Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019): Tarantino By Way of Model Shop


To his credit, Quentin Tarantino will always and forever be a divisive creative force. There is no recourse but to either love or dislike his work. I fall closer to the latter category though I’m not as vehement as some.

At the core of this fission are his own proclivities. Tarantino has always been a profane filmmaker reveling in gushing blood capsules and wall to wall pop-cultural references. His knowledge is dizzyingly Encyclopedic even as it leans toward all the deliciously lowbrow delights he can indulge in. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize his nods to Leone and the Spaghetti western or his love affair with everything as diverse as pulp-infused noir and Hong Kong action cinema.

He eats it up voraciously and practices it devotedly. It’s not too far a stretch to say cinema is his religion — or at least the most important entity in his life — and yet even his obsessions are indulgent and so every movie he’s taken on has those traits. In essence, nothing is sacred. As he’s made quite clear, he makes movies he would want to see. They fit into his vision.

Remarkably, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is probably the most personal picture he’s ever made — the one touching on something the most human — where there is even a hint of authenticity and something real that does not need a wink or an undermining remark.

I think of Sharon Tate in this picture as portrayed by Margot Robbie. I understand some people taking issue with how she is established. The vocal weight of her part holds nothing comparing to the bromance of her male counterparts.

But in the context of what has been manifested, it feels warm and humane in a way we very rarely see from the director. He is giving Sharon a few days of her life back, in a sense, and pays her another honor by not removing her actual image from the footage or the posters we see (ie. Don’t Make Waves or The Wrecking Crew). It’s all her. Right there in front of us to be appreciated again and not merely gaped at. She simply exists for a few solitary days in the summer of 1969.

However, the same respect is not paid to Bruce Lee or for that matter, anyone else because Tarantino never operates that way. He’s beloved for his very irreverence of everything even as everything in his films is saturated with reference and homage.

It makes Once Upon a Time‘s most relevant points of departure all the more surprising. Model Shop (1969) is an unhurried slice-of-life film distilling The Sunset Strip and the surrounding area much in the way Tarantino does. And yet Jacques Demy is on the complete opposite spectrum of a Tarantino.

His films are full of fantasy as well but more whimsy, romance, and an almost innocent naivete. For instance, I could never imagine Tarantino being able to pull off a non-ironic musical; Demy imbibed their magic.

But Model Shop was a departure for him as much as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is slightly different for Tarantino. At any rate, it finds them drifting toward a central thematic world — Hollywood of the late 60s — where there is golden sun to match the melancholy and the music.

The post-Kennedy, Vietnam-era malaise is upon us even as it clashes up against the rock ‘n roll soundtrack supplied by the likes of Simon & Garfunkel, The Mama and The Papas, and Paul Revere & The Raiders.

The representation of 1969 on its own is impressively immersive as if Tarantino is recreating his childhood — the way he used to remember things — and no doubt he is. I only know secondhand and still heartily appreciate the likes of 93 KHJ and The Real Don Steele, all but ubiquitous, with the static whizz of the radio bathing the listener in jingles and audio AC. The lit-up signage of The Sunset Strip, billboards and advertisements, stretching out across the horizon.

Products like Velveeta, Kraft, Hormel Chili. I know those too. And that is part of the enjoyment of this movie, to be given a couple hours to bask in the nostalgia of the past, whether it’s the Westwood Theater, drive-in movies, and certainly the myriad of era-appropriate posters we catch glimpses of.

And the sprawling — some would say lethargic — runtime allows for these day-in-the-life type scenarios we would not get in your typical film. However, Tarantino also has the task of inserting his own vision into the tableaux put before him.

Rick Dalton’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) character is an extension of the issues I have with these types of pictures: a fictitious character in a real world. To be honest, the writer-director fully commits to inserting him into the bygone era from co-starring with Telly Savalas, being up for The Great Escape, and now in his downward spiral guest spotting in FBI and Lancer.

And against these ready-made touchstones, Tarantino can employ his own fanciful riffs off history. Whether the amalgam of Bounty’s Law — take your pick of any 50s or 60s shows (Burke’s Law and Wanted Dead or Alive spring to mind) and you’re there. As Tarantino has already acknowledged, this prevalent career decline during the mid to the late ’60s was indicative of many of the tough guy idols who could not transition. This arc is not made up.

However, I find myself grappling with the same problem I had with Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, though to a different degree. Because, of course, everything Tarantino’s ever made is couched in pulp and totally self-aware. It’s the real with the fiction. It just so happens I find the real far more compelling. For instance, Sharon Tate, the depictions of the L.A. milieu, even the glowering menace of the tripped-out Mansion Family, these elements engage with social context head-on.

Whereas when I watch the spoofed scenes out of his own Inglorious Basterds parody or Dalton’s latest guest appearance as a heavy in the real-life — albeit obscure — Lancer, there’s not the same thrill. It’s not so much that we know we are watching a movie; it has to do with knowing we are watching Tarantino play out his own reenactments with all his tongue-in-cheek (and sometimes spot-on) parody.

The moments of Dalton that get at something more complex are the doubts that plague an actor in his position. For an extended scene, he sits in a casting chair with his precocious costar (Julia Butters) recounting the two-bit western paperback he’s been reading. Through rather overt terms, he and the audience realize the downward spiral of the book’s hero describes him to a tee. And he sobs.

Otherwise, I find most of these interludes to be dead ends, only useful for watching Tarrantino avail himself of his own personal pleasures. The one exception is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) because his function is less about parody or homage.

He fits into this world but it feels more organic — not like Tarantino is pasting his creation into the boots of several other men. Like Gary Lockwood in Model Shop, or even Sharon Tate in this film, he is also afforded the luxury of meandering around town to make the most of the mimesis Tarantino has employed.

He resides in a Jim Rockford-like trailer hitch, beer in hand in front of the TV with his closest companion, his salivating dog Brandy. It instantly provides us something else delectably dilapidated. There’s nothing wrong with DiCaprio but I am drawn to Pitt’s characterization especially.

His loyalty feels indicative of some indestructible set of values and common decency. One might surmise his type of people are representative of all that was simultaneously right and wrong with America. Because it’s true you can start saying that about just about everyone. We all bring our share of good and bad into the world.

Even his detour to the old Spahn Movie Ranch — coaxed to the sketchy commune by Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), a coquettish member of the Mansion family, as he is — keeps with his sense of right and wrong. And even in a foreboding arena such as this, he walks toward it more like Dirty Harry than Jim Rockford. He seems indestructible and for all intent and purposes, he is. We know any attempt on him will be negligible as he casually makes his acquaintances and checks in on the old man (Bruce Dern).

The ending Tarantino wanted to keep hushed up is rather ironic for how unsurprising it really is, when you get right down to it. I hardly mean it as a spoiler. If you’ve seen even a bit of any of his oeuvre, you know what’s coming. The instant tip-off is the song  “12:30 (Young Girls Are Coming to The Canyon)” because if I wanted to make a film about Cielo Dr. or Laurel Canyon there’s no other choice. It’s one of the few instances of near on-the-nose song selection.

The lamentable thing is he somehow leaves behind all the best moments of Once Upon a Time behind — the fairy tale moments even — and winds up with something far more Tarantino-esque. His fans will be praising the glories of his name because he has done it again. That much is certain.

However, others of us will rue the potential wasted. What could have been a far more honest portrait than we might have ever thought the man capable of is like all the rest, a provocative, messy collage of ambitions and years of cultural relics skillfully sutured together.

But it feels again like Tarantino is more a gifted fanboy than a man with a genuine cinematic heart and soul. His aesthetic is cutting all of his heroes into something outrageously bombastic; because he boasts many, both high and low.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this style but after the momentary glimpse into something else, more promising even, it falls short of what could have been. Maybe it’s this reality that plants his dashed fairy tale most firmly in a problematic past we can never have back, even if we wanted it. What’s more, he had to bludgeon the magic out of the movie with an utterly Tarantino crescendo. Nothing can be taken seriously. Nothing is sacred.

3.5/5 Stars

The Revenant (2015)

The_Revenant_2015_film_poster (1)By definition, a revenant is someone who returns, but there is often a connotation that they are returning from the dead like a specter. The term gives major insight into Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest undertaking with Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s a fully immersive, grimy, gory, grisly, grizzly-filled piece of cinema caked in blood, sweat, and tears in every sense of the word.

Its production took the cast and crew to Canada and Argentina to shoot sequences that were probably just as desolate in person as they looked onscreen. In that way, Iñárritu did not fudge or cheat with the use of excessive computer-generated imagery. Even if his production was overlong and undoubtedly volatile, you could say he was rewarded with vast expanses of engulfing cinematic visuals. Emmanuelle Lubezki yet again probably becomes one of the film’s biggest assets and his use of natural lighting is superb. In truth, it’s a painful exhibition in acting by DiCaprio and this icy frostbitten wilderness becomes the backdrop for a gargantuan feat of survival.

What would inspire such a film? I think many people were asking that, and it does find some of its story from the true circumstances of Hugh Glass, a 19th-century explorer, trapper, and guide who was part of a fur trapping expedition out west. After enduring an onslaught from a group of belligerent Pawnee, Glass can hardly recover from a bear mauling that essentially leaves him a lifeless carcass of a man.

His scared and scattered band is just hoping to get to their outpost to regroup, but their leader (Domhnall Gleeson capping off a phenomenal year) is intent on holding onto Glass because he’s the only one who knows the way back. His main insubordinate is the grubby, paranoid, scumbag John Fitzgerald, played so invariably corrupt by Tom Hardy. Glasses Pawnee-born son, the young trapper Bridger (Will Poulter) and a reluctant Fitzgerald agree to stay behind with the feeble man, while the others push forward. But being the backstabber that he is, Fitzgerald looks to bury Glass alive or finish him off for good with his musket. It doesn’t make much difference to him, but Hawk doesn’t want to see his father dead. Fitzgerald could care less. After all, what is he supposed to do? Keep this man alive only so he might die too?

Bridger naively follows Fitzgerald’s lead and they leave Glass behind for dead. There is no man who could survive, half-frozen, half-dead and still find a way to live another day. That’s where the story goes into stage two of survival.

The images that follow are ceaselessly gripping with majestic landscapes that are raw and brutal in the same breath. DiCaprio forges through streams, makes fires by some miracle, and keeps warm any way humanly possible. To don such a role you almost have to give up any human sensibilities and allow yourself to simply exist. He crawls and claws painfully, eats raw meat torn from a dead bison carcass, and sleeps inside the hide of his dead horse. It should repulse us in our modern lifestyles of comfort and excess, but in the same sense, it is a fascinating portrait of realism taken to the extreme.

The final chapter follows Glass as he returns to the fort, gets in contact with Captain Henry, only to chase after the fleeing Fitzgerald one last time. When he caught news of the ghost man’s return from the dead he knew the implications. Dead men tell no tales, but it’s a different story if they don’t die.

Unfortunately, The Revenant is rather laborious in the end and it’s a fatalistic revenge tale certainly but it’s not altogether satisfying. True, the perpetrator of evil is brought to justice, but that doesn’t mean a great deal. Perhaps because we admire Glasses gumption, but we never really build a connection with him. He truly is a solitary figure looking to avenge the death of his boy. There’s not more to grab hold of with this dynamic, maybe due to the fact that he is really a ghost. He’s so gaunt, battered, and spent that there is little space for emotions to fill all the nooks and crannies. Only a constant, pulsing desire for vengeance.

Still, we can always go back and be contented in Lubezki’s gorgeously stark visuals. The frontier look of this film brought to mind Malick’s film (also with Lubezki) The New World for a brief instant, and it makes me want to give it another look. Otherwise, The Revenant stands as an impressive feat, but it does not quite have the emotional wallop that it had the potential to wield. Although, the performances are thoroughly impressive, even if it’s more for their singular commitment than anything else.

4/5 Stars

Catch me if You Can (2002)

Catch_Me_If_You_CanDirected by Steve Spielberg and starring Leonardo DiCapprio, Tom Hanks and Christopher Walken, the film chronicles the exploits of Frank Abagnale. As a boy int he 1960s he grew up with an American father and French mother but after they get a divorce Frank flees home for good. As his money runs out Frank begins to pull confidence scams and he goes so far as impersonating a Pan-Am airline pilot.

He slowly moves across the country and cashes forged checks adding up to millions of dollars. Soon the FBI catches wind of him and agent Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) begins to track Frank. By now Frank has masqueraded as a doctor and a lawyer while also finding time to get married. Hanratty starts to close in again and this time Frank heads to Europe where he uses more of his forged checks.

Frank has a run-in with the French authorities but Carl got him out of it only to have Frank escape once more into the U.S. This time he is caught for good and given a 12 year sentence despite his youth. But thanks to Carl, Frank is offered a job with the FBI to lend his talents to check fraud. And from that point on Frank’s life was relatively normal.

I really enjoyed this story line, DiCaprio is good, the soundtrack is great (Come Fly with Me!) and the title sequence is unique. All in all this is an entertaining cat and mouse game that is well worth the time.

4/5 Stars

The Departed (2006)

Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring an all-star cast including Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCapprio, Jack Nicholson, and many others, this is a crime thriller with an interesting concept. The plot has to do with two young men who were in the Massachusetts Police Academy. One is tailored by the Irish mobster Frank Costello to become a mole within the police. The other is called upon to infiltrate the mob before he graduates. Thus begins their dangerous assignments as each tires to find the rat in the other organization while also working to stay out of reproach. Costigan is able to get close to the vile Costello while Sullivan is part of the Special Investigation Unit and also begins a relationship with a psychologist. They must secretly keep contact with the other side but it becomes increasingly treacherous with one encounter leading to a chase and another in the death of a police captain. The heat is on as both men try and reveal the other mole. During a cocaine pick up Costello is traced to the spot and a chaotic shootout ensues. Everything seems calm again and yet Constello’s mole is still around and bent on erasing Costigan from record. They agree to meet on a roof top and from that point on the film moves so rapidly it is almost impossible to take in what happens. Everything seems confused and corrupted but ultimately it does not pay to be a rat. This film has a lot of coarse language and violence but in Scorsese’s hands it is still an intriguing film to watch.

4.5/5 Stars

Inception (2010)

Starring Leonardo Dicapprio, Joseph Gordon-Levit, Tom Hardy, and Ellen Page with direction by Christopher Nolan, the film follows the elaborate plot to plant an idea in someone’s mind. Dom Cobb is skilled at entering into peoples’ minds in order to steal ideas. However, in order to get back to a normal life now he must plant something instead. He gathers a team to help him enter the dreams successfully. However  they are not just going one level down but in fact several tiers into the mind. This will make  each successive perception more unstable and perilous. The team enters the first dream fine but soon they realize that their influential subject has built up defenses in his dreams. Furthermore, if they die the dream will not simply end but they will all be trapped in limbo. With those problems they enter the second tier and then the third and so on. Ultimately, Cobb must face one of his own realities or else all is lost. This film is so intriguing because it is different and in many ways it blows your mind (including the ambiguous ending).

5/5 Stars

The Aviator (2004)

ccda6-the_aviator_posterDirected by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio with a good ensemble cast, this biopic chronicle the life of Howard Hughes. The story begins when the ambitious young man begins to direct an epic movie that is nearly a disaster. After his success, we witness the life of this director, playboy, and above all aviator. He makes Scarface and then later The Outlaw. He has relationships with Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchet), a young teenage girl, and Ava Garner (Kate Beckinsdale). Then during the war he designs new planes and afterwards Hughes faces his greatest challenge. He is on the brink of disaster in his competition with Pan-Am and he is the subject of a near-damaging senate hearing. All the while his obsessive compulsive disorder gets worse. I found this film fascinating because I knew very little about Hughes. As a director himself, Scorsese also seemed to have sympathy for the man and also admiration for the olden days.

4.5/5 Stars

Titanic (1997)

c8571-titanic_posterStarring Leonardo DiCapprio with Kate Winslet and director James Cameron, the film opens with an exploration of the submerged Titanic. An interesting discovery puts the explorers in contact with an elderly woman who was there in April 1912. Rose recounts her arrival as a newly engaged 1st class passenger. She felt trapped in her life until she accidentally met Jack, a 3rd class drifter who won his ticket in a poker game. After he saves her life, their forbidden relationship continues as they spend more time together. Jack, who is an artist, even does a charcoal drawing of Rose. However, all too soon the unsinkable ship hits an iceberg and chaos ensues in the following hours. Heroically, once again Jack keeps Rose alive although he himself perishes in the cold. Back in the present Rose now keeps him alive with her memories. This epic romance is fairly good with a semi-autobiographical story, special effects, and a decent score.

4.5/5 Stars