Friday, August 2, 2019

MOVIE REVIEW/Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
Terror, Fascism, Violence Within The 1969 L.A. Mind

Brad Pitt and Leo DiCaprio in "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood", directed by Quentin Tarantino
. Sony 


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, August 2, 2019

Toxic masculinity, vanity, violence against women and counter-culture cultism frame Quentin Tarantino's epic thriller "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood", a film that absolutely terrifies me in retrospect.  Dread took hold of me throughout this entire moviewatching experience, an experience that had me praying the director wouldn't fall into a trap. 

Set in August 1969 in Hollywood, Mr. Tarantino's film about an alcoholic actor Rick (Leo DiCaprio) and his troubled stunt double Cliff (Brad Pitt) sees both saunter and slumber through Tinseltown before and after movie work.  These stylishly handsome fellows are joined at the hip like twins.  In a parallel story Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) glides along the L.A. scene as the bon vivant and actor she is.  A few films under her belt, Tate revels in her fame but is scarcely recognized when she seeks to buy a movie ticket for a film she is in. 

In "Hollywood" women are continuously objectified, trampled, scorned, bypassed and kill or are killed.  Misogyny is depicted (some will say paraded) relentlessly.  Almost all of the women in Tarantino's film are scantily-clothed, nagging, noxious or notorious.  The men are weak, juvenile, immature, stunted and inadequate, always never far from choosing a weapon of choice to defend or attack with.  Television and machismo fills their often empty heads. 

A third story is of a family influenced by a cult figure whose name could be Donald Trump instead of Charles Manson.  We know both are racists, genuflect to Nazis and foment violence.  Both have charisma.  One remains alive.  Their emblems are violence against women at their behest or by their own hands.

The Hollywood sign is never seen in Mr. Tarantino's sometimes playful and sunny misadventure, nor is a Black person (as per Manson's or Trump's race war mission?), nor is the trademark L.A. smog.  Bombastic violence, long a fixture of this cinematic enthusiast auteur, himself a lightning rod of criticism for his neglectful treatment of Uma Thurman on the set of "Kill Bill Vol. 2", is more of the mind than muscle.  (After learning of what happened to Ms. Thurman I adamantly swore off watching any future Tarantino films--but alas, to my own private despair of backtracking--so much for that embargo.)

Not despairing is that Mr. Tarantino salutes Musso And Frank, a venerable, famed L.A. restaurant with 100 years of history of the rich and famous who indulge.  "Since 1919", part of its famous sign proudly displays.  Women couldn't vote in America in 1919.  Hollywood is about meat, industry and the muscle to stay alive.  But men like Rick and Cliff who flaff about these joints and watering holes never will make it to the end or at least will be phased out to a degree.  Or will they?  In one movie role Rick looks unsettingly like Manson.  Cliff's past suggests OJ Simpson.  Which persona is real and which is fake?  Hollywood is indisputably a man's world, and a small group of women who infamously tried to kill their way into that world did so at the direction of a man who hated men and women.  There are ironies that the subtext of "Hollywood" meets head on.

Imagined violence or potential violence is the most powerful aspect of "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood", its rollicking soundtrack and Hitchcockian potency wrapped in suggestions of Roman Polanski's atmospherics of tight space, suspense and isolation.  Mr. Polanski's influence on Mr. Tarantino is hardly an accident in "Hollywood" nor are any of the complications, intricacies or criminal implications of interactions between the men and girls or men and women in the film.  These encounters are meant to be uncomfortable yet so familiar, and the discomfort works very well.  Cinematographer Robert Richardson's colorful lenses luxuriate on these incidents and violations and on lurid close-ups that add such unbearable meat-grinding tension.

So much about "Hollywood" is and feels documentarian or even autobiographical, from the directors referenced or implied to the actors portrayed.  I got the feeling Mr. Tarantino was purging his own soul in making this film.  By the way: is an old man we see in the film supposed to be a stand-in for Tarantino's long-time associate Harvey Weinstein, and is a red-haired woman with a menacing look supposed to be a celebrity member of the Me Too movement?  It's an irresistible thought.  Rose McGowan (who was in Tarantino's "Death Proof", in which another stuntman character, played on that occasion by Kurt Russell, who is also in "Hollywood") popped into my mind during an extraordinarily tense sequence.  I loved that there were two movie sets in this film: one artificial and one real.  I think Mr. Tarantino is asking us to consider which one of these environments is more dangerous: the image maker's or the image killer's?  Aren't the lines more than merely blurred?

Lena Dunham, Margaret Qualley and Brad Pitt in "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood", directed by Quentin Tarantino. Sony

Either all of these observations I am making are foolish fantasy or part of a reality of some Hollywoody-type Grimm's Fairy Tale that takes hold.  Cliff sounds like a cop when he asks an odd woman he's picked up for her ID when she propositions him.  It is a moment that threw me back to Mr. Polanski himself.  This film is smart and clever in ways I never expected it to be.  "Hollywood", for all its plastic hedonism and lurking menace is a vehicle for idealism and innocence, most of this pushed by a couple of its female characters.  There's nostalgia, but there's also the here and now.  A picture-taking fan of Ms. Tate doesn't have ask for a selfie or for someone else to take a picture of them both.  Meanwhile, Rick, a hater of hippies and a possible right-wing celebrity outlier (name them) who seems most likely to ignite a culture war for Nixon's sake, is a bigger star than he thinks, a TV man battling the bottle and himself as he transitions uneasily in his career. 

Mr. DiCaprio balances comedy and despair effectively while his director supplies him some wicked one-liners as the satirizations fly fast and loose in this near-three hour film.  Thankfully "Hollywood" travels quickly but all the while Mr. Tarantino has been building the iconography of this film's trajectory in the background and foreground, pulling and merging both into potent focus in a staggeringly memorable bit of cinema.  This is Mr. Tarantino's most mature, clever and at times nuanced work.

There is an inescapable link to 2019 running throughout this ninth Tarantino effort.  The smell of fascism wafts, well, downright invades, the expanses of the sprawling L.A., so much so that it manages to choke the metropolis, shrinking it down to close ups of products like dog food and meat plopping into plates.  A feeding frenzy is going on, but on whom? 

Everyone is so slick, white, pristine, with clothes perfect.  Not a wrinkle of cotton or skin in sight.  Fascism pulses.  White men with angular features dictate to white women like some Nazi master race Abercrombie & Fitch ad campaigners.  Eyewear and jackets.  Skirts.  Boots.  Shoes.  Legs.  The beautiful people.  Too cool.  Too clean.  Too very dirty and degenerate.  The camera lingers on these just a little too long, a little too uncomfortably, and Mr. Tarantino pushes these images longer and longer, isolating parts of the human body.  It's clever, disquieting and an ingenious way to cleave, suggest violence and the violated without necessarily explicitly showcasing either. 

Then there's the advertising.  The Ronald Reagan-like pitchman work that Rick (who at times looks a little like the former TV pitchman, actor and president) does.  The corporations and companies mentioned breezily and robotically.  There's image porn.  Food porn.  Surface indulgence.  Clothes, suits and emptiness.  Death culture.  Self-imprisonment, romanticism of uber-vanity and narcissism.  Some characters believe they are monuments to me, myself and I.  You don't need eyeglasses to see the modern-day problems or filth permeating Hollywood internally because Mr. Tarantino holds up a mirror and rubs the mirror in our faces, subtly yet vigorously. 

What Mr. Tarantino does so brilliantly throughout is cultivate the atmosphere and mentality of male violence, mine America's biggest cultural entity (Hollywood, with assorted films and homages) and examine its own fascination with male violence against women, while dressing up everybody who participates in Hollywood or anyone in proximity to it for the slaughter.  (I expected Rick to actually kill someone during a scene in a film that he does.)  Guns are used at every turn in movie clips, seen on movie posters. That has not changed.  There are two cults here: Hollywood's cult of violence for profit and Manson's cult of violence for hate.  Now it's Trump's cult of violence and violent rhetoric for profit, hate and power.  Hollywood's strongest selling point endures.  "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood" is really a proxy for Once Upon A Time In America.  Yet it is hardly a bygone time.

As a title "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood" suggests the false, uneasy notion of fairy tale, of the so-called "Hollywood ending".  The film straddles the fence between casual indictment of the industry and celebration of its strongest selling point: violence, particularly violence against women by men.  But there's another family in Hollywood, one wearing spartan clothing, with something to say about this centuries-long epidemic of violence.  That particular family truly believes they are purest and most honest about what their own message is -- and they definitely aren't play-acting.

With: Al Pacino, Emile Hirsch, Mike Moh, Timothy Olyphant, Lena Dunham, Bruce Dern, Zoe Bell.

"Once Upon A Time In America" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use and sexual references.  The film's running time is two hours and forty-one minutes.

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