Columbia Pictures/Bona Film Group/Heyday Films
Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Produced by Quentin Tarantino/David Heyman/Shannon McIntosh
Narrated by Kurt Russell
Cinematography by Robert Richardson
Edited by Fred Raskin
The clue to the whole movie is right there in the title. “Once Upon A Time…” is the classic opening line of all of our most beloved fairy tales, myths and legends. Whenever a story starts out with “Once Upon A Time…” that’s telling us right there that we cannot take anything we hear afterwards as gospel and that the events of the story can be changed according to the mood of the storyteller. And in fact, the storyteller may very well change the story every time he tells he depending on who he’s telling it to and how he feels on the particular day he’s telling it. But if the storyteller is adept at the art of storytelling we don’t care. In fact, the substance of the story may even take second place to the way that the story is being told to us and we derive more enjoyment from that than in the actual story itself.
That’s how I felt watching ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD. Oh, there’s a plot in there somewhere, meandering around here and there involving Charlie Manson’s murderous band of hippies. We get to see Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) partying at Hef’s Playboy Mansion. There’s a wonderful scene where Tate goes to a movie theater to watch herself in the Dean Martin Matt Helm spy spoof “The Wrecking Crew” and she’s so much enjoying the audience’s enjoyment of the movie that I couldn’t help but smile. There’s a great scene where Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) professional stuntman and badass gives a lift to a cute hippie chick (Margaret Qualley) that leads to a tense situation with Manson’s bunch at a broken-down ranch once famous for being the hub of Western Movies. There’s a whole lot of terrific scenes with Booth hanging out with his boss/best friend Rick Dalton. Rick achieved stardom in the television series “Bounty Law” and a handful of action/adventure movies such as the cult classic “The 14 Fists of McClusky.” His career is on the downside and he’s contemplating attempting a revitalization via Italian Spaghetti Westerns, urged on him by his manager/agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino)
There’s a lot that goes on in ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD but here’s the thing; while watching it I kept being distracted by the snippets and teases that I got of the other films and TV shows Rick Dalton starred in or by other characters and events in the movies. There’s a kick ass flashback in which Cliff faces off against Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). Kurt Russell and Zoe Bell appear in the flashback as a married couple, once stunt people themselves who now manage a team of stunt people and I wanted to see a movie about them. We see Leonardo DiCaprio and Timothy Olyphant shooting a pilot for a Western TV series where Olyphant plays your obligatory mysterious gunslinger and DiCaprio is the bad guy and I wanted to see that pilot.
But the true meat and potatoes of ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD is in Tarantino’s obviously delirious love for that particular time and place in Hollywood history/culture and he works his moneymaker off to immerse us in the look, feel, sounds and atmosphere of 1969 Los Angeles. And it works. I would have been more than happy to have just had an entire movie of seeing Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth hanging out, that’s how engaging the characters are. And as played by DiCaprio and Pitt, we easily believe that these guys don’t just have a professional relationship. They honestly like each other and like being in each other’s company.
I’m really enjoying the continuing morphing of Brad Pitt into Robert Redford. I first noticed it in “Spy Game” and especially in “Moneyball” where there were scenes where I would have sworn on a stack of Lee/Kirby Fantastic Fours that I was looking at Redford and not Pitt. And it’s the same in this movie. There are scenes where he looks, sounds and his body language is so Redford it’s scary. DiCaprio is his usual dependable self. I long ago put DiCaprio on the same shelf with DeNiro and Pacino. I highly respect that he didn’t fall back on his pretty boy looks which he could have easily done so and made a good career on that. Leonardo DiCaprio is indeed an Actor and he disappears into the Rick Dalton character with what I can only describe as glee.
And as in “Inglorious Basterds” Tarantino rewrites history to suit the story he wants to tell. And I didn’t have a problem with that. I recall a conversation I had with my good friend Tommy Hancock where I revealed to him that on the Earth where most of my characters live, Mount Rushmore has five heads. “Who’s on the fifth head?” Tommy wanted to know. “I’ll never tell,” was my reply. Because the fact that Mount Rushmore has five heads tells you that this is an Earth of my own creation and so I get to rewrite the history of that world anyway I like. Well, Quentin Tarantino has long established that all his movies exist in his own universe so I don’t have an issue with him rewriting the history of his world anyway way he wants. Especially when he does it in such an entertaining way.
That’s not to say I’m totally in love with this one the way I am with say, “Jackie Brown” or “The Hateful Eight” or “Django Unchained” I think the running time is too long and as I said earlier, it meanders and winds it way through situations and characters until we get to the ultra-violent conclusion. But it does have the marvelous Quentin Tarantino dialog I love where the characters talk to each other and not at each other and it’s so lushly photographed my eyes were knocked out just looking at it. In my research for writing this review I found out that Tarantino filmed this movie in the same 35mm film stock used to shoot movies in 1969. And that’s exactly why the movie has such a lush and unique look. Movies shot on film do indeed have a different look and texture from movies shot on digital and the eye can tell. Don’t let anybody tell you different. Above all else, Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker who doesn’t repeat himself and each one of his movies are unique in quality and style and ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD is no exception. Enjoy.