Film review: ‘ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD’ by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

Across eight films (if we call Kill Bill one film) Quentin Tarantino has cultivated a reputation as a modern movie savant and a ravenous cinephile who has been handed the greatest toy imaginable, a Hollywood movie budget. With this he’s conjured lurid comic book crime dramas and off-kilter genres movies all filtered through his universe of pop cultural obsessions. After being deified in the 1990s his films, while successful and often critically praised, haven’t always been embraced by a general public who loved Pulp Fiction. Does his latest effort, Once upon a time in Hollywood restore his halo? While often slow, at times irritatingly indulgent and lacking the zeitgeist-defining immediacy of a Pulp Fiction, this film has enough old-style Tarantino smarts and affection for cinema lore to please the buffs but some fan boys may be grumbling until the extreme violence explodes on the screen very late in proceedings.

Once upon a time is set in 1969, a time of tumultuous political and social change and it seems, upheaval in Hollywood as movies and TV try to cope with rapidly changing tastes. A casualty of this shift is Rick Dalton (Leonardo Di Caprio) the former star of Gun Smoke-style TV western, Bounty Law. Once an A-lister, he’s now been relegated to playing bad guy punching bags for up-and-coming TV heroes. With him through this journey has been his shady but loyal stunt double, body guard and confidante Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). As Rick attempts to resurrect his career, he and Cliff unwittingly find themselves on a collision course with the maniacal cult that would become known as the Manson Family.

As the title suggests, this film is, in a sense a fairy-tale and while it draws on real events and has actors playing some real people of the time, it’s a few steps removed from the reality of 60s as much as Inglorious Basterds was an alternate reality version of the Second World War. Not surprisingly, given that Tarantino grew up in the 1960’s and imbibed Hollywood culture, Once Upon a time, more than any Tarantino film so far, immerses us in the director’s pop cultural obsessions. In fact, the film is more a grab-bag of references than a conventional narrative. Nearly every frame is stuffed with images of movies, TV, kitsch products and iconic faces of the era. Still, due to its leisurely pacing and too many drawn out scenes, it’s not quite the feverish 60’s phantasmagoria it could have been.

Also, Tarantino doesn’t show quite as sure a hand at character development as he did in films like Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs and Jackie Brown. Rick Dalton isn’t a particularly interesting or sympathetic character, despite a typically committed performance from Leo. Consequently, the scenes of Rick stumbling his way back into the spotlight carry little emotional weight and some of his exchanges with other actors seem to go on forever. Pitt’s Cliff Booth is a more compelling character largely because he’s genuinely dangerous unlike the fake hero Rick. While Pitt gives him a potent physicality, he also plays him with a slightly irritating mix of smugness and goofiness. Margot Robbie, however, brings a delightful charm and spirited innocence to the role of Sharon Tate (in this film Rick’s neighbour) who in real life was, tragically, a victim of the Manson family.

Tarantino’s films have often been criticised for their apparently flippant approach to violence. A brutal sequence here again raises the unsettling question of whether he is fetishising violence or using it to depict the darker side of humanity and the morally ambiguous nature of movie heroes. Whichever perspective viewers take, the sequence in question is certainly a jolting one in an otherwise sedate film.

That ferocious interlude aside, this film’s multiple intertwining threads unspool at such a slow pace, it ends up as one of those films that often feels underwhelming while viewing it but improves upon reflection as we recall stand-out scenes. Some of the best include Robbie (as Sharon Tate) gleefully watching the ridiculous James Bond spoof The Wrecking Crew in which the real Tate appears alongside Dean Martin and a confrontation between Cliff and none other than Bruce Lee in a sequence which appears to have been based on a famous behind the scenes story.

Once Upon a time in Hollywood doesn’t feel like a vital piece of cinema at first but like a number of Tarantino films its sprawling, multi-faceted story will probably reward repeated viewings.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2

Genre: Drama/ comedy/ nostalgia.

Classification: MA15+.

Director(s): Quentin Tarantino.

Release date: 15th Aug 2019.

Running time: 161 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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