PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Film

'Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood' May Be Tarantino's Best, Most Assured Film

Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

Tarantino's latest, Once Upon a Time.. in Hollywood, is a breezy, top-down-on-the-convertible kind of film that wows you with its surprising sweetness before punching you with a bloody fist.

Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino

Sony Pictures

26 July 2019 (US) / 14 Aug 2019 (UK)

Other

The words 'restraint' and 'Tarantino' have rarely collided in the same sentence over the bombastic filmmaker's three-decade career. He's never been averse to allowing his stylistic indulgences overwhelm the story. With Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Tarantino practically invented a sub-genre of pop-smart, dialogue-driven, shamelessly violent and entertaining movies that lesser filmmakers were doomed to imitate. With his latest feature, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Tarantino finally moves beyond the comfortable confines of the monster he created and delivers an assured masterpiece of breathtaking, and yes, restrained filmmaking.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is Tarantino's most complete film to date. Each character has their own voice and their written with the depth needed to speak for themselves. Apart from one brief, terribly misconceived segment of voiceover narration, there are no Tarantino surrogates to be found here. The churning humanity in these characters lends extra import (and humor) to their stories. This is a slick flick to be sure, with plenty of propulsive action and shocking violence, but the real treasures reside in its lighter diversions. This is a breezy, top-down-on-the-convertible kind of film that wows you with its surprising sweetness before punching you with a bloody fist.

Tarantino was destined to make a film about Hollywood. He understands Hollywood as well as any historian and cherishes every piece of righteous trash that ever dirtied the Los Angeles River. Here, he spins a fairy tale about the town that traffics in fairy tales. There are beautiful maidens, charming princes, dreamers of ridiculous dreams, and evil hippies. Lots and lots of evil hippies.

Here's the story. Back in the early 1960s, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) was poised for stardom. He played the ruthless bounty hunter Jake Cahill on television's Bounty Law and made several marginal films, most notably the World War II yarn, The 14 Fists of McCluskey. He got to use a real flamethrower in that one and still has it mounted in his pool cabana! If Steve McQueen had turned down his role in The Great Escape, Rick was rumored to be in line for the job.

By the winter of 1969, however, Rick's ship to stardom has run aground. He's reduced to playing episode-of-the-week villains and is contemplating a move to Italy for a shot in Spaghetti Westerns. His last chance at Hollywood relevance might be a Western pilot called Lancer, where he gets to chew the scenery as a Shakespearean-level baddie. Rick rehearses his lines the night before filming while floating in his pool and pounding whiskey sours. Yes, his work ethic leaves something to be desired.

Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth (IMDB)


Never far from Rick's side is his dedicated stuntman/personal assistant, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Cliff looks like the living embodiment of a Ken doll, only with more scars. He's generally reserved, though very adept when violence is required, even holding his own in a hilarious fight with Bruce Lee (the uncanny lookalike, Mike Moh). Cliff speeds around town in his giant convertible, recklessly maneuvering through traffic like a magic carpet. There's even a rumor that he murdered his wife. Given the brief flashback of Cliff holding a speargun aimed precariously at his wife's stomach, calling it a 'rumor' seems generous.

Circling around the periphery of Rick and Cliff's good-natured shenanigans, a more sinister story takes shape. Slumming it in the mansion next door is the blonde bombshell Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her beau Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha)… and her other beau Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch). When a mysterious man calling himself Charlie (Damon Herriman) visits the house, we quickly surmise that we're watching the prelude to Tate's real-life murder at the hands of Charles Manson's infamous hippie cult, the so-called 'Manson Family'. Before you get too depressed over the prospect of witnessing a brutal quintuple homicide, remember that this is the same writer-director who brought you Inglourious Basterds; reality is a relative term.

Tarantino expertly (re)creates an authentic late '60s Los Angeles run amok with gas guzzling cars, iconic dive bars, and gratuitous neon. Cliff's car radio is a constant companion, featuring not only musical hits from the day, but commercial jingles sure to ring familiar for anyone of a certain age. One could argue that Tarantino goes overboard with the musical accompaniment, but he's careful to select songs that perfectly complement his film's leisurely pace. It's like a warm hug of nostalgia from the days when Hollywood was still in the dream business and movie stars walked on water.

These flourishes don't exist simply to look stylish or evoke a mood, but to add subtext to a world in transition. Hunky leading men and fairy tales are yielding to greasy anti-heroes and detached irony. Tarantino has always been fascinated by men who don't belong in the world anymore; violent and vulgar men whose code of conduct doesn't conform to the encroaching civilization. Rick is the perfect Tarantino hero, cursing the hippie groundswell while still selling his soul to remain relevant.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton (IMDB)

With restraint and understated sentimentality, Tarantino gives Rick and Sharon a chance to escape their insecurities through fleeting moments of professional recognition. The film's emotional highlight, in fact, doesn't even contain dialogue. Sharon attends an afternoon matinee of her recent film, the Dean Martin spy vehicle, The Wrecking Crew (Phil Karlson, 1968). As she hears the sparse theater crowd laughing appreciatively at her comic performance on the screen, her relief and happiness are palpable. She smiles sheepishly and props her bare feet on the seat in front of her. It's a sublime performance from Robbie and a generous gesture from Tarantino to enable his actors, not his words, to carry the scene.

Every performance in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is first-rate. DiCaprio may not equal his physical zaniness from The Wolf of Wall Street, but his comic chops are sharp and he seems natural and organic in every dramatic scene. Pitt is effortlessly charming and sexy as Rick's life-support system. He can make you swoon without taking his shirt off, but he takes it off anyway just because he can.

Tarantino is in top form with this film. His dialogue is like a blade, carving tension, humor, and momentum into each scene. There are also a number of spectacular camera slights-of-hand, including one shot where we hover above a massive drive-in movie screen before zooming into Cliff's tiny trailer on the lot next door. And then there is the film's finalé, which feels as though all of Tarantino's restraint and self-control spontaneously evaporate into a burst of intense violence that leaves you giddy -- and completely satisfied.

It's possible that some fans will find Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood a bit too deliberate (and long at running time of 2:41). While it's true the pacing of this film has more in common with the low key tempo of Jackie Brown, it delivers humor and heart in every scene. If for three hours, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood forestalls cynicism and irony to indulge a simpler time in the world of make-believe.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

Is Carl Nevill's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Music

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.