Why “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” is My Favorite Tarantino Film Since “Kill Bill”

Film_Review___Once_Upon_a_Time_in_Hollywood.0

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.” Courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

I’ll never forget the moment I first fell in love with the cinema of Quentin Tarantino. Having grown up Catholic pre-Gibson’s “Passion,” I was not at all accustomed to graphic onscreen violence—that is, until I befriended a fellow movie buff, Steve Sandberg, in high school. Our exuberant chats in the cafeteria inspired him to lend me what was his favorite film at the time, Tony Scott’s hyper-stylized 1993 thriller, “True Romance.” It featured so many brutal killings that they left me feeling like the guy who cries next to an exhilarated Christian Slater after they ride the roller coaster. What stuck with me though was the hypnotic dialogue exchanged between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken during a quietly epic confrontation set to Léo Delibes’ “Flower Duet.”

It remains one of the greatest scenes ever written by Tarantino, yet I didn’t become a true fan until Steve dragged me to the theater in the fall of 2003 to see “Kill Bill: Vol. 1.” I was simultaneously fascinated and appalled by its gory spectacle, but my disgust evaporated as soon as Lucy Liu sliced off a guy’s head, and cartoonish blood began spraying out of his neck like a sprinkler system. Suddenly, I found myself laughing, and that’s when I had the epiphany that movie violence could be so many things—absurd, artful, cathartic and operatic. For the rest of the picture, I was grinning from ear to ear, and my enjoyment only deepened upon seeing “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” the following spring. I loved the film so much that I convinced my whole family to see it with me. I also couldn’t help using a school project as an excuse to film my own homage, getting friends to enact a scene from “Romeo & Juliet” Tarantino-style. The resulting parody, “Kill Bill (Shakespeare),” celebrates its 15th anniversary this year.

It has also been 15 years since I have fallen deeply for a Tarantino film. Though I loved all of his directorial efforts helmed prior to “Kill Bill,” I was not as impressed with what followed. Then in 2017, the director’s most crucial industry champion, producer Harvey Weinstein, was taken down by a career-spanning enormity of sexual assault allegations, prompting Tarantino to publicly voice his regrets regarding their partnership, telling The New York Times, “I knew enough to do more than I did.” It’s impossible not to be reminded of this every time Weinstein’s name materializes in the credits.

Equally distressing is the story shared last year by Uma Thurman (the Bride in “Kill Bill”), who detailed how Tarantino had pressured her into filming a dangerous car scene without a stunt driver, despite the fact that rear projection is utilized throughout the picture. The car crashed, permanently injuring Thurman and her relationship with the director. They fought for years because she was unable to view the incriminating footage, an injustice for which she blames Weinstein, executive producer E. Bennett Walsh and Tarantino’s other longtime producer, Lawrence Bender.

Though Bender hasn’t produced a Tarantino film after 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds,” the director’s ninth feature, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” is his first made without Weinstein’s involvement since his 1992 debut feature, “Reservoir Dogs.” It’s a movie that appears to have been made by a more reflective, melancholy and hopefully wiser auteur, clearly shaken by the destructive power of ego and its many Tinseltown enablers. Upon the film’s premiere at Cannes, Tarantino told my boss, Chaz Ebert, that he had recently gotten married to actress Daniella Pick, who is featured among the picture’s massive ensemble, thus beginning a new chapter in his life.

He only plans to direct one more film before retiring from feature directing, and there’s a chance it could be “Kill Bill: Vol. 3,” as indicated by recent talks he’s had with Thurman. Her vocal belief that Tarantino is genuinely remorseful about the onset incident is further evidenced by the casting of her daughter, Maya Hawke, in the director’s new movie. Hawke is so reminiscent of her mother that when she lets out a stream of giggles seemingly laced with tears while lying on the ground during the new season of “Stranger Things,” she’s practically identical to Thurman in the poignant final moments of “Kill Bill.”

To explain why “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” is my favorite Tarantino film since he and Thurman embarked on their two-part journey of vengeance, I’ve decided to pen a list fit for the Bride, just like I did when ranking the Top Ten Chapters in “Kill Bill” for its tenth anniversary…

1) The Approval of Debra Tate

Particularly after squirming through the prolonged abuse endured by the lone female lowlife (played ferociously by Jennifer Jason Leigh) in Tarantino’s interminable 2015 effort, “The Hateful Eight,” I had zero interest in watching the director tackle as his next project the 1969 murder of actress Sharon Tate and four others at the hands of the Manson Family. Yet when Sharon’s sister Debra said that she was fully onboard with the project after reading the script, I became intrigued. Now that I’ve seen the film, I can honestly say that the director has handled this subject matter in the best possible way, removing Tate entirely from the details of her death and focusing instead on what made her such an icon of the era.

As portrayed with grace and radiance by Margot Robbie, Tate embodies the last remnants of innocence from a tumultuous decade where hitchhikers could be picked up and doors could be left unlocked without any sense of impending doom. Tate’s screen presence is lovingly celebrated when Robbie views actual footage of the actress in “The Wrecking Crew,” while savoring every laugh and round of applause from the audience. Kate Berlant is delightful as the theater attendant who asks Tate to pose for a snapshot in front of her own movie’s poster, just to make sure people will know who she is.

2) No More Chapters

Tarantino’s signature narrative structure emulating a chapter book started to feel like a limitation in recent films, especially since the nonlinear trickery of “Pulp Fiction” had been ripped off so many times, it became old hat. “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” marks a refreshing change of pace, following actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stuntman, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), over the course of two days before jumping ahead to a final act where history collides with pure fantasy. This is foreshadowed not only by the film’s title, suggesting a fairy tale, but by the brief introduction of a narrator early on, whose renewed presence in the final act accentuates its fable-like destination. Like all Tarantino scripts, this one is episodic in the best sense, milking every moment for all it’s worth, yet this story allows the director more freedom to juxtapose parallel events, upping the tension considerably.

3) Not a Wasted Minute

Ever since the sudden death of Tarantino’s invaluable editor Sally Menke in 2010, the director’s films have never been the same. Menke’s intuitive sense of pacing was the filmmaker’s secret weapon, tightening the beats that could’ve easily spiraled off into excessive self-indulgence. 2012’s “Django Unchained” only runs 12 minutes more than “Basterds,” yet feels twice as long. “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” is the filmmaker’s first post-Menke feature in which every minute is wholly earned, providing ample time for him to explore every corner of his most cherished period in Hollywood history, from the poster art and commercials to the endlessly entertaining recreations of such relics as a musical number on the TV series, “Hullabaloo.” Straining to remain relevant after leaving his hit cowboy show for a failed movie career, Rick forces himself through a hilariously mindless song that requires him to rhyme “green door” only with “green door.” As hinted by the cigarette ad over the end credits and the trailer footage that didn’t make the final cut, I imagine there’s a longer version of the film that Tarantino will eventually release, and I cannot wait to see it.

4) The Majesty of the Visuals

For all members of the press assigned to review the film, Tarantino insisted that they view it on a film print, and in Chicago, it was screened in 35mm this past Monday at the splendid, 104-year-old movie palace, the Logan Theatre. Today it opens at the Windy City’s finest cinema venue, the Music Box Theatre, in a 70mm print, and every film buff in the midwest owes it to themselves to see it. Robert Richardson’s widescreen cinematography is a joy to behold, and it’s even better when accompanied by the sort of inherent imperfections—from slight hiccups to cue marks—that lend the medium of film its rugged beauty.

5) The Mind-Boggling Production Design

Another reason to see this on the big screen is the astonishing level of period detail perfected by production designer Barbara Ling (“Batman Forever”) and set decorator Nancy Haigh (a frequent collaborator with the Coen Brothers). Tarantino was given the rare opportunity to shut down streets in Hollywood and build over the surrounding facades to bring them back to how they looked a half-century ago, and the result is a glorious eyeful. When I caught the title of Franco Zeffirelli’s masterpiece, “Romeo & Juliet,” on a theater marquee as it sped past the lens, I wondered whether it may be a blooper, since the film was released in 1968, several months prior to the film’s events. Later on, Tarantino gives us a close-up of the marquee, and we see that the film has extended its run for the past eight months, reminding us of the days when beloved films could play for nearly a year in theaters, just as DiCaprio’s career-launching “Titanic” did a little over two decades ago.

6) Best Use of Pitt

The weakest thing about “Inglorious Basterds” were the Basterds themselves, whose silly faux accents and generic resilience were easily upstaged by Mélanie Laurent’s riveting heroine and Christoph Waltz’s richly complex villain. As the leader of the Basterds, Pitt expressed disappointment about his diminished role, yet Tarantino sure makes up for it here, granting the actor his most enjoyable showcase in recent memory. Exuding the sort of Paul Newman cool that pairs impeccably with DiCaprio’s Redford-esque neuroses, Pitt lends an aura of danger to his lovably laid back character, who we learn may—or may not—have killed his nagging wife on a boat, which I assume was borrowed from Robert Wagner. The love of his life is clearly his pet dog, whom he feeds in a nightly ritual that ranks among the director’s most charming vignettes. The little asides Pitt makes to his TV or to himself after experiencing a flashback bring down the house, as does his confrontation with Bruce Lee (uncanny lookalike Mike Moh), where the iconic martial artist underestimates the veteran stuntman.

7) A Pitch-Perfect Ensemble

Tarantino may have one more film left in him, but if “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” turns out to be his last feature, it will serve as a fitting magnum opus, not least of all because of its ensemble, which is populated by numerous faces from his previous works, most memorably former “Death Proof” foes Kurt Russell and Zoë Bell (Thurman’s “Kill Bill” stuntwoman), amusingly recast here as a couple weary of Cliff. Michael Madsen, Tim Roth and Perla Haney-Jardine (a.k.a. the Bride’s daughter) are also allegedly among the blink-and-you’ll-miss cameos, though there are plenty of performers new to the Tarantino universe that make an indelible impression.

On the heels of her mesmerizing turn in Rashid Johnson’s problematic retelling of “Native Son,” Margaret Qualley continues her streak of marvelously unpredictable performances as Pussycat, the Manson groupie who leads Cliff to the Spahn Ranch, where he finds an array of suspicious women played by such talents as Dakota Fanning, Lena Dunham, Sydney Sweeney (currently setting the screen ablaze on HBO’s “Euphoria”) and Victoria Pedretti (the revelatory star of Netflix’s “The Haunting of Hill House”). There’s an equally vivid sequence set at the Playboy Mansion where instantly recognizable legends like Steve McQueen (a sublimely wistful Damian Lewis) and Mama Cass (Rachel Redleaf) are embodied so effortlessly, it truly does feel as if the camera has gone back in time.

8) The Soundtrack Had Me Dancing in My Seat

There are countless songs from the ’60s and ’70s that never would’ve crossed my path had Tarantino not made me fall head over heels for them, though that hasn’t happened often with his recent pictures. I had a feeling his latest film would be a special one when its two exquisitely cut trailers had me wildly searching for the songs featured in them: “Straight Shooter” by the Mamas and Papas, “Bring a Little Lovin’” by Los Bravos, “Good Thing” by Paul Revere and the Raiders and especially “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” by Neil Diamond, a classic celebration of Gospel music that Tarantino uses brilliantly by having it accompany Pussycat’s seduction of Cliff.

When applied to Charles Manson and the Spahn Ranch sequence, Diamond’s lyrics develop a strikingly ominous texture: “Room gets suddenly still / And when you’d almost bet / You could hear yourself sweat, he walks in / Eyes black as coal / And when he lifts his face / Every ear in the place is on him.” I practically stood up and applauded when a haunting rendition of the Rolling Stones’ classic ‘Out of Time” kick-started the final act. Not only does it mirror the fear of being rendered obsolete that is shared by Rick and every show business figure unable to change with the times, it also evokes memories of the film for which it served as an unofficial anthem, Hal Ashby’s “Coming Home,” starring Bruce Dern, who appears here as George Spahn.

9) My New Favorite Tarantino Scene

Up until this film, my favorite scene in any Tarantino picture was easily the one in “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” where the Bride punches her way out of a coffin buried deep in the ground. Ennio Morricone’s “L’Arena” swells as the Bride bloodies her knuckles, preparing for the arduous climb up through the earth. It’s an extraordinary instance of pure cinema, with the visuals and music melding together seamlessly, before arriving at a killer punchline, as the Bride (resembling Pig-Pen, a callback to Charlie Brown in “Vol. 1”) walks across the street to a diner, where she asks the bewildered waiter, “May I have a glass of water, please?” This sequence serves as the crowd-pleasing payoff to the harrowing sensory experience suffered by the Bride—and the audience—as she is buried in real time. We hear every shovelful of dirt hit the coffin as Thurman cries out in protest, switching on her flashlight to gaze at the suffocating confines.

The very best scene in Tarantino’s latest film parallels the aforementioned one in several indirect ways. Rick is tasked with portraying the villain in a western, forcing him to be made up to look like the sort of hippie emblematic of the evolving world with which he has lost touch. As production begins, a scene from the film plays as it would onscreen—until Rick forgets his line, causing the agitated director (Nicholas Hammond, a.k.a. Friedrich in “The Sound of Music”) and his crew to suddenly appear, closing in on the increasingly nervous actor. With every botched take, he digs a deeper hole for himself until he bursts into his trailer, where he undergoes an explosive and enormously entertaining meltdown. Having received guidance from his eight-year-old co-star, a pint-sized Streep—or Pai Mei, if you will—wonderfully played by Julia Butters, Rick returns to the set, determined to unearth his star-making potential, and boy does he ever. After Rick takes the scene into the stratosphere, with the help of Butters and the late Luke Perry, Tarantino concludes the scene with a disarming moment of unguarded emotion that should earn DiCaprio his sixth Oscar nomination. And then he punctuates it with a final laugh so exquisitely timed, it had my crowd roaring.

10) It Sticks the Landing

As the third entry in Tarantino’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” trilogy comprised of historical wish-fulfillment, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” may not be as marketable as “Inglorious Basterds” or “Django Unchained,” but it is considerably more satisfying. Charles Manson (played by Damon Herriman, who oddly has the same role on Netflix’s “Mindhunter”) barely registers in the film. The chilling shot of him waving at Pitt that is included in both trailers is no where to be seen in the movie itself. Taking his place as the primary antagonist is Tex (future Elvis biopic star Austin Butler), the Manson Family member who spearheads the climactic murder set-piece, and it is not at all what one would expect. Rather than exploit the tragedy that occurred on August 9th, 1969, Tarantino somehow manages to go in a different direction entirely without undermining the loss. If anything, the jarring brutality of the actual crime informs the grisly bloodletting Tarantino imagines here, as his characters fight back against the evil forces aiming to take advantage of innocent souls. I wasn’t laughing during the violence, which is as disquieting as it should be, but I’ll confess to getting a lump in my throat when the final shot was revealed. It’s as achingly bittersweet a finale as any I’ve seen.

“Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” opens today, July 25th, in 70mm at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago. For tickets and showtimes, click here.

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