‘Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood’ – A Quentin Tarantino Fairy Tale

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood movie poster

Quentin Tarantino once said he did not have an “Age of Innocence” in him like Martin Scorsese did, but after watching his 9th film “Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood,” I think he may be mistaken. Yes, it does have an R-rating like and features some truly brutal moments of violence where faces are literally pounded in, but this is largely a loving tribute to the Hollywood of the 1960’s and of the actors and filmmakers which inhabited it. Considering Tarantino’s attention to detail and his fetish for any kind of artifact from this era, I have no doubt he would have loved to have been a filmmaker back then if he could.

Tarantino and his longtime cinematographer Robert Richardson transport us back to the Hollywood of 1969 where we meet Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor and former star of a “Wanted Dead or Alive”-like television series called “Bounty Law.” After having a conversation with his agent Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino, more restrained than usual), he comes to see how washed up his career has become as he is reduced to doing guest spots as the villain on various television shows. The only person he can talk to about his troubles is his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) who is always around to have a drink with and drive him around town as Rick has had one DUI too many.

“Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood” is kind of like a Robert Altman film in that it doesn’t have a straightforward plot. Instead, it acts as a day in the life story as we watch Rick Dalton try to move on with his acting career as an important decision hangs over him, whether or not to move to Italy where he can star in low budget spaghetti westerns. When the story isn’t focused on him, it focuses on Cliff who seems content to live in a trailer out in Van Nuys with his dog who is a bit annoyed at him for serving him the kind of dog food which slides out of its steel can as if it were pure slime.

The only thing Rick seems fairly excited about these days is the fact Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate now live next door to him in the Hollywood Hills. But looming in the background is Charlie Manson and his cult of followers who look at first to be harmless hippies, but they later reveal themselves to be devoted to him in a most unhealthy way. Those of us who are familiar with history, and who have a deep respect for historical facts, know Sharon Tate and others were murdered by Manson’s followers, and that this shocking act all but ended the era of love and peace irreparably. But as I watched this film, I began to wonder if Tarantino would stay true to history, or if he would play around with it as he did in “Inglourious Basterds.” Whatever the case, the presence of Manson and his cult cast an ominous shadow over the proceedings, so we know the end of this story will not be the least bit pretty.

Watching “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” reminded me of how much I love it when a filmmaker sucks us right into another time and place to where we don’t doubt the accuracy and attention to detail. Cameron Crowe did this with “Almost Famous,” Paul Thomas Anderson did wonders with the 70’s and 80’s in “Boogie Nights,” and Tarantino does the same as he brings us right back to 1969 with wonderful abandon. All the famous landmarks of Hollywood are here including the Cinerama Dome, Musso & Frank Grill, El Coyote Restaurant and the classic movie theaters located in Westwood. New Beverly Cinema can be seen from a distance as it is shown having a premiere for an adult film, and this was back when it was a porno theater.

This attention to detail also includes the kind of beer these characters drank, the type of books they read, television antennas and cars. This was back in a time when people smoked an endless number of cigarettes, drove and sat in cars without having to wear seatbelts, and when love and peace was in the air even as wars were being waged overseas.

It is great fun to see DiCaprio in this kind of role after seeing him be so serious in “The Revenant,” a movie which earned him the Oscar he should have received for “The Wolf of Wall Street.” He’s a gas here as he makes Rick Dalton into a study of desperation as he struggles to maintain what’s left of his image and berate himself while alone in his trailer. The scene he has with a child actress played by the wonderful Julia Butters is a special highlight as she shows him the kind of innocence and love of acting he once had before life, alcohol and a corrupted world view clouded his perception.

As I have said in the past, I love it when Pitt gets down and dirty in a role, and he does just this as Cliff Booth. In addition to being Rick’s stunt double, he is also a Vietnam veteran, and the violence he inflicts on others who wrong him can be described at the very least as punishing. Pitt also proves to be as funny as DiCaprio from scene to scene, and he has a classic scene opposite Mike Moh who is pitch perfect as Bruce Lee in which I saw something I never thought I would see or believe, someone getting the best of Bruce Lee.

But one performance I really need to single out here is Margot Robbie’s as Sharon Tate. While at the Cannes Film Festival, someone asked Tarantino why he didn’t give Robbie the same amount of dialogue he gave DiCaprio and Pitt. I don’t remember who asked this question, but whoever it was, they completely missed the point. It’s not always dialogue which aids a performance. Sometimes it’s just a look or an attitude, and Robbie gives off a look or two which is more than enough to capture the essence of Sharon Tate as well as her beguiling innocence.

Tate has long been relegated to history as one of the Manson family’s murder victims, but she deserves to be known for much more. As Robbie sits in a Westwood movie theater watching a movie Tate co-starred in, we are reminded of a talent which was taken away from this world far too soon, and it makes me want to check out everything Tate ever appeared in. Robie does a fantastic job of reminding us how fun it is to see ourselves, let alone our name, on the silver screen as others look on, unaware of who is sitting next to them in the audience, and she is as radiant as Tate was in her far too brief lifetime.

There are so many familiar actors worth singling out here, but some of them you may not see coming and I am not about to spoil any surprises this film has to offer. I will say it’s always a delight to see Kurt Russell in anything and everything, and he is great as a stunt coordinator who is not quick to warm up to Cliff. Margaret Qualley is a memorable presence as Pussycat, a member of the Manson family who does warm up to Cliff. Bruce Dern, in a role originally meant for the late Burt Reynolds, is fun to watch as George Spahn, a man whose ranch was used for many westerns and which later got used by Charlie Manson and his demented followers. And it is quite bittersweet to see the late Luke Perry as it is the last feature film he will ever appear in.

Seriously, as rough and tumble as “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” gets, it really is a love letter to a Hollywood which time will never forget. As Tarantino nears the end of his long filmmaking career (or so he says), he continues to give us one enthralling motion picture experience after another. Even if his works threaten to be undone by self-indulgence, I am glad people are thoughtful enough to give him the freedom to make what he wants to make. If Tarantino ever had it in him to give us a fairy tale, this would be it. Even as its main characters threaten to be forever swallowed up by bitterness and cynicism, there is a light of innocence which helps lead them to the next stage in their lives. And if this film is any indication, this is time in Hollywood which Tarantino wishes lasted longer than it did.

Now, as with any Tarantino film, I have to go out and buy the soundtrack and then watch it again. And one other thing, I almost didn’t recognize Timothy Olyphant. Did you? Oh yeah, and sauerkraut will never be the same.

* * * * out of * * * *

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Mother’s Day

mothers-day-movie-poster

Mother’s Day” is the kind of movie I feared “The Meddler” would be, a formulaic comedy filled with overused stereotypes and cinematic traps filmmakers easily fall victim to. But even though it was directed by Garry Marshall who is well known for overdoing sentimentality in his films, nothing prepared me for how cloying and utterly contrived this movie ended up being. It’s like a network sitcom which never made it pass the pilot stage but somehow got turned into a movie for no discernable reason. Having already laid waste to New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day, Marshall shows no hesitation in belittling another holiday, and one with much more meaning than others.

The movie starts, of course, a few days before Mother’s Day which allows us to meet a group of people who at first have little, if any, connection with one another, but we know this is going to change from the get go. There’s single mother Sandy (Jennifer Aniston) who’s raising her two young boys by herself while her ex-husband Henry (Timothy Olyphant) spends time with his new wife Tina (Shay Mitchell) who looks like she has yet to reach the age of 30. Next we have successful book writer Miranda (Julia Roberts) whom we see selling jewelry on television and is dedicated to her career more than anything else. Then there is Kristin (Britt Robertson) who lives with her boyfriend Zack (Jack Whitehall) and their baby girl. Zack is an aspiring comedian who longs to marry Kristin, but she feels not yet ready to commit for reasons which eventually become clear. And let’s not forget Jesse (Kate Hudson), wife to Indian doctor Russell (Aasif Mandvi) who knows her parents will never approve of him or her sister who has since come out as gay.

Oh yeah, there’s also the grieving widower Bradley (Jason Sudeikis) whose wife died while serving in the military overseas, and he is left to raise their daughters on his own. The women at the fitness club he works at are eager to set him up with somebody, but he is hesitant to start dating again. And then he runs into Sandy at the local supermarket and… well, you have a pretty good idea of what happens from there.

What bothered me so much about “Mother’s Day” was how cloying and artificial the whole movie felt. Granted, not every movie can feature down to earth characters in relatable situations like “The Meddler” did, but everything here felt so one-dimensional and done by the numbers. Marshall has directed great movies in the past like “The Flamingo Kid,” “Nothing in Common” and “Pretty Women” which turned Julia Roberts into a movie star, and he’s the same guy who gave us the television classics “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley” and “Mork & Mindy.” I even have good things to say about “The Princess Diaries” which introduced Anne Hathaway to the world. But after all these years, you’d think he would be able to give us a movie filled with more than standard situations and cardboard-cutout characters. I refuse to deride his horrible direction as the result of old age because that’s just cruel, but he has done so much better than this tripe.

It’s a real shame because the cast is great and they do their best with material which is far beneath them. Aniston is wonderful as a single mom, and that’s even though her work here doesn’t compare to her underappreciated performances in “The Good Girl” and “Cake.” Sudeikis has proven, in a way he should not have had to, how he can be a strong actor thanks to his performance in “Race,” and he’s wasted here in a role he is far more believable in than many would expect. Hudson, who has attracted mediocre material ever since her star-making turn in “Almost Famous,” does look very relaxed in her performance which gives us hope she will eventually star in a movie worthy of her talents.

But if there’s anyone in “Mother’s Day” who pulls off a truly emotionally honest performance, let alone a powerful moment, it’s Roberts. The scene where she explains to her daughter why she gave her up for adoption proves to be more heart-rending than what the rest of the movie ever could have promised us, and it reminds us why she remains a beloved movie star after all these years. Never mind how the situation is completely contrived as it is presented here. Roberts plays it with a lot of heart and wins us over regardless of how bad this movie truly is.

It’s a shame to see Mandvi, so great on “The Daily Show,” playing nothing more than an Indian stereotype who just happens to be a doctor. Loni Love plays Kimberly, an African-American who is taking pole dancing classes but fumbles them as she is overweight. Kimberly proves to be as funny a character as any Eddie Murphy played in “Norbit,” and no one should mistake this as a compliment. The more Marshall relies on stereotypes, the more this movie sinks into an abyss of awfulness.

But the actors I felt sorriest for were Margo Martindale and Robert Pine who played Jesse’s parents in the movie. They are presented as a couple of very conservative parents who are about to wake up to just how liberal their daughters are. Of course, they are shocked by the love partners their daughters have chosen to spend their lives with, but that they eventually come to accept their decisions in life as well as their grandchildren comes across as no surprise whatsoever. Martindale in particular is a tremendous actress, so her role here feels like an enormous waste of her time as she is forced to portray a type rather than an actual character.

The more I watched “Mother’s Day,” the more nauseous I became. This is such an emotionally manipulative movie that I couldn’t wait for it to be over. This movie has a running time of two hours, and it became increasingly torturous the longer it goes on. While it may have its heart in the right place, it still feels like a gigantic insult to the intelligence. Surely everyone involved with this crap could have come up with something infinitely better, right?

“Mother’s Day” is meant to give tribute to all the mothers out there, but there are so many other movies out there like this which put this one to shame. Regardless of its intentions, it is inescapably awful and deserving of the derision bound to come its way. If you are going to take your mother to a movie this year, take her to see “The Meddler” instead. Taking her to see “Mother’s Day” won’t seem all that different from taking her to see the camp classic “Mommie Dearest” or Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible,” and that’s saying a lot.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

½* out of * * * *