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 this movie too. I can’t help but wonder if the director is pandering to that segment of the male population that enjoys seeing a woman brutalized.

This film features exceptional performances by both Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. I won’t be surprised if both of them receive Oscar nominations for Best Actor. All things considered, and despite its running time of two hours and forty-one minutes, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is definitely worth seeing, and if you’re like me, once may not be enough.

Derrick Robinson

Movie Review: “Django Unchained”

Django UnchainedSet in the pre-Civil War south, “Django Unchained” tells the story of the friendship that develops between a bounty hunter, King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), and a slave, Django Freeman (Jamie Foxx), and their mission to find and free Django’s wife Hilde (Kerry Washington), one of the many slaves belonging to plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).  It was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, who in 2007 noted perceptively that American films have not dealt sufficiently with slavery because Americans are ashamed of that era.

“Django Unchained” is Tarantino’s attempt to remedy that failure, and there is much to admire in it.  Foremost is Tarantino’s unsurpassed ability to bring his characters to life.  Throughout his career, Tarantino has given us unforgettable characters like Mr. Blonde in “Reservoir Dogs”, Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield in “Pulp Fiction”, and O-Ren Ishii in “Kill Bill”, characters that, while larger than life, are still totally believable.  Schultz, Django, and Candie deserve to stand with the very best of his creations.

The two keys to their believability are the strength of the actors’ performances and the verisimilitude of Tarantino’s dialog.  In “Django”, we have memorable performances from just about everyone.  Jamie Foxx can convey as much with his eyes alone as other actors do with an entire paragraph of dialog.  Christoph Waltz, who was so impressive in “Inglourious Basterds”, demonstrates here an absolutely impeccable sense of timing, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as the despicable Calvin Candie is completely convincing.  All three deserve Oscar nominations for Best Actor.

Similarly, Tarantino deserves great credit for both his screenplay and direction.  As a screenwriter, he is an acknowledged virtuoso; his dialog combines the realism of a documentary with uncommon literary merit.  As a director, well, when all the acting is outstanding, you have to give a lot of credit to the director.  Furthermore, Tarantino understands as well as anyone how to pace his movies to best effect.  In his best scenes, he allows the suspense to build in a seemingly leisurely way until it reaches an almost unbearable pitch.  Though the films of Tarantino and Alfred Hitchcock could hardly be more different, Tarantino, in my opinion, is the rightful heir to Hitchcock’s title, The Master of Suspense.  If you’re not convinced, I refer you to the opening scene in “Inglourious Basterds” for proof.

In addition, “Django” features breathtaking cinematography, costuming that is a feast for the eye, and an attention to detail that is unique to Tarantino.  There is even a variation of the Mexican standoff without which no Tarantino movie would be complete.

As much as there is about “Django Unchained” to admire, however, it fails to rise to the standard that Tarantino himself established in his previous movies.  To begin with, it is uncharacteristically heavy-handed.  Its excesses range from the surprisingly unsubtle – as, for example, when the camera lingers overlong on the scarred backs of the slaves during the opening credits – to the unspeakably brutal – as when two slaves wage a fight to the death for nothing more than the amusement of their owners, or when a cowed and helpless slave is torn to pieces by vicious dogs.

One has to wonder what such heavy-handedness is doing in a Tarantino film.  The judgment and taste he brought to his early movies were above reproach.  One possible answer is that he is so passionate about his subject that his good judgment deserted him at points.  He lost sight of the fact that, by continually shocking us, he risked leaving us numb to the very sensations he wanted us to feel.  How much more effective might it have been if he had left more to our imagination?  My feeling is, he would have left us with mental images that would have lasted long after repeated shocks to our system have worn off.

I expect to see bloodshed at a Tarantino movie.  One of the hallmarks of his movies has always been his stylized portrayal of violence.  In “Django Unchained”, however, he goes too far.  We have one example after another of great gouts of blood spurting from the maimed bodies of the dead and dying.  Did Tarantino imagine that repetition would heighten the cumulative effect of these scenes?  In fact, at some point they begin to lose their impact, and we simply long to get on with the story.

Another objection:  Tarantino is concerned, and rightfully so, with historic accuracy, and  I have no doubt that the horrors and atrocities of the slave era are presented faithfully.  I was surprised that his insistence upon historic accuracy didn’t extend to his characters’ language, which is often anachronistic.  I can find no evidence that the word “motherfucker” was ever used as early as 1858.  Neither did people use expressions like, “Get her ass out of there.”

With the exceptions of Jim Croce’s “I’ve Got a Name” and Richie Havens’ “Freedom”, I was less than impressed with the music Tarantino chose for “Django”.  Considering his success in choosing music for his previous movies, this was a particular disappointment.

My biggest objection to “Django” is the extent to which Tarantino makes use of spectacle and cheap thrills.  This continues a trend in his movies that began with “Kill Bill, Volume 1”, but I want to emphasize that I loved every frame of “Kill Bill”.  I didn’t object to the cheap thrills there because “Kill Bill” is a samurai movie, and makes no pretense of being anything else.  You expect cheap thrills in a samurai movie.  I didn’t object to the cheap thrills in “Death Proof” either, because it was unabashedly a B-movie, and in my opinion, the best of its kind.  My first real reservations about Tarantino had to do with “Inglourious Basterds” because there, for the first time, I felt that he was using violence more for its shock value than as an integral plot device.

Although “Django” shares many things in common with “Kill Bill”, particularly the superhero stature of the two main characters, it is intrinsically different from the earlier film in that “Django” is meant to be taken seriously.  Its moments of comic relief notwithstanding, the nature of its subject, the unblinking realism of many of its parts, and the sense of horror and pity it evokes in the viewer all make this abundantly clear.  Yet time and again, Tarantino allows his need to give the viewer a visceral jolt to trump his artistic purpose.  I would like to see him 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.

Derrick Robinson