Quentin Tarantino is at a stage in his career where he could film someone clipping their toe-nails and have it be called a masterpiece by the film community. And going by the number of feet featured in historical-drama-comedy-thriller Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, this could possibly be an idea for his tenth (and reportedly final) film.
Not to say that QT’s films don’t have a high quality or entertainment value to them. Hardly the case considering the fanfare his films attract. Tarantino films are the Olympic Games of cinema in terms of frequency and anticipation. His omnipotence has Hollywood hypnotised, with A-listers climbing over fences to star in his films and major studios writing blank-cheques to finance them. Hollywood is QT’s sandbox, and he has total reign over it.
I was fortunate enough to see Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood at the Melbourne International Film Festival. In a room full of Tarantino fans there I sat. Observing as brimming electricity flowed through the audience as they eagerly awaited to see their favourite director’s new film the way that he wanted them to view it. In glorious 35mm.
Their love of the director shows, not just in the effort made by folks to dress as flower children (inspired by the ‘60s setting of OUATIH), nor in their willingness to pay $35 to attend a movie, but by the sheer turnout to attend a film in a relatively niche theatre famous for playing classic films that rarely attract a full house. People don’t just attend QT films as much as they flock to them.
I watched as a wave of silence hit the cinema. A black-and-white flashback scene highlight Leo’s gun-slinger actor Rick Dalton during his hey-day. He exchanges a quip with Brad Pitt’s stunt-double-gopher Cliff Booth, they respond back and forth with barbs that establish the relationship of the chummy pair. Early into the film and Tarantino has already made a crude sex joke that explores hyper-masculinity. This is the first of many Tarantino quips off the list, now just waiting to tick off a long-winded hypothetical, the mistreatment of a woman and a hyper-violent bloodbath.
Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood might just be the coolest film of 2019, and that is not okay.
I will not go into detail about the events in the film other than it focuses on the friendship between two ageing actors and is set against the backdrop of the Manson Family. Story in OUATIH is sidelined in lieu of being a podium for DiCaprio and Pitt to showcase both their charisma and how devilishly handsome they are. Despite QT films having functioned fine without the use of a conventional narrative (see Pulp Fiction or his catalogue of revenge flicks from the 2000s), it is unfortunately not the case for OUATIH which instead rests on the charisma of its stars friendship to maintain interest through a two-and-a-half-hour film.
Jokes become strained, often relying on a build which dawdles and verges on indulgent. Leo’s sensitive cowboy-actor struggling to cope with the change in the cinema landscape looks to Brad Pitt’s father-esque type to calm his insecurities. “Hey, you’re Rick fucking Dalton. Don’t you forget it”, Pitt remarks outside the window of a car to cheer up a blue DiCaprio. Their sheer presence and zany antics are ultimately the main component of OUATIH, with how you take to their banter forming how positively you take to the film. You’ve all bought tickets to the Brad and Leo show.
QT has faced many controversies for his portrayal of women in his films, often creating motivations for female characters due to mistreatment from men. Their rebellion brought about by machismo. To draw on this further would be of detriment to the review and something that would be deserving of its own conversation. Still, it should be noted that Margot Robbie, who plays real-life ill-fated actress Sharon Tate, is depicted with a twisted sense of respect. It is no spoiler to say that QT dabbles in some historical revisionism, with much of the inclusion of Tate being a means to build up suspense towards her interaction with the Manson Family. Whether or not this is appropriate is a debate in-itself. In the confines of OUATIH, Tate is crafted with a warmth that captures the positive essence of the actress instead of focusing solely on her horrific death. It is almost a commemoration of Tate’s kind demeanour. At the same time, however, her murder is still used as creative license to sell movie tickets.
Does this make it okay?
There is an obligation as a film reviewer to protect the sanctity of the ending. And I shall oblige. Much has been said about the divisiveness of the events which occur. Fans of Tarantino should not be too taken-back by the events that unfold, with the conclusion, though bizarre, still rendering as quintessentially QT. It is his no-holds-barred sense of play – which he is given full creative freedom – that should spark-up conversation. QT puts his desire to entertain over a sense of compassion towards the real-life atrocities that inspire OUATIH. This hits harder on the cultural consciousness considering the current social climate the film exists in partnered with historical criticism of Tarantino’s work for appropriation and mistreating women. His credentials and self-held integrity as a filmmaker, on which is guilty of using brutality as a punchline and rape as a mechanic to justify extreme violence, are used to excuse the creative liberties he takes. I was unable to cope with the graphic events that occur, with his efforts feeling extraordinarily insensitive to the time. Others were not as intolerant to the film’s crescendo, with the crowd bursting into rapturous applause.
Regardless of the above, OUATIH is QT’s empathetic film with DiCaprio and Pitt turning out too-cool-for-school performances that embody every preconceived notion of Hollywood being a vapid machine that consumes the soul. DiCaprio and Pitt bleed Hollywood which makes the duo a perfect suit for a film that acts as a giant reference to cinema.
I have yet to use my one cliché per article but to call OUATIH a love letter for the Golden Age of Cinema is apt. QT successfully captures a period in history he is fond of, marrying sharp visuals (LA at night is a neon dream), a roaring jukebox soundtrack, and stylings of 60’s fashion in all frames of the film. QT takes us on an exhibit of Hollywood from yesteryear and one that evidently speaks near and dear to him.
Will Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood pass the litmus test of being appropriate in fifty years? It is hard to say. For those that are a stickler for trademark QT hypothetical dialogue, meticulously designed sets and the Brad-Leo charm bomb, you will take to Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood positively. For others unable to cope with a director refusing to compromise his inherently masculine filmmaking style, Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood will be a two hour plus test of patience.
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie
Writer: Quentin Tarantino