Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

“I’ve got a flamethrower in my toolshed.” – Rick Dalton

Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, opened three nights ago at my local multiplex. As regular readers of this blog can attest, I’ve been an unabashed fan of Tarantino’s work ever since Pulp Fiction was released twenty-five years ago, and have proclaimed more than once that his first movie, Reservoir Dogs, was the best first movie since John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon. I also thought that Jackie Brown, the two Kill Bill movies, and Death Proof were unqualified successes. Beginning with Inglourious Basterds, however, I began to have reservations about Tarantino, reservations which increased with Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. This is not to say that those two films don’t have a lot going for them, they do, but it seemed to me that in both of them, Tarantino fell victim to the siren song of commercialism, and in his desire to put butts in the seats, so to speak, relaxed his artistic standards. In my review of Django, I wrote, “I would like to see Tarantino return to the more balanced approach of his earlier work, in which spectacle had no part, and violence, while integral to the lives of his characters, was not the film’s reason for being.”

I’m happy to report that in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino has taken a significant step in that direction. This is primarily a story about Hollywood in the late ’60’s, and about two men: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former TV star whose acting career appears to be in a death spiral, and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Dalton’s longtime friend and stunt double. It also deals with the Charles Manson clan, and with actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who lives with her husband, film director Roman Polanski, in the house next to Dalton’s in Beverly Hills.

Here, just to give you a taste of the movie, is the trailer for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

It has to be said that in this movie, Tarantino once again indulges a writer’s prerogative – which we saw him exercise for the first time in Inglourious Basterds – to alter history to suit his own purposes. Tarantino is more concerned with creating entertaining and effective cinema than with historical accuracy, and I, for one, am happy to accept his right to do that. We don’t go to the movies – not a Tarantino movie, at any rate – for a history lesson.

Having said that, I have to call your attention to the extraordinary detail that Tarantino lavishes on the props and sets in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. We’ve come to expect this in a Tarantino movie, but in Once Upon a Time, he outdoes himself. He succeeds completely in re-creating the Hollywood of the late ’60’s, right down to the billboards, movie marquees, and bus stop posters.

In my review of Django Unchained, I referred to Tarantino as, “the rightful heir to Hitchcock’s title, The Master of Suspense”, and this movie provides additional evidence, if any were needed, for the legitimacy of that claim. The vast majority of the audience knows who Charles Manson was and what he and his followers did in the summer of ’69. This awareness creates a suspense in the viewer that is absolutely palpable, and which increases with each successive scene. This may well be the funniest film Tarantino has ever made, but the comic moments are so fraught with tension that you may not know whether to laugh or hold your breath. In that context, I invite you to watch carefully for the Mexican standoff without which no Tarantino film would be complete.

I can’t conclude this review without telling you of my one reservation about this Tarantino movie. I can watch a Tarantino film, with all of its violence and crude language, with a certain amount of detachment. After all, I’m used to crude language; that’s the way more and more people talk, especially in the movies. I’m also used to movie violence, and I like seeing the bad guy get the stuffing knocked out of him as much as the next person. But when a woman, especially a defenseless woman, gets the stuffing knocked out of her by a man in an unspeakably brutal way, that bothers me. I felt that way watching The Hateful Eight, and I feel that way about one scene in this movie too. I can’t help but wonder if the director is pandering to that segment of the audience that enjoys seeing a woman brutalized.

That one objection notwithstanding, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a masterpiece, one you shouldn’t miss. It features the extraordinary screenplay we have come to expect from Tarantino, along with exceptional performances by Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. I won’t be surprised if both of them receive Oscar nominations for Best Actor. If you’re like me, one viewing will not be enough.

Derrick Robinson

Movie Review: “Inglourious Basterds”

Inglourious_Basterds_posterAs far as I’m concerned, until someone discovers a lost film by Alfred Hitchcock, the release of a new movie by Quentin Tarantino is just about the most important cinematic event there is.  After years of anticipation, Inglourious Basterds finally opened on August 21, and after trying for an entire week to find someone to go with me, I finally went last Sunday with my son David and daughter-in-law Natalie.

Despite all the inevitable hype, “Basterds” did not disappoint.  Tarantino receives uniformly excellent performances from his principal actors.  Brad Pitt’s performance as 1st Lieutenant Aldo Raine, though one-dimensional, is both credible and enjoyable.  Diane Kruger as Bridget von Hammersmark and Mélanie Laurent as Shoshanna both give performances of consummate range, depth, and emotional resonance.  Finally, Christoph Waltz is outstanding as Standartenführer Hans Landa, and fully deserved the Best Actor award he received at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival.

This is not a great film, but it overflows with great moments.  It features all of the elements that we have come to expect from Tarantino: a compelling story, exceptional casting and acting, two (!) Mexican standoffs, and Tarantino’s uncanny ear for dialogue.  If he doesn’t receive an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, then the Academy Awards are even more of a travesty than we thought.  In short, Inglourious Basterds is gripping from beginning to end.  Be sure to go to the bathroom before you sit down, because once seated, you won’t want to get up.

With so much going for it, why isn’t this a great movie?  There are three reasons:  First, the main protagonist, Aldo Raine, is someone we cannot, and would not want to identify with.  Despite his hillbilly charm, he is essentially an amoral sadist with no discernible capacity for thought or introspection.  Compare him and his campaign of terror with Fredrick Zoller, the German war hero haunted by his experiences, who cannot bear to watch the climax of the propaganda film made to honor his own exploits.

Second, unlike Tarantino’s other movies, in which the violence is always integral to the story, some of the violence in “Basterds” is there primarily for its shock value.  Not all, certainly, but to the extent that it is, the movie is weaker for it.

Third, a great movie depends on a great story, and in Inglourious Basterds, the one potentially great story – that of Shoshanna’s revenge – must compete for time and attention with the tale of the Basterds, a small cadre of Jewish-American soldiers whose sole reason for being is the slaughter and terrorizing of Nazis.  Hardly an auspicious premise.

These objections notwithstanding, Inglourious Basterds is a must-see for any Quentin Tarantino aficionado, and should appeal to anyone who likes action flicks, World War II movies, or Brad Pitt.  If, however, you are upset by graphic scenes of violence, you should probably pass on this one.

Derrick Robinson