For me, a new Quentin Tarantino flick is a major cinematic event. I have managed to see each and every one of his film releases at the cinema either on original release or retroactively via special screenings… and I’m not about to stop now. So of course I went to go and see QT’s latest picture, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Tarantino’s ninth and (if he keeps his word) penultimate film as he has said how he plans of retiring from directing films after number ten.
Now I’m going to do this in two parts. The first part will cover the basic plot and characters of the flick, where I aim to avoid major spoilers but also give my general impressions of the film. There may be a few light things mentioned but nothing that will give anything important away.
But for the second part, I definitely need to talk about specific things like the controversy the film is getting and the ending, so will obviously contain big SPOILERS. So this is just a pre-warning. Feel free to read on for the first part, but the second one you’ll need to avoid if you want to go into the film blind. I’ll use headings the split the two parts and give another warning just before I do the spoilery part II.
So I think I’d better start with a synopsis of the film just to get people up to speed.
Set in the summer of 1969, Hollywood. The film tells the tale of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick was a once popular actor in a 50s and early 60s western TV show and went on to have a semi-successful film career, but in the late 60s, he finds himself struggling to find roles. Cliff is Rick’s stuntman and friend. Since the work has dried up, Cliff remains by his friend’s side despite the lack of work. No longer his stuntman, Cliff now works as Rick’s driver and general dogsbody. Rick Dalton still lives in the affluent Hollywood Hills, where he lives next door film director Roman Polanski and his model/actress wife Sharon Tate.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’s main plot is set against the backdrop of the real life, brutal and bloody Charles Manson instructed Sharon Tate murder.
Well just to get this out of the way. I’m really not sure what to make of this film or how I really feel about it. I adore Quentin Tarantino, I’m such a self-proclaimed and unashamed fanboy of his work. In my eyes, he’s never made a bad film. However, this is the first time coming out of watching a QT film where I’m struggling to form a solid opinion either good or bad.
It’s not a bad film, not even close. But I’m struggling to find myself praising it as a whole picture. I can’t say this was a total disappointment at all, but I can’t say I felt fully entertained either. The plot just didn’t grab me. The buddy relationship between Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth didn’t have the depth I hoped it would. The performances were good with the best definitely being Brad Pitt. He’s brilliant, charming, funny and pretty bad-ass too. Absolutely loved him in the film. Leonardo DiCaprio was good for the most part too, but as for his character I just didn’t find him as interesting as Brad Pitt’s. Plus the fact he sobs, weeps and cries in every other scene got really annoying. Someone likes his acting, he cries, someone doesn’t like his acting, he cries. Someone points out he’s crying, he cries.
Then you have Margot Robbie playing Sharon Tate. She’s more of a background character. Doesn’t have many lines but she does pop up throughout the film quite a few times. Yet when she’s on screen, she’s very enjoyable. The rest of the cast and characters are basically bit parts with some only getting seconds of screen time. Seriously, Damon Herriman’s portrayal of Charles Manson gets let than a minute of screen time. He shows up at a house, discoverers the previous occupants he was looking for no longer live there and he leaves… that’s it. That’s all the Charles Manson you get in this one. Not that I’m trying to suggest a film needs more Manson, but when a film’s backdrop is the Sharon Tate murder, you just kind of expect Charles Manson to be a main player.
Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) has one great scene and a couple of very short appearances later and that’s it for him. Oh and there’s a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) bit. I guess the point I’m getting to is that it’s a very disposable cast. Aside from Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt (best part of the film), everyone else are just bit players and we don’t really get to know their characters… even Sharon Tate.
The film is very slow paced with pretty much no action until the last 15 minutes or so. Yet even with it’s slow pacing, the 2 hour 41 minute run time passed by pretty fast. I was never ‘bored’ with the film outright, I wasn’t sitting there looking at my watch… but I wasn’t entertained much either. It’s very dialogue heavy which is a staple of Tarantino and a staple I adore too. But here, his writing lacks the spark his other flicks had. There is a part of the film, that for me dragged on unnecessarily. It’s when Rick Dalton gets a job working on a western and the film spends way too much time showing him make the film within the film. In the make-up trailer, sitting around waiting to shoot a scene reading a book and then finally filming the damn film and forgetting his lines, etc. I just found it bit tedious. Thankfully all of it is inter-cut with backstory for Cliff Booth and other moments featuring Cliff which made it much more bearable.
Speaking of which, QT is amazing at creating tension in his flicks. See the opening of Inglourious Basterds for proof. There’s a scene in this where Cliff Booth goes to Spahn Ranch, which for those not in the know was where the Manson Family lived. Anyway, Cliff goes out to the ranch and I think this was supposed to be where QT’s amazing tension was meant to come in… but it didn’t, not for me anyway. I think the idea of the scene was to put Cliff Booth in danger of being killed by the Mason Family but it just didn’t work for me, I never felt that.
I think knowing about the whole Manson family history and especially the Tate murder really helps before watching this flick. It adds a level of tension as the film follows the tragic Sharon Tate. When she goes to the cinema to watch her own movie The Wrecking Crew. Seeing her enjoying the film and smiling as the audience happily react to her performance was beautiful. Her sheer joy and happiness was lovely to see… but knowing in your mind what happens to her and the fate see will soon face makes her enjoyment so much more tragic. So my advice would be to read up on the Sharon Tate murder first.
Now, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is an absolutely gorgeous film to look at. The way Quentin has captured the look and feel of 60s L.A. is a feast for the eyes. I wasn’t around in 1969 and I most definitely wasn’t living in Hollywood either. Yet I really felt like I was there watching the film. The clothing, the scenery and of course, the music were all spot on. The directing and editing choices were also a joy to witness. From inserts of Rick Dalton movies and T.V. shows when he’s talking to Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) to the use of filters and film grain to make things look very 60s. There’s a part where Rick Dalton is talking about how he almost got the Steve McQueen role in the film The Great Escape and the film then cuts to actual footage from The Great Escape but with Leonardo DiCaprio digitally inserted as Rick in place of Steve McQueen. It was really well done too. Honestly, it is a stunning film just to look at full of great little nuances and details.
Then there is Tarantino’s humour, something often overlooked in his pictures. This film is funny and I don’t mean one or two humorous lines in the entire thing, I mean genuinely funny scenes that have been well written and then followed up with top-notch acting with perfect comic timing. Such scenes include Rick mentioning when using a flamethrower how hot it is and if something could be done about the heat. The Bruce Lee fight was hilarious with several great and funny lines. Even the bloody violent finale has some brilliant, well placed humour in it.
Quite honestly, there are a lot of individual elements I really loved about this film. There some amazing scenes and the acting is superb, especially Brad Pitt. But that’s all it felt like to me, a series of great moments and not one great film. It’s a good film I can’t call it a bad one. But I don’t know, I just expect more form Quentin Tarantino as I know he’s capable of greatness. This just felt a bit flat to me. It almost felt like someone trying to mimic Tarantino’s style and not actually Tarantino himself. Of all of his films, this has been his most ‘boring’ for me.
Overall, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was watchable and even very enjoyable in many parts. But as an overall film? It sadly didn’t really work for me. Still saying that, I didn’t think much of Jackie Brown when I first saw it either. But now, years later and after several views, I think it’s the best thing QT has done. Maybe I need to see Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood a few more times, maybe it needs to grow on me a little?
Thinking about it, I’d rather have seen a Cliff Booth only film. A flick about a struggling stuntman trying to make his way back to the top. Tarantino’s take on the classic Burt Reynolds film, Hooper. Honestly, I loved Brad Pitt in this… and his dog.
Do I recommend the film? Hmmmmmm, that’s a tough one. For me, as a QT fan, I was disappointed. I don’t think none QT fans will get much from the film either. It is a very pretty film to look at. The on screen chemistry between Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt really works too. The acting is great as is the music, you will feel like your in 1969… but the story was very hit and miss.
So okay, this is where I get into the major SPOILERS. I will be looking at specific scenes including the ending as well as addressing some of the film’s controversy to offer my view on it all. So again and last warning SPOILERS ahead…
So I think I want to take a look at the whole Shannon Lee thing that has been going on. What has been happening is the daughter of Bruce Lee, Shannon has been mouthing off about how Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood depicts her father. Seeing as her entire career of late is basically living off her father’s name, I guess she feels the need to protect her source of income. But I really do not see why she is getting upset. No, the version of Bruce Lee in the film is not exactly 100% accurate… but it’s not meant to be. The film is not a documentary. The Bruce Lee here is a caricature, he’s an exaggeration of the real man. Any Bruce Lee fan can tell you that. There have been far, far worse versions of Bruce caught on screen than what Quentin Tarantino has done here. This film will do nothing to harm Bruce’s legacy and reputation and Shannon needs to just pipe down about the whole thing.
Now I want to look at the violence in the film as that has been getting some negative feedback… mainly from bored feminists. There really is very little violence in the film but what is here is graphic and bloody. There’s a scene were Brad Pitt punches the crap out of a Manson Family member over a punctured car tyre. Then there is the film’s finale… and that’s about it really. Save a few smaller moments of violence within the films within the film. Yes the big finale does feature two women getting extremely badly beaten, a scene that is definitely upsetting some folk (so much that I wrote an article on the subject). The scene has over the top violence and features such things as a dog biting the face off of a female, Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth smashing the face of another female into a stone fireplace crushing her skull and even Leonardo DiCaprio breaking out the previously mentioned flamethrower to burn a woman alive. It’s bloody and brutal stuff… but it’s not only two women at the centre of the violence as there’s a male too and he gets it just as bad including having the dog chew on his nuts. Oh yeah and the trio that do get fucked up are members of the Manson Family, they are the bad guys. Trust me, they deserved every bit of the gruesome deaths they get. Yes the violence is ridiculously OTT and gory, but it’s also perfectly justified too.
Right here I want to just go over the film’s ending so this is your last chance to walk away from the major SPOILERS.
The real life events had three members of the Mason Family enter the house where Sharon Tate lived and kill everyone inside… oh and Sharon was eight months pregnant at the time too. She begged her killers to take her hostage and allow her to give birth to the baby so it could live, they killed her (and the baby) by stabbing Sharon sixteen times and wrote the word ‘pig’ on the door of the house in Sharon’s blood. It was one of the most shocking and disturbing murders in Hollywood history… and the finale of the film is Quentin Tarantino take on the whole thing.
If you have seen Inglourious Basterds then you know how Tarantino likes to alter history. He does exactly that with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood too. The killers never enter Sharon Tate’s home in the film, they go next door to where Rick Dalton lives and that kick starts the bloody violence mentioned above. In QT’s altered history, Sharon Tate and the baby live. Not only that but struggling actor Rick Dalton gets invited into Sharon’s house and (presumably) becomes friends with her director husband Roman Polanski (before he was disgraced) and get’s back on top as an actor again.
All in all, it’s a happy ending, a very fictional one yes but a happy one none the less. It’s also an ending I was very thankful for as I watched the film with my five and a half month pregnant girlfriend. So as you can imagine, I sat there knowing the fate that was supposed to come to the pregnant Sharon Tate with my pregnant girlfriend sitting next to me, I was seriously worried that the film was just about to cause some major upset. But QT went in a different direction. It’s a pleasant twist.