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With: Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie, Margaret Qualley, Dakota Fanning, Damon Herriman, Austin Butler, Emile Hirsch, Scoot McNairy, Luke Perry, Al Pacino, Nicholas Hammond, Spencer Garrett, Mike Moh, Lena Dunham, Damian Lewis, Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell, Timothy Olyphant, Zoë Bell, James Marsden, Michael Madsen, James Remar, Brenda Vaccaro, Maya Hawke, Rebecca Gayheart
Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references
Running Time: 161
Date: 07/25/2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Tate and Switch

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (stylized as Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood) brings the filmmaker back to Los Angeles for the first time since his Kill Bill, films and, though the story is set fifty years in the past, in 1969, he seems to feel at home again.

The city, and the way it connects, disconnects, and moves, and the way a million stories can be happening at any time, right under our noses, is intrinsic to Tarantino's best films, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown.

That place in which movies and dreams are made also allows the filmmaker to lay down his own brand of film criticism, not unlike Jean-Luc Godard's own early crime films (Breathless, Pierrot le Fou, etc.). However, Tarantino is less intellectual and more enthusiastic than Godard.

Any number of posters and movie marquees here show off a wide array of 1968-69 titles, from the familiar to the obscure. Meanwhile, he uses these images to sort and defend second-tier crime and action films, Westerns, martial arts films, etc., and re-brands them as art. It's criticism as collage.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood centers on three main characters. The fictitious Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a hard-drinking, fading action/cowboy actor, fallen from his former leading roles to playing bad guys on TV pilots.

The also fictitious Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is his longtime stunt double, now relegated to driving Rick around and taking care of his home repairs. Cliff is cool-headed and uncomplaining, and definitely a guy you'd want on your side in a fight.

Over the course of a couple of days, Dalton goes to work on a new Western while struggling with his art, while Cliff keeps running into a flirty teen called Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), seeking a ride to Spahn Ranch.

Living next door to Rick, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is an actress, who in real life appeared in Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers, and Mark Robson's Valley of the Dolls. In real life, Tate married Polanski and was shortly thereafter murdered by members of the Manson Family.

While Rick and Cliff are doing their thing, she pops into a movie theater to enjoy the crowd's reactions to her performance in her new movie, The Wrecking Crew, a Matt Helm adventure starring Dean Martin.

Tarantino weaves together disparate threads of story, and threads that are just cool movie lore. For example, Bruce Lee (ably impersonated by Mike Moh) actually worked as a consultant on The Wrecking Crew, and actually worked with Tate.

But the movie also shows us a memory/flashback/fantasy in which Cliff is challenged to a fight with Lee, and winds up losing his job.

Tarantino also latches onto an obscure bit of film history, wherein actors of Dalton's ilk were lured to Italy to make Westerns, dubbed "Spaghetti Westerns," which were considered sub-par (but which worked out great for actors like Clint Eastwood).

Dalton goes and finds success working for the (real) director Sergio Corbucci in a (fake) movie called Nebraska Jim. (A poster for a real Corbucci movie, the masterful The Mercenary, adorns the wall of the movie theater Tate attends.)

Many scenes of driving, accompanied by scads of late 1960s pop songs blaring from tinny car speakers, loop in and around the story, tying knots.

In one long driving scene, Cliff makes his way home, to a trailer behind a drive-in movie theater, and feeds his dog. It's a virtually meaningless scene, but it's nonetheless mesmerizing, and, like almost everything in the movie, meets its other, matching end at a later point.

Essentially, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood uses some fictional elements and some sorta-true elements to discuss a cycle of violence, screen to life and then to screen again. For example, one of the Manson children posits the idea of responding to violence on television with violence on those that created it.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood doesn't follow the actual line of history regarding Tate and Manson and doesn't pretend to. Like Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, it offers an alternate ending and a bit of a revenge fantasy.

To some, this may feel cheap, or like a cheat. To Tarantino, it's where lines diverge, where reality and artifice don't, and can never, meet. Film can be manipulated, and he enjoys dismantling these manipulations and showing how they work. Even when the movie is partly about something that happened in real life, it has here turned into cinema, and is now part of that process.

Yet Tarantino's trick is that, while Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is intellectually unpacking and re-packing things, it also defies expectations. Its lengthy, dreamy shots open up scenes, rather than cutting them short, and emerges as a beautiful piece of work.

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