Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: Tarantino’s swansong

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the ninth film by Quentin Tarantino – and it’s one you’d better make sure you watch because he’s only making one more and that’s it, he’s done. His legacy of ten films will be there for us to watch but no more will be made, verily the movie gods have spoken (until he gets bored and comes out of retirement).

Now this used to make me sad, but in recent years it’s bothered me less. With each film he releases I end up enjoying them in parts, but don’t come out of the cinema fired up the way I used to – perhaps not since Kill Bill have I been blown away by one of his films. Yes, his stories all have had standout scenes and moments, but they just haven’t engaged me scene for scene the way his early ones did. His great vengeance and furious anger has dissapated.

The problem lies in the edit

Since his editor, Sally Menke, died in 2010 (she edited all of his films up until Inglorious Basterds) his storytelling has never been as tight. Legendary director Peter Bogdanovich was reportedly so good because he inherently understood the editing process; indeed, he was a brilliant editor in his own right. This is something Tarantino lacks and no one is strong enough to stand up to him in this regard, be it an editor or a producer.

As a result Once Upon a Time in Hollywood clocks in at 2 hours 45 minutes. If you add trailers we’re talking 3 hours plus – and this is the case every time you see one of his films these days. Add to this that I’ve read recently he wants to release an even longer version. If this doesn’t tell us he completely believes his own hype, then I don’t know what does.

Once upon a time…

Edit aside, the story here is an interesting one. It focuses on TV leading man Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor whose star power is fading. A man trying to revive his career, but in general only has his stunt man and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) in his corner, supporting his choices and acting as kind of a big brother. Cliff drives Rick around trying to keep him on the straight and narrow. They prop each other up and the dynamic between these two alpha males of Hollywood is the beating heart of this story.

Pitt is all easygoing charm, much like his character Rusty in Ocean’s Eleven. DiCaprio is tense, twitchy and unhinged, drawing on his characters from Wolf of Wall Street, Shutter Island and a host of others. It’s a delightful pairing and their chemistry sings in each scene. You just want to spend time watching them hang out and shoot the breeze.

A love letter to Sharon

Ahead of the film’s release many expected this story to focus on Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and the days leading up to her murder, but it doesn’t. The slight of hand Tarantino has played with the film’s marketing has frustrated some who have written about feeling cheated. They’ve been given minimal Tate (and therefore minimal Robbie). Yes, she’s a presence throughout, but her story is only very loosely connected to Dalton’s, which is the main one we follow.

Tarantino has written about how he just wanted to spend time with her, celebrating Tate as a person and an artist. This comes across, but is does feel like a waste of Robbie and we still don’t hugely get to know Tate as a person from this film. Robbie is an Oscar-winner and could have brought so much more to the part, had she been given more to work with.

There are things to love

Despite the baggy run time and the strangely languid pace of storytelling there are still many things to love in this film. I mean, you’ve got Pitt, DiCaprio and Robbie as the leads – three beautiful humans and all powerhouse actors. Pitt’s laidback charisma shines through in every scene. DiCaprio has played a bad guy for Tarantino before in Django Unchained and, in a sequence in this film, he plays the bad guy again, but not in the way you might think. It’s rather inspired. People forget how good he is at comedy.

And Robbie, whilst not having a great deal to do, drifts through the film as perhaps a symbol of innocence, beauty and hope for the future. It’s a joy to watch her dance and smile on screen. I just wish she had been more integral to the A plot story.

So, all in all, this film for me sits about mid-teir Tarantino. It looks beautiful and there were a few standout scenes and moments, but the issue I had was, like his last three, it’s overlong and drifts rather than engages me in the story and the characters.

Maybe some day someone will release a tighter edit of this film. I’d get behind that. In the meantime we have one more to go, I for one am most curious about what his final film will be. I hope he burns out rather than fades away as a director.

Whatever happened to Christian Slater?

heathersgunNot sure where this thought came from – one of my many random ones during the day I suppose. Whatever its origins, it’s an issue that needs addressing. Not that I’ll solve anything, but a problem shared is a problem halved, as my Nan likes to say.

Some would say he’s had his day, perhaps that’s true. What I do know is that, for me growing up, vintage Slater in full flow was always a welcome sight. Much like Val Kilmer (another ’80s star perhaps considered washed up), I still feel there’s a lot more mileage there. Putting Kilmer to one side, I’d like to take a look back at Slater’s top performances. Here’s my pick:

  • Heathers (1988)
  • Pump Up The Volume (1990)
  • Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (1991)
  • True Romance (1993)
  • Interview With The Vampire (1994)

Clearly, 1988-1994 was his heyday, beyond that Hollywood simply didn’t know what to do with him. The world had moved on. Admittedly they tried to mould him into an action star a la Bruce Willis – think Broken Arrow (1996), Hard Rain (1998), Pump_Up_the_Volume_300_Mediumwith the godawful Churchill: The Hollywood Years (2004) being the last roll of the dice.

It’s such a shame. Looking at his best work, Heathers is widely regarded as a cult classic (number 412 on Empire’s 500 greatest movies of all time list), with Slater’s performance being compared to that of a young Jack Nicholson. Pump Up The Volume was arguably more of the same, yet he was a little more grown up, his performance more robust and matured. Robin Hood was a huge commercial success at the time, his Will Scarlett perfectly judged and beautifully balanced to Costner’s somewhat dour Robin Hood.

True Romance stands head and shoulders above the rest of his work, directed by the late, great Tony Scott, armed with one of Tarantino’s first scripts. Slater took the character of Clarence Worley and surpassed expectations. Yes Tarantino had caught him on the upwave of his career, yet he’s never been cooler – delivering line after effortlessly cool line in his cocky, offbeat way. ‘Do I look like a beautiful blonde with big tits and an ass that tastes like French Vanilla ice cream?’

When you simply cannot picture another playing the part, you know the actor in question has truly made the role his own. In a film which included Dennis Hopper, Christoper Walken, Gary Oldman and James Gandolfini (sadly another late, great), trueromancebedSlater – along with Patricia Arquette’s Alabama – acted not only as the driving force, but also the sweet heart and soul of the movie. A classic film and classic performance, thoroughly deserving of its place on my top films of all time list.

Post 1994, the dip in quality and output was not solely down to Hollywood’s inability to cast him correctly. Off-screen, a string of arrests and convictions no doubt played their part in stopping decent scripts landing at his doorstep. That said, maybe (hopefully) that’s all now behind him.

Plus, if there was ever a man that specializes in resurrecting the careers of faded stars, it’s Tarantino. His script for True Romance helped Slater achieve a career high and at present, when his career has never been lower, there simply isn’t a better time to cast one of the quirkiest bad boys of the ’80s and ’90s. Quentin, pick up the phone, you know what to do.