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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Quentin Tarantino has something great on his hands... until he caves to his own worst instincts.

Inglourious Murders

Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) boogies like it's 1969
Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) boogies like it’s 1969

This is a tough one, movie people.

Typical of Tarantino, his latest is full of style, visual film splendor, a tasty music collection and snappy dialogue. But the last 30 minutes — wow. They’re the kind of movie mess that will likely be debated for years to come.

Much like Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino has rewritten history. Granted, there is that fairy tale component right in the movie’s title. “Once upon a time...”

But, even so, considering what really happened in August 1969, the movie derails into a completely callous insult to Sharon Tate and all the other victims of the heinous, deranged Manson family. (This despite a “thank you” to sister Debra Tate during the end credits.)  It’s a rude, crude climax featuring that trademark exploitative sense of humor that has been the hallmark of much of Tarantino’s work, as well as that of his friend and occasional partner in film crime, Robert Rodriguez.

Here’s something of a contrarian spin to consider, a different light under which to examine Tarantino’s work. In many respects this effort is the film equivalent to a Broadway jukebox musical. That’s the kind of big, splashy show that plays off the popularity of a collection of well-known songs, stringing them together in some sort of loose narrative, then dumping it all on stage. Sometimes it’s specific to one artist (Escape to Margaritaville and Jimmy Buffett), a genre (Motown: The Musical) or a theme (truth, beauty, freedom and love in the recently-opened Moulin Rouge!, based on Baz Lurhmann’s cinematic masterpiece and referencing a whopping 70 pop songs).

It’s not necessarily the show’s originality that sells tickets, it’s the opportunity to wax nostalgic over the familiar songs that are front-loaded with baggage brought to the theatre by individual attendees. How well the show goes generally depends on how much one likes the catalog of songs.

Bounty Law

Moving to a cinematic context, what’s different here? Tarantino’s riffs all come from film history. He plays with film stock; grain; lighting; degradation of image quality and color over the years; jerky film splicing; aspect ratios; composition; film defects; focus issues and even marketing materials. And, of course, he has his own jukebox of classic rock tracks.

So. How much of Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood should be appreciated as merely an appreciation of film versus how much of it is actually solid storytelling?

Tarantino gets an easy A+ for his studious, laborious attention to film history and detail. (To that end, he’s in the same league as Zac Snyder, who’s perpetually infatuated with recreating comic book frames on film, at the expense of important things like pacing, character development and emotional resonance.)

The trouble is, there’s not a whole lot of emotional connection to be had in this fairy tale about the fabled 1960s dreamland. That’s a big whiff for a movie that relatively early on begins to effectively create a sense of dread as soon as a group of the Manson family girls are seen dumpster diving in Hollywood. There’s a brief, strange appearance by Charles Manson outside Sharon Tate’s home. Tensions build as stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, Moneyball) has a few random run-ins with one particular Manson girl, ultimately leading him to Spahn’s Movie Ranch, where the Manson family was squatting.

The tension should keep ratcheting up and ratcheting up.

Along the way, a couple different characters make a quip about how they “never had a chance” at one opportunity or another. It all points to the inevitable horror of the night of August 8, 1969.

But. This is a Tarantino movie. Expect the unexpected. For better or worse.

Fractured Fairy Tale

Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) with his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt)
Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) with his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt)

Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is a turbulent ride of highs and lows.

There is a long, indulgent passage in which Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, The Aviator) flubs his lines while filming a TV western pilot for director Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond, The Sound of Music). On the one hand, it’s a slow slog. On the other hand, it’s Tarantino giving an idea its due time and allowing it to develop onscreen. Even so, there’s something odd about DiCaprio’s performance. There’s a nagging feeling that maybe he is, in real life, too young and too successful to play a character whose career is going down the drain, devolving from a big screen star to a TV “special guest,” typically playing the heavy in a number of popular series.

As for Pitt, he’s not exactly exhibiting a lot of range here. It’s Pitt in a T-shirt and Hawaiian shirt as he portrays Rick’s favorite stunt double, who’s assumed the role of personal assistant to the star who’s lost both his shine and his license to drive.

But Cliff, who’s accused of killing his wife and getting away with it, is given one scene that is pretty cool. It involves an egotistical Bruce Lee (Mike Moh, TV’s Empire) and Cliff getting into a scuffle on a film set. It’s funny, well-framed and gives Cliff the most depth he gets in the movie’s 160-minute run time.

Bruce Lee and Sam Wanamaker are two of the many real celebrities roped into the story. Others include Steve McQueen, Roman Polanski, Michelle Phillips, Connie Stevens, Jay Sebring and, of course, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie, I, Tonya).

Helter Skelter

Tarantino crafts an interesting ride through 1960s Hollywood for the first 2 hours. Most of the pace-stunting indulgences can be brushed aside as an old-school style of filmmaking. As with the extended sequence of Rick Dalton filming with Sam Wanamaker, ideas are allowed to breathe. In some respects, that’s a refreshing change of pace to the frenetic pacing of the typical ADD summertime blockbuster.

But, ultimately, August 8, 1969, rolls around.

Evening looms and then a detailed timeline unfolds. A time stamp appears in the lower left corner of the screen. It’s a great mechanism to elevate that growing sense of dread and anxiety as history knows what is about to happen. It’s a reasonable expectation that the clock is ticking on the final minutes of Sharon Tate’s life. But reasonable expectations and Quentin Tarantino’s sensibilities are virtually polar opposites.

For Tarantino’s most ardent fans, what follows is a violent, raucous romp. For others still contemplating Tarantino’s place in the pantheon of Hollywood greats, it’s more like ammo to kick him to the curb.

There’s an opportunity missed here. There was a chance to forge a bond with Rick and Cliff and Sharon; after all, Sharon and her husband, Roman, had just moved next door to Rick on Cielo Drive. It’s an opportunity to mine a deep emotional core in the nation’s psyche that has never fully recovered from the trauma of the ’60s. Through this blend of fiction and reality, it’s an opportunity to feel the tragedy of the talent lost and the evil in the air. It’s an evil that’s still circulating.

Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is in part about the pursuit of the American dream and all the perils in its path; there’s that refrain again, “I never had a chance.” The American dream is something Tarantino has benefitted from immensely. But it’s too lofty and substantial for Tarantino’s penchant and preference for exploitative action, violence and sharp dialogue.

Tarantino claims he’s only going to direct 10 movies. Given this is his ninth movie and he’s only 56 years old, such a claim of a planned retirement for this wildly creative type merely seems like a setup for his own pre-planned second coming. But, maybe that 10th (and allegedly final) movie will be the capstone that finally merges Tarantino’s undeniable talent for style with a sense of substance to match.

As it stands, it’s Tarantino’s world. We’re just watching it.