Movie Review: ‘Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood’

Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood

‘Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood’ — a film review by Gary Chew

Once upon a time … in San Francisco … insuring I see Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood far enough in advance to write a review of the new Quentin Tarantino picture before it opened, it was necessary for a friend and me to motor to the City By the Bay. As it was 98 degrees when we left Sacramento and only 62 on arrival in San Francisco, both of us fantasized that autumn had suddenly come in July. But without even getting to the film, I’ve digressed. I suppose that requires an apology; but let me … in lieu of … give you my take on Tarantino’s 9th film. The cast boasts the likes of one Leonardo DiCaprio … and just as swell: Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie. (Margot rhymes with “logo.”)

Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood
Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Pacino.

At 56, Tarantino maintains his hip, flippantly immature practice of putting a picture together, even though he does so creatively, with slick cinematography and jazzy editing. Quentin has long been an expert and super kind of freak on and for movies. It shows well in his product, although he always plays to the wings. If you’re not up on movies and movie lore, you’ll miss much of Tarantino’s truck.

His latest picture is set in 1969 … exactly one half century ago … with the accoutrements you’d expect of that time period; and writhing with the ditsy, more conservative Southern California style of living. You know … Orange County and all?

Superimposed on soon-to-be real events, Tarantino’s fiction allows for a pair of dense dudes: DiCaprio as semi-hot film and TV star, Rick Dalton; and Pitt as Cliff Booth, Rick’s stunt double and gofer, (Pitt is pure perfection in this part.) The authentic events looming in the script are those horrific Manson murders of five human beings up on swanky Cielo Drive … nestled in high-dollar Loss Anguhleez. We, at least most of us, remember that grisly event of early August 1969.

Margot Robbie in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood
Margot Robbie.

Robbie plays the non-fiction person: Sharon Tate, a Manson victim and the pregnant wife of the very controversial filmmaker, Roman Polanski (Chinatown, 1974). Her role is almost an afterthought of Tarantino’s despite the heft her very presence brings to the script. Just about everybody knows the tragic fate of Sharon Tate.

The mocking humor Tarantino often regales his oeuvre with works a heavy hand on Tate’s intelligence. That Ms. Tate was a really dumb blonde seems to be the trait Quentin wants his audience to take home. I wasn’t inclined to laugh at the way QT had Robbie play the part … whether Tate’s IQ was high or low. Jesus, she died with a fetus in her womb!

But, fun cameos are brought by Al Pacino (oleaginous talent agent); Bruce Dern (geezer/owner of the now infamous Spahn Movie Ranch near Chatsworth where Manson and his killers holed-up); Emile Hirsch (celebrity hairstylist and Manson Family victim known as Jay Sebring); Dakota Fanning (weird Manson cult follower with that memorable handle, Squeaky Fromme) and Kurt Russell (a flummoxed film director). Other players include Timothy Olyphant, Lena Dunham and Brenda Vaccaro, as well as the recently deceased actor, Luke Perry. I got a glimpse of Clu Gulagar playing a bookshop keeper in the film. I mention him, primarily, as he was born in Holdenville, OK, a small burg near where I once lived disguised to myself as a child. Great seeing Gulagar again, even if only for a nanosecond.

Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood
Leonardo DiCaprio and Michaela Sprague.

A litany of songs … or better yet, cleverly positioned hit records … accompanies the well-remembered flashing by of vintage movie theater marquees, palm trees and billboards, while cast principals spend more than enough time recklessly driving along and though So-Cal freeways and burbs. Brad got extra time at the wheel.

The picture is violent; though maybe less so than Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction, but how many other movies aren’t? During the screening at the quaint Balboa Twin in west San Francisco, a guy in my row averted his eyes for that sequence in Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood‘s one-hundred-sixty-minute plus running time. Just sayin’.

Now, maybe I should close with, “And they all lived happily ever after!” Nah, I don’t wanna say that. You’ll just have to go and see “Hollywood … a la Tarantino.”

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Gary Chew
Gary Chew was a classical music host, programmer and producer on Capital Public Radio’s KXPR 88.9FM, Sacramento for 18 years. He retired in January 2007. Read more about Gary's long and storied career here.