Review - 'Once Upon A Time in Hollywood'
Quentin Tarantino, in my mind, has not made a bad film. Even Death Proof, a movie that is often derided as his worst and only “not-great” movie has its pleasures. His ninth film (he recently came out and said that he considers Kill Bill Parts 1 & 2 to be one film), Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, continues the trend, and is yet another example of how adept Tarantino is at commanding the screen and captivating his audiences.
In 1969 Los Angeles, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a diminished actor and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), both try to reverse their waning careers in show business. Meanwhile, a sinister plan is being set in motion by a cult led by the now-notorious Charles Manson.
The star of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is in the title. Despite the big-name actors present in this film, this is first and foremost a love-letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood and Los Angeles in the late 1960’s. From the first frame to the last, I was completely transported back to the era, and quickly understood why Tarantino was so enamored by it. What’s great is that he doesn’t ever sugar-coat anything. Los Angeles in ‘69 was filled with scumbags, trashy B-movies, huge personalities and rampant misogyny and racism, but there was also a strange charm to the time period that emits a radiant, nostalgic glow.
All of this is captured lovingly and with great detail in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood by veteran cinematographer, Robert Richardson, who knows exactly where to put the camera and how to draw the audience in. The film feels vintage, like it could have been made during the year that it is depicting; from the costume design, to the way people behave and interact, to the choices of licensed music that permeate throughout, it’s all exactly of its time.
Interestingly, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood doesn’t have much of a story in the traditional sense. For most films, that would be to their detriment, but somehow it works wonders here and results in a film-going experience that is immersive and involving. Tarantino has crafted a two-hour-and-forty-one-minute snapshot of a bygone era of Hollywood that he clearly adores, featuring characters going through their various struggles in life. The only thing tying everything together and giving the film a vague trajectory is a certain infamous event that we know is going to happen. Charles Manson and the Sharon Tate murders are widely known as one of the most shocking and horrific crimes to befall Los Angeles, which makes the film fascinating to watch due to Tarantino’s penchant for playing around with history and his interest in finding justice for victims. I won’t spoil it here, but Tarantino really made me question throughout whether or not he was going to have the events play out as they did in history, or if he was going to revise them completely.
Apart from a lovingly re-created 60’s Hollywood and some key figures, most of the story is fictional, including its main characters; Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, respectively. Each of these actors are bringing it 100% to their roles. Dalton is a fading star who played in an array of popular B-movies and since has been relegated to playing one-and-done mustache-twirling villains. He’s someone who is aware of his fading star-status and his winding path to find a new spark in his career is compelling. Cliff Booth is in a similar situation as Rick Dalton, though his success is dependent on Dalton’s. Brad Pitt plays Booth as a somewhat passive weather-worn stuntman, that when provoked, is a force to be reckoned with. The two leads have excellent chemistry together, and are able to establish that their relationship has a long history in a shockingly economic amount of time.
Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate, the only lead character in this story that is a real person. Though Robbie doesn’t have as much screen-time as DiCaprio or Pitt, she makes the most of every scene she’s in. Robbie portrays Tate as a person who is just beginning to realize the impression she is making on pop-culture. Seeing her revel in her new-found minor celebrity status as she goes to watch a film she stars in at the theater is one of a highlights of the movie.
If I had to lodge one criticism against Once Upon A Time; it would be that its hefty run-time does start to get the better of it by the end. The meandering story, while never boring, has moments that seem directionless, and the mind begins to wonder what the purpose of everything is. Of course, things escalate in grand fashion by the end and Tarantino justifies the scenic routes the film takes us on, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit that the sagging mid-section tempted me to check the time.
Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood is another staggering achievement from a director whose time behind the camera could now be very limited. It’s sad to think Quentin Tarantino could be retiring from film-making following his tenth film, which is why there is added value to experiencing this movie in the theater. Hollywood truly is a treasure that we don’t get to experience in cinemas very often, and though it does drag a bit at times, it’s worth it to live in Tarantino’s world just a little bit longer.