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LA lore: Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood

15 August, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

SOME of his most beguiling strong points as a film-maker are on display in Quentin Tarantino’s latest film – but they go hand in hand with other trademarks that make his work feel flippant, flimsy and ultimately immature.

We meet old-school TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has made his name in one of those Western series a generation will remember from Saturday morning picture shows. He is scrambling to work out where his screen persona stands in a world where the clean-cut tough guy in the mode of such gunslingers as John Wayne and James Stewart have been usurped by Dennis Hopper on a Chopper or Redford and Newman on the wrong side of the bank counter.

We spend time with him as he knocks around with his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), bitching about the state of the film industry, the rise of the hippie culture and other such signs that the times they are a-changin’.

As we follow them from studio to film set, we are also introduced to Dalton’s next door neighbour in the Hollywood hills, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and then a bunch of Charles Manson followers – a motley collection of scantily clad hippie chicks with little to do but bat eyelashes, make peace signs and spit nonsensical lines at the squares.

The story thus meanders along as Tarantino plods out cinema-related jokes and casts judgements on a period when America faced a profound crisis of confidence. It reflects a sense of a national dislocation by showing the same process at work in the movie business: the defeat of the values of the 1950s and the Conservative backlash that was to follow, the demise of Lyndon Johnson, his presidency scuppered by his inability to fix Vietnam, the rise of the Nixon administration.

What Tarantino does well, he does brilliantly. He has an eye for bubble-gum Americana, and for those of us whose image of the USA is predominantly formed by its overriding influence in the films we watch, he cannot be faulted.

Neon lights and Hawaiian shirts, burger restaurants and big cars, views across an LA landscape, the drive-ins, the boardwalks, the backyard oil mules, the nods to the Old West and gold rush California: they dazzle us, and it is a shtick we have seen time and again in his movies and is a terrific piece of visual artistry.

Another key ingredient is music: the soundtracks of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction became superb compilation albums in their own right, and the same here rings true.

Finally, there is the dialogue: conversations bristle with wit.

But despite these selling points, there is something flimsy at its heart.

The narrative, meandering from one in-joke to another, uses an alternative historical timeline to a very real and a tragic event. Tarantino is not known for his subtlety, but his treatment of the memory of actor Sharon Tate, who was murdered by Charles Manson and his followers, is at best confusing and disrespectful.

It sucked the joy.

Margot Robbie’s turn as Tate is a typically shallow female lead in true Tarantino tradition.

Add to this Tarantino’s love of unnecessary comic book violence, used merely to shock, and what good he creates is further undermined.

Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood isn’t a bad film, but that is its problem: it could have been very good, but the director’s traditional weaknesses are all too apparent.

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