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It’s official, old buddy

by Thom Yee

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Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood images courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

A lot has been made lately of the diminishing value of star power in Hollywood.  Chris Hemsworth, for instance, is a popular actor right now, well-liked, men want to be him and be with him and like that, and yet outside of his Marvel work, movies in which he stars rarely do well, usually underperform, and even fail to achieve their goal of launching new franchises (see:  Blackhat, Men in Black:  International).  Tom Cruise, who, in many respects, could be considered the ultimate movie star working today, rarely has a non-Mission: Impossible movie that’s a full-on hit these days and has even had his own recent failure to launch an intended franchise with the 2017 Mummy remake (remember the Dark Universe)?  Movie stars just aren’t what they used to be, generally adding to a movie’s appeal but rarely getting it done on their own (though to be fair, most of those movies I just mentioned were pretty bad [I thought I was completely lost watching Men in Black:  International because I couldn’t stay awake, but it turns out it was just poorly written]).  There just aren’t that many people in Hollywood who can sell a movie on their name alone.

Quentin Tarantino being the one notable exception.

Tarantino is one of the few superstar filmmakers left, one of the only directors whose movies we still go to mostly because they’re his.  That’s something I don’t think you can say about any actors working today, and really only a handful of directors.  Christopher Nolan and David Fincher maybe.  Martin Scorsese sort of.  Possibly James Cameron if we ever do see another Avatar (and we’re all praying that we don’t here at GOO Reviews).  No matter what you think of the works of any of those directors, though — whether you’re sick of the Nolan “Braam!”, can’t remember how long it’s been since the last Fincher movie, or thought you were a Scorsese guy but definitely never saw Silence — Quentin Tarantino is a man whose works stand quite a bit apart from the rest, off in their own universe, each a precious and unique gem, occupying their own space for evaluation.  To paraphrase Budd from Tarantino’s Kill Bill,

If you’re gonna compare a Tarantino flick, you compare it to every other flick ever made… that wasn’t made by Quentin Tarantino.

The hallmarks of a Tarantino movie are usually quite clear, in style and flow and tension and a certain type of grace, but few of them are that much like each other in form or content.  It’s not usually one director you can point to whose works include crime thrillers, a Kung-Fu revenge flick, and a Wild West drama that takes place almost entirely in one small cabin.  Although now that I’m thinking of them all at in one place, it becomes quite clear that revenge is at the heart of nearly every Tarantino piece.  Or at least someone getting one over on someone or something else that screwed them over before.  Is that what makes a Tarantino movie great?  That appeal to one of our basest instincts?  Or is it the unconventional storytelling, the always-perfect dialogue, or the constant pop culture discussions?  Or is it just this:

There’s just something about a Tarantino movie that both invites conversation and yet, weirdly, doesn’t at all call for it.  Their sights and sounds and smells and flavours and textures are all so provocative that you can’t help but think and talk about a Tarantino movie immediately and long after you’ve seen it, and yet they don’t usually have any themes that aren’t on the surface; nothing’s going on underneath that we don’t all see and recognize for their viciousness and violence and too-cool-for-school-isms.  Good is good and bad is bad in a Tarantino movie even if his heroes are rarely on the correct side of the law, and the only things right in his worlds are the things people take for themselves.

And that’s maybe the weirdest thing about Tarantino’s latest work, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, the 9th in what’s meant to only ever be 10 movies the director will ever make.  It looks like a Tarantino movie, mostly, but it doesn’t always feel like one, and most everything worth mentioning in it is the stuff we won’t all see.

What’s it about?

Uh… I don’t know if you’ll really get that much from learning of this movie’s plot.  Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie star as well as a whole bunch of famous actors in minor roles, Quentin Tarantino directs, and it takes place in Hollywood in 1969.  You should probably know something about Charles Manson.  It’s sort of a comedy but I wouldn’t call it that.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood opened to $41 million this past July weekend, amidst a sea of superhero sequels and animated-movie remakes, and while that might not be the most impressive number compared to, say, Avengers:  Endgame’s $1.2 billion opening, it does represent a sort of victory to those looking for original movies that aren’t based on existing properties.  You see, with a “mere” $90 million budget, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is counted as one of Hollywood’s vanishing middle class of movies, neither low-budget nor a $150-million-plus franchise hopeful.  In other words, it’s just a movie, and just movies aren’t doing that well anymore when competing with sequels or movies based on pre-existing intellectual properties and they’re not nearly as profitable as very deliberately budgeted movies running on micro-financing schemes.

On the other hand, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is still a Quentin Tarantino movie, and that’s a sort of franchise marker on its own even if the man’s movies don’t all take place in the same universe (though there is evidence to the contrary).  Technically, $41 million is Tarantino’s biggest opening weekend ever, and considering this is looking to be the director’s second last kick at the can, it’s probably a good thing that his final works will be leaving on an upswing rather than a downturn.  Maybe doubly so since, as much as his movies have defined and inspired over the last 27 (!) years, his… let’s say challenging views… have always made him someone seemingly only moments away from a really awful #MeToo’ing.

Is it any Good?

There’s sort of an unofficial rule in the movies that if something is introduced, like, say, if you see a knife or a painting or a car or something in a scene, if that object occupies onscreen space for enough time that you notice it, then that knife or painting or car is going to come up later in some way.  Early on in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, there was a scene where I took notice of a gun on a table in Brad Pitt’s character’s home.  It didn’t come up later.once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-dicaprio.png

It would obviously be an understatement to say that Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker who plays with expectations — this is a director who had John Travolta’s Vincent shoot some guy in the face almost completely for its shock value after all — but after so many years of watching Tarantino movies, it’s fair to say his movies have built up quite a number of expectations all their own.  The camera will linger and labour over every little detail of the most minor actions, character dialogues will go on far longer than in any normal movie with seemingly no point until the end, scenes of incredible tension will build and build.  They’re all the type of moments that, in less capable hands, usually make for interminably boring movies, but here, in a Tarantino flick, they’re the hallmarks, often becoming some of the most celebrated in modern cinema history.once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-show.jpg

When it comes to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, it would be easy to describe it as beautiful, intricate, stark and yet very often full of life, and shot in a way that perfectly captures the feeling of the 1960s.  It’s the careful camera work, the attention to detail, and the room for scenes truly to breathe that makes Once unmistakably a Quentin Tarantino movie.  It’s very different than almost all of his movies in one major way, though:  It’s boring.  Like boring AF.

Objectively, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a movie that I would not recommend to a lot of people, especially modern moviegoers.  It’s two hours and 45 minutes of not a lot going on and not a story desperately in need of telling, told mostly in a conventional manner for a Tarantino movie, and in the story circle sense, it’s not a movie where a lot happens.  We follow Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton and his stuntman Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt, as both are approaching the outs of their Hollywood careers, former stars who find themselves increasingly out of demand.  This descent is juxtaposed against Margot Robbie’s portrayal of the real-life actress Sharon Tate, then an up-and-coming star, and then… well….  It’s not a purpose-driven movie, it’s not a story where some objective has to be met, it’s just a distillation of a time of transition in Hollywood through a specific lens, and if you’re not up for just sort of hanging out with these people and appreciating moviemaking for its own sake, both in Tarantino’s direction and in the movie’s subject matter, then you really shouldn’t go see this one.once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-bruce-lee.jpg

I still liked it a lot though.  And not just in a, “I think smart people who really appreciate film would like this so I’m going to say I liked it” way, but in a more ethereal sense.  If you watched the trailer above, I think it would be fair to sense that Once is a fast-moving celebration of classic Hollywood, maybe even one with some sort of point to make, especially as the spectre of Charles Manson and the Manson Family murders hovers over the narrative, but it’s not really any of those things.  It’s a lot more measured and careful than that, and I don’t know if there’s that much more substantial I can say about it without just giving away what happens.once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-robbie.jpg

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a movie that exists more at a metal level, within the context of Tarantino’s other work and from the perspective of this being one of his last.  It says a lot more about where Tarantino is in his own journey and his thoughts on Hollywood past and present than it does anything in particular on its own, and it relies heavily on being a Tarantino movie to have any sort of impact.  I even think it would be fair to say that if it had come out right after Pulp Fiction, it might come across as the sort of misstep that would have made people question whether or not Pulp Fiction, for all of its awards and the attention it gained for Tarantino, was more an anomaly than an indication of what he was capable of.

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What I like about Once, then, and what’s kept me thinking about it after seeing it is just the overriding sense of love I get from it.  It’s an expression of Tarantino’s love of old Hollywood, but it doesn’t come across as saccharine or over-romanticized.  There’s a sense of longing and pining for a different time, and everything that happens in the film feels less the razor-sharp renderings of a very specific story and more like a fairytale, like something you may have read several times over that still feels like a story you’re seeing through a fog or from behind the bushes and trees of a forest.  Like a world you were invited to see only for a short time before it dissipated into something less literal.  All of that is really kind of a wishy-washy account of what I saw, sort of meaningless and maybe not at all a reason for you to go and see it, but it’s the sense that I was left with, like something to be lost in time and only to be understood in that moment.

So should I see it?

When word first started getting out in 2017 about what would be Quentin Tarantino’s ninth movie, it was thought to be a movie tackling the Manson Family murders.  The movie that Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is now in 2019 is just about the furthest thing from that.  Charles Manson is in it, and so is Sharon Tate, but Once neither shows us much of the Manson Family or the murders, nor does it follow Sharon Tate that closely.  Tate is, instead, more of a guiding light that informs the movie while Manson is given little more than a passing acknowledgement.once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-pitt.jpg

To watch Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is to watch a movie much more interested in showing us what made the old Hollywood great, or at least interesting, and completely uninterested in exploring any sort of horror or tragedy.  If you think you’re about to see something hard-edged or fast-paced or in any way mean, then you should know you’ll be getting the exact opposite.  Similarly, if you think you’re in for a comedy that has a lot of fun at its protagonists’ expense, it’s a movie that would rather show you who these people are.  There’s been a bit of controversy with Once for its portrayal of Bruce Lee, for instance, that some, including Lee’s own daughter, found offensive, and while I can’t say they’re wrong for feeling that way, what I saw in this movie’s version of Bruce Lee was someone incredibly caring and gentle just in the small, little scene he has well after the potentially offending incident while training Sharon Tate for her role in The Wreckers.  What I felt in that moment and with the main character of the movie, Leonardo DiCaprio’s fictional actor Rick Dalton, was a sense that these people are neither more nor less than their legends but just people we can care about.

 There’s a big part of me that wishes Quentin Tarantino had saved Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood for his final movie instead of his penultimate, because as the last thing he has to say, it could’ve meant a lot more.  Once says far more in the context of Tarantino’s entire career than it does on its own, speaking to the sense of restraint and care he’s gained, everything he’s learned from making movies, and everything he’s thinking about Hollywood today.  It’s unlike his other movies in so many ways but still feels very much like one of his own.

So should you see Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood?  If you’re mostly a Tarantino fan for Django Unchained or Kill Bill Tarantino, then I would say no.  If you’re a Hateful Eight or Death Proof Tarantino fan, then maybe.  If you’re a Jackie Brown or Reservoir Dogs fan, then probably.  Once is Tarantino’s fairytale, a slow, wistful, and ultimately hopeful piece that will leave you in a far different mood than anything else he’s done.

Thom’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood final score

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