Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★

[Just realised this is the 2,500th feature film I’ve seen. I only watched 14 of the films I had hoped to watch when I was 100 films away - good going...]

Afterthoughts: Okay, wow. I’ve never been so conflicted about a film and its creator in my life, and I’ve had a real tough time trying to consolidate my feelings into something tangible that makes sense.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, for most of the runtime, is a fantastic recreation of a time, place and culture Quentin Tarantino clearly has a lot of love, passion, knowledge and nostalgia for. He does it justice with all the usual elements he wrangles so well; period music, a meandering narrative, a top cast and a tight script. It was actually quite refreshing to see plot given more of a backseat in a Tarantino film, and just being granted lots of time to soak in all the details of 1969 Los Angeles (both the good and the bad and the blurred lines between them) with characters you could watch all day. The 'day in the life of a failing screen star/a reckless stuntman/a young actor on the brink of making it' big approach is just what the audience needed to appreciate the level of detail Quentin had put into bringing the ‘good ole days’ of Hollywood back to life.

Naturally, I’m going to rave about Leo DiCaprio, because he just can’t do anything wrong in my eyes and this was a great part for him. I mostly wanted to watch this film just to see Leo in all sorts of cool and crazy costumes and that’s what I got, and I take my hat off to Tarantino for giving that to me. My favourite part of the film was during the end credits with Rick Dalton’s Red Apple (fictional brand created by QT) cigarettes commercial – absolutely hilarious and classic Leo. DiCaprio films are ‘event movies’ to me, and I can always rely on him to deliver the goods. The man hasn’t made a bad film since The Man in the Iron Mask (1998) for god’s sake (and even that’s an alright film).

Everybody else (Brad Pitt most notably) is great of course, but I will admit to being rather disappointed by the character of Sharon Tate (no fault of Margot Robbie who is perfectly cast) and the lacking of her presence. I was kind of hoping I’d see more of her than just floating around like a pretty fairy boasting an infectious life-affirming aura. I get that she never really got chance to become a known star before her murder, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t a human being outside of Hollywood and that we couldn’t have perhaps had a few flashbacks of her doing a few scenes on a movie set or something, just to spend a little more time with her. But maybe that’s the point - probably.

I was really loving this film and its characters and the flitting around various locales of the Hollywood scene of the late ‘60s in cool cars with great music blasting all over the place. Not on the same level as all Tarantino pre-Django Unchained, but certainly a lot more than The Hateful Eight. Despite the warning signs and growing presence of the Manson Family in the film, I’d got so caught up in it all that I’d forgotten that something truly awful was on its way and that the narrative was slowly but surely crawling closer to that fateful day.

Then the clock struck 12 on August 9th and the sense of dread and discontent about the subject matter I’ve had since day 1 of knowing what this film was about began to settle in. I think somehow I’d become foolishly naïve to believe that maybe, just maybe, Tarantino might play a tasteful subtly card by not proceeding to show the barbaric events of the night in question, and similar to the scenes building up to it, might instead opt for Kurt Russell to narrate a summary of what happened, and on that sombre note, draw the film to a close. Of course, that would offer little closure at all and might make for an unsatisfactory ending for most (who by this point were probably dying to see a proper Tarantinian sequence of a bit of the old ultraviolence [something strangely, and possibly refreshingly absent for the whole film up to this point]) – but at least it would still keep the real events of that evening/morning (one of the most horrific crimes of our time) actually tragic. Instead, Tarantino opts for an Inglourious Basterds-style revision of history, which in Basterds totally works, because well, it’s Hitler isn’t it, you can do whatever you want to Hitler because he actually was ‘The Devil’ and was ‘here to do the Devil’s work’, and because of him approximately 70-85 million people lost their lives. Here, I’m just really struggling to see it as anything but in really bad taste. Look, I’m not a square or lacking in a sense of humour, and pitch black comedy is often my modus operandi when it comes to jokes, but I just don’t think I can forgive Tarantino for this one. Obviously, since his first sold scripts (Natural Born Killers, True Romance) and his debut feature (Reservoir Dogs) he’s long been in the firing line for his colourful displays of ultraviolence, and for many years I totally bought into it, grew up loving it and defended it against its critics – but for me, since The Hateful Eight, he’s just gone one step too far really; he’s just become a really questionable human being to me. It’s baffling to me that he’s gone from champion of kick-ass cool strong female characters (Mia, Jackie Brown, The Bride, the 2nd batch of girls from Death Proof, Shosanna) to either completely back-seating them or brutally kicking the shit out of them. Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in The Hateful Eight is treated like utter shite for the entire film and that hanging sequence in the finale with a blood-soaked Sam Jackson and Walton Goggins laughing manically as they pull higher was the real turning point for me. I mean, I’ve seen A Serbian Film and I would honestly say that scene (and the grand finale in this) are much worse, because at least with A Serbian Film the filmmaker doesn’t want you to enjoy the unspeakably disgusting acts of violence – Tarantino on the other hand definitely does; he encourages his audience to revel in the sadism of it all and laugh along as faces get smashed in and burnt beyond recognition. After viewing the film last night, I’ve read stories of audiences cheering and laughing along (certain shots got laughs out of me, I hold my hands up) and there’s something about that which is just so unsettlingly tribal and animalistic.

It’s not so much the actual revising of the historical event that is immoral, but more the manner in which Tarantino did it that really got to me. Essentially all he’s done is transfer unimaginably bad physical punishment from the real-life victim (Tate) onto the perpetrators, but because of the extremity of the violence shown he might as well have just depicted the events as they really happened, like in home invasion horror film, Wolves at the Door (2016). This combined with the comedic tone (which is even in play as Manson’s maggots plan their assault) and the plain and simple intention to entertain didn’t sit well with me at all, and I feel deeply disappointed that this is how the film ended, after experiencing a lot of highs throughout. I genuinely think I wouldn’t feel this strongly if the male character (Tex, played by Austin Butler) got as much shit as the two females did. Sure being mauled by a dog and having your face stamped in like a Papier-mâché balloon isn’t exactly sunshine and roses, but the particularly horrid shots of the woman’s head being repeatedly rammed into household fixtures (worst of all, the jawline against the stone mantelpiece multiple times – probably the worst thing I’ve ever seen) stirred in me the true horror of what that must have been like to go through for a heavily pregnant Sharon Tate and pals, yet for Tarantino and his audience it’s not horror, it’s slapstick comedy; a satisfying consumable to gobble down gleefully. I’m not saying I won’t watch it again, but it’s highly likely to be pushed back and back like The Hateful Eight (which I’ve had on DVD for 4 years and still not brought myself to rewatch).

I think what has got to me the most though is the fact that in almost three decades Tarantino hasn’t evolved as a filmmaker. All the ‘innovations’ of his early work seem to have become less prominent and his filmography seems to have become like a ticklist of which exploitation genre to rehash next, and despite having aged 29 years since Reservoir Dogs, he continues to show that he doesn’t really have anything of real worth to say about the world and the human condition. You know, when he was in his 20s and early 30s it seemed cool and cute, but now he’s 56 years old it just seems a little creepy. And while we’re on that subject, I think there were maybe 4 or 5 foot fetish shots too may in this one (put your dick away, man, you’re on set).

I am still not 100% about how I feel on the matter, even after all this, which has pretty much come out as senseless mumbo jumbo. All I know is I came across this review (by Maria) and it seemed to be an articulate summation of my feelings at the time of watching that grand finale. You might not agree with Maria (or me) but it’s an interesting read regardless, which will either trigger you something fierce or go down a treat with your line of thinking.
[Retrospectively, there is much that I don't fully agree with in Maria's review, but it definitely resonated with me on first read an hour after I had seen the film and was digesting it]

Did I enjoy Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? Yes, it’s Tarantino – one does not simply watch a Tarantino film without enjoying it tremendously. Did it do much to quell my growing distrust and detestation for Quentin Tarantino as a person and a filmmaker? No, quite the opposite, I’m afraid. At this point, his retirement couldn’t come soon enough for me, to be honest.

[Still not pinned down a rating. 3.5 or 4 stars (despite a pretty damning review). I loved everything until the finale, so I can't possibly give it a score lower than 3.5, but I also liked it a lot more than The Hateful Eight, which I gave 4 stars, so there's that. Might have to bump down H8 without a rewatch just to rate this and feel comfortable]

18th Aug. Edit: I’ve mulled things over and my initial frustration with the ending has cooled down, allowing me to appreciate the things this film got really right and to give it the strong score I think it deserves. I still feel conflicted about that finale though, and my indifference towards Tarantino hasn’t changed. I’ve downrated The Hateful Eight to 3.5. I just think in Quentin Tarantino’s past 2 films his sadism has aired itself in a questionable way that just didn’t sit right with me in the moments of watching H8 and OUaTiH. We’ll see how I feel on the first rewatches of each.

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