Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Posted on July 25, 2019 at 12:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references
Profanity: Pervasive very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Very intense and graphic violence, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: July 26, 2019
Date Released to DVD: December 9, 2019
Copyright Columbia Pictures 2019

Quentin Tarantino is a brilliant filmmaker who does not have anything to say. If you are looking for surface, you cannot do better. His camera placement and editing are impeccable. His attention to detail is unsurpassed. Remember the great Jack Rabbit Slim restaurant setting in “Pulp Fiction,” with wait staff dressed as 50’s celebrities? (“That’s the Marilyn Monroe section that’s Mamie Van Doren… I don’t see Jayne Mansfield, she must have the night off or something.”)

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is an entire movie of that scene, set in 1969, with a slavish, bordering on fetishistic, attention to the details of that era. Or a very specific slice of the era, more created by than reflected in the movies.

Tarantino bonded with the films of that era when he was working in a video store and watching as many movies as possible. This film is more than a love letter to that era; it is his effort to live in it, not as it was, of course, but as it was portrayed in some of the movies whose titles we see in the film like “Three in the Attic” and “Don’t Make Waves” (which featured Tate as a character named Malibu who wears a bikini and jumps on a trampoline).

I was in high school at the time this movie takes place, and those details went straight to my bloodstream. It goes far beyond the markers we still associate with that era and into the deep cuts. I was especially taken with the fake magazine covers from MAD and TV guide which perfectly captured the Jack Davis/Norman Mingo styles. We see a party at the Playboy mansion with dancing Bunnies and Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) chatting with Connie Stevens (Dreama Walker) and the Manson “family” on Spahn Movie Ranch (itself, like Dalton, no longer in its show business heyday). Mike Moh plays a bantam-like Bruce Lee. We hear songs by the Mamas and Papas and Neil Diamond, and Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Good Thing” (co-written by Terry Melcher, former resident of the Polanski/Tate home, the son of Doris Day, and an acquaintance of Charles Manson). We glimpse a billboard for the long-forgotten film “Joanna,” starring Genevieve Waite (who would later marry a member of the Mamas and Papas). And Timothy Olyphant plays actor James Stacy, a star of the 60’s who was badly injured in a motorcycle accident in 1973. He was once married to Connie Stevens. It’s a small Hollywood world, and this movie keeps it even smaller.

The dialog snaps, the humor is dry, and the acting is superb. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a fading television actor who once starred in his own western series (“Bounty Law,” a combination of “Wanted: Dead or Alive” and a bunch of other cowboy shows), now guest-starring as the bad guy in pretty much every series on television, including real-life shows “The FBI,” “Mannix,” and “Lancer.” You can see how much fun Tarantino had making it look like DiCaprio was in those shows. Dalton’s stunt double, and friend who does everything for him and gets paid for it is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton is insecure and easily upset; Booth is understated and resolved. But both are in, if not career slumps, heading that way.

Dalton lives next door to director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). The story begins in February of 1969, when an agent (Al Pacino) encourages Dalton to revive his career with some spaghetti westerns. (The title of this film is a tribute to a pair of films by legendary spaghetti western director Sergio Leone.) And then it skips six months to August of that year, when Tate is very pregnant and her husband is out of the country. And when the Mason “family” is making plans to kill some of the rich and powerful.

Tarantino is as good as it gets when it comes to surfaces, and since this is a movie about surfaces (to the extent it is about anything), and thus it is very pretty and entertaining to watch. So audiences may not notice or mind that, as Gertrude Stein said about another California city, there is no there there. The episodic individual scenes are often absorbing and the characters, even those we might not respect, are people we enjoy spending time with. In addition to outstanding work from DiCaprio and Pitt, the cast features a number of excellent performances including Margaret Qualley as one of the Manson girls, Tarantino regular Kurt Russell as a stunt coordinator who does not want to hire Cliff, Julia Butters as a precocious child star, and the late Luke Perry as an actor.

There is some commentary about fantasy and reality — the weak actor who plays not just a tough guy but the archetypal western icon, and lives in a fancy house in the hills while the real tough guy lives in a trailer and can’t afford dinner. The adults who act like children and the child who acts like an adult. The hippies who speak of love and plot to kill. And the beatific madonna Sharon Tate, who shyly tells the girl at the box office that she is in the movie playing in the theater, the Dean Martin Matt Helm spy movie, “The Wrecking Crew.”

She is almost a dream figure like the blondes in “American Graffiti” and “Stardust Memories,” especially compared to the shrewish female characters in the film the stunt coordinator married to the Kurt Russell character and the unnamed character married to Booth. Tate smiles with happy pride in the theater as the audience laughs at her comic scenes as a beautiful but clumsy girl (the clips we see are of the real Sharon Tate in the film). Our knowledge of her real-life fate in one of the most notorious murders of the 20th century is an example of Tarantino’s appropriation of historical atrocities rewritten for pulpy pleasures to provide dramatic heft his screenplays otherwise cannot sustain (“Inglorious Basterds,” “Django Unchained”).

The episodic structure and narration that does not add anything from a character who has no reason to know the things he is describing show that as meticulous as Tarantino is about getting the details he cares about exactly right when it comes time to having them mean something, all he can do is create an extravaganza — although a watchable one — of violence and altered history.

Parents should know that this film includes extreme bloody violence with graphic and disturbing images, characters injured and killed, very strong and crude language, sexual references, drinking, smoking, and drugs.

Family discussion: Why did Tarantino want to make this film accurate in some of the details and depart from what happened in others? Why did Cliff insist on seeing George? Who is the narrator and what do we learn from him?

If you like this, try: the movies and television series glimpse in the film, including “Lancer,” “Mannix,” and “The Wrecking Crew

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Behind the Scenes: “Hateful Eight’s” Ultra-Panavision Panoramas

Posted on December 9, 2015 at 8:00 am

Quentin Tarantino’s new film, “The Hateful Eight,” was filmed in Ultra-Panavision for a rare experience of totally immersive vistas. Be on the lookout for the old-school “roadshow” release, with overture, intermission, and program!

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Behind the Scenes

Worst Accents in Movies

Posted on August 28, 2015 at 2:13 pm

Thanks to Indiewire for including me in this great rundown of the all-time worst movie accents. Critics vented frustration and fury, many picking Quentin Tarantino and Dick van Dyke, but I went with two actors who played Robin Hood:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KXTj5nd2oKQ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_pmfl2NXkVg
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Actors Critics Film History Media Appearances Understanding Media and Pop Culture

Django Unchained

Posted on December 24, 2012 at 6:00 pm

How do you solve a problem like Tarantino?

The prodigiously talented writer/director is a master of style, sensation, and a uniquely muscular kind of cinematic storytelling that builds on a stunning ability to mash up high and low art in a singular and wildly entertaining combination shot through with pure cinematic testosterone and filled with saucy variations on dozens of other films.

But then there is the content of the films, which it seems that Tarantino looks at as just another tool for jacking up a movie’s adrenalin.  In “Pulp Fiction,” there was the shock of a literal shot of adrenalin to the heart of an overdosing character and the frisson of hired killers whose biggest concern about blowing someone’s head off is the challenge of getting the blood off the car upholstery.  The purest expression of Tarantino’s art is in the “Kill Bill” movies, where he wastes no time on plot, just the minimum nod to the simplest and most relatable of  motives — revenge.

In “Django Unchained,” as in his last film, Tarantino uses an actual historic atrocity almost as an afterthought or a placeholder.  Like The Bride’s revenge motive, the Holocaust and slavery — and endless uses of the n-word by both black and white characters — are used to justify massive carnage, and, apparently, for no other reason.  With “Kill Bill,” the less we knew about the specifics of the reason for the revenge, the better.  With “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained,” we are already aware of the horrors that give the characters license to wreak destruction (artfully).  But it is, ultimately, empty.  Put another way: sound and fury, check.  Signifying: nothing.

Foxx plays the title character.  As the movie begins, slave dealers are marching a group of slaves in leg irons and with the scars of whip marks along their backs, through the wilderness.  A cheerful man with an elegant, cultured manner pulls up in a cart with a big tooth mounted on a spring.  He is passing as a dentist.  He cordially offers to buy a slave but when the brutish, dull-witted men refuse, and the first massive slaughter of the story is underway, and all the other slaves set free.  The man is Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz, who won an Oscar as a Nazi for Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”).  He is a bounty hunter who hunts down “wanted dead or alive” men and kills them to collect the reward.  In those pre-Google image search days, he needs Django to identify three brothers.  The information on the wanted posters is not enough for a positive identification.  He is opposed to slavery, so he makes a deal.  He will keep Django a slave only long enough to complete the job.

Django proves so adept at the bounty hunter business that Schultz offers to bring him on as a partner.  “Kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?” Django replies.  Django wants to rescue his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).  When they tried to escape from their owner, they were separated and sold.  Schultz says that Django will not be able to do it alone, and promises to help him get her back.  Their travels take them through several different adventures and many nods and winks to other films (Franco Nero, the original Django, shows up in a brothel bar), including a completely hilarious scene with a bunch of proto-Klan types who can’t get the eyeholes right in their masks and some completely horrifying scenes with a slave torn apart by dogs and a seemingly endless “mandingo fight” to the death.  Broomhilda is now owned by a man named Candy (his plantation is called Candyland).  He is utterly corrupt and despicable, but even worse is his house slave (Samuel L. Jackson), because he betrays other slaves.

Tarantino gets top marks for style, as always.  The violence and historical reversals are possibly intended to be empowering (oddly, Broomhilda is surprisingly less powerful than the usual Tarantino female characters).  On the contrary, it is dispiritingly disrespectful to the people who suffered unspeakable atrocities.  And Tarantino’s increasing distance between style and substance grows less palatable with each film.

Parents should know that this film includes extremely brutal, graphic, bloody, and disturbing violence with many characters injured and killed, an extended fight to the death, whipping and torture, prostitutes, slaves, some nudity, and constant very strong language including many uses of the n-word.

Family discussion:  Why did Stephen tell Calvin his suspicions about Django?  How does this movie show the influences of spaghetti westerns, American westerns, and “Blazing Saddles?”  Any other inspirations?

If you like this, try: “Inglourious Basterds” and “Kill Bill”

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Action/Adventure Drama Epic/Historical Western

Inglourious Basterds

Posted on December 15, 2009 at 8:10 am

There is no question that writer-director Quentin Tarantino is a brilliant film-maker. But there is some question about whether he has yet made a brilliant film. No one takes a more visceral pleasure in movies than he does but there is always a chilly irony and a look-at-me distance. Movies are more Tarantino’s mirror than his window.

This film takes its title from a little-seen Italian movie made in 1978, but starting with the intentional misspelling, it has little in common with the original except for a WWII setting and a Tarantino’s characteristic pulpish sensibility. It shares even less in common with history. About the only thing it gets accurately is that the Nazis spoke German and the Americans spoke English.

Tarantino calls the movie a revenge fantasy. Brad Pitt plays Lieutenant Aldo Raine, who assembles a squadron of Jewish soldiers with one goal, to kill as many Nazis as possible, in as horrifying a manner as possible. “We will be cruel to the Germans and through our cruelty they will know who we are,” he tells them. One of his men is a former German soldier they rescued from prison after he killed his superior officers. Another is nicknamed “The Jew Bear” (played by horror director Eli Roth), and he kills Nazis with a baseball bat.

Meanwhile, a Jewish woman named Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) owns a movie theater in Paris. She escaped from the Nazis and has a new identity. A handsome German war hero who is interested in getting to know her better arranges for the premiere of the new movie about his triumph in battle to take place at her theater, putting her in danger, but giving her the opportunity to put the Nazi dignitaries who will be attending in danger as well. Tarantino’s almost fetishistic fascination with movies, from the fine points of the auteur theory down to the combustibility of the film stock, gives this section of the film an extra charge.

Tarantino’s opening scene is brilliantly staged, as a German officer (Austrian actor Christoph Waltz) visits a French dairy farmer in search of Jews who may have escaped his predecessor. Waltz, winner of the Cannes prize for acting, instantly joins Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, and the Wicked Witch of the West as one of the all-time great movie villains with a mesmerizing performance that shows off his fluency in English, German, French, Italian…and evil. Like Lecter, his venom is even more disturbing because of his urbanity and courtliness. Other scenes are also masterfully shot, especially an extended scene in a bar, when a critical meeting of Allied forces working undercover find themselves among a drunken party of German soldiers celebrating a new baby. Others, like the viscious killing of a group of what Raine calls Nah-sies, suffer from Tarantino’s tendency to go for showmanship over substance.

And that is the problem at the core of the film. If the misspelling of the words in the title was a signal of some kind, like the backwards letter intended as a warning and a small sign of protest in the sign over the gate at Auschwitz, then we could look for meaning in the reworking of historical events and the actions taken by real people. But Tarantino does not care about that. He is still about sensation, not sense. He appropriates the signifiers of WWII because they are easy, and because they are both scary and safe. His Nah-sies are like dinosaurs, unquestionably dangerous and unquestionably vanquished. Tarantino is a film savant. He knows and understands and loves the language of film. He just doesn’t have much to say.

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Action/Adventure Epic/Historical Fantasy War
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