Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★

Tarantino loves Hollywood. Tarantino loves revenge fantasies. Tarantino loves grindhouse, and spaghetti westerns, and classic rock. Tarantino also loves feet. So it comes as no surprise that for his ninth - and allegedly penultimate - feature, Tarantino has put together a shamelessly violent homage to the tinsel town’s tumultuous transformation during the height of the counterculture movement fueled by a wonderfully infectious soundtrack, riddled with feet - predominately those belonging to humans of the female gender - and named after two movies from one of the most celebrated purveyors of Italy-based cowboy pictures.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood reteams the Academy-Award-winning writer-director of Pulp Fiction with chiseled chin duo of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, as Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth respectively. Dalton and Booth are veritable peas in a pod; so much so that the latter is the stunt double for the former, who himself was the star of CBS’s late 50’s serialized western called Bounty Law. We meet the pair at the onset of 1969; Dalton’s career has embarked on a decidedly downward trajectory. The once famous leading man now finds himself relegated to playing the heavy on an episode or two of the networks’ new shows. Booth, having hitched his wagon to Dalton’s flailing reputation, resides with an adorable pitbull in a small trailer behind one of LA’s vintage drive-ins. Fortunately, though, Booth does have a place to crash at from time to time, thanks to Dalton’s swanky Hollywood Hill mansion which he has managed to retain owing to some astute real estate management. And what do you know, just as these two struggling artists of the bygone era are at the nadir of their careers, who moves in next door? Well, it's only Roman Polanski, the yet to be disgraced hotshot genius behind Rosemary’s Baby and his new wife: Sharon Tate.

The legendary blonde superstar played by the up-and-coming blonde superstar Margot Robbie. However, fans of the Australian might not leave the screening fully satisfied since she seldom appears throughout the film and largely serves the dual function of providing a focal point for the plot to coalesce at and establishing the particular idiosyncrasies of the movie’s time and place. She’s mostly seen visiting famous Hollywood landmarks, riding in period-specific motor vehicles and dancing to tunes popular in the swingin’ sixties. To a certain extent, Robbie’s rather limited screen time should go some way towards assuaging the fears that a Quentin Tarantino joint dealing with the extremely sensitive subject matter of Sharon Stone’s tragic demise might not fully conform to the merits of good taste.

This is not a story about the late actress. This is not the story about Charles Mansion and his reprehensible gang of misguided youth. Both of those elements are present but only tangentially to the movie’s central thesis. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is very much a story of an industry experiencing growing pains told through the eyes of a couple of men coming to terms with their rapidly waning powers. This is a tale that both laments the unrelenting march of time and celebrates the inevitable procession of progress. In true Quentin fashion, the veteran filmmaker has once again produced a screenplay that revels in the muck while also being completely aware of the filth in which it thrives. The movie is up to its eyeballs in cute little easter eggs, reverential throwbacks, and esoteric references that wistfully evoke the city of angel’s past glories. But the movie is also brave enough to ruthlessly skewer the archaic sexual politics, to bluntly poke holes in the hollow artifice of show business, and to contemptuously smear the idealistic image of a social movement that - for all its good intentions - had its fair share of problematic elements.

This propensity of Tarantino to play both sides of the aisle is not new; the director has been able to time and again perform this high wire act by casting respected actors possessing a certain gravitas who are equally comfortable chewing the ever-living daylights off the scenery. Here, Leo not only chews the scenery, he absolutely devours it, spits it out and stomps on it for good measure. The Oscar winner seems to be making up for the hell he put himself through while shooting The Revenant by having the time of his life; he turns the dial to eleven and keeps ratcheting it up until a hilariously grotesque final act. Brad, by comparison, is a little more subdued. But only by comparison; there are still a few occasions where, the man who frankly has a ridiculous body for a 55-year-old, gets to display his undisputed character-actor chops, which he does with captivating ease.

Mostly though Brad is tasked with dismissively reacting to the absurdity unfolding around him, the source of a good majority of which is the stellar supporting cast that Tarantino has assembled. As good as the combined pedigree of this who’s who of A-listers is, there is an element of vanity to the way the director has had to perform narrative gymnastics to include them into the story; Tarantino seems to be flaunting his ability to gather this galaxy of shining stars (referred to as ‘The Gang’ in the end credits ) even if it means having to randomly cut to non-sequiturs, setting up threads that do not lead to a pay-off, and sacrificing his trademarked propulsive pacing.

Even then, despite Tarantino practically designing parts of the movie to cater to the likes of Al Pacino, Kurt Russel, Timothy Olyphant, and Bruce Dern, all this decades worth of thespian credentials is put to shame by the relative newcomer Margaret Qualley, who with her effervescent hippie energy and threatening yet beguiling charisma creates an impact that is felt well beyond the frames occupied by her diminutive figure. Frames in which - to no one's surprise - the camera finds incredibly creative angles from which to capture her feet.

In fact, the cinematography for the entire picture seems to be split between servicing the aims of the story being told and Tarantino flipping off the detractors who bemoan his over-reliance on certain personal quirks. There are multiple shots of beautiful people riding in fancy cars - their hair billowing in the wind - many of which do not further the plot in any significant manner. There are sweeping panoramas of the long and winding west coast highways that serve little purpose other than expressing the filmmaker’s love for the place he calls home. And there are kinetic and fluid tracking shots that achieve little else than covering impressive swaths of geography.

All of which should in no way diminish the sheer aesthetic value that Tarantino’s long-term collaborator Robert Richardson’s vivid photography adds to the experience. Richardson’s camera luxuriates in the meticulously recreated details of the era that the movie is set in; it seems to embrace the excess instead of shying away from it.

In fact, the excess is the spine that holds the entire project together. Much like the cinema that it’s celebrating, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is too long, too loud, too graphic, and perhaps too stylish. Yet, somehow, the overabundance of all its constituent elements combine to deliver an end product that has just the right balance of charm, substance, and good old fashioned movie magic.

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