Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

Once Upon a Time.jpg

Movie Review: Once Upon a time… in Hollywood (2019)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino,
Starring Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie
Genre – Crime, Drama (159 min.)

Have you ever watched an album/movie etc. you wanted to like so much but just couldn’t?
Have you ever thought you could never be disappointed by your favorite artist whatever he produces? Did you ever wish to forget instantly what you just saw/hear because you do not want the rest of the artist’s work to be stained?
Well, it happened twice this year and quite recently. No, I won’t argue about Rammstein’s new album, although maybe I should. This review contains spoilers as labeled.

What is it about - in a nut-shell
There are a million pop-culture references and they are a frame for the movie - it’s 1969: Rick Dalton (L. DiCaprio), a famous western movie and tv star from the 50 and 60ties, is told that his career is vanishing, and there are not many options left. He is accompanied by his stunt-man Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who is “carrying his load”, driving him around, doing maintenance jobs at his house, is also a former Green Beret and known for having killed his wife and got away with it. Depressed and drowned in alcohol, Rick does his best to guest star on TV shows, finally getting the chance to do some Spaghetti Westerns. Back from Europe, and being the neighbor of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski, he gets in trouble after telling off some hippies when disturbing his peace at his home.

What to expect
Superficially, it looks like a typical QT flick. It also starts great: Al Pacino as movie producer hitting some hard truths home to Rick – but instead of manning up, he starts to whine, “it’s official, old buddy, I am a has-been”. The rest of the story was watching Leo failing, getting educated by a child and finally succeeding in acting, and watching himself on TV. Basically, his story was overcoming his self-pity and getting a second chance in Europe.
Similarly, we watch Sharon Tate watching her own movie in the cinema, with her bare feet up the front seat and reacting to the audience’s reaction. There are many layers going on, maybe interesting from an author’s perspective. But for the audience?
Cliff gets a more stuff to do: first he fixed Leos TV while flash-backing his fight with Bruce Lee. Brad also gets into contact with the Charles Manson cult at the Spahn Ranch.
I dearly missed the typical excruciating long but fun QT trademark dialogues. And Mr. Cool, Samuel L. Jackson. There were QTs invented fast food and other brands etc. - but who cares?

What I liked about this movie (heavy spoiler ahead)
The casting decision of Brad Pitt as Cliff was marvelous; he owns the movie, nails his performance and is fun to watch. I liked how they built up tension at the Spahn Ranch; it was scary to see so many crazy hippies knowing well what atrocities they are capable of. There was some humor mostly on the expense of Leo’s wimpy character. And hippies! Damn hippies!
I also appreciated how Cliff’s wife death stayed rather unclear although heavily insinuated (probably referencing Natalie Wood’s demise). Also: “Anybody accidently kills anybody in a fight goes to jail. It’s called manslaughter” Bruce Lee is told by Cliff, the guy who got away killing his wife. Hilarious.

What I thought was brilliant was the reasoning why the Manson gang changed their mind and decided to kill Rick (instead of their neighbors): because he and the likes of him taught them to kill when they were kids. Fucking brilliant! (Although, I think it gives too much credit to the Manson gang members for having their own ideas.)

QT also did a great job making this movie look great – he actually calls it a love letter to Hollywood in 1969 and it really feels that way.

What I did NOT like (spoilers ahead)
I wonder why QT thinks watching an actor acting is compelling cinema (maybe it could be when it is relevant to the whole story, and poor Luke Perry, Michael Madsen and Timothy Olyphant are wasted too). Furthermore, I my opinion Leo is extremely miscast – he does not look like a hardened Western archetype, nor is his “has-been” status fitting him being an actor in his prime. An actual fading persona would have added great subtext, like Rourke did as “The Wrestler”, or Stallone in “Creed”. While Leo did his best as an actor to fail at acting, it is just not believable, and also not interesting to watch. When you watch videos of QT and Leo talking about his role you can understand that it was difficult for him to get into it.

Sharon Tate: her part was excruciatingly boring and absolutely not relevant to the movie. She is the beautiful bait we already feel bad about, because we know what happened. And people may argue that her cinema scene only exists to add to QTs collection of bare feet.

The scene, where Cliff fights Bruce Lee, was in the news as being racist and depicting Bruce Lee in a wrong way – in my opinion, this scene shows that Cliff can fight, so that the ending becomes more plausible. The problem is, we also experience it in another scene where it is actually story-related and we also know he is Green Beret – therefore, an necessary flashback: Another whole junk of film for the cutting room.
Cliff also gets into contact with the Charles Manson cult at the Spahn Ranch, were some great tension is built up. Unfortunately, it goes nowhere when meeting George Spahn (Bruce Dern).

In the end, QT repeats what he already has done in “Inglorious Basterds”, but this time not as effectively. Everybody knows about the outcome of WWII. This time, it is about a very specific topic, maybe an American pop-culture interested person knows very well.
I watched the series “Aquarius” (with David Duchovny) which depicts the Charles Manson cult and their deeds in great detail – that’s why I know more about it than the average movie goer.
I get it: it is difficult to digest what the Manson gang did and watching really bad people die in this horrible way may be very satisfying to some. But when you know about this specific event, you also know that the real Manson gang would have killed Rick in the parking lot as they did with a random guest before entering the Polanski/Tate household. The Manson gang did not reason like they did in the movie. They were coldblooded, brainwashed dummies “doing the devil’s work”.

Really annoying were the neglected promises throughout the movie: a central theme, side-stories, George Spahn and the hippies, the LSD-dipped cigarette, Bruce Lee, a real satisfying ending (like what happened with Rick and Sharon?).
There are silly surprises that should have been foreshadowed in a way, like that Cliff’s dog is a fighting dog, or that Rick keeps the flame-thrower which is shown in a movie flashback (it was weirdly treated like a Chekov’s gun). Both just come out of the blue (deus ex machina).

What I was missing was the inclusion of some “black culture” from that time: the Black Power movement would have provided great subtext e.g. as the beginning of Blaxploitation movies where Rick would have been a great villain, also in regards to the Manson gang who wanted to start a “race war” (Helter Skelter). Or the “Black Panther Party” that was very active at that time – maybe referencing his movie “Django Unchained”. I cannot remember one single black actor/actress (sorry, if I missed you).

QT is a pro and knows what he is doing. He does not need to care whether somebody likes his movie or not. I have read, he first wrote the screenplay as a novel – maybe the whole thing works much better like that!

It’s a fairy tale – once upon a time! – and has a happy ending that seems much more delusional than Cinderella or Snow White.
I wonder why it is such an interesting idea to “change history”. Isn’t it, what George Orwell warned us of? Of course, no movie can depict “reality” and nowadays it is mostly acknowledged by adding “based on true events”. But this “What if…” seems so silly – the main purpose is killing the Manson gang in the cruelest way possible. I wonder what Roman Polanski or Ms. Tate’s relatives think about it.

Maybe you have to be American or lived at this particular time to “get it”. Maybe you have to live in Hollywood to “get it”. Or maybe, it is just one huge, far too long, excruciatingly boring movie with no story-line.

But, heavy editing, could, in my humble opinion, save it.

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