ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD (2019)

Review by LL Soares

I’ve been a fan of Quentin Tarantino since that discussion of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” at the beginning of RESERVOIR DOGS (1992), and he’s rarely let me down since. As each of his films have been released, they’ve been something like an event. The way a lot of other people treat the release of a new STAR WARS movie, or a new AVENGERS. So I was pretty excited to see ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD (2019), his latest film, on opening day, in an extra nice theater (comfortable reclining chairs, fancy snacks, etc.) where I didn’t normally see movies.

One thing that struck me right off the bat about HOLLYWOOD is that it moves at a very leisurely pace. It’s in no hurry to get where it’s going, and yet I never once looked at my watch. The chemistry between the two leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, was so strong that, frankly, I could have sat through two more hours of their lives, and HOLLYWOOD already clocks in at almost three hours long.

The year is 1969, and Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) is a fully realized character. He’s an insecure, self-doubting television actor coming off a hit show called BOUNTY LAW, but who isn’t sure where his future lies. He’s made some low-budget flicks (mostly westerns and war movies – the fake clips we see are pretty funny) and he’s appearing on other TV shows lately, always as the bad guy. In a meeting with a potential new agent named Marvin Schwarzs, played by Al Pacino, the dude gives it to Rick straight: Once the audience identifies you as a heavy, you might as well forget about being a leading man again. Rick sees the logic in that, but he’s still been hired to be the bad guy in a new western called LANCER (the real show ran from 1968-1970). Schwarzs tells him he has to aim higher. There are some directors in Italy getting attention for westerns (called spaghetti westerns, of course) and they’re looking for American leads. The work is lucrative, and Schwarzs promises it will revive his fading career.

Dalton goes everywhere with his stuntman from BOUNTY LAW, Cliff Booth (Pitt). The two are best friends, and the insecure Dalton is constantly turning to Booth for self-validation, which Cliff readily provides. Also, Dalton can’t drive because of past DUI arrests, so Cliff has to drive him everywhere he wants to go in car-centric Los Angeles.  Where Dalton is nervous and self-conscious, Cliff is the epitome of cool. Despite being on a lower wrung of the ladder (where Rick lives in a fancy estate in Hollywood, Cliff lives in a trailer next to a drive-in theater), he is mellow and supremely self-confidant.

The movie follows both of them as they go about their day, and it also follows actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie, of I TONYA, 2017, and, of course, SUICIDE SQUAD, 2016), who, with her husband, director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), are the hot new stars who just moved into the house next door to Rick on Cielo Drive. Even Rick, who doesn’t have the same cache he once did, is in awe of the 60s power couple. Polanski was on his way up after making ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968), and Tate had appeared in THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967) by that point. Her newest movie, WRECKING CREW (1968), part of the series of films starring Dean Martin and James Bond-wannabe Matt Helm, just opened – and a scene where she goes to sit with a real audience watching the movie (and her performance in it) is pretty terrific.

Despite all of his fears, Dalton is actually a really good actor (his scenes on the set of LANCER are especially amazing). He works opposite actor James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant, of DEADWOOD, 2004-2006, and JUSTIFIED, 2010-2015), the star of LANCER, as well as a very mature (and talented) kid actor (Julia Butters, of the TV show AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE, 2016-2019, who is more than up for the task of acting opposite DiCaprio), who bonds with Dalton between scenes.

Meanwhile, Cliff, hired as a stuntman temporarily, meets Bruce Lee (Mike Moh, of the shows EMPIRE, 2015-2017, and the short-lived INHUMANS, 2017) and the two rub each other the wrong way from the get-go, leading to a pretty funny fight scene.

Other “real life” characters who appear in the movie include Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis, of HOMELAND and BILLIONS) and Connie Stevens (Dreama Walker, of COMPLIANCE, 2012, and DON’T TRUST THE B—- IN APARTMENT 23, 2012-2013). And then there’s the bunch over at Spahn Ranch.

Since this is a movie about Sharon Tate in 1969, the Manson family aren’t too far away. The only time we see Charlie is a brief scene when he shows up the Tate/Polanski house while Sharon’s friend/lover Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) is there. Played by Damon Herriman (who was Dewey Crowder on JUSTIFIED, 2010-2015, and was in the criminally short-lived QUARRY, 2016), Manson shows up looking for the previous owners (or is he just performing reconnaissance for later?). By the way, Herriman will also be playing Manson in the upcoming Season 2 of the Netflix series MINDHUNTER.

Where Manson is elusive, his “family” has a much bigger presence in the film, especially the “Manson girls,” who get a chance to “shine” (or whatever it is those creepy chicks do) in a long scene where Cliff ends up on the Spahn Ranch—where the family has set up shop—after giving one of the girls, Pussycat (Margaret Qualley, also in THE NICE GUYS, 2016, and the HBO series, THE LEFTOVERS, 2014-2017), a ride home. Things get tense when Cliff demands to see old George Spahn (Bruce Dern) himself. Among the skin-crawling ladies are such familiar faces as Lena Dunham (as “Gypsy”), Dakota Fanning (as Squeaky Fromme), Sydney Sweeney (from the new HBO series EUPHORIA as “Snake”), Mikey Madison (Max from the FX series BETTER THINGS as “Sadie”) and Austin Butler (of THE DEAD DON’T DIE, 2019) as one of the few male cult members we meet, Tex Watson.

Another highlight is Cliff’s dog, Brandi, a pretty sweet (and loyal) pitbull. She’ll be crucial to the story as it goes along as well.

Don’t go into this movie expecting things to unfold like they really did in 1969, however. This is another one of Tarantino’s “alternate history” flicks (like INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, 2009), where anyone planning to see real events is going to be thrown a lot of curve balls. This movie does not end the way you think it’s going to, which keeps it all the more interesting. Despite the two hour and 41 minute running time, I found it consistently interesting, by the way.

The soundtrack (which Tarantino curated, as he always does) features lot of 60s songs including a big helping of Paul Revere & The Raiders, along with songs by Deep Purple, Vanilla Fudge, the Mamas and the Papas, and Jose Feliciano’s version of “California Dreamin’.”

There are also tons of tiny details, from the cars to the neon signs outside of the various restaurants, to the commercials on TV and other minutiae, to conjure up the time period (as well as the fake brand Red Apple cigarettes, which have appeared in all of Tarantino’s films).

I’ve always been hot and cold on DiCaprio, but his Rick Dalton is a riveting character (the performance is up there with his best work, including 2013’s THE WOLF OF WALL STREET), and I’ve always dug Pitt. Together, they’re like some kind of cool new creature, and one that is immensely watchable.

I don’t really want to give much else away. ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD is a terrific, character-driven saga, that will stand up well among Tarantino’s oeuvre. And it’s entertaining as hell. I can’t recommend this one enough. I give it four and a half knives.

© Copyright 2019 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD4 1/2 knives.

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