Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Sat Jul 27, 2019 10:07 pm 
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LEONARDO DICAPRIO AND BRAD PITT IN ONCE UPON A TIME...IN HOLLYWOOD

A showbiz buddy picture set at a pivotal moment

Quentin Tarantino keeps pointedly declaring that his lumbering period showbiz picture, Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood is feature number nine, as if now after 27 years he is winding up. Everybody wants to review this one and now the rankings of the oeuvre are many, with no agreement whatsoever. The first, Reservoir Dogs, for example, has been rated absolute trash and the best thing he's done. I'd like to mention True Romance, which isn't counted because he wrote the screenplay but didn't direct. Tony Scott keeps close enough to the book so this movie is a delicious taste of the auteur's touch with dialogue, his outrageous and hilarious racial and ethnic provocations, and his sense of a violent finale. I saw its pungency, wit, capacity for delivering epigrammatic lines, but Reservoir Dogs confused me a bit about what the man was doing. True Romance was perfectly clear. It provided my first delight in his art.

Some of Tarantino's films have been a bit of a disappointment. All however are fantastic homages to movies so ornately constructed and so beautiful and hilarious in parts, so attentive to the craft of filmmaking, that they reward many viewings. But the general public, if it was ever truly interested (QT is really for the film buff, not for them), is beginning to grow weary, or, taking a first look at last, turns away baffled. Do not listen to them. But recognize that Tarantino is a matter of taste and tends to polarize.

Though his knowledge and love of the medium is unparalleled and reflect profound love and deep study, there is something gloriously juvenile about Tarantino's preoccupations and sensibility, so you might ask, will he ever have a mature period? Not if he's about to stop, clearly.

Once Upon a Time... has many subjects but mainly there are three: pop culture (the film and TV industries), cult violence, and male friendship. He sets the film at a pivotal moment. The Manson murders made Hollywood, the dream factory, suddenly look dangerous and scary. Opposition to the Vietnam war, Flower Children, hippies, had radicalized culture and politics. The Tate murders alluded to in this film happened in the summertime. In December came the Altamont Stones concert. But front and center Once is a buddy picture, about two showbiz has-beens. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) has starred in various TV series about the FBI and cowboys. (They're not merely mentioned, but fully worked out.) He's played the villain in Hollywood movies once too often by now and the industry is beginning to get tired of him. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his regular stunt double, has been getting so little work he's mainly just Rick's chauffeur (because a DUI keeps Rick from driving), his dogsbody, getting paid to run errands. They enjoy drinking together and can relish watching Rick's shows or movies, especially since Cliff, perforce, is in most of them too.

Tarantino is a master of casting and Brad and Leo are peerless picks, two matinee idols a bit past their prime, physically, at least, themselves, but a double box office draw. There's an eleven-year age difference, Leo being 45 and Brad 56, but it evens out. The younger Leo has done some hard living and shows signs of wear. On the other hand Brad still has a lot of his looks, his charm, and the torso is still buff, as demonstrated in an obligatory shirt-removal shot. If Rick and Cliff are has-beens, thanks to Leo and Brad they're utterly charismatic and watchable ones - even if their dialogue has none of the quotability of Travolta and Jackson as Vince and Jules in Pulp Fiction. But they're complicated characters, larger than life even as they are shrinking.

Rick is the picture of self doubt. It's he whose career is taking a visible nose-dive and who is forced by his agent, the teasingly named Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino), to take six months in Italy to star in some spaghetti westerns. This is a camp genre Tarantino loves, and he delights in alluding to each of these movies by name, its scenes, its weird dubbed soundtracks, and its colorful posters. Every detail of this kind, including the special posters and titles concocted for the film, is well worth pouring over. But it's when Rick does a scene in an American film as a "hippy" dressed Western bad guy that we see, thanks to Leo, that he's a damned good actor. And if you didn't notice, the child actress (Julia Butters) who plays with him in the scene declares it's the best acting she's ever seen in her life. Don't laugh: she's probably seen plenty of acting.

Cliff is the selfless sideman and the moral support. He never loses hope and is the picture of elegance and restraint. When Rick has to let him go there's not a negative word from him. Cliff is a superman, who makes the young martial arts star Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) look pretty pathetic. This, one of several fun fight sequences, is a coup for Cliff that gets him kicked off the set. Cliff's a real hero later on, wiping out all opposition in a dangerous situation. But Cliff has a dark side: he's rumored to have killed his wife and gotten away with it. He has a big dog he delights in feeding. The dog emerges as a canine superhero too. Rick and Cliff do a lot of drinking and smoking together. They're far too much in love with the sauce. But their drunks are a big part of how they celebrate and have fun together, in spite of everything. It helps them cope.

Armond White, who grudgingly praises the movie in National Review as being QT's first foray into adulthood with real-life references, describes the buddy relations as displaying "two kinds of masculinity: loud, demonstrative Rick, who lives for praise, and laconic, virile Cliff, who lives to be needed." Somehow it's a good fit, and these two jokey characters are really thoughtful creations. White points out the two men "personify QT's affection for the private longings and second-rate mythos of B-movie performers." It's this affection that informs the rounded characters.

After a while the doings of Rick and Cliff risk beginning to seem epically insignificant. But into this buddy fantasy and pop culture rumination Tarantino continually stirs a heady, cloying mix of contemporary personalities, artifacts, and events, particularly the Manson "Family" and the Sharon Tate murders - which we don't see and are made to fear as a dreadful looming reality-sandwich climax. There will be twists. There's Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), Sharon Tate's hairdresser and ex-boyfriend. There's Manson (Damon Herriman), briefly seen. There's his "family," mostly young women, living on the Spahn Ranch, and there's old George Spahn (Bruce Dern), a blind, out-of-it grump, briefly seen, whom Cliff visits on the ranch, a sign of Cliff's fearlessness. Meanwhile the pregnant Sharon Tate (Aussie actress Margot Robbie), a blooming blonde bombshell, wanders in and out, at one point attending alone a showing of her latest movie, in which, as she tells the theater manager, she plays "the klutz," and she watches with a big smile on her face. Tarantino's plot pointedly moves fantasy in with grim reality when Roman Polanski becomes Rick's neighbor on Cielo Drive. Rick is delighted to have "the best director in Hollywood, probably the whole world!" right next door.

Tarantino plays with the ominousness of Sharon Tate's presence, like a lamb innocently ready for the slaughter. In the mood of today, when Uma Thurman has alluded to a risk Tarantino put her into with a car that caused a lasting injury, the director is bound to be held up as some kind of abuser of women. This ignores the fact that he has, in his fashion, always celebrated the fair sex in films like Jackie Brown (celebrating Pam Grier) and the Kill Bill movies with Uma. There was a hint of criticism for the paucity of lines given to Sharon Tate in this film at the Cannes post-screening press conference and he added a few more lines since the Cannes version, which have been called insignificant. The fact is Tarantino is wedded to our unsophisticated pop past, and his movies are obvious celebrations of machismo, but full of strong women. In Once Upon a Time the Manson Family women are genuinely creepy.

Which brings up a fourth element, because Once is also partly a horror movie. Toward the end it becomes increasingly scary and disturbing, though in fact we are let down more gently than the hints and portents lead us to fear. Is it wrong for QT to weave horrific real events into a semi-comic finale? One can only point out that Tarantino is all about provocation: it has been an essential element in his oeuvre ever since the severed ear in Reservoir Dogs - and Michael Madsen, who cut off that ear way back when, gets accorded a juicy moment in a clip from the invented Western series, "Bounty Law."

For me Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood contained longeurs at least in the first half. However it comes together more and more in the last third, and provides a sense of mastery with, given the portents, a new restraint. He's done it again, provided a rich movie experience hat no one else could have made.

Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood, 161 mins., debuted at Cannes May 21, 2019, when it was said to be the hottest ticket at the festival. Its Hollywood premiere was July 22, US theatrical wide release (Sony) July 26, 2019. It comes out in a lot of countries in August. Metascore 85%.
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QUENTIN PROVIDES BRAD BEEFCAKE LOVERS WITH A TASTE

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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