Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Bounty Law

Film: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Format: Blu-ray from Sycamore Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I learned when doing the 1001 Movies list that there was a real benefit to watching the longest films I could get my hands on first, at least psychologically. I’ve been sitting on a Blu-ray of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood since the middle of March but really haven’t had the opportunity to watch it. I’ve also been dreading it slightly; I have a strange relationship with the films of Quentin Tarantino. I’ve said for a long time that I think he’d be a lot better if he stopped trying to be awesome and instead tried to be just good.

Not surprisingly, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a film that tries very hard to be awesome and ends up being merely self-indulgent. For starters, it runs 161 minutes long, and, judiciously, I think I could knock out half an hour of it without losing a great deal. And that’s going to be the theme here. I know that I’m in the minority when it comes to Tarantino; everyone seems to like his films more than I do, or to casually overlook his flaws in the interests of bread an circuses. In a lot of ways, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood feels like he wants to break away just a touch from that habit of showing off, but he can’t quite get there. There’s still a lot of excess here that seems to serve no other purpose than servicing Tarantino’s ego.

On the surface, this is the story of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a heading-toward-washed-up television actor still trying to hang onto the career he once had. In the ‘50s, Dalton was the lead in a popular television western, but he wanted a movie career, and his life now seems to be guest appearances where he plays the heavy. He and his stunt double/personal assistant Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) spend their days on sets and their nights drinking too much. Thoughts start churning in Dalton’s head when he is approached by Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) with an offer to star in spaghetti western films.

That’s the backdrop through which we’re going to see the rest of the story. A part of that story is the fact that Rick Dalton happens to live next door to Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). And it’s going to be important that, at one point, Cliff picks up a hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley), who wants a ride to the Spahn Ranch where Cliff once worked as Dalton’s stunt double. The Spahn Ranch just happens to be, at the time, the location of the Manson Family, of which Cliff’s young hitchhiker is a part.

And so, that’s where we’re going to go. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a rewriting of the night of Sharon Tate’s murder at the hands of the Manson Family. In this world, the killers approach just as Rick and Cliff have returned from six months in Italy and, recognizing that Rick Dalton was a man who committed a lot of murders on television in their youth, decide instead to attack them rather than Sharon Tate and her guests. From a basic “What if?” perspective, I love the idea. My problem, as mentioned above, is that it takes forever to get to this point.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is something more than two hours of set up to get to that final confrontation. And for what it’s worth, I get that, too. There are plenty of movies that follow that same sort of pattern—concurrent stories that all end up at the same place, and in this case, the idea of perhaps giving a real life to Sharon Tate is a lovely one. But there’s a lot here that doesn’t really need to be seen or shown. A lot of this is just trying to be cool rather than useful and necessary to the storytelling.

For instance, there is an extended sequence of Rick and Cliff working a guest spot on “The Green Hornet.” That’s fine, but this devolves into a fight between Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) and Cliff, and offers us the wankery fantasy of beaten-up, old stuntman Cliff Booth actually going toe-to-toe with in-his-prime Bruce Lee. This entire sequence seems to exist solely to have “Bruce Lee” make a cameo and for Tarantino to give a couple of minutes of screen time to Zoe Bell. And I knew at the moment I decided to bring this up that there will be people who, reading this paragraph, thought, “But that scene was really cool!” Okay, sure, beyond the “white guy is good enough to throw Bruce Lee around” fantasy aspect, cool it may be. But was it necessary? Did it do a damn thing for the story?

Another example—it’s a very cute scene when Sharon Tate goes to a theater to watch herself in a movie. It’s cute when we see her reaction to the crowd reacting to her character. It’s a nice little bit of character for someone who we’re going to want to see survive the picture. But of course we’re going to get an extended shot of her bare feet propped up on the seat in front of her. Why? Purely for self-indulgence.

It’s a shame, too, because this might well be Leonardo DiCaprio’s best work in front of the camera in a long time. It’s great that he finally won an Oscar a couple of years ago (and it’s nice that Pitt has now won one for acting—one he deserved for 12 Monkeys at the very least), but DiCaprio is near-perfect as an aging action star trying desperately to hang on to his career and his relevance.

Cut 20 minutes and I probably raise my review half a star. Cut 35, and it’s one of the best movies of last year.

Why to watch Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood: This might be Leonardo DiCaprio at his best.
Why not to watch: Like most Tarantino, it’s wildly self-indulgent.


  1. I ended up being more positive than you about this movie, but I get where you're coming from re: Tarantino's self-indulgence.

    1. Most people are more positive than I am about Tarantino in general. I did, ultimately like this, but I see where it could be so much tighter and better.

  2. I love this film yet it was a bittersweet experience for me as it made think about my dad who I'm sure would've loved this film. He was around during that period and loved the films, movies, and TV shows of those times as he also loves Leonardo DiCaprio a lot. It remains my favorite film of 2019 so far as I just love re-watching it as well as the climatic ending which was so great as it is why Brad Pitt truly deserved to win the Oscar for his performance.

    1. I'm in the minority on it, and I knew I would be. Tarantino is always 20% too much ego for me, though, and that's a good 20 minutes or more of this movie, at least for me.

  3. I'm with you 100%. I thought it was less indulgent than most of his films, but more than it needed to be. And scene after scene of driving. I get it! You're in LA!

    I did enjoy the late sixties vibe and the behind the scenes of classic 60s TV stuff. In my mind, the presence of Sharon Tate put a very somber tone on the whole movie, since I really enjoyed Robie's performance and was not looking forward to her being brutally murdered. So I was somewhat relieved that she wasn't, although I'm not sure I liked the weird revenge fantasy that we got. It's very much of a kind with the ending of Inglorious Bastards.

    Tarantino would be a great filmmaker if he learned any sort of self-discipline.

    1. Your last sentence sums up the entirety of my opinion on Tarantino. It's exactly what I mean when I say that he'd be better if he tried to be good and stopped trying to be awesome.

  4. I put this off for a long time for a couple of reasons.

    The first is like yours, Tarantino's penchant for overindulgence and not knowing when enough is enough and sliding into (sometimes gross) excess has kept me from being a fan of most of his pictures. Though with many of them I've felt that there was a better film contained in what we are given if only he edited for story rather than reaction.

    The other is that I've always felt very protective of Sharon Tate and how she is portrayed. The horror of her death (and the others) is one of my first memories of the wider world (I was still quite young but the summer of 1969 was full of impactful events-Judy Garland died in June, the first walk on the moon in July and then this tragedy in August) so despite Quentin's assurances that he was respectful of her memory knowing his style I was still reluctant to dive in.

    But I happened upon it just getting ready to begin the other day and decided to give it a chance. On my first concern it held true to form, there were several sections where I thought "Why is this in here?" or "This could have been covered in a three- or four-minute scene not twenty or more!" But that's him and it just comes with the territory.

    Regarding Sharon I was very relieved that he indeed treated her with respect and dignity. I LOVED the segment where we spent time with her and watched the movie. I had heard that it would be the actual Sharon onscreen and Margot in the audience which I thought would be distracting but it was well integrated and gave the viewer a sense of the fact that the actual Sharon Tate was a skillful comedienne. I could have however done without her feet propped up (the film's entire foot fetish could have been excised with zero impact). The concluding chapter was extreme and at first, I thought it was trading one horror to show another but then considered the characters being offed were the animals who perpetrated the actual events and that changed my perspective, it was wish fulfillment but I have to say a little satisfying. I found the actual ending very poignant.

    I agree that DiCaprio is excellent even if a chunk of his story was filler. Brad exudes his signature star power which is just what the role requires though, I don't see it as an Oscar winning performance but since he was denied for both Twelve Monkeys and Moneyball I'm glad he finally was rewarded. Then there is the film’s look which is beautifully realized adding so much to the film and texture of the story.

    I'll never watch it again, but it was better than I expected.

    1. My knock against Tarantino is exactly what you say it is--he's far too self-indulgent. I've said since...forever...that Tarantino would be better if he stopped trying to be awesome and started trying to just be good. I'd like to take all of his movies post-Jackie Brown (which I still need to see) and cut at least 30 minutes from each of them. They'd all be improved, because even his best work is too damn long.

      But this is a good movie. The shame of it is that there's a potentially great movie hiding inside of it.