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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

by Glenn Erickson Dec 24, 2019

Two givens for Los Angeles living in 1969: perpetual driving around listening to the radio, and stereo cartridge needles dropping onto record grooves. Those things were the basics of our existence!  CineSavant closes out his pre-Christmas cheer with his favorite picture of ’19. It’s possibly Quentin Tarantino’s best. Yes, yes I know it has that crazy finale, but overall it has much less violence than most anything else he’s done. Plus it has scenes that can be described as heartwarming, and quietly sentimental… practically new territory for this director. The respect shown for Sharon Tate is gratifying. Bring us more great stories that inspire you this way, Mr. T. !


Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
4K UltraHD + Blu-ray + Digital
Sony/Columbia
2019 / Color / 2:40 widescreen / 161 min. / Street Date December 10, 2019 / 27.96
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Mike Moh, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Al Pacino, Nicholas Hammond, Samantha Robinson, Rafal Zawierucha, Lorenza Izzo, Costa Ronin, Damon Herriman, Clu Gulager, Kurt Russell, Zoë Bell, Michael Madsen, James Remar.
Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Film Editor: Fred Raskin
Choreography: Toni Basil
Production Design Barbara Ling
Produced by David Heyman, Shannon McIntosh, Quentin Tarantino
Written and Directed by
Quentin Tarantino

 


Good film-going luck can be when a movie you really want to see, one you might remember all your life, isn’t spoiled by the onslaught of pre-release publicity, content leaks on social media, and ‘friends’ that can’t wait to hit you with spoilers. It made a big difference that I saw pictures like The Birds, Jaws, and Vertigo without having a clue what they were about; I lucked out and saw the 1975 favorite Obsession the day before a criminally thoughtless TV reviewer dismissed it as nonsense and blurted out, ‘…and she turns out to be his DAUGHTER!’

Talking about up ‘n coming films can be fun when you have insider information. It was a trip telling people that a dumb-sounding show called Star Wars was going to take their heads off, enjoying the cruel illusion of being better connected. No longer feeling that pressure today, I resist knowing too much about movies. Seeing The Shape of Water with zero preparation made it twice as good, I’m certain. When possible, there really is an extra kick in knowing just the title, or an actor or two, and letting one’s self be surprised.

Sometime in 2017 or early 2018, when I was still recovering from the depressing experience of Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, I heard that his next would be called Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

 

That sounded good until the news came down that the movie would be about the Manson family killings in 1969, at which point my interest dropped to nothing. In late July or early August of 2018 I saw some of the cosmetic changes done to Hollywood Blvd, and then I was tipped off that the front of Paramount Studios, all of three blocks away, had been altered to represent Columbia Pictures. ← I ran over and got this snap just in time, before the vintage posters were taken down.   (It enlarges.)

Then I heard that the awful Tate-LaBianca murders weren’t the subject of the movie, but more like context, a sidebar concern. So we took a chance and saw the film on its first weekend. I guess I was the perfect audience for OUATIH, for it took my head off. I posted this quick note on July 30, and I still like everything I said:

Zero Spoilers!

I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino’s newest. I’d talk about it in more detail, but most everything plot-wise or style-wise would be a spoiler, and that’s just bad form. This is the first picture since The Shape of Water that I felt compelled to see on its first weekend. I’m glad that I knew nothing about what would happen — avoiding the trailer and publicity paid off handsomely. The 1969 Los Angeles setting feels very familiar, even though I came to town in late 1970 and didn’t get out of the UCLA dorms much until ’71. I think the hippie population of Hollywood Blvd. had thinned out somewhat, but I do remember a classmate being nailed for ignorantly, innocently smoking a joint as he walked by Grauman’s Chinese, and being put through hell for it. What could he say — he was from Oxnard, and L.A. just seemed like a place where one could do anything.

I barely watched the news at that time yet was acutely aware of the Manson murders. Our first dorm outing in Fall ’70 was to go explore Stony Point out by the Santa Susana Pass. We saw bikers threaten picnickers at the big park out there, the one with the railroad tunnel from White Heat. Only years later did my toes curl when I read Vincent Bugliosi’s book Helter Skelter and realized that the remnants of the Manson clan were still at large — bikers, cowboys and hippies — roaming in the same environs.

 

The show struck me like a perpetual motion dream of driving around town ‘in the day.’ When the stuntman character Cliff drives on the 101, we immediately notice the sound wall barriers, that didn’t exist in 1970. To get to the Spahn Ranch, he’d have to go to the end of the Freeway and continue on surface streets for several miles. I laughed when Cliff’s trailer is parked behind the Van Nuys drive-in theater. When somebody mentioned ‘Panorama City,’ I realized that I’m not sure where Panorama City is exactly, and I’ve lived here almost fifty years now.

Bob Birchard drove Randy Cook and I to the Larry Edmunds Bookstore several times; it was very close to the ‘Supply Sergeant’ across from the Vogue Theater, where I remember later seeing The Wind and the Lion in 70mm. Westwood in the movie is a vision; as an usher and assistant manager in the chain that owned The National and The Village and The Bruin, these were my stomping grounds in film school. I once recognized Alan Alda in a ticket line and invited him in to see the show without paying. Back at the Norton Air Force Base I had winced through the whole smarmy mess that is The Wrecking Crew. Somewhere between Murderer’s Row and The Ambushers, Dean Martin and Matt Helm became terminally uncool… or I stopped being quite so immature.

Once Upon a Time gets that intersection with The Village and The Bruin correct, except that the great Italian restaurant Mario’s is no longer katty-korner from The Bruin. Anyway, when I worked a parking lot in Westwood in ’72, I’d stop off in the morning at the little snack stand we see opposite The Bruin, where Sharon Tate crosses the street. A Westwood movie cost $3 at that time, and through most of the ’70s. But since I made about $20 a week part-time, Westwood movies were out of the question. Becoming an usher solved that problem, with free passes.

 

Tarantino’s latest is still a mix of his peculiar notions, but he’s in such a reverent mode that he leaves some of his more aggressive moves behind. He doesn’t have to play sassy genre games as his story is already immersed in film culture — the context of show biz, TV, features, commercials, Spaghetti westerns keeps the movie references lively. His mix of pop music and AM radio cacophony creates a fairly accurate picture of the times, even if a starving student like myself never got nearer to the glitz than the fancy hipsters that parked in my Westwood parking lot. Any fans of Paul Revere and the Raiders in the house?  The Child of Wonder known as Sharon Tate comes off as a life-loving fan of everything.

The characterizations are marvelous, and the way Tarantino intersects with creepy-crawly Manson lore is inspired. We sit in dread through most of the picture, trying to remember dates — shouldn’t Sharon Tate be pregnant now?  Is the particular song on her car radio commenting on that?  The same goes for the song Twelve Thirty, with the lyric ‘Young Girls are Coming to the Canyon,’ which in this context chills the blood. The bits of murderous Charlie M. philosophy offered by his ‘witchy’ operatives seem right-on accurate. It’s no longer prominent on Manson’s rap sheet, but the Bugliosi book established Charlie as a core White Supremacist. His psycho fantasy-excuse was to foment a black bloodbath, and then prevail because ‘blackie’ is stupid and needs to be led by somebody. Hey, MAGA. (actually, author Alex Williams recently presented new theories conflicting with those of Vincent Bugliosi.)

The finish for me was almost magical, with the ‘Once Upon a Time…’ title eliciting a sentimental reaction. Even though it deals with Hollywood’s most traumatic crime, Tarantino’s picture might be his least violent (well, overall). Only once or twice does he go Over the Top with violent hyperbole. I laughed out loud at the audacity of one scene, which becomes a bizarre re-cap of an equally outrageous scene in, of all things, a Mexican horror import.

 

Now I have to dig through 10,000 disorganized discs in search of the old TV movie Helter Skelter with Steve Railsback. Why it wasn’t remastered to coincide with the release of Tarantino’s picture, is a mystery. Rather than dump a pile of spoilers here, I might review Once Upon at Time In Hollywood later when it hits disc… you know, long after anything original I might have to say has been raked over fifty times in other reviews.

In this show, QT doesn’t toss ‘cool’ music around just because he can. Randy Cook pointed out on FB a sentimental jolt he received from Tarantino’s choice for a concluding music cue, which took me a minute to figure out. It’s Maurice Jarre, not Ennio Morricone… and both the song and the source movie are odes to a beloved actress lost to time. I’d rate Once Upon a Time… up at the top of Tarantino’s output, neck and neck with Jackie Brown.

If you’re going to see it, do it quick. Hey, I can even recommend it to my daughter — it has a heroic dog!

 

That’s how I felt about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood six months ago, and my feelings haven’t changed after seeing it twice on Blu-ray. I still don’t have any incredible insights to offer, as the show speaks for itself. But I would like to react to some reactions I have heard, and questions I fielded from correspondents, especially those younger than myself.

Hollywood and Westwood were indeed ‘hippieville’ in the early ’70s. In Westwood, which was at the time much more accessible to relatively cash-challenged UCLA students, I ran into the Saturday night crowd of occasional celebrities, vagabond thieves and random girls wanting to know if I had some weed, or a place to sleep. Bikers were just plain scary. The movie industry was still a closed shop locked up by the guilds, with ‘who you know’ being everything. Most of the crews were older men who had been working for 25 years, and hated kids that might take their jobs. The young guys that had gotten in were not much better.

 

Tarantino’s vision of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, a star from late- ’50s TV westerns, left some of my friends totally cold, because they found Dalton untalented and undeserving. I thought Dalton was very appealing, as an insecure actor trying hard not to be an obsolete joke. Rick must act successful, when he’s ready to break down in tears the moment someone calls him a has-been. Dalton’s Hullaballoo bit is inspired: he can dance a bit and sort-of sing, but he’s yet another overaged TV face trying to stay current any way he can.

The fictional Rick Dalton’s career parallels that of TV actors that found work in Italy but didn’t turn into another Clint Eastwood. Agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) says that Rick’s guest-star gigs as bad guys will run him out of the business. The detail Tarantino presents of Dalton’s imagined Italo career is as obsessive as the barrage of radio hits and signage for TV shows.

Perhaps the Western TV show within Once Upon at Time is too drawn out, but we get to see that Rick Dalton has enough experience to perform well, even while having to act palsy-walsy with the younger star played by Timothy Olyphant, and putting up with the cosmic-grade BS-patronization of the director Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond). I personally was moved by Dalton’s personal acting triumph, and having his wounded self-esteem re-ignited by the praise of a precocious 8-year old child star Trudi Fraser (Julia Butters, top ↑ ). Trudi apparently has a mother instinct for frightened actors slipping into middle-age. Of course, a cynic might see Trudi Fraser as already having mastered the art of staying alive in the Hollywood shark tank. Does she dispense intimate praise to every actor she works with, knowing that most will love her til the day they die for doing so?

Note that Mr. Hipster Quentin goes for emotions in OUATIH not seen in his other films. His movies about killer cars and cool assassins don’t have this level of sentiment. It’s really refreshing, thinking that Quentin might actually climb out of his hipster cocoon to show some compash.

 

Tarantino puts his movie over the top by doubling down on honest, non-ironic sentiment. He portrays Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) as a gleaming ray of hope in Tinseltown, a magic bright-eyed optimist with unlimited potential for success. Looking fantastic in short-shorts and go-go boots doesn’t hurt, and Sharon is also smart and funny. Tarantino has The Wrecking Crew playing The Bruin Westwood in early ’69. When I first set eyes on Westwood in the summer of ’70, the big show was Catch-22, and The Bruin was playing M*A*S*H. Back in San Bernardino, The Wrecking Crew had been disposable double-bill fodder. I don’t recommend seeing The Wrecking Crew to savor Tate’s talent — everybody’s terrible in that, and she’s just passable.

Once Upon spends most of its time setting up the buddy relationship between Dalton and his stoop ‘n’ fetch aide Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), whose stunt career has stalled over a scandal and some bad business with TV star/martial arts dervish Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). Cliff is the genuine hero type, easygoing to a fault yet always ready to rumble. Friends is Friends, and Cliff doesn’t mind being a gopher ’cause Rick Dalton stays loyal… and folk in Hollywood that honor such commitments are a rarity to be cherished. Dalton and Booth must interact with Hollywood sharpies, all of whom pretend to be close friends. Stunt coordinator Randy Miller (Kurt Russell) schmoozes with Rick but doesn’t bother to disguise his contempt for Cliff.

[ My personal ‘Cliff Booth’ story is a hell of a memory — effects man Steve Lombardi saved Nancy Allen’s life. He was providing smoke or something while hanging on the outside of an airplane mockup, with Ms. Allen and Tim Matheson inside. A flash fire ignited in the cockpit from pillow feathers and bullet hits. Nancy thought she was on fire, panicked and jumped out of the mockup — 12 feet above a concrete floor. Lombardi was like Tarzan. In one smooth move he reached out in mid-air, grabbed her arm and hung on until others rushed up to help. It was a hero moment, for sure. ]

 

Before getting into the controversial violence of Once, I think it needs to be pointed out that Quentin Tarantino, for all his adoration of ’70s trash cinema, is reserved and restrained when it comes to sex scenes and nudity, which is what a lot of trash cinema doted on. The women may talk as dirty as the men, but nobody’s being exploited. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an exploitative nude scene in a Tarantino picture. He in fact gave Pam Grier a wonderful gift in Jackie Brown, the kind of part that A.I.P. would never give her. His heroines take plenty of rough stuff — I have to think that Jennifer Jason Leigh is a major masochist — and Uma Thurman’s memories of Kill Bill aren’t flattering. But Once Upon a Time, in my view, doesn’t exploit anyone.

I think most viewers are okay with the film’s surprise finale. I’ve remembered a lot of scary facts from the book Helter Skelter, and like everyone else not tipped off to Quentin’s narrative switcheroo, was nervous as hell when the fateful evening arrived. Both music and narration set us up for the historical horrors, almost like Corman’s The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre: “On the last day of his life…”

I don’t think our collective reaction to the last scene is bloodlust — just relief and elation. Even with the bashing and smashing (let’s hear it for Ma Bell), the sensation of disaster turning into triumph, of evil defeated hasn’t been this good since Horror of Dracula. William Bayer said that a movie succeeds when the audience realizes that its fantasy is one they wanted, but didn’t know they wanted. Tarantino gives us a finish that supplants reality with something BETTER. Tex and Sadie’s witchy crew find not a soft target, but instead the last man in Hollywood they want to threaten.

 

Is the last scene at Dalton’s exaggerated, outrageous, offensive?  It’s a dream devoutly to be wished. From the moment Tex’s car drives off — the moment when history gives way to wishful fantasy — I could feel my audience rise with hope, like Walter Brennan at the end of Red River, saying “I was worried but it’s gonna be alright.” Quentin’s going to defy time and space, and save us all with Guy Maddin’s power of pure Kino. Cliff is tripping on an acid-laced cigarette, and all he has for defense is a can of Wolf’s Tooth Dog Food. All that does is even the odds a little.

As for Rick Dalton, he slips into an impossible fantasy where one of his ‘Fists of McClusky’ becomes the best tool imaginable for the task at hand. This fairy tale of exaggerated movie violence is related to what Q.T. did 11 years before in Inglourious Basterds. Only those viewers indoctrinated by 300 escapist, sadistic WW2 fantasies can understand Tarantino’s reverse-holocaust at the end of Inglourious, where the only real reference was to old movies. In OUATIH we’re completely receptive to the fantasy of an unforeseen event derailing the mission of Manson’s evil minions. A car breaking down would have sufficed, but for the killers to walk into a preposterous ambush is a gift from heaven. John Ford once said something to the effect of wanting to make ‘a tragedy that turned into a comedy,’ and that’s what we’re given. Wouldn’t it have been nice if John Wilkes Booth slipped on a banana peel?

By now everybody knows the significance of the Maurice Jarre tune at the end. The driveway voice box on Cielo Drive gets used for a movie-star neighbor meeting, instead of being famous for bloody fingerprints. William Bayer was right — Once Upon a Time In Hollywood ‘tells our story’ in the same way that American Graffiti told our story: we feel personally connected. Quentin Tarantino has cinematic prowess to spare, in my book. When he wants to be profound and touching, he is.


 

Sony/Columbia’s 4K UltraHD + Blu-ray + Digital of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a beauty, as expected. The movie’s credits list a wealth of CGI effects people, but the what we see doesn’t look jiggered, especially after seeing those city blocks re-dressed to reach back to another time. Friends have complained that Tarantino pushes too much signage, atmosphere, and radio racket in our faces, but it feels correct to me. Hollywood is the one place that OUGHT to be overrun with advertising in poor taste. And Tarantino has immortalized both horror host Seymour, and an ultimate midnite movie for insomniacs, Teenage Monster. Now that’s getting into Los Angeles minutiae.

The 4K Ultra HD practically matches what I saw in the theater — a hot night in the Hollywood Hills looks very, very real.

I normally bypass most studio-produced new movie featurette fluff, but I was curious to see more about OUATIH and found this set to be way smarter than most. There’s a general making of, a testament to the Director of Photography, and pieces about the cars, the restoration of Hollywood’s theater fronts, and the film’s terrific costumes.

I also gravitated toward the ‘7 additional scenes’ touted on the box cover. These sadly did not feature the deleted work of Tim Roth or Brenda Vaccaro. The added footage with Charlie Manson was well done but we’re glad it was cut out. The western TV show within the movie has a lot more material that’s also better left as a disc extra.

The second and third time through I felt more connected with Rick and Cliff’s odd working relationship, and respected even more the way Tarantino presented Sharon Tate and the various Manson Family members. Cliff walking a gauntlet of suspicious killer hippies is just as absurd as Rick Dalton’s Bounty Killer slaughtering bad guys for public consumption every week on TV. Old Matt Dillon was always given a bogus law ‘n’ order excuse, as those durn varmints just never gave him a choice. Rick and Cliff don’t have a choice either. We sure wish they were our neighbors, even if their dog is plain scary.

I don’t know what the buzz is on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but I hope it’s remembered come Oscar time. The only really serious complaint against it is its portrayal of Bruce Lee as a troublemaking braggart, which amuses me. I don’t think Lee’s legend will be tarnished.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
4K UltraHD + Blu-ray + Digital rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Featurettes, deleted scenes.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES
; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Ultra-HD disc, one Blu-ray and digital code in Keep case
Reviewed:
December 23, 2019
(6173holl)CINESAVANT

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About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.