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In Theaters: ONCE UPON A TIME...IN HOLLYWOOD (2019)

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ONCE UPON A TIME...IN HOLLYWOOD
(US/UK/China - 2019)

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell, Luke Perry, Julia Butters, Damian Lewis, Mike Moh, Lorenza Izzo, Damon Herriman, Zoe Bell, Lena Dunham, Rumer Willis, Samantha Robinson, Costa Ronin, Rafel Zawierucha, Nicholas Hammond, Mikey Madison, Madisen Beaty, Maya Hawke, Michael Madsen, Clifton Collins Jr, Scoot McNairy, Rebecca Gayheart, Marco Rodriguez, Clu Gulager, James Remar, Martin Kove, Brenda Vaccaro, Daniella Pick, Harley Quinn Smith, Omar Doom, James Landry Hebert, Lew Temple. (R, 161 mins)

An epic, freewheeling, kaleidoscopic wet dream for hardcore movie nerds, ONCE UPON A TIME...IN HOLLYWOOD allows Quentin Tarantino to fly his geek flag like never before. What other director could get away with stopping a big-budget, wide-release summer movie cold for an impromptu lesson on the making of 1960s Italian spaghetti westerns and the Americanized pseudonyms that were often employed by their directors? A love letter to the Hollywood 50 years ago on the cusp of tumult and tragedy, HOLLYWOOD takes place in February and August of 1969 and centers on Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor desperately clinging to the fading fame brought by his starring turn a decade earlier on a TV western called BOUNTY LAW. The show was cancelled when he quit to do a pair of movies that ended up bombing (and he lost out to Steve McQueen for the lead in THE GREAT ESCAPE, a role he was up for along with "the Three Georges--Peppard, Maharis, and Chakiris") and has spent the latter half of the '60s doing failed pilots and bad guy guest spots on nearly every network TV show. He's desperate enough that he's seriously considering an offer by his new agent Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) to head to Rome to make easy money doing spaghetti westerns and 007 knockoffs. He's also gotten a bad rep around town for his drinking, and multiple drunk driving accidents have caused him to lose his license, forcing him to be driven everywhere by his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who's also his errand boy, confidante, drinking buddy, and seemingly his only friend. When he isn't driving Rick around, house-sitting for him, or being a handyman around his house, Cliff lives in a broken down trailer behind the Van Nuys Drive-In with his loyal pit bull Brandy. Cliff's fortunes mirror those of Rick's: where Rick can only land quick-paycheck guest spots because of two costly big-screen flops and a troubled personal life, Cliff has become persona non grata among the Hollywood stuntman community after the mysterious death of his wife Billie (Rebecca Gayheart). It was ruled an accident but rumors still persist that he killed her and got away with it.






There's a kinship among the pair, but the laid-back Cliff tends to spend much of his time consoling the insecure and depressed Rick, who has a slight stutter offscreen and laments that he's "washed-up" and doesn't want to do "Eye-talian westerns." The third figure in the story is Rick's next-door neighbor, promising VALLEY OF THE DOLLS co-star Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), whose new husband, Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski (Rafel Zaweirucha), is the toast of the town with the huge success of ROSEMARY'S BABY. The lives of Rick, Cliff, and Tate will intersect in a variety of ways over the course of HOLLYWOOD's 161-minute running time, and while the specter of Charles Manson (played here by Australian actor Damon Herriman, also cast as Manson in the upcoming season of Netflix's MINDHUNTER) looms large over the proceedings, this is not another HELTER SKELTER chronicle of the Tate-LaBianca murders of August 9-10, 1969. Tarantino, with the help of veteran visual effects maestro John Dykstra (STAR WARS), vividly, almost obsessively, recreates 1969 Hollywood to the point where you feel immersed in the past. The period detail is often astonishing, from the cars to the movie marquees to the production design to its depiction of the counterculture and the perfect selection of needle-drops (bonus points for possibly being the first late '60s-set film involving hippies to not feature Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth"). Rick's derisive scorn toward "the goddamn hippies" signifies his being stuck in the past of his heyday, while Cliff has a more accepting, come-what-may attitude, particularly in his recurring flirtaceous encounters from afar with hitchhiking flower child Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) until one fateful day when he finally decides to give her lift. As played by Robbie, Sharon Tate is the ingenue with a heart of gold, and the scene where she goes solo to a matinee at the Bruin in downtown L.A. to see herself in the Dean Martin "Matt Helm" adventure THE WRECKING CREW ("I'm in the movie!" she cheerfully tells the girl at the ticket booth) and gets quietly overcome with joy at the audience laughing at her comedic performance and cheering her kung-fu ass-kicking of co-star Nancy Kwan is truly touching.


Countless familiar faces play figures--both real and fictional--who wander in and out of the story, sometimes in the blink of an eye. On the entertainment front, there's Timothy Olyphant as LANCER star James Stacy, who would lose his left arm and leg in a motorcycle accident in 1973; the late Luke Perry, in his last film, as LANCER co-star Wayne Maunder; Nicholas Hammond as TV director and character actor Sam Wanamaker; and Rumer Willis as Tate friend Joanna Pettet. Emile Hirsch is Tate's ex-boyfriend Jay Sebring, who still remains close to her, patiently waiting for her to leave Polanski; Damian Lewis is an uncanny Steve McQueen getting stoned at the Playboy Mansion; Mike Moh is Bruce Lee in possibly the film's funniest scene; Kurt Russell and Zoe Bell are husband-and-wife stunt coordinators on LANCER (Russell is also the film's occasional narrator and is not playing his DEATH PROOF character Stuntman Mike as some speculated); Dakota Fanning is Manson follower Squeaky Fromme; Lena Dunham, Harley Quinn Smith (Kevin's daughter), and Maya Hawke (daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman) are other Manson disciples; and in a role intended for Burt Reynolds, who attended a table read with Pitt and Fanning but died just before he was scheduled to shoot his scenes, Bruce Dern is elderly and blind George Spahn, the owner of Spahn Ranch, a long out-of-commission 55-acre movie and TV western location set that was taken over by Manson and his "family."


Tarantino treats ONCE UPON A TIME...IN HOLLYWOOD as his cinematic playground, and the more well-versed you are in obscure TV and Eurocult titles of the day, the more fun you'll have with it (I would love to see Rick Dalton and Gordon Mitchell in an Antonio Margheriti Eurospy thriller called OPERAZIONE DYN-O-MITE!). As has been the case with latter-day Tarantino (never more than in the bloated THE HATEFUL EIGHT, a story that didn't need to take 168 minutes to be told), his tendency to meander does rear its head every now and again. While it's important to the story in terms of Rick's bottoming out and eventual path to redemption, the painstakingly laborious recreation of long takes and sequences from LANCER, where Rick has a guest spot as a bad guy, is the filmmaker at his most self-indulgent. At the same time, Rick's interaction on the set of LANCER with a committed, eight-year-old method actress (Julia Butters) provides HOLLYWOOD with one of its most genuinely moving moments, along with the final scene, which actually had people in the audience applauding. As good as DiCaprio and Robbie are, the secret weapon here is Pitt, who delivers a possible career-best performance. He's at the center of one of the film's strongest sequences--a visit to the Spahn Ranch that's every bit as intense and stomach-knotting as Jake Gyllenhaal's journey into the film programmer's basement in ZODIAC--and he's the key element of a shocking climactic showdown for the ages in a startling bit of revisionist history that makes this a great companion piece to Tarantino's INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.


Luke Perry (1966-2019)
Though mournful and elegiac at times, ultimately, ONCE UPON A TIME...IN HOLLYWOOD is surprisingly wistful and uplifting in its own strange way, and even though it exists in an insulated, alternate universe of make-believe (Vietnam is barely mentioned), it's indicative of an older and more reflective Tarantino. Granted, it's jaw-droppingly outrageous at times, but in the redemptive arcs of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth in an industry that's leaving them behind, there's a certain parallel with Pam Grier's and Robert Forster's characters in JACKIE BROWN, and for all the game-changing influence that PULP FICTION had 25 years ago, it's JACKIE BROWN that's looking more and more like Tarantino's best work with each passing year. Like most Tarantino films, ONCE UPON A TIME...IN HOLLYWOOD is compulsively rewatchable--maybe fast-forward through a couple of those LANCER scenes on subsequent revisits--and filled with several moments that are instantly etched in your moviegoing memory. In spite of his self-indulgent tendencies--which some believe came about after the unexpected death of his regular editor Sally Menke in 2010, but he was getting pretty tough to rein in way back around the time of KILL BILL--and his omnipresent foot fetish (he seems really taken with Robbie's and Qualley's), he's one of the few American auteurs for which each new film remains a legitimate and wildly unpredictable event, and to that end, ONCE UPON A TIME...IN HOLLYWOOD delivers the goods.


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