‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ is a Cinematic Poem

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CHICAGO – What does Quentin Tarantino think about? That question immediately comes to mind when experiencing his latest film “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” QT meditates on TV westerns, the summer of 1969 in Los Angeles and the Manson family, and it’s a tone and mood rather than a story. But it works.

There is an unsettled nature to the film, much like his last two epics “Django Unchained” and “The Hateful Eight.” There are bits and pieces of a story crossed together in a unique era in Hollywood/Los Angeles, which QT captures perfectly. So with the Charles Manson Family looming in the background, why all the focus on an aging TV cowboy and his stunt double? That’s what Tarantino was thinking about, apparently, in association with all that is going on around them. This movie drew me in, had an absorbing intent – especially within the atmosphere – and ultimately spit me out on the other side with some motivation questions. But this is his best film since “Inglourious Basterds” and properly resides on the mantle of the Tarantino universe.

Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) was a TV cowboy who had a decent run in the late 1950s/early ‘60s with the series “Bounty Law.” Along for his ride was his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who has stuck with Rick even as his career declined by 1969, essentially becoming his driver and personal assistant. Rick is still working, but mostly as a heavy in TV dramas, B-movies and the fading western shows.

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Cliff (Brad Pitt) and Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’
Photo credit: Columbia Pictures

But Rick did buy a fancy house during his reign as a star, and he has new neighbors. The rising actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is living with her husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), but the house that has a target on it. Commune leader Charles Manson (Damien Herriman) used to hang out there with previous residents, and directs his followers to break in and enter the home … to do harm.

That’s the bare bones of the story, with a ton of misadventures with Rick and Cliff during that wild year, including a fantastic flashback of Cliff having a fight with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) while Lee was on the series “The Green Hornet.” The Manson Family, who has a significant presence in the film, is shown at their commune at Spahn TV Ranch, which is where Rick and Cliff filmed “Bounty Law.” That is how the fictional Cliff encounters the real family members.

The highlight of this QT adventure is the tone, mood and atmosphere, projected like a movie poem. Tarantino revels in 1969, painstakingly recreating the L.A. Sunset Strip of long ago. Each snippet of narrative, even a long sequence of Rick working on a pilot TV western, is teeming with the heavy knowledge of the 1960s California party nearly being over. It was kind of like a social transition fantasy, with Manson Family on one end of the spectrum, Sharon Tate in the middle, and the TV cowboy/stunt double at the other end.

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Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’
Photo credit: Columbia Pictures

The performances are top drawer. Brad Pitt has such a relaxed casualness under QT’s hand, but also delivers some of the better comic parts. Leonardo DiCaprio is a bit more twitchy, as his character is, but manages some moments that are a reminder of his talent. Margot Robbie has a protracted sequence as Sharon Tate that is magic, as she watches a film in a theater. And in casting for the real people of the era – like Steve McQueen, Mama Cass Elliott, Bruce Lee and even Connie Stevens – the lookalike and feel of them were eerily precise.

August 8th, 2019, will be the 50th Anniversary of the Manson Family murders of Sharon Tate and her four house guests, and it is said that it changed Los Angeles and Hollywood forever – at least the part that was “California Dreaming.” Quentin Tarantino brings a bit of it back, the calm before the tempestuous storm.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” opens everywhere on July 26th. Featuring the voices of Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern and Al Pacino. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Rated “R”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

By PATRICK McDONALD
Editor and Film Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
pat@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2019 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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