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Granger at the Movies: ‘Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,’ ‘Astronaut’

By Susan Granger

Special to WestportNow

With “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino delves into bittersweet revisionist history in this fractured fable, revisiting six months in 1969.

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Once a top TV Western star, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is watching his once-promising career decline to the point where he’s now ‘guest-starring’ as the villain whom the hero beats up.

Dalton’s best friend is his stunt double/driver, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who — according to rumor — killed his wife and has been blackballed in the industry.

Dalton owns a house on Cielo Drive in posh Benedict Canyon, next to director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his pregnant wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), while Booth lives with his Rottweiler in a beat-up trailer behind the Van Nuys Drive-In.

In Hollywood’s Golden Era, one’s status in the ecosystem was obvious.

With cinematographer Robert Richardson shooting in 35 mm and Barbara Ling’s impeccable production design, Tarantino not only recreates the grimy, gritty physicality of old movies but also its culture, satirically interweaving the relationship of these fictional characters with real ones, like Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) and hair stylist Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch).

So how do Charles Manson and his feral followers fit it? Their murder plan originally targeted record producer Terry Melcher (Doris Day’s son), whom Manson blamed for his singer/songwriter failure. It’s Terry’s house that Polanski and Tate are renting. So Tarantino cleverly twists, turns and manipulates history to serve this story.

In a powerhouse performance, Leonardo DiCaprio nails alcoholic, insecure Dalton, while Brad Pitt is charismatic as bronzed, laconic Booth. Incandescent Margot Robbie is miniskirted sweet. Kurt Russell narrates and Bruce Dern does a cameo originally intended for Burt Reynolds. Plus there’s Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Lena Dunham and Margaret Qualley.

FYI: The Dalton/Booth relationship was probably inspired by Burt Reynolds’ friendship with stuntman-turned-writer/director Hal Needham.

Personal note: a poignant scene between Dalton and a precocious child actress (Julia Butters) evokes memories of my dad’s (director S. Sylvan Simon) movie “Bad Bascomb” (1946), pairing Wallace Berry with Margaret O’Brien.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” is an evocative 8, elegantly eviscerating the soft, sleazy underbelly of Tinseltown.

Timely for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo Moon Landing, Shelagh McLeod’s debut feature “Astronaut” revolves around a lonely widower whose dreams about being an astronaut and space travel have never faded.

After staying with his daughter Molly (Krista Bridges) and her family for a while, 79 year-old Angus (Richard Dreyfuss) has finally moved to a retirement facility, aptly named Sundown Valley. He’s struggling financially because his late wife, who was suffering from dementia, was conned into buying a donkey sanctuary.

Hanging out with his grandson Barney (Richie Lawrence) who shares his passion for gazing into the cosmos Angus discovers that there’s a national TV lottery sponsored by Marcus (Colm Feore) a billionaire entrepreneur. (Think Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos) Open to those aged 18-65, the contest winner will cop a coveted seat on the Ventura, the first civilian shuttle into space.

After fudging his age and health status on the application, Angus is stunned when he’s named as a finalist contender. Joining others on the shortlist for a site visit, irascible Angus voices concern about the structural integrity of the launch. As a retired civil engineer, he firmly believes that there’s a perhaps-fatal fault in the huge spacecraft’s proposed runway.

When Marcus refuses to postpone the Ventura’s proposed launch date, tenacious Angus goes public with his safety concerns, obviously risking his interstellar ‘trip of a lifetime.’

Although British TV actor-turned-writer/director Shelagh McLeod’s glib, cliché-filled script is far too thin on background/character development, Richard Deyfuss subtly enhances his underwritten role. And his Angus is eerily reminiscent of Roy Neary, the part he played in Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Astronaut” is a sentimental-but-sluggish 6. If it’s not in a theater near you, it’s also available on VOD/Digital.


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(Editor’s Note: Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See her reviews at www.susangranger.com.)

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