Monday, July 29, 2019

Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood

The latest from writer/director Quentin Tarantino includes all the trappings that fans have come to expect over the past two decades. Overly talky, in need of a little editing, with a few too many shots of his characters' feet, Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood is still quite entertaining and easily the best film Tarantino has made since 2009's Inglourious Basterds. Most comparable with Death Proof, Once Upon a Time offers a slow build-up focused on character and snappy dialogue before jumping headfirst into an explosive finale.

Set in 1969 Hollywood, the plot follows the exploits of western star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) on the downside of his career, his friend and stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his new neighbor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and the Manson Family. The separate threads will eventually intertwine late in the film's final act on one fateful night in the Hollywood Hills, but for most of the film Tarantino takes his time with each, featuring the Dalton/Booth friendship most prominently with plenty of inserts of the the actor's glory days as the star of Bounty Law which came to an abrupt end after he started chasing a movie career.

DiCaprio hits just the right notes on a B-star slowly sliding out of the limelight while struggling to find guest-spots on television and contemplating whether or not a trip to Italy may lead to a career's resurgence in spaghetti westerns. Pitt counterbalances as the more stable half of the duo who has turned into his friend's driver and gopher after his own stunt career stalled (partly due to Dalton's dwindling star and partly to the character's infamous history). And Robbie is sweet as can be as the young actress finding her way in Hollywood. The scene of her sneaking into her latest movie to gauge the audience's reaction is one of many memorable inside Hollywood moments Tarantino provides showcasing the insecurity, struggles, and simple joys of the actors behind the facade they show while in front of the camera.

The separate threads, and pacing of the film, could definitely be tightened in places. While integral to the final act of the film, the Manson Family thread isn't nearly as well developed as the rest of the film. There are also a few odd moments, such as Tate seemingly being tailed early in the film (which is either a forgotten red herring or some editing blunder that kept a trail car in frame for far too much of the shooting), and the late introduction of Lorenza Izzo, that never pay-off. For better or worse, the film largely ignores Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) while focusing more on Tate's relationship with her ex and close friend (Emile Hirsch). It also offers up a humorous, but largely unnecessary scene featuring Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen (while Dalton's fantasy of being cast in The Great Escape fit much more easily within the structure of the story).

While not reaching the heights of either Basterds or Pulp Fiction, Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood is a far more memorable film than The Hateful Eight and far more successful than the regrettable miscalculation of Django Unchained. Tarantino gets the most out of his stars and setting while weaving a tale of a transitional time for both Hollywood and its western star who isn't yet ready to take his final ride into the sunset.

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