Tarantino’s love letter to Hollywood

By Tom Von Malder | Dec 22, 2019
Photo by: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt star in "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood."

Owls Head — Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (Sony, Blu-ray or standard DVD, R, 161 min.). Led by outstanding performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and with outstanding production design that recreates 1969 Hollywood, writer-director Quentin Tarantino sets his ninth film in the Hollywood of his youth. The production even went so far to completely redress four blocks of Hollywood Boulevard to look as they were in 1969, complete to the correct movies listed on the theater marquees and notices in shop windows. The smallest details are lovingly, and accurately, rendered. However, when it comes to the plot. Tarantino pulls a major bait and switch that sends the whole thing into the realm of fairy tale – or alternate universe – even though the film is filled with representations of real people.

At this point, this review may be considered to contain a major spoiler, but it is such a huge change on the real facts that it cannot be ignored. DiCaprio plays TV Western star Rick Dalton, whose show, “Bounty Law,” has just been cancelled and he is told by a producer (a sly turn by Al Pacino as Marvin Schwarz) that his career is on a downward spiral unless he agrees to make some Spaghetti Westerns in Italy. Pitt plays Dalton’s longtime stunt double and gofer Cliff Booth. Dalton’s home is located next to where director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her friend Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) are living, although Polanski is off making a movie.

Booth gets to interact with “the Manson family” when he delivers a hitchhiker to the Spahn Movie Ranch (also wonderfully recreated), where a blind and cranky George Spahn (Bruce Dern) is being taken care of by Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning), while the ranch is overrun by Charlie Manson’s “girls” and other hangers-on. Booth even has a remote interaction with Charlie (Damon Herriman) later. Yet, while all these characters were real people, except for Dalton and Booth, the film does not end with the brutal massacre of Tate and her friends at the hands of Charlie and his family. Instead, Tarantino’s twist lets them survive.

The film is a fun watch until the extreme violence near the end. Especially good are the clips from “Bounty Law,” Dalton’s singing as host of a “Hullabaloo” episode, a Dalton film scene is which he burns Nazis with a flame thrower and an episode of “F.B.I.” with Dalton and Booth doing stunts. We also see Dalton guest starring in a “Lancer” TV western as Caleb opposite Johnny Madrid (Timothy Olyphant as James Stacy) and much of the filming of that episode, including director Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond) and child method actor Trudi Fraser (Julie Butters). Also playing an actor in that episode is the late Luke Perry. (Note: There really was a “Lancer” Western series that ran on CBS from 1968 to 1970, with half-brothers played by James Stacy and Wayne Maunder.)

Many other real-life celebrities are represented in the film. One evening, Tate goes to a party at the Playboy mansion, attended by Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis), Michelle Phillips (Rebecca Rittenhouse) and Mama Cass Elliot (Rachel Redleaf). Also spotted is Connie Stevens (Dreama Walker). It what may be controversial for his fans, another scene has Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) getting outfought by Booth in a who’s-the-better-fighter match on the studio lot. The stunt coordinator on that shoot is played by Kurt Russell (see “Big Trouble in Little China” below). It is quite the amusing scene.

As part of Tarantino’s bait and switch, we follow Tate throughout the day of the Manson family attack, including her going to a theater to watch herself perform in “The Wrecking Crew.” By the way, Booth is given a Robert Wagner backstory in that his wife went missing off their boat (much like Wagner’s wife, Natalie Wood, did in real life),

During the closing credits, DiCaprio, as Dalton, does an ad for Red Apple cigarettes, which turns into a funny bit as the camera keeps rolling. Among the extras are seven additional scenes (25:01) that include ads for Red Apple tobacco products and Old Chattanooga beer, Dalton’s complete “Hullabaloo” singing of “Green Door,” a scene with Perry and Olyphant playing estranged brothers, Charlie (Manson) talking about his songwriting (it is true he had songwriting/recording aspirations), and a lengthy scene with Dalton and director Wanamaker discussing hot to approach a scene. There also is a brief piece about Tarantino honoring Hollywood’s past with actors from the film (5 min.), and better yet, entertaining looks at cinematographer Bob Richardson (4:34), the cars of 1969, including the reuse of the Cadillac from Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” (5:58), the production design by Barbara Lane (9:18) and the fashions by Arianne Phillips (6:37). Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 3 stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

Big Trouble in Little China, Collector’s Edition (1986, Scream Factory, 2 Blu-rays, PG-13, 100 min.). John Carpenter’s fun action movie, which stars Kurt Russell (see “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” above) in a mix of action, comedy, horror and a tad of romance, gets the deluxe treatment in this two-disc collection that features two new audio commentaries and 12 new interviews.

Russell stars as trucker Jack Burton, who makes a delivery to Little China and then joins a card game. When Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) loses a double-or-nothing bet, Burton takes him to the airport, so Wang can meet his bride-to-be, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai), a woman with green eyes. However, Miao is grabbed by the Lords of Death street gang. Also at the airport is another woman with green eyes, Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), whom Burton and Wang will encounter later.

Burton follows the Lords of Death deeper into the Chinese section of the city, where he and Wang find themselves, in Burton’s truck, caught in a battle between two gangs, the Chang Sing and the Wing Kong, mortal enemies. As they continue to try and find Miao, their efforts are joined by Law and journalist Margo (Kate Burton). It turns out Miao has been kidnapped for David Lo Pan (James Hong), who has spirit medium powers and must sacrifice a woman with green eyes to Ch-ing-ti so he can regain mortal form.

Much of the action takes place beneath Little China. At one point, Burton, probably echoing the viewer’s thoughts, says, “I’m a reasonable guy, but I’ve just experienced some unreasonable things.”

The film’s special effects are quite good and there are martial arts melees. Donald Li shows up as Eddie Lee to add some more humor.

On disc one, with the film, are two new audio commentaries: one by producer Larry J. Franco; the other by special effects artist Steve Johnson. From previous editions are an audio commentary by director Carpenter and actor Russell. There also is an isolated track of the score by Carpenter, in association with Alan Howarth, and vintage interviews with cast and crew (27:26), plus an interview with Carpenter (5:49). Also previously released are a gag reel (2:56); 11 deleted scenes with printed explanations; a Carpenter music video (3:28); an extended ending (3:17); and three photo galleries.

Disc two has new interviews with: actor Dun on his career and the film, which he says is one of the best things in his life (14:14); actor Hong on his acting history and the film, which he calls one of his best roles (23:57); actor Li on his role in the film (18:29); actor Carter Wong (Thunder, one of a trio of elemental bad guys) (25:47); actor Peter Kwong (elemental bad guy Rain) (28:34); actor Al Leong (a Wing Kong hatchet man) (6:32); writer W.D. Richter (20:31); writer Gary Goldman (27:50); associate producer/martial arts choreographer James Lew (35 min.); Coupe De Ville member Nick Castle (12:35); second unit director/Coupe De Ville member Tommy Lee Wallace (28:51); and movie poster artist Drew Struzan (17:04). Carried over from previous editions are interviews with Carpenter (12:14), Russell (20:57), director of photography Dean Cundey (15:38), producer Franco (15:23), stuntman Jeff Imada (12:32) and visual effects artist Richard Edlund (13:25). Finally, there is a vintage featurette (7:26). Grade: film 3.5 stars; extras 4.25 stars

Battle of Leningrad (Russia, Capelight/MPI, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 97 min.). The World War II siege of Russia’s Leningrad by the German Nazis lasted 28 months. This film only conveys a portion of the story, focusing on one bloody battle that was basically a massacre and centering on the attempt to move civilians and military cadets from the besieged city by barge across Lake Ladoga. The barges were vastly overcrowded, in bad condition and were attacked by German airplanes.

One presumes the fictional story is that of soldier Kostya, whose officer father has him transferred from the army to the navy and thus be aboard Barge 752, whose safety he had promised by saying his son would be aboard. Kostya (Andrey Mironov-Udalov) already has gotten his intended bride, Nastya (Maria Meinikova), on the barge – although they managed to have a fight in the process. An interesting side note is that Nastya’s mother had turned her husband in as an enemy of the state and he has only just been released from prison.

The battle footage is done very well, as is the aerial attack on the barge. However, the movie kind of drags when there is no action. There is a somewhat silly subplot about an investigator, who helped arrest Nastya’s father, being romantically enraptured by her.

Of the 1,500 or so on the barge, more than 1,200 were killed. The film also has been released under the title “Saving Leningrad.” Some of the English dubbing bothered me. There are no extras. Grade: film 3 stars

Savage (China, Well Go USA Blu-ray, NR, 112 min.). The action takes place near the peak of Mt. Baekdu in the dead of winter. It is an area that used to have a large logging industry, but now is sparsely populated.

In the opening scenes, a truck carrying gold bars is knocked off the road by a trio of robbers, two of whom are brothers. After they have hidden the gold, so they can remove it in warmer weather, their car stops on the road, catching the attention of two Forest District officers who offer to help. One of the officers is killed and the other is left for dead. Both the dead officer (Guangjie Li as Han Xiaosong) and the surviving one (Chen Chang as Wang Kanghao) had been rivals for the affections of a local doctor (Ni Ni as Sun Yan), as shown by an early Sun birthday party scene.

It is now a year later and Wang, with his new partner, are investigating a case of poaching. The story is the poacher has found a gold bar, which Wang thinks may have been part of the earlier heist. What Wang and his partner stumble upon are two of the robbers trying to retrieve the gold, with the third on his way. Also on the way is a blizzard and soon the injured and the non-inured, cops and robbers, are all holed up in a lonely resort. Dr. Sun is there to, as she came up to see Wang before being transferred to a faraway city.

There are probably too many coincidences here, but the action and tension is decent, although perhaps more could have been made on the snowstorm. There are no bonus features. Grade: 3 stars

Gunsmoke: The Fifteenth Season, Volumes One & Two (1969-70, CBS/Paramount, 7 DVDs, NR, 21 hours, 52 min.). Speaking of old Westerns, and from the year 1969 of “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” CBS/Paramount continues to issue remastered episodes of this great, beloved, long-running series. Set in Dodge City, the cast includes James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon, Amanda Blake as Kitty, Milburn Stone as Doc, Ken Curtis as Festus, Buck Taylor as Newly and Glenn Strange as Sam. Plots include bank robbers, misled mail-order brides, Kitty departing Dodge City and a ruthless psychopath. Guest stars include Jodie Foster, Ron Howard, Eileen Heckart and stuntman Hal Needham. There are 26 episodes in all. The only extras are episodic previews on select episodes.

Gunsmoke: The Sixteenth Season (1970-71, CBS/Paramount, 6 DVDs, NR, 20 hours 16 min.). The 24 episodes include the first visit to Dodge City by wily junk dealer Dirty Sally, Festus assaulted by ex-wife-obsessed Jaekel, female doctor Sam McTavish challenges Doc’s dominance and Marshal Matt Dillon travels to Taos, New Mexico and  the snow-covered Black Hills in Custer, South Dakota while chasing Chato and holding off marauding Indians who want to capture a “Snow Train.” Again, the episodes are newly restored and remasters. Guests during this and season 17 include Tom Skerritt, Jodie Foster, Yaphet Kotto, David Carradine and Sam Elliott. Extras include episodic previews on all episodes, a photo gallery, and Ben and Beckey talk about the season.

Gunsmoke: The Seventh Season (1971-72, CBS/Paramount, 6 DVDs, NR, 20 hours 11 min.). Among the 24 remastered episodes is a trilogy that has Marshal Matt Dillon’s life hanging in the balance. Other episodes, which make their DVD debut, include a feral child being Kitty’s only hope for survival after a horrific stagecoach crash; Newly trying to convince a veteran scout not to ruin his life with vengeance; Pat Hingle plays the new doctor in town; and Dillon fights off outlaws in the wilderness as he tries to reunite a young boy with his saloon girl mother. Again, there are episodic previews on all episodes, a photo gallery, and Ben and Becky discussing the season.

Bonanza: The Official Tenth Season: Volumes 1 & 2 (1968-69, CBS/Paramount, 8 DVDs, NR, 26 hours 12 min.). All 30 episodes have been digitally remastered. The series tells of the Cartwright family, including father Ben (Lorne Greene) and his three sons, Adam (Parnell Roberts), Hoss (Dan Blocker) and Little Joe (Michael Landon), as the y defend their thousand-acre ranch, the Ponderosa, from threatening outsiders. The episodes find Hoss in line for hanging when he is accused of murdering a wealthy man; and Ben put in charge of a vicious criminal with no help from the City of Virginia. Guest stars include Yaphet Kotto, John Marley, Tom Bosley, Slim Pickens and Jack Kruschen.

Volume 1 comes with a new audio commentary by Andrew J. Klyde for “Mark of Guilt”; a new introduction and epilogue by Mitch Vogel from Ponderosa II for “The Real People of Muddy Creek”; and exclusive, rare episodic, behind-the-scenes and on-location photos. Volume 2 comes with the vintage network trailer for “The Fence”; a photo gallery of the Ponderosa Soundstage dedication ceremony; an excerpt from “The Jack Benny Birthday Special,” featuring Benny, Don Wilson and Blocker from Feb. 17, 1969; and exclusive, rare episodic, behind-the-scenes and on-location photos.

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