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Thursday, August 15, 2019

Brand New and a Must-See


Once Upon a Time Is a Socko Hollywood Fairy Tale

A film by a kindred spirit, made seemingly just for me. I never saw 161 minutes go by so fast. First show, opening day, had sixteen of us at a theatre less than seven years open. Odd thing, I hadn’t gone in most of those, the last occasion for a movie about a heroic dog … forgot the title, and there are too many heroic dogs lately to look it up. $13.50 bought admission, a medium popcorn, and a lemon-flavor drink, to which I appended a Baby Ruth from the Run-In. Never figured on such joy from a new film. Only down spout was a projected image too dim and minus proper contrast. An exhibitor friend tells me this is widespread among theatres gone to digital. Actually cheaper, he says, to replace the entire system than elements needed to restore light. Audiences are compliant because most don’t realize how much better the show should look. Much of production effort therefore goes to naught. This appears to be a nationwide quandary, not just local blight. Consequence is a faded, washed out look to everything. Folks, it seems, are adjusted to a slow fade. The imaging screen (chipset) within most projection units is only warranted for five or so years. Digital changeover having been achieved six-seven years ago in most theatres means they’ve passed the factory-backed life span, and it simply costs too much to replace them. Theatres continue with compromised imagery until it gets bad enough to force an upgrade. In the meantime, movies lose color saturation and vibrancy, the chipset bleaching out and blacks turning to gray. Fast rule since nickelodeons: management will not do a lick more than what’s essential to get by. No squawks, no sweat. Where money’s a factor, we suck up what venues can afford. Happier view will come when Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood takes Blu-Ray aim at home screens, or Netflix gets it.


Tarantino invents a saga of fifty years ago. Ones of us old enough know historic names, but who else will? What is nostalgia for the writer-director may be dry dust for his audience. Again, Once Upon a Time plays like a personal gift to like minds, but what if someone had made a big-budget film in 1973, when I was nineteen, about convulsive era that was 1922 when William Desmond Taylor was offed and Arbuckle stood trial for manslaughter? A neat concept maybe, but would my parents have even found it relevant? I’m amazed at how much past we cling to. Rex Reed, fossil critic who at least knew the period first-hand, panned Once Upon a Time, for reasons I forget. Maybe he’s less sentimental for 1969 and knowing what a dingy year it essentially was. Tarantino does not shrink from grime, which to him came on wings of a counterculture that swept out what was left of the “good” Hollywood. No contradicting that, for at age fifteen and before, I mourned a seeming finish of movies to really care about. Break-up for me was 1968, during Fall of which I began reviewing films for a local sheet, and so saw virtually everything for remain of that year and through 1969. If H’wood had a worse annus horribilis, I’d challenge anyone to name it.


So like Rex, I know no wistful recall of late 60's movie-go. A best had by then evaporated: Connery as James Bond gone and an interloper in his place (reactionary me boycotted OHMSS), American-International sunk to bikers and drug culture (The Killers Three, Mary Jane, others). Lee Marvin stopped making good films after being my big-screen hero through 1967, and Hammer had increasingly tired blood. To review movies in 1968-69 was punishment even a $1.60 per column could not salve (sixty cents to get in the Liberty, a dollar to play critic). Check this list and decide how enviable my position was: The Stranger’s Return (“an assembly line of mangled corpses,” I said at the time), Skidoo (“Jackie Gleason wasted in a role no comedian could enliven”), Yellow Submarine (“I was unable to hear (The Beatles’) voices above those of a gang of sixth graders who insisted on joining in the chorus” --- a remark that got me in Dutch with Liberty management). Of The Wrecking Crew, a focal point of Once Upon a Time, I cited sets “where the viewer can actually see the overhead microphones,” but failed to mention Sharon Tate (still a starlet, not yet a most notable of filmland murder victims). My only rave for the whole of 1969 was The Wild Bunch.


Nick Adams Arrives in Japan to Star in Frankenstein Conquers The World


Once Upon a Time has Leonardo Di Caprio as a TV western star facing bleak 60’s prospect. Names have been suggested as to who inspired “Rick Dalton,” but the one I’d propose is Nick Adams, who had The Rebel (1959-61), then guesting on other series, a 1963 spike with Twilight Of Honor, which gave him an Academy Award nomination, and from there more guesting, and a brace of horror/sci-fi (his last a Mexican-made western) before premature passing at age 36 (on 2-7-68). I read somewhere that Nick used his acting fees to put a brother through medical school. He gave an interview to Modern Monsters magazine for their June 1966, Issue #2. I felt at the time he was a good guy for helping out a fledging publication aimed at kids. Nick was adamant that Die, Monster, Die (“I wanted to do it. I liked the script when it was offered to me, and the part was a good one”), and Frankenstein Conquers the World were not steps down (“People like horror films. I like ‘em. I’m not ashamed to admit it”). A heartfelt wrap to the interview saw MM thanking Adams for his willingness to work in such a frowned-upon genre. That moved me at twelve, still does. Once Upon a Time’s Nick Dalton has apprehension over Italo-westerns he's asked to headline, as I am sure many fading names did. We could, of course, name two dozen with a hit vid show in their past who were faced by a same stall by 1969.






The era had a doomed quality. Not just because of Manson, but so many of other casualties. I noted names evoked, some portrayed (Bruce Lee, Steve McQueen), and thought …they are all gone. Ones who turn up in Once Upon a Time that survive: Michelle Phillips, Connie Stevens --- are there more? Seeing Kurt Russell makes me marvel at his being here and still up for vigorous work. I gather he came of a stable background and kept clear of bad influence, but look at all those who did not. Yet somehow, Once Upon a Time stays upbeat, friendly, cheerful in fact to watch (constant radio-or-TV in the background evokes American Graffiti ). And yet there is undercurrent of dread, especially for a third act which we know will pay off on earlier Manson glimpses and a Psycho-scary bit where Brad Pitt visits the viper’s nest (an otherwise deserted western ranch where Charlie’s “family” dwells). Tarantino, bless him, spares us the final terror. The finish echos not only a previous Tarantino film, but a favor Howard Hawks did us with Red River. Everything pointed to John Wayne dying at the end, but Hawks simply said no, because who wants to see that? Tarantino has a same instinct for what audiences prefer. He is, by all accounts, an ongoing student of Hawks, and clearly learned from the master.


Hippies in Once Upon a Time are for most part a vile lot. One of them has rotten teeth and slits Brad Pitt’s tire with a switchblade, for which Pitt bashes his face in. Now there is a level of crowd-pleasing we seldom get at movies today. I’ve not seen the counterculture take licks like this since Eastwood tortured Andy Robinson on the football field in Dirty Harry. I should have seen Tarantino’s spun-round third act coming. Let’s just say that Pitt and Leo take out the trash to popcorn sailing delight of viewers who wish real-life could be as satisfying. Again I fear for passage of that half-century. Does anyone born after earliest 60’s know of the Manson case, or Sharon Tate, let alone details of the slaughter? I avoided reading about it after a first '69 newspaper’s shock, and did not care to see Helter Skelter or those dreadful books (I frankly shrink from people who like to read about serial killers). Had Tarantino staged the actual event, I would have walked out, as others might have to spread ruinous word-of-mouth. Again, this writer-director knows his business. I hear Once Upon a Time in Hollywood cracked $100 million this past weekend. I’d like it to do ten times that in a long run. All involved deserve the moon for such a crackerjack show.

21 Comments:

Blogger Brother Herbert said...

I have yet to see this but I've heard a lot of positive stuff about it from folks who are knowledgeable and appreciative of the era (barring of course Rex Reed, who I didn't know is apparently still reviewing movies since he's known more today for criticism of people and events and lifestyles than film).

Your remarks about digital projection make me wish all the more that Tarantino had shot this in Ultra Panavision 70 like he did HATEFUL 8. QT is a verified film purist, and using 65mm for his ode to a time when that type of cinematography was dying out would've been a fitting irony.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Well, now you done it.

Everything I read about this one made me NOT want to see it.

You've made me excited to see it.

"Crackerjack!" Hot damn! Been a long time since I heard anything called "Crackerjack."

Projection...

When I toured with my 16mm prints of cartoons and features I learned after the first time through to travel with my own 16mm theatrical projector plus a projectionist who answered to me as well as a third person who could run from them to me or me to them if we had a problem.

That on screen image is what folks are coming to see. It must be at the absolute best it can be.

Thanks, John, love ya! Tomorrow I'm off to the movies!

Note: Surprised Tarantino did not give in to the temptation to show the massacre. That man has a future.

3:25 PM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

Thank you for a very perceptive review. I'm a Tarantino fan. I find his movies are longer than most simply because there's so much dialogue. However, the talk is ALWAYS worthwhile; I don't think there's another director today who gives his actors so much interesting conversation. And being the avowed genre film geek he is, you can always count on interesting plots and sidetrips, genre tropes, and iconic actors. For example, I didn't think much of Michael Parks in his THEN CAME BRONSON days, but look how good he's been in Tarantino's films! It's sad than QT is calling do his after one more film, but he's leaving a good legacy.

3:46 PM  
Blogger shiningcity said...

John, I saw it twice and share your joy. 1969 was not a great year for the culture or movie-making in general, but just imagine the amount of movie memorabilia available on Hollywood Blvd at that time.

4:49 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

I've been retired for a while, so give a break on the numbers, okay? Okay. When I used to show my classes SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, I mentioned that in 1952 viewers were 25 years from THE JAZZ SINGER and film sound, but we were more than 50 years downriver from SITR itself! Ouch.

5:01 PM  
Blogger brickadoodle said...

My guess is that a lot of Millennials will take the events dramatized in ONCE UPON A TIME... IN HOLLYWOOD at face value. But, really, when I think about it, aren’t all “period” films mostly revisionist histories, tailored to suit the audience of the day?

7:11 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

My 28 year old son, a committed movie fan and a very smart guy (in a PhD program right now), loved this movie as I did, but admitted that it probably played better for older folks. Knowledgeable as he is, he told me that he'd heard of Charlie Manson, knew there was some cultish stuff and that somebody had been murdered, but knew no details. Didn't even know the name "Sharon Tate." So, as he sadly acknowledged, much as he loved it, he knew he'd missed out on some really good stuff.

Terrific movie and one which will be a rare, immediate, Blu-Ray purchase for me, soon as its available.

7:41 PM  
Blogger bufffilmbuff said...

I loved it too. My main criticism is that it went on too long and I did not like the scene with the child actress. Otherwise all the cultural references were hilarious and on point. I have found this to be the rare recent film which people like to argue about... maybe because there is so much imbedded in it. I especially liked the wrap up of the films the Dicaprio character made in Italy---really nailed genre films from that period.

7:53 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I generally like QT films. THE HATEFUL EIGHT was great (just too long), but I look forward to a Blu-Ray evening of OUATIH in a few months.

As for theatre projection...my local bijou (a 14-screen multiplex), uses two projectors for each auditorium, doubling the light of the image. Their presentations are awesome.

I've been to the place three times this year...to see THE WIZARD OF OZ, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and GONE WITH THE WIND. Tells you how old I am.

What contemporary films I care to see, I enjoy in my 4K home theatre. Well, actually, I don't enjoy all of them. So much of today's product is crap.

9:24 AM  
Blogger William Lund said...

My 35 year old son-in-law took me to an IMAX showing of this film. It was inspired film making with a great feel for that era. As someone old enough to remember the real details of the Manson murders, there was certain dread of the third act. "Is the director really gonna show this?" I thought. Instead we get an ending which screams "this is what should really happen to the Manson followers." As mentioned in the review, younger viewers (like my son-in-law) know very little about the real story and thus appreciate the film on a different level.

2:04 PM  
Blogger Robert Fiore said...

To me Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is like the ghosts of Los Angeles rising up to wreak vengeance on the assholes who spoiled everything. What's really weird is all these people taking Tarantino to task for being mean to hippies, as if the Manson family were flower children at the Renaissance Faire and not the butchers who slaughtered five helpless people and use their blood for fingerpaint. And it's absolute echo of what happened in 1969 when the cops arrested Manson and the underground press leapt to his defense, convinced that it was police blaming the hippies for everything. Another thing people are not getting is the thing that makes the characterization of Bruce Lee so funny is taking this guy who's become almost a secular saint, sort of like Bob Marley, and having him act like a louse. But you know there's one thing they fudged about their recreation of L.A. in the 60s: It was a lot smoggier back then. Young people of today have never seen the true killer fog.

12:51 AM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Sure looks like Stinky is in the minority, but he finds Mr. Tarantino so physically repellent, with the intellectual capacity and artistic temperament of a stilted smart-ass fourteen-year-old boy, hopped up on too much sugar, that he will take a pass on this one. In fact, Stinky tuned out of Mr. Tarantino's output years ago.

To quote John Candy from SCTV, "John Ford would put a bullet in his brain!"

10:44 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I was invited out to Hollywood by a friend in 1970. I went. I lived in "Flower Child Central." The house I was crashing in was a bordello (which is not an "Eye-talian" dessert).

I walked into a church one Sunday to kill time. The minister gave a sermon comparing the love of the flower children to the love of Jesus.

It wasn't. Jesus did not charge before or after for his love.

Too much looking through rose coloured glasses makes folks dumb.

I was told I had to help pay the rent and there was more than one fellow who thought me good looking.

Those kids had started out good looking. It was not long before they became not good to look at or to be around.

I said, "I'll pass."

I was told, "Well, you have to help pay the rent."

After answering an ad in the L. A. Times I walked close to twenty miles the next morning on an empty stomach.

I arrived at the front door of THE MISSIONARY ARMY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. Wanting nothing to do with them I turned to walk away when I reflected I had not eaten and would not eat. I figured they had to have coffee and doughnuts.

I went inside filled out their forms with the truth knowing they could not hire me unless I lied. I then filled myself with doughnuts which I washed down with coffee.

"You're Canadian, aren't you," said the man in charge when I walked into his office.

I replied, "Yes."

He said, "Have you got a working permit?"

I replied, "No."

He said, "I can't hire you without one. What are you doing here?"

I said, "I'm living in a house. It's time to pay the rent. It's either peddle my ass or get a job."

I had made my response as hard as I could because I thought he would get angry and throw me out.

Instead he said, "THE LORD says I am supposed to help you. The law of the land says I can't. What do I do?"

Figuring he'd throw me out I said, "That is your question."

He said, "Then I guess I have to hire you."

In that instant I realized there are two laws and that who I would become for the rest of my life hung entirely upon which of the two I broke.

I've been on the right side of the wrong law since 1970.

That man changed my life fore the better. He had more love in his small toe than the whole flower child movement put together. I learned a lot from him.

Mostly, my balls dropped. I stopped being a boy and became a man.

I believe the ranch the Manson family hung out on was the William S. Hart ranch.

Been an anarchist for God since 1970.

Who would have thought I'd learn the meaning of Christianity in Hollywood?

Good town. Done more good than all the world's religions rolled into one.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Marc J. Hampton said...

I was born in 71...i grew up listening to my young parents talk about the "Sharon Tate Murders"...I think it really spooked them. Conversely Vietnam was never mentioned...ever.

1:07 PM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Lee Marvin stopped making good movies in the '60s? Stinky will take Pocket Money, Emperor of the North, Prime Cut, The Iceman Cometh or The Big Red One over anything Mr. Tarantino can regurgitate.

3:17 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Vietnam was worse. Absolutely.

That was the result of mad people in Washington not fuzzy haired lunatics on a ranch.

3:44 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

John, sorry you could not swing by Chicago where the Music Box, ten minutes from me on foot, played it in 70mm. Bless them for fighting the willful suicide of quality theatrical presentation.

A couple of thoughts (spoilers ahoy)-- it is interesting that Tarantino avoids the few good movies that might have been on marquees then-- The Wild Bunch, Midnight Cowboy, reissues of 2001. This is a movie that says, you have to love MOVIES, in all their Krakatoa/Three in the Attic/Wrecking Crew junkiness, not just a movie.

Tarantino talks about who inspired Rick and Cliff in the Pure Cinema Podcast about it, worth a listen to the early section at least. There are many candidates he mentions, from Ty Herndon to Edd Kookie Byrnes-- a whole class of cleancut good looking guys who were suddenly past their expiration date when the Hoffmans and Pacinos and Hackmans became the new stars. The most obvious inspiration for Rick and Cliff's relationship is Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham-- and that one had a happy ending in revitalized stardom, eventually.

Yes, Rick is alive at the end. Or is he? At the very end, Rick is admitted, past an elaborate gate, to a party full of people who in the real 1969, are all dead-- and he thinks he's finally in showbiz heaven...

2:03 PM  
Blogger iarla said...

It's a modestly entertaining movie. I was surprised that it was no worse than it was. The last time I endured a Tarantino was "Jackie Brown" in the late 90's and that bored the knickers off me. The usual - long boring stretches of not too smart 'dialogue' punctuated by orgasms of 'cartoon' violence. Same in this one, but the colors were nice and it moved a bit better and it panders to fake nostalgia for aging fans. At the screening of OUATIH that I attended, I was mildly disquieted that young boys in the crowd laughed and cheered when the Susan Atkins character had her head repeatedly smashed on the kitchen counter top, which shows - as much as anything depicted in this film - that few learned the lessons of the 60's, and less are likely to, after viewing this. I also thought (reading the comments above) about the many children and women (some of whom probably pregnant) were raped and butchered by our boys in Vietnam. Is Sharon a metaphor for such misdeeds?

5:59 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

"I also thought (reading the comments above) about the many children and women (some of whom probably pregnant) were raped and butchered by our boys in Vietnam. Is Sharon a metaphor for such misdeeds?"

Well, for that to be true the movie would have to, say, start with clips of Rick's TV show in which he is shown to be a heartless killer who makes money off of the body count he brings in. But like you say, he's not that smart.

7:24 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Ravishing and vastly entertaining. Everything a movie should be. wonderfully written, acted, designed, edited and a fantastic selection of music throughout. Leo and Brad have never been better. I suppose I'm biased because I saw it at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, but the audience was entranced. Applause at the end. What a great time at the movies.

2:59 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Everything a movie should be. Ravishing and cinematic with wonderful writing, editing, casting, cinematography design and great choices of music throughout. Leo and Brad have never been better. I may be biased having seen it at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. The audience applauded at the end. I just saw it a second time.

3:05 AM  

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