can happen in Little Storping. Anything at all.

The Avengers 2.22: Murdersville
Brian Clemens' witty take on village life gone bad is one of the highlights of the fifth season. Inspired by Bad Day at Black Rock, one wonders how much Murdersville's premise of unsettling impulses lurking beneath an idyllic surface were set to influence both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Mana few years later (one could also suggest it premeditates the brand of backwoods horrors soon to be found in American cinema from the likes of Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper).

It looks like we’ve got another schizoid embolism!

Total Recall (1990)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven offered his post-mortem on the failures of the remakes of Total Recall (2012) and Robocop (2013) when he suggested “They take these absurd stories and make them too serious”. There may be something in this, but I suspect the kernel of their issues is simply filmmakers without either the smarts or vision, or both, to make something distinctive from the material. No one would have suggested the problem with David Cronenberg’s prospective Total Recall was over-seriousness, yet his version would have been far from a quip-heavy Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars (as he attributes screenwriter Ron Shusset’s take on the material). Indeed, I’d go as far as saying not only the star, but also the director of Total Recall (1990) were miscast, making it something of a miracle it works to the extent it does.

The President is dead. You got that? Somebody’s had him for dinner.

Escape from New York (1981)
(SPOILERS) There’s a refreshingly simplicity to John Carpenter’s nightmare vision of 1997. Society and government don’t represent a global pyramid; they’re messy and erratic, and can go deeply, deeply wrong without connivance, subterfuge, engineered rebellions or recourse to reset. There’s also a sense of playfulness here, of self-conscious cynicism regarding the survival prospects for the US, as voiced by Kurt Russell’s riff on Clint Eastwood anti-heroics in the decidedly not dead form of Snake Plissken. But in contrast to Carpenter’s later Big Trouble in Little China (where Russell is merciless to the legend of John Wayne), Escape from New York is underpinned by a relentlessly grim, grounded aesthetic, one that lends texture and substance; it remains one of the most convincing and memorable of dystopian visions.