Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) – Review

Tarantino-tailored time capsule. 

Don Draper described nostalgia as “a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone”. Tarantino’s vision of a pre-Manson, sun-kissed 60s Los Angeles – illustrated with Pan Am planes, Cadillacs and neon-lit cinema dusk-scapes – transcends the reality of your experiences and radiates like a warm memory, creating a tangible sense of place that’s every bit authentic as it is irresistible. Like Scorsese’s titular twinkly Casino, QT’s city of angels is an alluring character of its own.

The filmmaker’s legacy is a complex menagerie of violent, sweary concoctions: among them is the ultra-nihilism of The Hateful Eight; the jet-black, scalped revisionism of Inglorious Basterds; the ode to Grindhouse exploitation of Death Proof; and the superfly pithiness of Reservoir Dogs. He’s famously proclaimed he’ll only make 10 films; which makes Once Upon a Time in Hollywood his ninth (counting Kill Bill as one bloody affair).

Though, contrasting expectations as his filmography draws to a close, his penultimate release doesn’t write history with lightning in Pulp (semi-)Fiction. For much of its 161-minute runtime, it’s closer in spirit to Jackie Brown; still layered with Tarantinoisms – freeze frame flashback exposition à la Hugo Stiglitz, snazzy editing and infectious tunes (particularly Los Bravos’ Bring a Little Lovin’) – but much mellower, allowing every little thread to untangle at a leisurely, captivating pace.

© – Sony Pictures

We open with a reel of Bounty Law, an amusingly corny western TV show, before cutting to an interview with our leads: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a jading television actor; and his stunt-double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who helps “carry Rick’s load”. Rick is floundering in a youthful arena; as his agent warns him (Al Pacino in a cameo powered by legend-casting), he’s playing the bad guy so the good guys can run in the industry, coming “face to face with he failure” of his career as he averts change.

Cliff on the other hand plays fiddle to Rick’s lifestyle. Without a gig next to his double, he’s yang without ying. He drives him around, picks him up, fixes his aerial – though it isn’t begrudged. The pair share a brotherly bond; while Rick’s actions may appear selfish, Cliff’s puppy-like eagerness makes their rapport particularly charming as they traverse their respective tales.

The film takes place over the course of 1969, placing up-and-coming starlet Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) in their orbit, living next door to Rick with world-renowned director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). The Bryan Adams timestamp is no secret coincidence; the Manson family pervade frames as Rick and Cliff cruise around, dead behind the eyes and endlessly hitchhiking back to Charles (Damon Herriman). The presence of the cult (who infamously slaughtered Sharon Tate and four others) is more of a lingering reminder of the (seemingly) inevitable than an examination from the director; perturbing the almost wistful essence that makes much of the picture feel like a reverie.

There’s a certain poeticism to OUATIH. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is beautifully textured and composed, feeling more of a tool to establish a world you’d roam than the wall-worthy pizazz of The Hateful Eight and Kill Bill. There’s no major takeaway moment of screenwriting genius like Jules’ recital of Ezekiel 25:17. Nor is there much of a plot at all – while Django Unchained‘s narrative path is rather traditional compared to Pulp Fiction‘s vastly different, groundbreaking spliced storytelling, the filmmaker’s latest flows through the trio’s vignettes like an epic rhapsody.

© – Sony Pictures

It’s Tarantino at his most personal. He’s crafted an immense love letter; not to racial slurs, not to feet (even though there are many, and they’re all dirty), but to the movies. Robbie’s Tate is a vessel for his addiction to the ecstasy of Hollywood – she’s an utterly joyous presence, glamorous and grin-inducing (particularly in a scene where she charms her way into a free screening of her own film, The Wrecking Crew, lapping up the audience’s reactions as she sits wide-eyed in pride).

Pitt’s Cliff embodies the problematic essence of Tarantino’s best characters, now entering his pantheon of icons. It’s an exceptional turn, one layered in stud charisma that straddles you from the off. He’s what Stuntman Mike imagines he is – take a concoction of him, True Romance‘s Floyd and Inglorious Basterds‘ Aldo, and you have Cliff. Whereas DiCaprio’s Rick is more delicate; an actor losing his feet and forever battling his own – frequently weepy – insecurities. One could read him as a representation of QT’s post-Death Proof emotional state (disheartened by the sedated critical and audience response). His first lead role since The Revenant could see him win another Oscar – though often played for laughs, the actor never forgets to imbue despair with genuine, poignant pathos.

Tones diverge without pattern; you have a hilariously silly, albeit very brief, tussle with Bruce Lee one moment, then an arse-clenching, suspense-knitted trip to the Manson family’s Spahn Ranch the next. As you hurtle towards the film’s show-stopping conclusion (smartly spawned from a meta-commentary on the violence debate), the underlying dread releases. The result is an explosion of exhilarating bloodlust that only Tarantino could orchestrate – audiences will laugh, scream and cheer till the credits roll. Also, there’s an amazing dog.

Tarantino’s penultimate film is pure movie magic; a beautifully crafted, deliriously cathartic sonnet to Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Rating: ★★★★★

Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm

Mary Queen of Scots (2019) – Review

Historically accurate? Not really. Riveting? Quite. 

Towards the royal encounter of the imaginary kind at the climax of Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth utters: “How cruel men are.” Very apt, for the film acts not only as a (debatably false) work of history, but a reminder of the ruthless, institutional disregard of the “whims of women” by men, as one troglodyte splutters. Despite the 450 year gap, this period piece feels rivetingly apropos to the current landscape. Not to mention its diversity; colourblind casting, two female leads and a woman in the director’s chair. Bob Dylan’s famous words about changing times come to mind.

The film chronicles the 16th century battle of mights between Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) and Mary, Queen of Scots (Saoirse Ronan). In very, very simple terms; Mary returned to Scotland from France after losing her husband. Upon arrival, she makes her position perfectly clear as Queen of Scotland. As a Catholic, she is seen as a threat to both Scotland and England’s Protestant supremacy, none more so than John Knox (David Tennant, whose work is more aggressively showy than a real stretch of his ability), a cleric who after swift dismissal from the Queen’s court, begins a tirade of hateful, abusive sermons. The problem for Elizabeth, unmarried and childless, is that Mary has a serious, dangerous claim to the English throne due to her bloodline.

© – Universal Pictures

So forth begins manipulations across both sides, ushering men for Mary to marry in the hope that it lowers her claim. What’s innately refreshing is the dynamic between the two monarchs; neither hate each other, even hundreds of miles apart their comments rarely descend into spite. The agony of the fateful story is they were the only two people that could truly understand one another’s struggles; two Queens in a land overrun by the machiavellian ways of the opposite gender. Josie Rourke leans the film on its two titanic performances, a task the duo hand with grace and ferocity. Ronan’s is the more wholesome character arc; from slight uneasiness to a pragmatic force of power, all while handling that deviously tricky Scottish accent, rarely landing on a blip. Robbie’s is denser though, conveying maternal despair and loneliness under regal authority. When the pair finally do meet (after wishy-washy shots of sheets), think Heat-levels of screen magnetism.

Rourke tries to strike an interplay between the two throughout the film, intercutting their whereabouts, but instead disturbs the rather elegant, vulnerably slow rhythm to which the story unravels. The main issue is how gripping the entire feature is; if you’re going to take fictional liberties with history, at least make them exciting. But Rourke and writer Beau Willimon play things slow and loose, conjuring up entirely make-believe meetings and detrimental acts of cunnilingus, while botching the saga’s sense of time completely. Aside from the royals, the script rarely rises to the occasion of the “tumultuous times”, feeding the clergy impactful vitriol in doses but padding out the rest of the cast’s dialogue.

Max Richter’s composition embeds firmly within the storytelling but can’t quite find a way to elevate into a glorious crescendo or stir up the trauma, mostly coasting along. However, John Mathieson’s cinematography does anything but settle for adequate. While the interior scenes can feel more small-screen than cinematic (saved by the lusciously crafted costume design and beautiful make-up, which has rightfully earned Oscar nominations), he steeps frames in cold, stunning landscapes. You can practically feel the brisk, mountainous air of the Scottish vistas as the view takes your breath away. The most convincing VisitScotland ad yet maybe, but Rourke’s film establishes a captivating sense of place, acting as a transportive, if not reliable history lesson.

Ill-pacing and bland storytelling betray this powerhouse showcase of Ronan and Robbie’s boundless talents. 

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm