ONCE UPON A TIME ... IN HOLLYWOOD. It's been nearly four years since the release of Quentin Tarantino's last movie The Hateful Eight (2015) and for many of us much of that time has played out like a chainsaw horror show set to a broken calliope loop; sort of like a Tarantino sequence, but charmless and uninspired. During that period, the man has been working and reworking and refining this, his ninth, most ambitious, most sophisticated, most restrained but also gleefully wanton feature. It's an unqualified box office hit and, while I would say we are well past the point of hope or hopefulness, this at least seems like a promising development.
Tarantino doesn't need apologists and I tend to think I shouldn't have to apologize for my appreciation of his work. But as time goes on, that fandom has become ever more "problematic." The socio-political climate having shifted and Tarantino having been more and more widely embraced by the mainstream, his work is often dismissed by movie nerds as too accessible and by delicate flowers as somehow emblematic of the imbalance of power and influence in contemporary culture. Obviously, I find these opinions wrongheaded and almost below contempt. Because as I have aged, that process delineated at least in part by the progress of Tarantino's career, I have come to understand his work as the product of a mind filled and in unflagging love with The Movies. And Once Upon a Time ... is the clearest representation of that love. The man is a self-styled dinosaur, a writer/director of Hollywood Movies in the classical tradition, in an age when such things really don't exist. And yet, to borrow a phrase, he continues to stomp the terra.
1967 is generally recognized as the watershed year of the '60s as an American cultural moment. Youth movements seemed to be gaining traction against the increasing centralization of the military-industrial complex, the conversation about civil rights seemed to be moving forward, youthful, compassionate, charismatic leaders seemed to be gathering strength; but "seemed" is the operative word. By 1968, a year of assassination and escalation, the "movement" had been all but quelled, whether stalled by the disparate impulses within or suppressed by pressure from without. The Vietnam War's quagmire deepened and Flower Children started dying on the vine. Simultaneously, a revolution of popular art was revealing the Hollywood establishment for the archaic, creaking, outmoded monster it had become. 1967 was a breakout year for cinema that spoke to an increasingly aware and vocal and, vitally, younger audience. It represented a turning point when American movies started to speak in a more authentic language through depictions of violence, loneliness and uncertainty. It signaled the beginning of the end for an old way of doing things, if not in the culture-at-large, at least within the dream factory that is its mirror. With Once Upon a Time ... Tarantino transports us to a Hollywood that doesn't know it's dying yet and explores it from the perspective of a protagonist who can feel the death throes, even if he can't entirely understand them.
Los Angeles, 1969: former television mainstay Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) hasn't had a steady gig for the better part of the decade, his successful Western series, Bounty Law having become obsolete just as Rick fears he himself has. He picks up guest spots and feature roles as villains, allowing him to retain his swanky Hollywood Hills bachelor pad and employ his stalwart stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as a would-be handyman, driver and Man Friday. The house next door has recently been rented by the newly married Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawirucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and Rick fantasizes that he may be but one pool party away from a second act, working with the edgiest, most in-demand director of the day. In the meantime, he grinds it out on set, drinking too much at night, hating himself for it during the day and mulling an offer from producer Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) to make Westerns in Italy.
Meanwhile, further to the fringe, a group of disillusioned, directionless kids have settled on a former movie ranch owned by George Spahn (Bruce Dern). They cohere around the, ahem, questionable leadership of a crooked, charismatic freak named Charlie (Damon Herriman).
Through the spring and summer of 1969, the seemingly unrelated arcs of the lives of Rick and Cliff and Sharon and the kids out at the ranch will bend toward each other and a moment of unhinged brutality.
Obviously, much of the context for Tarantino's story and many of the characters within it are taken, whole-cloth, from the reality of the day. But, Tarantino being Tarantino, dramatic revision of that reality is in store. There is also an embarrassment of cinematic riches: the recreation of the LA of the day is sumptuously appointed in set decoration, costuming and production design. More than ever, Tarantino and his team have been set free to create a seemingly boundaryless environment for the story to explore. Simultaneously, Tarantino's writing here is more precise and economical than it has ever been: The first two hours of the story unfold with fewer words spoken than in probably any of his work, slowly building toward the crazed climax of the final act, patiently revealing the inner lives of the characters and the world they inhabit. It's a fine and deceptively nuanced piece of work. And, of course, there will be blood, in new and surprising ways. R. 165M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.
— John J. Bennett
See showtimes at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards› Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
TOP GUN (1986). See Tom Cruise as the cocky, young pilot before you see the sequel with him as the cocky old pilot. PG. 110M. BROADWAY.
ECHO IN THE CANYON. Andrew Slater's documentary on the Laurel Canyon music scene in Los Angeles. PG13. 182M. MINIPLEX.
FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS AND SHAW. A Fast and the Furious spin-off with an unlikely alliance. Is it OK for me to root for the bad guy (Idris Elba) in this one? PG13. 134M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
MARIANNE & LEONARD. Documentary on the late Leonard Cohen and his relationship with songwriting muse Marianne Ilehn. R. 102M. MINOR.
OPHELIA. Daisy Ridley stars in a take on Hamlet from Ophelia's point of view. With Naomi Watts. PG13. 114M. MINIPLEX.
ALADDIN. Live-action Disney remake with (hopefully) less racism and a hotter Jafar than the original. Starring blue Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott and Marwan Kenzari. PG. 128M. BROADWAY.
ANNABELLE COMES HOME. More scary doll stuff for folks who find Chucky too playful. R. 106M. BROADWAY.
CRAWL. A woman (Kaya Scoldelario) attempting to rescue her dad in a hurricane/flood is beset by alligators which is only, like, the fifth worst thing that can happen to you in Florida. R. 87M. FORTUNA.
THE LION KING. An impressive CG remake with a star-studded cast, but all the technical achievements and orchestrated moments lack a little life. Starring Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Beyoncé (please don't tell her we didn't love it). PG. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
PAVAROTTI. Ron Howard›s documentary about the life and career of legendary opera singer Luciano Pavarotti. PG13. 114M. MINOR.
SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME. Peter Parker goes on vacation to inevitably save the world, this time with new superhero Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhall). Hold up, they're introducing the multiverse?! Starring Tom Holland and Samuel L. Jackson. PG13. 128M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
TOY STORY 4. Go ahead, little toys (lights cigarette), see if I have any soul left to crush. Starring Tom Hanks. G. 100M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
YESTERDAY. Surely too cute and sweet for some, director Danny Boyle›s fantasy about a musician (Himesh Patel) who makes his fortune stealing from The Beatles when everyone else forgets them avoids its worst pitfalls and manages to charm. PG13. 116M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
— Iridian Casarez and Jennifer Fumiko Cahill