Many of you like reading movie reviews. Not being able to “go to the movies” clearly isn’t stopping America from inhaling cinematic product at home.
Much of the audience was doing that already, as a matter of choice. The time window between theatrical release date and appearance on pay-per-view cable and streaming channels had dwindled to almost nothing even before we were told to stay indoors on pain of death. Some releases, while regarded in some ever-blurrier aesthetic divide as movies rather than TV, actually premiere or are only viewable on the home screen. Movies made by and for companies like Netflix are eligible for Oscar nominations so long as they are screened for seven days in a cinema in Los Angeles County — and who knows how long that technicality will stand?
Whether the age of coronavirus will prove the death knell of our accustomed distinction between the two media is a ripe subject for think pieces, but this wasn’t meant to be one. This is Almanac’s film critic dipping a toe in the water of reviewing what’s newly available, moviewise, on your TV. If this is something you’d like to see continue, we hope you’ll let us know.
The actual review
One of the first recent titles made for the big screen whose debut on a premium cable channel came immediately in the wake of Covid 19 self-isolation is one of Hollywood’s odes to itself, made by a director defined by his affection for B movies. Quentin Tarantino buys wholeheartedly into the film industry’s identity as a “dream factory” even as he de-romanticizes and deconstructs it bit by bit, reminding us that our nostalgia about old movies and TV shows tends to obscure how bad these products often were. “Embrace the badness” seems to be his mantra, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is its apotheosis.
One’s home media den may be the perfect way to experience this movie, in large part because, at two hours and 41 minutes, it is way, way too long. You’ll want to take breaks. For all his directorial skill, confidence and ability to write snappy dialogue, Tarantino succumbs all too often to his greatest weakness: self-indulgence. His narratives are too rambly, his obligatory scenes of violence too relentlessly graphic, his encyclopedic knowledge of cinema and television too ostentatiously on display.
No one gets to rein this guy in. That’s a mixed blessing. Sometimes he takes us places we didn’t know we wanted to go until we got there, and at other times he’s wasting our attention span on several too many pop culture references, just showing off.
Like Inglorious Basterds, Once Upon a Time… is an alternate history imagining how a bad time might’ve ended better — in itself a commentary on how movie magic can reshape and add gloss to our perceptions of the past. In this case, the climactic event is the Tate/LaBianca killings in August 1969. What if, Tarantino asks, the Manson gang was really after someone else who’d slighted them? What if some diversion had changed the outcome of their murderous rampage? And what might the lives of these fictional interlopers have looked like?
While the title will evoke fairytales for some, it’s intended more as homage to the 1970s spaghetti Westerns that the director especially loves. And making spaghetti Westerns is the ignominious fate that his protagonist, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), is trying to avoid, his once-illustrious career starring in early TV Westerns having dwindled into bit parts, mainly as villains. Significantly, Rick happens to live next door to the house being rented by Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski. His best friend, driver and assistant is his longtime stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who’s also having difficulty finding work in a changing Hollywood — although in his case, it’s partly on account of a rumor that he murdered his wife, a character inspired by Natalie Wood.
For this viewer, Tarantino’s storytelling style is most powerful when he has the self-discipline to leave things out and to let his actors underplay their roles. The audience is never told whether Cliff’s reputation is true, for example, but we see how it influences the judgment of people around him. Nor do we know for sure whether his recollection of a confrontation with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of the Green Hornet TV series is accurate or a fantasy. While the depiction of Lee as a swaggering narcissist is every bit as cringeworthy as you may have heard, the episode sets us up to suspend our disbelief when the laid-back character of Cliff is called upon to bust heads effectively later on in the story.
Pitt’s Oscar-winning turn is the best acting in the movie precisely because it’s mostly understated. When he needs to fix Rick’s TV antenna (and notice what’s going on at the Tate/Polanski place), a couple of nonchalant moves take him up to the roof, demonstrating his stuntman chops without further comment. DiCaprio’s Rick is much more of a drama queen, a fading star afflicted by imposter syndrome, often frustrated to the verge of tears by his failures. We are told that he has an alcohol problem, but more effectively shown that he has a nicotine problem — though that’s probably intended mainly to evoke the time and place when Angelenos spent entirely too much of their time chain-smoking and driving cars. (Twenty minutes of this movie could’ve been productively trimmed by losing some of the driving-around shots.)
Di Caprio’s big thespian set piece, a Gollum-versus-Sméagol argument with himself in a trailer dressing room after he has just blown a take, provides a prime example of the director not knowing when to reel things in a bit. Or perhaps it was part of Tarantino’s intent, as meta-commentary on the function of Hollywood, to let Rick’s most convincing moments be the ones when the character is actually on set, portraying an actor in the process of acting. When Rick is on form, he’s actually good at what he does. It’s when he’s left in his own company that he comes across as hokey. In any case, we’re left with the impression that the right guy got the statuette this time.
Less well-served is the character of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), whose parallel journey over the days leading up to the Manson Family’s infamous raid is rendered mainly with admiring shots of her long legs and feet (if you didn’t know before this movie that Tarantino has an obsession with feet, you will now). She’s given almost no dialogue and thus comes off as a vapid, talent-free sexpot starlet — though there is a little daft charm in the scenes where she’s anonymously enjoying her own performance in a Matt Helm spy movie amidst the audience in an LA movie theater.
This is not a director who has much of a clue what to do with women characters, as a rule. While it may be an accurate depiction of the white-male-dominated movie industry in 1969, this deficit may detract from your enjoyment of Once Upon a Time…. Hollywood has never really known how to depict hippies, either, and Manson’s pack of young female followers suffers especially in both regards. Cliff’s encounter with them on a visit to the Spahn Ranch seems curiously static and stagey — the actresses awkwardly arrayed, like automatons waiting for their boss to push some activation switch.
Again, maybe that’s the director’s intent. His decision to keep Charlie Manson (Damon Herriman) almost entirely offscreen seems driven by a good instinct to evoke a sense of disembodied menace, but the women of the Family are one-dimensional and unconvincing.
What does work here, besides the two main characters’ portrayals, is the production design — meticulously accurate, as is Tarantino’s wont, with plenty of stories available in the trade press about how he hunted down or replicated this or that artifact, if such details fascinate you. The period music selections are also spot-on.
All in all, I’d give Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a B grade: not really Best Picture material, but an intermittently enjoyable wallow in retro tinsel with a murder subplot, as processed through the lens of a director with abundant talent and insufficient self-discipline. A period of quarantine with not much to do around the house is probably the best conceivable time to check it out. It’s available on Starz, which is currently offering an irresistible three-month $5 monthly subscription. That gives you enough time to catch up on Outlander and American Gods while you’re at it.
The writer’s postscript:
In our semi-shutdown, one-publication-taking-the-place-of-five state that prevails while a global pandemic rages, Ulster Publishing is dealing with the challenge of how to assemble a component of Hudson Valley One that preserves some kernel of what our readers cherished about Almanac Weekly. It’s an audacious thing even to contemplate, given that our brilliant editor Julie O’Connor is on layoff, that not enough cultural events are happening to justify an arts-and-leisure calendar, and that our usual sources of advertising revenue have shut down for the nonce.
But, while doing our best to supply what you need to know about how Covid 19 is reconfiguring our reality, we’re also giving some thought to what you might want. And past feedback has convinced some of us that includes movie reviews.