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"ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD"
(2019) (Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A late 1960s actor and his stunt double deal with possibly being left behind in the movie business, while a rising starlet is unaware that her path is about to intersect with a murderous cult.
PLOT:
It's 1969 and Rick Dalton (LEONARDO DICAPRIO) is a Hollywood actor best known for having been the lead in the TV western "Bounty Law," but has since mostly been relegated to guest appearances on TV dramas playing the heavy. Accordingly, and especially since he's been warned about that by movie producer Marvin Schwarzs (AL PACINO), he's concerned that his career might be over.

But his stunt double, handyman, driver and best friend, Cliff Booth (BRAD PITT), tries to keep his spirits up. After all, none other than acclaimed film director Roman Polanski (RAFAL ZAWIERUCHA) has moved in next door with his actress wife, Sharon Tate (MARGOT ROBBIE), and if Cliff could just meet them, perhaps he'd be cast in the filmmaker's next movie.

At the same time, Cliff occasionally spots a teen hippie by the name of Pussycat (MARGARET QUALLEY) and eventually gives her a ride out to the former movie set where he once worked and where she and other followers of cult leader Charles Manson (DAMON HERRIMAN) live, including the likes of Tex (AUSTIN BUTLER) and Squeaky Fromme (DAKOTA FANNING). Little do any of them realize at that time that their paths will eventually cross in an extremely violent and disturbing way.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
I've only met Quentin Tarantino once, and just briefly, at an awards show, and thus there wasn't any time for more than small talk. I imagine, though, that if one ended up stuck in an elevator with the famous filmmaker for hours, the discussion would certainly, sooner or later, get to movies.

And at that point, I imagine you wouldn't be able to get in a word otherwise, not just due to the guy's mile-a-minute verbal pace, but also because of his all too obvious love of movies and encyclopedic knowledge of the history of Cinema. That's apparent, and then some, in his latest and supposedly last film, "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood."

As the title none-too-subtly suggests, this is the writer/director's love letter to Hollywood of old, albeit in a revisionist fashion, mixing historical events and real-life people with creations of his imagination.

It's the tale of an actor, Rick Dalton (Leonard DiCaprio), who starred in a TV western, "Bounty Law," a decade ago, but has since mostly been relegated to "guest appearances" as the heavy on various TV dramas. That's pointed out to him by a producer (Al Pacino) who wants to save the actor's career before it's too late.

Despite that offer, the now outside-confirmed, bleak forecast for his future in Hollywood only feeds into his inherent insecurities. Thankfully, he has a cheerleader of sorts in his faithful stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who spends more time of recent as the actor's driver, handyman and therapist of sorts.

Rick's dream is to meet his new next-door renter, filmmaker Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), who's married to a rising starlet/actress, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and maybe just maybe end up in one of his upcoming films. What's that? Yes, that Sharon Tate, and with the film set in 1969, you know it's only a matter of time before Charlie Manson (Damon Herriman) and his brainwashed groupie-hippies will be showing up to bastardize a Beatles song and then some.

The first contact with any of them is via a teenager, Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), who Cliff keeps seeing on the streets of L.A.. before eventually giving her a ride to the commune where she and her fellow cult members live on an old movie set where he once worked alongside the fellow who ran the place (Bruce Dern).

Along the way, we also have brief (and occasionally elongated) interludes featuring both those still famous to this day (Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen, etc.) and others who've faded mostly into obscurity (such as actor James Stacy -- played here by Timothy Olyphant). The best of those in my opinion, is a physical altercation between a cocky Lee and a too-cool-for-school Cliff.

In fact, while DiCaprio and his identity crisis would seem to be the main focus of Tarantino's script, I found all of the material involving Pitt's character -- who's accepted his lot in Hollywood and life with a laissez-faire attitude -- to be far more intriguing and entertaining (mainly because, once again, nobody plays self-assured self-deprecation like him).

Robbie isn't given much to do as the rising starlet, although there's a charming scene where she observes a theater audience enjoying her performance in her latest film. Of course, anyone with historical knowledge will end up worrying about her, especially on that fateful August night that Tarantino, taking his sweet time before suddenly rushing through that day, eventually gets to. The filmmaker, though, has something up his sleeve and delivers that with reckless glee, abandon and aplomb, in a moment that's equally as cathartic as it is shocking.

Overall, I have a mixed reaction to the offering. Some moments, such as the conclusion, are classic Tarantino and pop off the screen. And of course the filmmaker gets good work out of his performers, with DiCaprio and Pitt obviously shining the most. But the flick is also way too long (clocking in at 161 minutes), meanders at times (especially showing Rick at work) and clearly is unwieldy (likely the result of the director no longer having the services of his longtime brilliant editor, Sally JoAnne Menke, who died back in 2010 and has been noticeably missed since then).

And, both oddly and definitely disappointingly enough, the film is missing the signature dialogue-heavy scene that Tarantino's known for and which shows off his screenwriting chops (think of Samuel L. Jackson's diner speech in "Pulp Fiction" or Christoph Waltz's opening salvo -- or the later tavern sequence -- in "Inglourious Basterds"). Alas, there's nothing here remotely that remarkable.

Interestingly enough, I like the film more now -- presumably from it percolating in my head -- than I did immediately upon walking out of the theater. So, I guess that means I'll need to re-watch it and then reexamine both the faults and highlights. As it stands, it's good but not great, which I guess will have to do for Tarantino's cinematic love letter that's set "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood." The film rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed July 22, 2019 / Posted July 26, 2019


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