Saturday, August 17, 2019

Tarantino delivers with superb casting and an obsessive attention to detail

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Australian Premiere screening
Dendy, Circular Quay
August 15 2019

Reviewed by Tony Magee

Photo courtesy
A washed up actor has his confidence boosted and career reignited by a sympathetic and insightful eight year old girl.

That's the central plot at any rate. Threaded throughout is a more complex web of intrigue in a vast array of sub-plots in which director Quentin Tarantino has an absolute ball recreating a part of Hollywood and surrounds in 1969.

The setting is actually one year later in 1970, on board Pan Am Boeing 747 "Clipper Victor" from London to New York.

Fictitious actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is sitting in first class. Back in coach, is his minder, driver and stuntman double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

Both have been through a whirlwind, mind blowing and unimaginably tumultuous year before, which unfolds on the screen in a vivid tapestry of graphic, lengthy and highly detailed flashbacks, aided by the narration of Kurt Russell, who also plays a character in the film.

DiCaprio and Pitt portray a very close, enduring and believable relationship. It was a joy watching them work together.

Apart from those two characters, everyone else in this movie portrays someone who actually existed. Even the Boeing is real. “Clipper Victor” was the first commercial 747, having taken to the skies with launch customer Pam Am on 22nd January 1970. It was high jacked en route from JFK to Puerto Rico and diverted to Cuba one year later in 1971. It is also the exact same plane which was destroyed in what still remains the world's worst aviation disaster: Tenerife, March 27, 1977.

L-R, Margot Robbie, Quentin Tarantino, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt
at Cannes. Photo courtesy Loic Venance / Agence France-Presse
After the cancellation of his black and white late 1950’s and early 1960s TV series Bounty Law, which is clearly thrown together on a shoe-string budget, our hero is offered the chance to join the so called Spaghetti Western casts in Rome, where a new wave of Westerns are being shot in wide-screen colour under the directorship of one "Sergio Capucci", which is probably a tongue-in-cheek character meld of Italian film producer Fabrizio Capucci and Italian director Sergio Leone.

In fact, the title of this film suggests a very big homage, almost at the risk of a sendup, to Leone’s 1968 Once Upon a Time in the West, a film that was offered to actor Clint Eastwood but ended up having dual lead roles played by Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda and also the later Once Upon a Time in America from 1984, Leone's last film.

In a movie that also bears some resemblance to Hal Ashby's Being There from 1979, where period TV footage, radio dialogue and music are used to cement the realism of the setting, including Robert Goulet singing MacArthur Park on the Andy Williams Show, (which incidentally, he pronounces correctly, unlike Richard Harris and Shirley Bassey who both insisted on singing the name as MacArthur’s Park), an extended scene on a journey to a Hippie Commune which is accompanied by Neil Diamond's Travelling Salvation Show and an Audio Technica model AT-3 moving magnet cartridge and stylus lowering onto an LP record on a genuine USA built Scott turntable towards the end of the film, Tarantino explodes with exquisite, almost obsessive attention to detail in order to ram home the year 1969. Okay - we get it!

One special moment for me was the presence of veteran actor Bruce Dern, who usually plays ruthless, viscous, villains, most notably in Mark Rydell’s 1972 cinematic masterpiece, The Cowboys. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood however, he plays an aged and frail former actor, who has opened up his ranch to the Hippies, led by Charles Manson. Upon being awakened from a deep slumber by his surprise visitor Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), he becomes completely confused, thinking he is talking with John Wilkes Booth, thereby launching into a deliciously absurd, but respectfully comic conversation about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

Photo courtesy New Jersey Audio Society
There are no less than 21 cast members who play members of the Manson family cult, an aspect which to me was way overdone and seems to suggest some kind of manic obsession by Tarantino. Naturally, Sharon Tate is present, acted beautifully by Australian Margot Robbie, although for the duration of this picture, she is in a relationship with director Roland Polanski. If you don’t know the Manson / Tate story, I’m certainly not going to spoil it for you here, suffice to say that there is a narrational build up from Kurt Russell which ends abruptly, leaving the audience on a cliff hanger.

DiCaprio’s character Dalton, reluctantly accepts the offer of joining Capucci in Rome, making four films. On returning to Hollywood, he opts for some bit parts in the new TV series The FBI, starring Efram Zimbalist Jr, whose father by the way, Efram Zimbalist Sr, was one of America’s greatest classical violinists of the period, along with colleagues Nathan Milstein and Isaac Stern.

Then comes a break. A starring role in a new TV series, Lancer. Here, Dalton meets one of his co-stars, eight year old child actor Trudi Fraser (beautifully portrayed by Julia Butters), who is at first stand-offish, but during shooting, warms to Dalton and compliments him on his acting skills. Here, we find out the fatal flaw which has prevented him from major success so far. No, I’m not going to tell you what that is either, suffice to say he starts to deal with it.

In fact, it is very difficult to describe much more about this highly unusual film without destroying it with spoilers, so I leave my review to observations and reactions. I can tell you however that Hollywood extra Rachael Redleaf makes a spectacularly convincing appearance as Cass Elliot (aka Mama Cass) in a party scene.

And finally, yes there is one scene of extreme violence, right at the end of the movie. I don’t suggest for a moment that this should be a reason to not see it, however I note that at the screening I attended, many audience members were visibly and audibly shocked and confronted. If you’re not up for that, just look away.