Oscar Nominations 2020 – FILM REVIEW: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019)

Dir: Quentin Tarantino

Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.

Score: ★★★★★

One of the few directors to truly be a household name in the modern era, Tarantino is undoubtedly a master director, whether his work is to your taste or not. Debates to this point about which film is the best in his cannon (it’s Jackie Brown by the way) have been fierce over the years and whenever a new film comes along the comparisons to QT’s previous work are in the back of the mind of almost every film goer in the theatre. Public familiarity with a director has not really been seen on this level since Alfred Hitchcock, even the Spielberg’s and Scorsese’s of this world have cinemagoers viewing their films with an awareness of the director’s reputation or key past works, but not necessarily with such a clear understanding of the director’s body of work as a whole and following its developement. Tarantino’s strategy of making his films “events” and following (in more ways than one) the template of Once Upon A Time In The West / Once Upon A Time In America director Sergio Leone by keeping his output deliberately high quality and spaced out (i.e. limited), has created a generation of movie goers eagerly anticipating Tarantino’s next output with an eye to comparing it to old favourites.

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Stuntman Cliff Booth hangs out on set.

This arc, which started after Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction cemented QT as THE buzz director of the era resulted in a strange reaction to the very superior piece of filmmaking that was Jackie Brown. Everyone was ‘expecting’ something in the vein of Dogs or Pulp but whilst having the same DNA Jackie Brown wasn’t either of those movies and was all the better for it (and that is no slight on QT’s first two movies). With the visceral thrills of Kill Bill (where Quentin really did start to rip off Leone wholesale) and Death Proof, there was slight initial slump in reaction when Inglourious Basterds came along. Basterds biggest success (apart from hoiking the brilliant Christoph Waltz out of a 30+ year career in obscure police procedural dramas on German TV and bringing him to the attention of the world) was it’s masterful mood creation that for the first time actually started not just to imitate Sergio Leone sonically and visually but replicate a little of that greatness as a film maker. This move into more mature cinema (albeit laden with thrills and spills) was a initially a little baffling to some. Django again aped Leone but perhaps not with the same success of Basterds which is ironic given it’s Western setting and it’s re-run with Waltz. Then Tarantino again explored the Western in The Hateful Eight in what was a mostly one room set tour de force, that mixed a little of the Leone/Morricone magic with a big dollop of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Chances are anyone reading this has seen most if not all of these movies and it is in that context we can see the mixed reaction to Tarantino’s ninth feature Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.

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Sharon Tate dances at a 60s Playboy mansion party.

The meandering story of now jobbing TV actor Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) who was once the star of his own show (Bounty Law) and his no nonsense, yet slightly maverick stuntman Cliff Booth (Pitt) navigating their half cut Hollywood career against the backdrop of the late 60s Hollywood hills life, living next door to Roman Polanksi and Sharon Tate (and yes you guessed it) in the periphery of the Manson family. With flashes of QT’s Kill Bill style gimmickery such as Cliff Booth’s scrap with Bruce Lee that is admittedly necessary for the character, but all the same rather insulting to Lee (despite an excellent imitation by Mike Moh) and generally a little juvenile, this film is by and large notable for it’s comparative restraint. Gone are the fast talking bullshitters that so famously spout Tarantino’s much revered dialogue and the constant spikes of uber violence and instead what remains is a remarkable essay on cinema from one of it’s greatest obsessives. Much of what is great about OUATIH is Quentin’s mood setting. If 1917 had a whiff of Call Of Duty about it, this embodies the calmer moments of a sort of 60s Grand Theft Auto, as character’s cruise the Hollwyood Hills and downtown LA simply listening to their radios. The film creates it’s own sort of real time reality that Tarantino then chops up into multiple perspectives relating to cinema, TV, screenplays, storytelling and acting.

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Rick Dalton on the set of a cowboy flick.

We see clips of Dalton in his fictional TV series and feature film roles associated with the character (in their corresponding film stock), and even in an imagined roles when he discusses his near miss of getting Steve McQueen’s part in The Great Escape. Tarantino places Dicaprio’s Dalton right into Steve McQueen’s spot in an exceptionally fun bit of CGI. We even see Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) telling us the story of director Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate at a party and later we see Sharon Tate going to the movies to see a movie she is in. Except our Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) isn’t in it. It’s the real movie and we see scenes of Margot Robbie watching the real Sharon Tate. At one point we see lengthy sections of Rick Dalton filming a Western that go on for long enough that we begin to follow the story of the movie Rick is shooting instead of our story, only to be jolted out of it by fluffed line readings, that then sees the camera (the same camera we have seen our story through the whole movie through, not a stylised retro film camera as before) re-adjust the shots as it passes seamlessly into the realm of being the camera for the movie within the movie. Sounds complex? It is, but not in the moment we are watching it. It easily makes sense with QT’s direction right from seeing Dalton learning lines at home to basically providing a sort of DVD commentary with Brad Pitt as they watch one of Dalton’s starring TV roles on the box. Things from our real world, move in and out of Tarantino’s cinematic world as easily items and ideas skip from the ‘TV  / film’ personas of the onscreen characters, into their real life and back.

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The creepy Manson family ranch where Lena Dunham and Margaret Qualley ‘welcome’ Brad Pitt.

Whilst Brad Pitt clearly has tremendous skill in playing what seems to be his sort of effortless self, in what is one of the greatest vicarious characters QT has ever created, Quentin & Pitt tread a skilful tightrope to create a special kind of trust from the audience in this otherwise roguish morally dubious stuntman. But it is in the end another very fine hour for Leo. Seeing Dicaprio playing Dalton, playing a villainous cowboy in one of the films within the film is something very special. Incredibly engaging, humorous, interesting and in fact moving, the moment when the studious acting scholar of a little girl who is Dalton’s co-star whispers on set “That was the best acting I have seen in my whole life” you not only wonder about her motivation for saying it, you almost wonder whether she is saying it to Rick Dalton or Leo Dicaprio! OUATIH is masterpiece of breaking the fourth wall without ever actually breaking it. Even a nerdy montage narrated by Kurt Russell that is ostensibly about the poster art of spaghetti westerns can’t break the spell that is Tarantino’s most spellbinding work to date. There is some of QT’s shock value, and much of his sense of humour, but the film sails along on an undercurrent of the warm summer of 1969 tinseltown, and more brilliantly than ever uses Quentin’s usual exploitation cinema trick of being merciless towards history’s irredeemable figures (Nazi’s, slave owners etc.) in this case it’s the Manson family. Needless to say the production design, costumes, all the technical aspects are all absolute top drawer and done with real verve even the soundtrack which is not yet being recognised on the same level as other Tarantino movies is pitch perfect. As long as you have a little sense of the real life story of Charles and the Manson family, it’s a whole heap of fun to see the whole affair play out as the backdrop to a brilliantly weaved friendship between Dalton & Booth, and while Quentin’s ninth feature isn’t quite as good as his third, it’s a strong contender for the No. 2 spot.

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