Once Upon a Time . . . In Hollywood

Every new Quentin Tarantino movie is an event. His reputation has taken something of a hit over the last year or two, but none of that has anything to do with the quality of his films. Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood is simultaneously something of a culmination of all of his previous movies and a departure from them. For the bulk of its nearly three hour run-time, it eschews the violence that tends to permeate Tarantino’s work, as well as his distinctive dialogue rhythms. It still feels very much like a Tarantino movie. (By the way, I am going to end I am going to include a ranking because everyone loves rankings.) Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood is somewhat difficult movie to explain, but it is certainly a movie worth watching.

This movie is a pure hangout movie; a movie you just want to put on to hang out in the world and with the characters. Many Tarantino movies are hangout movies to some extent, but none are so thoroughly as Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood. It seems almost plotless, though that isn’t really accurate the movie does feature a lot of its stars just going about their business. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton takes a meeting with an oily producer, played by Al Pacino, then works a day on the set of a western TV show. Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth drives Rick around and fixes his antenna. He also picks up a hitchhiker who leads him on an adventure to Spahn Ranch, where he comes face to face with the Manson Family. Then there is a thread of Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie, who goes about her business, doing a little shopping and, in one of the standout sequences of the movie, sitting anonymous in a theater taking in the audience reactions to recent movie she was in.

It is also a movie about Hollywood mythmaking. Aside from the real actors portrayed in the film, there are its two leads: former TV cowboy Rick Dalton whose transition from TV to movies failed and he is scared he is on his way out of the industry, as well as his stunt double and gopher Cliff Booth. Most of the action is handled by Booth, while Dalton is something of a mess. Dalton’s primary concern seems to be his personal myth. He is concerned about what playing the villain of the week on various TV shows will do to his leading man credibility and the public’s perception of him and his most famous character Jake Cahill. He knows losing fake fights makes him seem like less of a tough guy. It is all about managing how he is perceived. Cliff, for all that he is the doer of the pair, has his own concerns with perception. While Rick’s star might be fading, Cliff is basically unemployable because of his reputation. There are rumors that he killed his wife, and the movie deliberately leaves the truth of those rumors ambiguous. He also remembers getting fired off of the set of The Green Hornet after fighting with Bruce Lee. While the event occurred, the truth of Booth’s recollection is suspect. Then there are the movie’s run ins with actual historical figures. Sharon Tate gets the bulk of the screen time, but others appear as well. Other than the ending, the scene that most plays into the overt mythmaking nature of the film is when Robbie as Tate is in the theater watching actual Sharon Tate on screen in The Wrecking Crew. It puts the artificiality of it all in the viewers face. This, however, is a movie that revels in that artificiality. What is important isn’t what actually happened, but having fun imagining your version. Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton didn’t appear in The Great Escape, Steve McQueen did. And not Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen, actual Steve McQueen. Hollywood is a place where you can make whatever story you want happen, so why shouldn’t a movie do that. It feels like what Tarantino has been playing with in his last four or so movies, at least.

Saying more feels like it would spoiling the events of the movie. This isn’t really a movie that depends on being unspoiled, but I am tempted to run down a list of my favorite scenes rather than reviewing it. I guess I’ll finish by saying the movie has a very good dog and Pitt and DiCaprio are charming.

*****

Rankings

9. Death Proof

8. Reservoir Dogs

7. Django Unchained

6. Pulp Fiction

5. The Hateful Eight

4. Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2

3. Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood

2. Jackie Brown

1. Inglourious Basterds

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The Hateful Eight Review

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The Hateful Eight might be one of the meanest, darkest movies I’ve ever watched. Still, I would also call it one of the most enjoyable. Despite its overwhelming bleakness it is never difficult to watch. The Hateful Eight has a running time of very close to three hours, but you never feel a moment of that running time. The film is mesmerizing, disgusting and utterly entrancing.

Tarantino masterfully builds the bleakness of this film into every part. Starting with the beautiful landscape shots, showing snow covered mountains and forests barren of life, other than the stagecoach carrying some of movie’s travelers. The snow covers all life; nothing in this mountain wilderness is alive. Into this world is where our characters enter, with Samuel L Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren appears as if from nowhere, blocking the way of a stagecoach carrying bounty hunter John Ruth and his bounty Daisy. They are soon joined by another lost traveler, supposed Sheriff Chris Mannix. The four of them travel for some time, treating viewers to one of Tarantino’s trademark conversation scenes. Each one of these characters is horrible in their own way. Mannix is a former confederate raider, a man with who feels no shame about his racism. Daisy shows herself to be simply vile, being as awful as possible at every opportunity. The apparent heroes of the piece, Ruth and Warren, are only marginally better. Ruth quickly proves himself to be both violent and a fool. Warren is accused by Mannix of brutalities during the war, acts not confined to his enemies and he doesn’t even bother to deny the accusations. None of these are good people.

When they reach their stopping point, a small respite named Minnie’s Haberdashery; the other four appear, other travelers waiting out the coming blizzard but not the people they were expecting. Warren is suspicious and Ruth suspects at least one of them is there to free Daisy. This is when the film switches to it true story, which is a murder mystery with eight (it actually isn’t eight, I can’t think of a way to count those in the cabin that doesn’t equal nine) terrible people trapped in the same place, all distrustful of the others, each with secrets. They are violent people trapped in close proximity until violence erupts.

And things do get violent. As secrets are uncovered and violence is done, each character ends up looking worse and worse. Warren might be on the side of good, but his methods are anything but. He is the hero, but still manages to gloat over how much he loves to kill white people. Ruth may be admirable in many ways, but he is still a fool that when enraged beats a captive woman bloody. Daisy is awful enough that the audience cheered her beating. Still, by the end there is almost a bit of hope among all the blood and death. There is common ground found between two very different men. It maybe doesn’t matter, it isn’t likely to change their fate, but it is something.

Watching a Tarantino movie is something like seeing Rembrandt do superhero comics. It is an unquestioned master working in a medium that gets little respect. Tarantino can set a scene and build tension like no one else, but he works exclusively in the lowest, most pulpy of genres. I wouldn’t want him to change for anything. He gets great performance out of great actors; there really isn’t a weak link among them, though the best are Jennifer Jason Leigh as Daisy Domergue and Walton Goggins as Mannix. Who is to say that spaghetti westerns or martial arts revenge movies aren’t deserving of true masterpieces. That is what The Hateful Eight, like Django Unchained and Inglorious Basterds before it, is: a masterpiece.

*****