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‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ and the Secret Power of Storytelling

‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ sets about exploring the magical past of Hollywood, but it unearths some haunting memories as well.

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*Warning: The following article contains major spoilers

The Manson family murders account for one of the most notorious massacres in the history of the United States. Taking place at 10500 Cielo Drive in the Hollywood hills of Los Angeles, the victims were five adults and one unborn child, that of actress Sharon Tate. The notoriously grim crime scene photos speak for themselves, and the boogie man nature of a twisted mind like Charles Manson remains a haunting memory over 50 years later. It is with this chilling story that we enter the world of Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

It’s about a Hollywood we may have heard of, but that most of us — including Tarantino himself — would never have had the chance to see for ourselves. This is a place where westerns are some of television’s most popular shows, actors smoke and drink on set, and legends like Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen just pop up as if they were regular folks like you or I. It’s a fantasy land in this way, and it’s clear that this is part of the appeal for Tarantino.

With that in mind, it’s not necessarily a huge surprise that Tarantino decided to right the wrongs of a tragedy that still lingers in the memories of old Hollywood like a nasty bedtime story. The Manson murders are infamous in their carnage, and cut down in the prime of her life, actress Sharon Tate remains martyr-like in her tragic fate. Herein lies the power of film, and storytelling in general: the power to create a better world — in this case, one where Tate is allowed to live on and have a happy life as a wife and mother. When conceived this way, the title “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” takes on a different meaning; this film is very literally a fairy tale.


Portrayed by the increasingly impressive Margot Robbie, Sharon Tate appears in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as a starry-eyed optimist and maybe just a bit of a ditz, but a lovable ditz. When people look at her and talk about her at Hollywood parties, it isn’t hard to see why; she has an infectious, magical aura about her, and she seems to be possibility itself in the form of a beautiful, blonde bombshell. Take a scene where she watches the audience of a theater laugh as they enjoy her performance in the film Wrecking Crew: the joy she feels in being a fly on the wall, watching her own movie with the audience, makes her instantly relatable, and simultaneously makes us dread her eventual fate.

This is by design. Tarantino wants us to feel this encroaching sense of dread as he unfolds this tale of old Hollywood, and that’s why scenes of actors and stuntmen waxing nostalgic and hobnobbing with the stars are punctuated with chilling little snippets of the Manson family. Each scene of this kind seems to burn and broil with a pungent malice that, though palpable, never quite boils over into outright violence and bloodshed. It makes us dread the coming murders we are expecting all the more.

However, things take a sudden turn when the Manson family finds themselves accosted by one very drunk Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) as they prowl the streets of Hollywood for the Polanski/Tate residence. This chance encounter sparks a creative notion in one of the Manson members: Dalton, a star of many violent TV shows and films, ought to be their first victim. The poetry of it, they decide, will be in enacting the violence of entertainment on those who peddle it. So, their target changes from 10500 Cielo Drive to the house next door. This is where the fun comes in.


For much of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a sort of ‘Chekhov’s acid-soaked cigarette’ floats around the film. We see it time and time again, being bought, stored, and considered by Dalton’s stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). As Dalton and Booth prepare to end their partnership for good, Booth decides to smoke the acid cigarette at last and see where the night takes him. A short time later, the Mansons burst into the home and Booth, fueled by his acid cigarette, positively ruins them. There are vicious dog attacks, genital traumas, egregious face-smashings, and even a fiery finale courtesy of Rick’s flamethrower.

The violence of this sequence cannot be overstated. It’s nasty, brutal stuff. In a juxtaposition that calls to mind the historical revisionism of Inglourious Basterds — where we spend the majority of the movie thinking the assassination attempt on Hitler couldn’t possibly succeed, and when it does we are overjoyed — we actually relish the horror of the Manson family’s fate. Not because we suddenly believe that reality has changed, but because the power of film — and storytelling in general — has allowed us to live in a better world for a few moments.

This is precisely the appeal of the surprise climax of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. We’d love to live in a world where a charismatic psychopath who carved a swastika into his forehead is allowed to dwindle away forgotten, and a rising star is allowed to continue her ascension unhampered. We love seeing the Manson family dispatched with such terrifying ease by the charming Booth and the troubled Dalton, because it’s the opposite of the unseemly fate we had been dreading over the films near three-hour runtime.


Tarantino, of course, expects us to feel this way, which is why he indulges us in the scene for so long. If Booth had just quickly taken out the Mansons with a few swift moves, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy their punishment. If there’s even a shred of doubt of QT’s intent, the appearance of the flamethrower (conveniently stored in Rick’s shed) puts all of that to rest in a fiery finale that’s too funny to be properly grim.

In the end, this is the secret power of storytelling, and it’s one that is rarely used — the power to right the wrongs of history, to indulge the audience in their fantasy of a better reality, and to allow us the brief privilege of residing there. The final moments, as Dalton is being invited into the Tate residence, is when we, the audience, must leave this reality. It’s bittersweet, as we must return to a world where Sharon and her friends were violently murdered 50 years ago, but there is still the beauty of being able to share a world where the horrors of the Manson family were halted in their tracks, before they could descend into their infamous depravity.

Mike Worby is a human who spends way too much of his free time playing, writing and podcasting about pop culture. Through some miracle he's still able to function in society as if he were a regular person, and if there's hope for him, there's hope for everyone.

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Film

70 Best Movie Posters of 2019

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Best Movie Posters of 2019

Deciding the best movie posters is no easy task…

I remember when I was younger, I used to head to the video store and rent movies I’d never heard of based solely on the movie poster art. This was, of course, a different time— sure, the internet was a thing, but we didn’t have countless websites, not to mention social media platforms, promoting new movies online with news stories, movie stills, featurettes, teasers, trailers and so on. Not to say that sort of marketing didn’t exist in the past, because it did, but it wasn’t always in your face. For better or for worse, the internet changed the way studios market movies, but one thing that hasn’t changed is the use of a poster to help build excitement and anticipation for an upcoming film. Most posters continue to be an important marketing tool for filmmakers worldwide and so once again, we’ve decided to collect images of our favourite movie posters revealed over the past twelve months. If you checked out our list of the best movie posters of 2018, you’ll remember it included posters for indie gems, thrillers, horror movies, foreign language films, Hollywood blockbusters and everything in between. This year is no different, although it should be said that some marketing campaigns were so good, we’ve decided to include more than one poster for a few select films. Also worth noting, we didn’t include any fan-made poster art below. That out of the way, here are the best movie posters of 2019.

The Best Movie Posters of 2019

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TIFF

The Piercing ‘Marriage Story’ Is Noah Baumbach’s Best Film to Date

TIFF 2019

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Marriage Story

In 2010, director Noah Baumbach began divorce proceedings with his now ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh. The divorce was finalized three years later, and since then Baumbach has been in a relationship with actor and director (and occasional collaborator) Greta Gerwig. It’s impossible to view his newest film, Marriage Story, without taking into account his own dissolved marriage; this is a searching, seething work of recriminations and longing that pits two all–too–human parents against each other, and invites the audience to not only imagine which bits of psychic trauma are his own, but also to consider our own relationships, successful or not.

Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as Nicole and Charlie, a married couple living in New York City with their young son Henry. The film opens with a montage as Nicole recites the things she most loves about her husband, from the way he can cook and doesn’t mind waking up with their son, to his skill as a theater director. In turn, Charlie narrates his favorite aspects of Nicole, his regular lead actor. There are plenty of opportunities for tears here, but the unguarded emotions of these confessions might get them started right from the beginning. But just as they finish reciting these traits, we’re brought back to reality; these confessions were things that they had written down to read to each other as a kind of peace offering at the start of their mediation following a separation that has led up to their divorce. But Nicole doesn’t like what she has written — or at least doesn’t want Charlie to hear it. And if she won’t go, then it’s not really fair for him to read his. So neither tells each other what they most admire in the other, and instead stop seeing the mediator.

It’s the first strike in Nicole and Charlie’s mutually assured destruction agreement. Though they initially plan on avoiding using lawyers, Nicole gets tipped off to a well-regarded attorney (a funny and ice-cold Laura Dern) who advises her to take a maximalist position in order to ensure she gets half of everything she wants — at the very least. Once she has a lawyer, Charlie tries out a variety of legal counsels (a soothing Alan Alda and a fiery Ray Liotta), but the real conflict comes down to location; Nicole has taken Henry to Los Angeles while she films a pilot, and wants to stay even after it’s finished. Charlie, however, thought they would move back to New York. Each escalation in the feud necessitates an opposing reaction, and the two are driven further and further apart, even as they try to stay close for the sake of their son.

Marriage Story

Baumbach has admitted that some details of the film are based on his own divorce, but he’s also said he interviewed many of his friends who divorced around the same time, as well as lawyers and judges involved in divorce cases. In some ways, Marriage Story isn’t just a portrait of a couple separating, but a primer on divorce court that far surpasses something like Kramer vs. Kramer, which was out of date even in 1979. The film is also an opportunity to observe two of the best living actors at the top of their game. Johansson and Driver have a knack for finding the sweet spot between un-actorly naturalism and the stylistic ticks that we recognize as compelling acting. It gives us a sense that these people were actually a family, and really cared for each other. Baumbach’s script helps; it’s maybe his best writing ever, filled with so many painfully open moments, yet leavened with just the right amount of humor. He’s also as fair as he could be, and neither parent comes off as too saintly or self-centered.

Marriage Story ends in a circle of sorts with the discovery of Nicole’s notes about Charlie’s best qualities. Their marriage was effectively over before the film even started, but I kept thinking back to that lovely introductory scene. How might their journey to divorce progressed if they had the courage to speak openly to each other in that one moment? Perhaps something might have been better. Marriage Story doesn’t harbor any of those romantic illusions, however; once it’s over, it’s over.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 12, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.

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Film

Don’t Be Sad ‘A Rainy Day in New York’ Never Made it to Manhattan

Spend this rainy day playing a board game or something

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Rainy Day in New York

You do not come to late-era Woody Allen for anything resembling true originality. He is the drunken piano man, riffing off the same old hits in the same old bar, hoping that nostalgia will hit a chord with somebody. As in Midnight in Paris, Blue Jasmine, or even Irrational Man, his output over the last decade can still bring up moments of true inspiration and fresh-feeling angles on the same old tales, even if the plot-lines feel somewhat familiar. In the best humanist cinema, like that of Rohmer or Ozu, this repetition can make you see the same thing in a slightly different way. The same cannot be said of A Rainy Day in New York, a film so derivative it feels like it came out of an auto-generator, making me feel nothing but contempt for the waste of so much talent. If you are an American Woody Allen fan sad that this movie never made it to Manhattan, there’s honestly no need to be.

Timotheé Chalamet stars and narrates in a performance so poor that he must be happy this film hasn’t released back in the States. He plays Gatsby Wells, a student at upstate Yardley College, a place he detests yet tolerates because his beloved girlfriend Ashleigh (Elle Fanning) — heiress to a rich banking empire in Tucson — also studies there. As a writer for the University paper, she gets the chance to interview famous director Roland Pollard (Liev Schreiber), giving them the possibility to explore New York together. Yet when they arrive there, a series of misunderstandings, mishaps, and fear of missed opportunities keeps them perpetually apart, handing them the chance to explore romance with others — including old flames, movie stars and, of course, high-priced escorts. 

Although his first name is Gatsby, Wells better resembles the other great male of 20th century American literature: Holden Caulfield. Like the protagonist of The Catcher in the Rye, he is born of massive privilege, shunning his supposedly phoney origins while still visiting the fanciest hotels and drinking in the fanciest bars. There is perhaps some kind of interesting modern portrait of New York privilege in here, but Woody Allen is simply not the right director for the material. It’s like asking a jazz pianist to bash out a techno tune. 

And just as Allen’s blinkered view of New York blinds him to the real world and its contemporary concerns, Chalamet’s nostalgia act cannot find a way to escape Woody’s wooden writing. The sensitive, pretentious, sensual young man who turned in such a deeply felt performance in Call Me By Your Name could be a natural fit for a Woody Allen character, if only he actually leaned into what makes him a great actor instead of trying his best Woody Allen imitation. While some actors can do Woody Allen well (Kenneth Branagh is uncanny in Celebrity, while Larry David is great in Whatever Works), Timotheé Chalamet has neither the studied talent to impersonate well, nor the arrogance to put his own distinctive stamp on it. Elle Fanning is similarly dire; playing both an intrepid, impetuous journalist and a thick floozy, she carries neither the charm nor the wit to make her a compelling co-lead.  

A Rainy Day in New York

I don’t blame either actor; they’re young, and there’s a feeling that they weren’t given much direction. In fact, almost every aspect of A Rainy Day in New York feels underdeveloped, underwritten, and under-thought. This is a film so lazy that it even recycles the ending of Midnight in Paris, perhaps hoping that the audience developed amnesia since 2011. Even Allen’s trademark eye for Manhattan is missing. Filming here properly for the first time since 2009, the city no longer seems like much of a character by itself, and instead comes off as it would in a generic TV Christmas Movie. 

While Allen’s early 00s work — easily his worst period — is characterised by its TV-movie lighting, his collaborations over the past ten years with cinematographers such as Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris, To Rome With Love), Javier Aguirresarobe (Blue Jasmine), and Vittorio Stororo (Cafe Society, Wonder Wheel) elevated his films’ look considerably, even when the writing may have been lacking. Sadly here, the legendary cinematographer behind Apocalypse Now and The Conformist — despite what seems like his best efforts to light generic hotel rooms with warmth and vibrancy — cannot save A Rainy Day in New York at all, which feels even more rushed and cut-to-pieces than usual. This is really only for die-hard Woody Allen completists; casual minds need not bother.

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