27 October 2019

First Impressions: Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood

Once upon a time we wrote these impressions the week we actually saw the movie in question. That's okay. We're here today to talk about Quentin Tarantino's 9th film, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (2019), hereafter referred to as the incredibly awkward, OUATIH. Happy Halloween!

I didn't really like this movie. That's all the review you need. Unless you'd like to stay around for an excessive amount of additional analysis. Okay, fine.

Bros 4 Life

So, there has been a lot of hot takes on this one. Here is one I like the best. We are getting to a point where shit is starting to add up. I am a Tarantino fan as much as any cinephile should be - he makes well-thought out and well-crafted movies that are staggeringly unique and original in an age where that is a very rare sight. OUATIH on the year is second only to Us (2019) in original ideas at the box office, and 16th on the year. This belies the fact that that's where our standards are. Just because it's pure cinema doesn't mean it's good or responsible cinema.

When I say things add up, it's more than Tarantino's trademark penchant for violence (for the record, this is his most subdued movie ever until the last fifteen minutes). It's how cozy he was with Weinstein, his willingness to hire actors he shouldn't (or is it just a meta commentary on Cliff Booth being hired where he shouldn't?), and willingness to showcase brutal, unheralded violence against women in not one, but his last two films. It leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

Surely this isn't a gut reaction to controversial filmmaking - it's more that it feels unmotivated. There isn't necessarily a strong coherent message here about the irony of violence like in Inglourious Basterds (2009), not does it play with time and narrative in an interesting or charismatic way like Pulp Fiction (1994). It's difficult to suss out what he's trying to do, which leaves his particular brand of violence flat. Even a scene that deliciously builds tension like Cliff Booth wandering through the Manson camp doesn't really have a strong final outcome. It all seems like the master craftsman is at work, but without a really good story to work out.

This of course blends the film into the realm of bad taste. In reaction to this I rewatched The Hateful Eight (2015) because I felt much of the same way after that film. I actually liked it quite a bit more on the re-watch, which also made me realize that that's the most Tarantino-esque scripted film ever, while OUATIH is assuredly the least. I'm not sure if that little bit changed my viewing experience, but I also thought that the film's mode of telling us Daisy Domergue is a terrible person who deserved the brutality she received, instead of showing us her retribution was a fatal misstep. Likewise, the final moments of OUATIH are truly brutal, and yeah, in real life the monsters who carried out the Sharon Tate murders deserved that brutality in kind. The film, however, fails to show us that. All we see are young women getting their faces pounded in. They didn't actually do anything in the movie to deserve their fate.

Tarantino used the kind of Evil Shorthand to better extent in Basterds and Django Unchained (2012), but both of those films also effectively showed us why the cruel horrible people of the past deserved the ret-conned fate Tarantino supplied them. It's harder here because the murderers-turned-victims are really nothing more than weird creepy hippies.

Booth is a tough character to decipher as well. He seems at times to be the ultimate good guy with a strong, loyal code of morality, but also holds on to some incredibly shady characteristics. The parallels to Natalie Wood's death are also uncomfortable, especially as the film seems to deify Booth rather than chastise him and provide a commentary or satire. There are a few key scenes that establish Booth as the ultimate badass, mainly him besting (or at least tying) Bruce Lee, which as a big fan of a lot of his work, I also took some issue with. This all leads to him pretty much in character defending himself, although again it should be noted that within the context of the film's world, he's doing all this horror to random strangers, not would-be murderers.

All this adds up to just bring me out of the movie. When Brad Pitt throws Bruce Lee aside my stomach churns. That just wouldn't happen. In a cinematic sense, it's distracting along with many other little things that make for a movie where I'd have rather been on my phone for most of the runtime. Tarantino's longtime editor, Sally Menke passed away in 2010, and you can't help but wonder if it was Menke that really gave his films such zip and spice for so long. His efforts since her passing have noticeably been long and insane. There's no reason for this film to be 161 minutes (with a 171 minute re-release coming soon!). I'm not against long movies, but there isn't enough here to remain interesting.

I should note that despite at the inherent problematic issues with Pitt's character, he by far does the best acting of anyone on screen and is incredibly watchable whenever he's on screen. He doesn't even do things out of character, but that's also exactly why the film ends up being a bit queasy. Needless to say, this film would fall apart with anyone else in this role.

Moving on to other characters, Leo does fine work, and the story of his fading actor is the most interesting plotline here. It does all feel very "inside" and although it's certainly relatable, part of it feels too much like a personal love letter to this era rather than something of universal value. Leo doesn't quite go big and insane here, but he's able to act out his acting, which is pretty fun to watch and actually an underrated skill.

Rounding out the other top-billed actor is Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, who is the most bizarre role of all. She literally just walks around starstruck for the first forty minutes and exists as an object to watch with wonder. Sure, they're pounding it through our head that she was an innocent victim lost to a brutal murder, but Tarantino could have made an effort into making her into a real person for us to understand. Instead, she pretty much just exists until she is not murdered.

There were some good parts of sitting through this thing. It looks gorgeous of course, and the period recreation is impressive, if not wholly necessary. The costumes pop and there are plenty of cameos, eventually to the film's detriment when you see actors billed upfront who appear for two seconds of screen time about halfway through. It's also loaded with small bits of easter eggs and details that are pretty entertaining. Strangely, it's also Tarantino's most straightforward film, and I mean that literally. There are no chapter breaks, interlocking narratives, or other weird games. Just the film! Tarantino's gotten to the point where the weirdest thing he can do is just play things straight.

It's not an entirely coherent look at the Manson Family or its ideology or anything, but certainly an interesting take on the entertainment industry's transitions to the New Hollywood of the 1970s. If that's your bag, this is a cool film. If not, it feels too specific, too thoughtless, and too scattered to be really worth our time.

What did you think of Tarantino's latest output? Will his 10th and supposedly final film be any good? Is it going to be a Star Trek movie for some reason? Leave your take below!
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