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Saturday , February 29 2020

‘H’wood’, a dazzling ode to cinema

Actress Margot Robbie (from left), Quentin Tarantino, actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ at the 72nd international film festival, Cannes, southern France on May 21. (AP)

With Brad and Leo, Tarantino debuts a fairy tale in Cannes

It has been 25 years to the day since Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, crystalizing a cinema revolution, and we have never looked back. Yet here’s one more QT anniversary, a bit less monumental but, in its way, as meaningful: It has been 10 years since the premiere of “Inglourious Basterds”, which also took place at Cannes – and for me, at least, that means it’s been a decade since Quentin Tarantino gave us an unambiguously great Quentin Tarantino movie.

 You know the difference as well as I do, because it’s one that you can feel in your heart, gut, and soul: the difference between a Quentin movie that’s got dazzle and brilliance and a number of hypnotic sequences, and is every inch the work of his fevered movie candy brain, and a Quentin film that enters your bloodstream like a drug and stays there, inviting (compelling!) you to watch it again and again, because it’s a virtuoso piece of the imagination from first shot to last – and every moment is marked by a certain ineffable something, the Tarantino X Factor that made “Pulp Fiction” the indie touchstone of its time.

 “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”, which premiered today at Cannes, is not that X Factor movie – though for long stretches (a good more than half of it), it feels like it could be. It comes closer than “Django Unchained” or (God knows) “The Hateful Eight”. It’s a heady, engrossing, kaleidoscopic, spectacularly detailed nostalgic splatter collage of a film, an epic tale of backlot Hollywood in 1969, which allows Tarantino to pile on all his obsessions, from drive-ins to donuts, from girls with guns to men with cars and vendettas, from spaghetti Westerns to foot fetishism. In this case, he doesn’t have to work very hard to find spaces for those fixations, since Tarantino, in this 2-hour-and-41-minute tale of a Hollywood caught between eras, is reaching back to the very source of his dreams.

 In “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”, Tarantino tells the dual story of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who starred in a black-and-white TV Western series called “Bounty Law” in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, but whose career is now hitting the skids; and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick’s longtime stunt double and best pal, who has basically become his gofer and driver.

Both are drawling, easy-going good ol’ boys who are functional drunks, and they’ve been kicked around Hollywood, but they’ve got a yin-and-yang thing going.

Instinctive

Rick, who appears to be based at least partly on Burt Reynolds, is an instinctive actor, a gentle charmer, and a secret softie in a brown-leather jacket – the first Tarantino hero to prove that real men do cry. Cliff, by contrast, is a war veteran and rough-and-tumble stud bruiser who lives in a cruddy trailer next to the Van Nuys Drive-In but seems happy and satisfied, like most Brad Pitt characters, with himself. When he’s crossed, he will kick the bejesus out of anyone, and he’s got a bad reputation.

 The first half of “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”, which is the superior half, is set in February ‘69, and Tarantino views these two characters with a straight-up macho humanity that is gratifyingly unironic. DiCaprio and Pitt fill out their roles with such rawhide movie-star conviction that we’re happy to settle back and watch Tarantino unfurl this tale in any direction he wants. And he does digress, in that following-his-free-associational-bliss way.

 In “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”, Tarantino re-creates the Hollywood of 50 years ago with a fantastically detailed and almost swoony time-machine precision, and it’s not just about the marquees and the billboards featuring end-of-the-studio-system-era corn like “Three in an Attic”, or all the juicy Top 40 chestnuts on the soundtrack. The movie captures how Hollywood, by 1969, was a head-spinningly layered place.

 Here’s the TV-cowboy mystique of the ‘60s, which is really a degraded schlock echo of the movie-cowboy culture of the ‘50s. Here’s the rock ‘n’ roll of the moment (like Paul Revere and the Raiders or “Snoopy vs Red Baron”), which popped like crazy yet with a rambunctious easy-listening bounce. And here, beyond the music, is the new noisiness of America: the “hip” commercials blaring from transistor radios, the TV sets that never get turned off, the flamboyant hippie garb that’s starting to go mainstream, turning the counterculture into a living fashion boutique.

 Here’s a Playboy Mansion party where Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) is hanging out, as you might expect him to be, but then so is Mama Cass (Rachel Redleaf). McQueen, talking to Rick, fills in the back story of Sharon, Roman, and their friend Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), the hairdresser who is still in love with Sharon – and, according to McQueen, is hanging around with them because he’s biding his time, waiting for Roman to screw up his marriage. At that point, we’re hooked enough on Tarantino’s heightened version of true-life Hollywood that this love triangle sounds like a little movie of its own.

 You can say, as many will, that it’s only a movie. But for much of “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood”, Tarantino brilliantly uses the presence of the Manson girls to suggest something in the Hollywood cosmos that’s diabolical in its bad vibes. And the way the movie resolves all this feels, frankly, too easy. By the end, Tarantino has done something that’s quintessentially Tarantino, but that no longer feels even vaguely revolutionary. He has reduced the story he’s telling to pulp. (RTRS)

By Owen Gleiberman

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