Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood


It boggles my mind that this film came from Quentin Tarantino. With his work so far, I've only been able to find respect, and tidbits of enjoyment as I watched the masterfully crafted scenes -- featuring characters I didn't particularly care about, doing things that I didn't really understand. I wouldn't say there's absolutely no heart or meaning to any of them, but with all that glorious violence and excessive swearing that stylishly coats the picture in distraction, "heartfelt" is certainly not the first quality that enters my head when this filmmaker's name is mentioned. Until today.

I loved how in the filming scenes, the camera becomes the in-movie scene's camera as well. The crew disappears until the scene cuts, just as it should. The magic of movies is portrayed in this movie -- but there's cynicism too.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood follows the lives of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor who was a big time hit in the 50's with a cowboy TV show, and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick's long-time friend and stunt double. Now Rick does guest appearances as villains and Cliff drives him around. Also, Rick just so happens to live right next door to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) who is doomed to be murdered by cultist hippies. The film watches with a keen eye as they navigate Hollywood in 1969, imparting a surprising amount of insight and honesty onto the audience as it goes.

No movie can exist these days without controversy. This one has more than a few, and my two cents on the overall subject is that it's all contrived. If you don't like the way any number of real-life characters are portrayed in this film, there's no demand for you to believe or trust that characterization. This movie has a perspective and is honest about that. It's hard to say what is true, especially when fiction and reality are so blurred together as they are here; the point isn't that what the film shows us is true or really happened (most of it didn't) but it uses our knowledge of history to build a compelling, fictional narrative and story.

Great era music. And so much of it! Also, Robbie is a wonder of physical acting in this. She portrays so much, and becomes absolutely mythical. People complaining she doesn't have as many lines as the men have no concept of the power of silence.

At the heart of the story is Cliff -- an admirable guy who experiences the Hollywood film business as an impartial outsider. He lives in a trailer behind a drive-in theater with his dog, and doesn't get to do what he loves anymore -- stunt work -- so he putters around, acting as chauffeur for Rick and doing odd jobs for him, reminiscing about the days when he could show up the stuck-up elite, and generally being an all-around unappreciated hero. While Rick pretends to be a hard-boiled cowboy, Cliff is off actually being one; bringing a little more justice to the world with practiced control and a level head.

As a result, this movie succeeds in being my favorite effort of Tarantino's and my favorite role of Pitt's. I'll readily admit that I've never been a super-fan of either, but I've never been closer than I am now. The unnoticed hero is a trope that wins with me every time, and this movie pulls it off in spectacular fashion and doesn't shove it in your face; appropriately, it lets the actions of its characters speak for themselves. The rest of the movie and characters do their jobs; whether to juxtapose the hero, drive the plot, create tension, or make a one-off statement, this movie brims with talent and they do a brilliant job.

It is 2 hours and 41 minutes; and not an inch too long. Stuffed full, but not rushed or bursting. The travelling scenes were great. Whether through city by car, or desert by horse, I like that it took the time to relish moments like those.

This movie worked on me. The effect it was crafted to have; the impact it was intended to make, landed solid and stuck. Even if it hadn't, Tarantino still has an ability to make good and artful films. Its humor was funny, its style infectious, and its scenes and structure had flow. It felt indulgent, but not snobbishly; lingering where it wanted to, but having a reason, and knowing how to balance. Of course it's good; few people would deny that Tarantino can put together a movie. My unexpectedly great admiration comes from the personal meaning within all the expected Hollywood trappings.

Once Upon a Time in... is a Tarantino flick through and through; and, perhaps, a little bit more. The highlight still comes from his patent rich and memorable characters, and wild and memorable scenes. It's as brazen, gory, and careless -- as always. But it's also oddly tender, understanding, and even regretful. It feels like a fairytale. As if someone wished, and then worked hard to make that wish come true, even if briefly. Technical prowess aside, the kind of movie that bares its soul in that way is a movie worthy of the name.

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