Thursday, August 1, 2019

Reserved Seating: ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (Spoilers)

by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
The review duo who have nice feet. Also, another reminder: there’s spoilers in the article ahead.

Rob: Welcome back to Reserved Seating. I’m Rob DiCristino. This article has spoilers.

Adam: And I’m Adam Riske. We’re talking spoilers this week.
Rob: Our All Pacino series returns with a brand-spanking-new entry, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The ninth film from Quentin Tarantino stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, a fading ‘50s television icon whose struggles with alcoholism have nearly destroyed his career. He and best friend/stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) stave off obscurity with small guest roles until casting agent Marvin Schwarzs (Alfredo James Pacino), who believes Dalton still has good work left in him, sends the pair to Italy to star in a series of spaghetti westerns. Dalton and Booth regain their confidence and purpose while Dalton’s new neighbors Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) live the Hollywood dream, completely unaware that they’ve been targeted by the Manson Family.

This will be a spoiler-filled discussion. For the last time. Spoilers. If you haven’t seen Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, close this tab and head to the nearest multiplex. If you have seen it, then you know that the film is far too sprawling and detailed for Adam and I to cover everything. Instead, we’ve each chosen a few elements that stood out to us. Be sure to add your thoughts in the comments! Adam, I know what you thought of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, so where do we begin?

Adam: We’ll save our takes on Al for last. I’ll also start by saying I absolutely loved OUATIH.

The first takeaway I had are a couple of questions for you. Do you think there’s any particular significance to Brad Pitt’s character, Cliff Booth, having a backstory that he probably killed his wife? Also, why do you think Tarantino cast so many children of famous celebrities (Maya Hawke, Margaret Qualley, Harley Quinn Smith) or former child actors (Dakota Fanning, did I see Danielle Harris (?)) in the parts of Manson “family” members? I wanted to get your take on it. I have opinions, but I think I might be reading too much into it. For example, does Cliff have that backstory in order to suggest in a single character what the movie is suggesting as a whole that there’s a lot of darkness lurking? Is it to make the audience feel there’s a capable (violent) “good” character to handle himself (and by proxy, the audience) against the Manson people? Is it just a reference to the allegations about the later accidental (?) death of Natalie Wood who was a star actor in 1969?
As for the child actors/children of famous celebrities thing, is Tarantino making a one for one with his 1969 current generation/next generation characters and how he feels in 2019 personally with the next generation taking over? In other words, could he be criticizing some millennials and comparing them to cult members?

Rob: Let me start by saying that I loved Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. A lot. Like, I’m not even fully prepared to say how much. In terms of your questions, I feel like the wife backstory, the Bruce Lee scene, and the George Spahn scene are all there to illustrate Booth’s “chaotic neutral” ethos, which informs his eventual heroism during the film’s climax. Booth isn’t an ideologically-driven character. He’s almost a resting id (there’s a whole conversation to be had about Booth, Dalton, and Tate as id, ego, and superego), a kind of base instinctual wildcard character whose time with Dalton has given him a strong filter for Hollywood bullshit. He may have killed his wife. He may not have. He may have done it on purpose. He may not have. He fights Bruce Lee because he’s a loud mouth, not because he’s — I can’t believe we have to have this conversation — an Asian actor breaking into Hollywood. He handles the Spahn situation simply. He doesn’t run to the authorities. He checks on his friend and decides, knowing full well what those kids are doing, that it’s his business. The thing with the flat tire punctuates that: He beats the shit out of the kid because he slashed his tire, not because he’s scamming his friend. That’s not his business. That’s why I disagree with those who say Tarantino is unsympathetic — and, again, I can’t believe we actually have to have this conversation — to the Manson kids. Booth doesn’t kill them because they’re hippies. He kills them because they broke into his friend’s house. Action, reaction. For Booth, it’s just that simple. Remember the ambulance at the end? Dalton says something like, “You’re a good friend.” Booth says, “I try.” That’s what he does.

And I read the Hollywood royalty casting exactly the way you did. Tarantino sees a new wave coming in to buck the establishment the same way the New Hollywood did in the late ‘60s. I don’t think it’s necessarily calling Millennials cultish, specifically, but I need to see the movie again before I can really narrow down if there’s anything deeper there.
My first point concerns my favorite scene in the film — Sharon Tate going to the theater to see herself in The Wrecking Crew. Tarantino has always weaponized cinema to celebrate its power, but as opposed to showcasing its brutality like “Revenge of the Giant Face” in Inglourious Basterds, this scene is about pure, genuine joy. The first time Tate passes the theater, she smiles at her name in the marquee before walking by. It’s transitory. “Look, I’m famous. That’s fun.” Next time, she decides to go in. She gets that little pang of joy when introducing herself to the ticket-taker, but she’s brought down a peg by the confusion with the theater manager (“Stand over by the poster so that people know who you are”). What’s Tarantino saying? Stardom is fickle. We know this. But when she saunters into that theater and literally glows (note the projector behind her) as her physical comedy makes the crowd around her laugh, we can see that Tate is finding that peace that Rick Dalton struggles with so profoundly: She’s enjoying the art for what it’s meant to be, not what it means for her status or reputation. And those glasses! She’s so fucking adorable. I love that Tarantino uses the real Sharon Tate Wrecking Crew performance rather than having Robbie reenact it. That was when I knew Tate and co. would survive. He’d never kill her after such a beautiful moment. This is a fairy tale about what Hollywood should be, not what it is.

Adam: I loved that scene too. I read it in a different way despite agreeing with everything you’re saying. That scene of Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate watching The Wrecking Crew (which is not easily available and that makes me sad) meant to me that Sharon Tate would want audiences to see the movie and enjoy her work. I might be speaking more for myself more than modern audiences in general, but I feel a tendency to not seek out her work because I associate her with her murder and I can’t get past that enough to enjoy her performance or the film she’s in. I think that’s one of the most lovely things about what Tarantino is doing with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s almost giving permission to people like me and saying we should enjoy her work and that’s the way to honor her as a filmgoer. She would have wanted that. I love that Tarantino made this movie because it recontextualizes Sharon Tate as the wonderful person and talented actor she was and not for the unfortunate notoriety with which she’s most widely associated.

My next takeaway is about Margot Robbie’s performance. A lot of critics and detractors were upset enough to call out her lack of dialogue. I think that criticism is naive about acting. I’m going to get on a soap-box here for a second but this is the same shit people do with Keanu Reeves where they ignore what a great physical performer he is because he doesn’t say his lines in a way that screams “great acting.” Margot Robbie’s role is difficult. She’s all about presence, and she’s aces at that in this movie. The whole point is Sharon Tate was the person you notice when she enters the room. Margot Robbie in spirit is that entirely in this movie. I’ll also say that I think it makes more sense to not have her espouse paragraphs of Tarantino dialogue because Sharon Tate was a real person and this is a time in her life that should be handled with sensitivity. It would seem less sensitive to turn her into a quippy Tarantino character. Maybe I’m giving Tarantino the benefit of the doubt here because I’m biased but I don’t think so.

Rob: I absolutely agree. Her function is symbolic. She’s meant to radiate Hollywood, and that role is crucial to the soul of the film, no matter how much dialogue she has. As I said before, she’s kind of the superego that bridges the gap between Booth and Dalton. She’s the ideal. Real quick: I want to plug Lindsey Romain’s column on Tate and Hollywood over at Nerdist. It’s really poignant, and everyone should check it out in the wake of the hot take shit storm this movie is causing.
My next point is also about performances, specifically that of Leonardo DiCaprio. I have to admit that I’ve liked many of DiCaprio’s movies in spite of his performances, not necessarily because of them (yes, he’s great in The Wolf of Wall Street. I know). He’s always struck me as a try-hard, which I think secretly made him such a perfect choice for Rick Dalton. I feel like I can always see DiCaprio acting, especially in something like Django Unchained. He’s not a bad actor, don’t get me wrong. He’s good! I just always feel like he really wants me to notice how good he is. And that’s Rick Dalton. That whole sequence on the set of Lancer? His breakdown in the trailer (which I know you also mentioned as a favorite moment)? This is Tarantino and DiCaprio knowing exactly how to use the actor’s strengths to fuel a character. God, I just want to go back to the theater and watch this movie again.

Adam: Fly to Chicago. I’m going again later tonight! DiCaprio is one of my favorite actors, but I have agreed with your point in the past. I’m much more interested in him in Titanic, Catch Me If You Can, The Wolf of Wall Street than in something like The Aviator, Body of Lies or The Revenant. He’s a funny guy. He’s not a stiff leading man, even though he’s almost always the lead in his films. It’s like how Patrick says about Brad Pitt that he’s a character actor in a lead actor’s body. I really love DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. My favorite part about his performance is how much he wears his emotions on his sleeve. He’s a big crier. His eyes well up and his body language shrinks when Al Pacino tells him how his career is going (because Rick Dalton knows he’s right and he’s sad other people see the same thing he’s thinking).

My next takeaway goes along with this, and that’s how much I love the thread of Rick Dalton’s melancholy in this movie. He has these moments of devastation but then he communicates that with someone whether it be Cliff or his 8-year old co-star on Lancer (an amazing performance by Julia Butters) and he is able to feel better or do his job more effectively after making the internal external. I’m just happy for Dalton in those moments because he’s being brave and opening up, even if it’s perceived as being a cry-baby too. When he nails the scene on Lancer, it’s a wonderful moment where a man who feels worthless reveals to himself that he is strongest when his back is against the wall. It’s still in him, even if he can’t see it as he’s wallowing in shame. I love so much about this movie but all of this culminates into my favorite moment at the very end (which we need to talk about) when Sharon Tate asks if everyone at Rick’s house is ok and he says yes and then she goes one step more and says “Are you ok?” and Rick thanks her sincerely for making the point to ask that.

Rob: One of my favorite things about being friends with you is when you find the heart of a movie and articulate it so concisely. I completely agree, and I couldn’t have said it any better. My favorite part of that bit is how Rick gets a little closer to the speaker every time he responds to Sharon. He’s feeling himself, but he still has respect. It’s so good.

My next point is about the film’s structure and length. Let’s get a few things straight for everyone, first: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is 161 minutes long. Django Unchained is 165 minutes long. The roadshow cut of The Hateful Eight is 187 minutes long. Why am I hearing so much about this film’s punishing length? Is it just that Film Twitter has a short memory? What is going on? I walked out of my screening with a few dozen critics who could not stop complaining about the film’s length and structure. “It was so slow. It was so boring. It was too long. It was poorly paced.” Look, it’s none of my business how you watch movies. Like what you like. Tweeting hot takes is your right. But if you can’t see the elegance in the way Tarantino weaves the three storylines together, I don’t know what to tell you. It’s so much more satisfying than the start-stop-start elliptical approaches of his last two films. Those films were long and FELT LONG. I mean, I like them both, but they are LONG. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood never once felt long to me. I don’t think there’s a second of fat on its bones, even with the twenty seven minutes of driving footage. It all felt necessary, and it all enriched the story. I just don’t get the complaints. Anyway. This has been your mini visit to the Gripehouse. Carry on.

Adam: We’ve had this conversation about baseball before. If it’s good, why don’t you want more of it? I’m very seldom in the “they should cut x number of minutes” camp. In the case of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, people can have those complaints but I don’t care to hear them. I watched a two hour remake of The Lion King. THAT felt long. No one complained about that movie’s length. I swear...movies have it bad sometimes. You don’t need to know anything about them and you can still act like you’re an expert so you get hot takes about length or the movie isn’t woke enough to respect the Manson “family” women takes. Ugh! Why can’t these people complain about fishing or something? I’ll tell you why...because they would need to fish and that’s more effort than sitting on your ass and consuming content. End Gripehouse.

My next takeaway is about the ending, specifically the final moments between Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) and Rick Dalton. This part hit me hard. It’s because even though the movie’s finale is fantasy I thought “this is a conversation that didn’t happen...because these people died” and that made those final minutes so tragic and melancholy. The final shot where the camera stands overhead and reveals the storybook title of the film for the first time was also really effective to me. It felt like Tarantino revealing how much this tragedy got to him, how he wishes he could have stopped it but that it’s all a dream and he’s not G-D even if he can play that role in the narrative of his own revisionist history. Again, I might be reading too much into it, but that part was really effective for me. It’s the wish fulfillment of movies and how movies help us ease the pain of how tragic and difficult life can be. We talked about how fitting it would be if this were Tarantino’s final movie, and while I want another one of his promised ten as a fan, I think this is the perfect final shot of a film career. When you compare it to the first scene in Reservoir Dogs (guys talking about “Like A Virgin”) and see the bookend in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, that’s a really striking representation of his evolution as a filmmaker and the poignancy of getting older.

Rob: I hope Tarantino reconsiders his promise of ten films and bows out with this one. He got away with so much here (making an action film, a romance, a Western, an exploitation film) that it feels like a greatest hits reel or, weirdly enough, a breakup mix tape. There’s a metatextual thing going on with the pastiche director making the ultimate pastiche film, but I haven’t figured it out just yet. What I do know is this: That crane shot that closes the film is so beautiful. It leaves these Hollywood heavyweights on such a hopeful note and lets us quietly back out of the scene so that they can be together. It’s like Tarantino is giving us this wonderful gift by gluing together parts of Hollywood that were torn apart so long ago.

My last point before we talk about Al is to mention Arianne Phillips’ costume design. It’s awesome. That’s more or less it. If I come out to Chicago for Music Box of Horrors in October, we should go as Rick and Cliff.

Adam: Can’t we just wear Wishmaster Cavity Colors sleeveless tees? Haha. I also wanted to give a shout-out to the film’s soundtrack. I ordered a CD of it (how retro!) but while I wait I’ve listened to it on YouTube all weekend. It’s incredible. I told JB it reminds me of one of his Halloween mixes in structure. This has got to be my favorite of all the Tarantino movie soundtracks, and that’s high praise.
Ok...Al. What did you think of Al in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? Was there enough Al? I was elated that he was playing a Jewish guy. They don’t call that out specifically, but I can sense my people.

Rob: I texted you after my screening that there wasn’t a lot of Al in the film, but that it felt like just enough. He’s the cherry on top. His one scene is a little shot of cinematic caffeine. It’s the top of the hill before the roller coaster drops. It’s, I don’t know, other metaphors. You get it. All I know is that you and I had a fun time imagining an entirely separate movie about Al and his wife in their screening room watching modern movies.

Adam: The screening room moment was great because he was doing a Danny Collins walk over to his wife. I also really enjoyed his re-enactment of '60s Batman and his pronunciation of his last name after Rick Dalton messed it up when they met. Like you said, just a cherry on top but that’s what we’re here for - ALL PACINO!

Next week, we’ll be back with our July discoveries. Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.


  1. Gosh darnitt fellas, that was a great review. So many great points made. Like both, I loved it. I teared up a little at the ending when Tate came on the intercom and Sebring gave Dalton the thumbs up, for the exact same reason as you said, Adam. The whole conversation is just indescribable for me, melancholy is the best word but that really doesn't get it perfectly because I dont think I've ever really seen this happen on screen before - I can only IMAGINE what it must have felt like in those last few minutes if you actually knew Sharon or Jay or the other two involved. To your point about the title coming up at the end, I thought to myself at the beginning that it was weird that it didn't come up - I was waiting for it there. To save it for the end, and hold just a little bit after the ellipsis, was just beautiful.

  2. Also I thought the whole Cliff maybe killing his wife was Tarantino kind of asking us the question of how we as a people feel about proven heroics vs. unproven hearsay and which one weighs more. Can we overcome something that is just a rumor for a person who is objectively a hero? (veteran, war hero, saver of the day, dog lover, not a child predator, friend).

  3. As you say, I think there was just enough Al. He wasn't a prominent part of the movie, but it was enough to get your Al fix and say "it was nice to see him working and doing his thing in a great movie." I loved the movie as well and it's bumming me out to read some of the pushback being thrown at the movie that I don't agree with hardly at all. It's getting some criticism by those who knew him as not being the way he really was, but I absolutely loved the section with Bruce Lee. Mike Moh's portrayal nailed some of the the mannerisms and vocal affectation of Lee, I thought.

    1. The Bruce Lee controversy is silly to me. The movie is revisionist history, so why does Bruce Lee need to be portrayed chapter and verse even though no one else is? Plus, the scene is funny and (as you said) Mike Moh is great in the part. I get if his family is mad about it but not Bruce Lee fans. The scene makes me like Bruce Lee more and not less.

    2. Agreed totally on the fantastical nature of things being present throughout all the movie's actions and characters. That's what Tarantino does. And it stands to reason he would incorporate some of that into Lee's character, too.

  4. The first time I saw the movie I was too nervous. I couldn't let myself like anyone because I feared for everyone. The second time I laughed, tapped along with the music and just wanted to curl up inside it like a sleeping bag in a cool bungalow. It's a movie I want to live in, and anytime I watch it I think will be a nice, comfortable place. That Tarantino made! Surprising, but awesome. My favorite Leo.


  6. And I don't just think Tarantino is making statements to us, but I think he's making comments to leo and brad about how much he respects them as actors and is hoping his direction them can help evolve them. Ralph Meeker!

  7. I am still making up my mind about whether all the plots come together smoothly at the conclusion, but there were aspects of the film I undeniably appreciated. The one that stands out is the performances of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. In the interactions of Rick and Cliff there is genuine sense of a long friendship. The focus on the humdrum nature of those characters' lives reminds me a lot of 1970s New Hollywood.

    The control of the Los Angeles settings for the filming greatly impressed me. Though I am sure that, if you look hard enough, there are anachronisms visible, Tarantino largely succeeded in creating a sense of inhabiting the late 1960s. Those shots on the highways must have been very trick to get the period cars in.

    I had the chance to watch The Wrecking Crew on Turner Classic Movies last year. Sharon Tate was the highlight of the goofy spy comedy. Even with the lightness of a film like The Wrecking Crew, it can be difficult to separate the actress from the murder victim.

    I got a lot of joy observing the movie references on the theater marquees and in the television footage. He included a lot of obscurities, like Three in the Attic, an exploitation drama made by AIP in 1968. I remember liking that one. I would like to see The Night They Raided Minsky's.

  8. I see what you’re getting at about Cliff’s behaviour informing his character as chaotic neutral, but my big problem with the film is how Tarantino clearly seems to be wholly on Cliff’s side. Both his wife and Lee are portrayed as belittling loudmouths, which stacks the deck in Cliff’s favour and makes his actions seem more justified.

    Tarantino has made some bad choices, both in his life, and in his films, regarding his treatment of women and people of colour, and I think brushing off these scenes is giving him a pass I don’t think he deserves. This is speaking as someone who’s long defended Tarantino - this movie was just the one that pushed me over the edge.

    1. To your point about Cliff's wife and Bruce Lee, the scenes we see are flashbacks where Cliff is remembering those events. So it would make sense that Cliff is seen in a positive light and the other two are cast in a negative one since it's from Cliff's perspective. Cliff is being an unreliable narrator in a sense.

      Not that this excuses any of the choices Tarantino has made personally or professionally.

  9. *Spoilers*

    Maybe it was me being cynical of what Tarantino was doing but I got more and more uncomfortable about the prospect of seeing Sharon's murder in the movie. Fortunately we don't but I can't help but feel a little weird about Tarantino using your real world knowledge of the murders as a way to build tension and suspense during the movie. It felt exploitative. Anybody else feel that way at all? I read the Nerdest article that Rob mentions and it resolved that feeling somewhat but I couldn't shake it while actually watching the movie the first time.

    1. I see where you're coming from and was worried how the ending would be handled too. I found out before I saw the movie because I wanted to prepare myself. To me the exploitative part goes away when I figured out he was subverting the audience expectations for a compassionate reason. I think part of the movie's power is figuring out how sympathetic and sorrowful Tarantino seems to be about Tate, her friends and their legacies. I've seen the movie more than once and I've only had the dread element in that first viewing. It feels more like a love letter to Dalton and Tate at this point.

    2. That's good to hear because after I saw it I wasn't sure it'd be one that I would revisit again, save for certain clips. However, after sitting with it for a while and reading about the film more I definitely feel like I need to go back and soak it all in without the dread.

  10. I had concerns in the early going with the structure and why Tarantino chose to tell the story in such a way and then there's the scene where Sharon Tate sees herself on the big screen with her big smile and I was completely on board for everything else to come.

    Just loved this movie so much, can't wait to see it again. This is an example of a long running time working in a film's favor.