Boulevard of Broken Dreams: Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (Sony/Columbia 2019)

If you’re as much of a movie/television/pop culture fanatic as I am (and if you weren’t, you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog!), I’m here to tell you you’re gonna ABSOLUTELY FUCKING LOVE this latest Quentin Tarantino epic!

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD takes place in 1969, at the tail end of Tinseltown’s Glory Days, and the tail end of TV actor Rick Dalton’s career. Dalton (splendidly played by Leonardo DiCaprio) was the star of the late 50s/early 60s TV Western BOUNTY LAW (modeled after Steve McQueen’s WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE), whose drinking problem has led him on the road to nowheresville, grabbing quick paychecks by guest starring as bad guys on episodic TV. He’s offered the chance to make some low-budget Spaghetti Westerns by producer Marvin Schwarsz (a bloated looking Al Pacino), bottom of the barrel stuff that’ll keep Rick’s name above the title.

Rick’s best bud Cliff Booth (supercool Brad Pitt – and why hasn’t this guy won a fucking acting Oscar yet?) is his long-time stunt double who has problems of his own getting work, due to rumors he killed his wife with a spear gun. Rick gets some new neighbors at his private Ciello Drive residence: upcoming starlet Sharon Tate (an endearing Margot Robbie) and her new hubby, director Roman Polanski. He also lands yet another bad guy role on the pilot episode of LANCER (featuring Timothy Olyphant as the tragic James Stacy), but Cliff’s not hired because of friction with stunt co-ordinator Randy’s (the great Kurt Russell) wife (veteran stuntwoman and actress Zoe Bell).

So while Rick struggles with himself making the pilot, Cliff picks up a cute teenage hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley, Emmy winner for FOSSE/VERDON) and drives her to the Spahn Ranch, and their lives will never be the same…

I won’t spoil the ending for you, except to say it hits you like a swift kick in the balls, and another, and then another, in typically over-the-top Tarantino fashion – all set to the music of Vanilla Fudge’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”! As usual, music plays a large part in Tarantino’s film, and you’ll hear classic rock tunes from the era like Los Bravos’ “Bring a Little Water”, Bob Seger’s “Rambling Gambling Man”, The Stones’ ‘Out of Time”, Deep Purple’s “Hush”, and many others. You’ll even hear and see the impossibly handsome Robert Goulet crooning “MacArthur Park” from an old TV clip!

DiCaprio and Pitt make a great pair as Rick and Cliff, a couple of Hollywood losers now living on the fringe of filmdom. And Margot Robbie is just as lovable as the real Sharon Tate – she inhabits the late actress’s skin and truly BECOMES the doomed star. Besides those previously mentioned, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give shout-outs to Bruce Dern as the broken-down George Spahn (a role slated for Burt Reynolds before his death), Austin Butler (Nickelodeon’s ZOEY 101) as the thoroughly evil Tex Watson, Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme, Nicholas Hammond (TV’s original SPIDER-MAN) as director Sam Wannamaker, and Emile Hirsch (INTO THE WILD) as Jay Sebring. Luke Perry makes his final film appearance as actor Wayne Maunder, and Lena Dunham, Martin Kove, Michael Madsen, and James Remar are also along for this wild ride!

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There’s so much to love for film fans in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, and I especially dug the scene where Pitt’s character has a fight with Bruce Lee, played by martial arts expert Mike Moh. The “clip” of DiCaprio singing while hosting the rock music TV show HULLABALOO resonated with me, and fans will get the reference when Olyphant-as-Stacy leaves the set on his motorcycle. A lot of online critics are complaining that the film isn’t up to the auteur’s par, but I call bullshit on that… ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is vintage Tarantino, an ode to Old Hollywood that’s a movie buff’s dream. It’s 2 and 1/2 hour running time flew by, and by all means, go see it! You can thank me later!

Fondly dedicated to the memory of Sharon Tate (1943-1969)

That’s Blaxploitaion!: BLACK BELT JONES (Warners 1974)

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Here’s the recipe for the quintessential 70s flick: Take a huge hunk of blaxpolitation, add equal parts kung-fu action, throw in some Mafia type villains. Stick em all in a blender with some generic funk music, and you’ve got BLACK BELT JONES. This movie was made to cash in on all three crazes, and to make a star out of Jim ‘The Dragon’ Kelly, who appeared in director Robert Clouse’s previous kung-fu extravaganza ENTER THE DRAGON, starring the immortal Bruce Lee.  Kelly looked good onscreen, and had all the right martial art moves. Unfortunately, he couldn’t act his way out of a Chinese take-out box. Nobody can in this film except gorgeous Gloria Hendry, who plays Kelly’s kung-fu partner/love interest Sydney.

The plot’s basically just there to hang the action scenes on: Mafia chief Don Stefano tries to grab some land the city of Los Angeles wants for a new civic center. He sends Pinky, the local black gangleader, to threaten Papa Byrd (Scatman Crothers in a terrible hairpiece!), whose karate school sits on the land. Pinky roughs him up a little too well, and Papa dies. Enter Black Belt Jones (friends call him BB), the baddest dude in the hood! Papa’s long-lost daughter Sydney (Hendry) shows up at the funeral, and now owns the building. Turns out she’s a kung-fu fighter, too. Pinky sends for some Bogarts from San Francisco (Don: “What are Bogarts?” – Pinky: “Treacherous niggers!”) to beat up the kung-fu students and hold BB’s young pal Quincy (Eric Lanueville) hostage. BB rips off The Don and sets up Pinky to take the fall. They save Quincy, the hoods find out, and the obligatory car chase is on!  BB and Sydney kick righteous ass on the bad guys and turn them in to BB’s friends the Feds.

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I just love some of the politically incorrect (and inept) dialogue in BLACK BELT JONES:

  • “Wesley, I’m gonna slap the black offa you!”
  • “I’ll make you look like a sick faggot”
  • “You goddam ape! You made a monkey outta us!”

Kelly’s karate noises (“woo-woo-woo”) sound more like Curly Howard than Bruce Lee, while the whipcracking sound effects every time someone lands a blow would make a great drinking game! And those fashions…hoo boy! Motown session guitarist Dennis Coffey (“Scorpio”) delivers the theme, while the rest of the score, by Luchi DeJesus, is ersatz Quincy Jones, sounding straight out of a 70s cop show (and indeed, DeJesus did the music for TV’s GET CHRISTIE LOVE!).

Full of hand slapping and jive talking, BLACK BELT JONES is a pure slab of 70s cheese. Quentin Tarantino (whose movies I love) wishes he could’ve made this. If you’re in the mood for an 85 minute blast from the past, catch BLACK BELT JONES. Can you dig it?

(There’ll be more That’s Blaxpolitation! posts in the near futureStay tuned, suckas!) 

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