REVIEW: Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood

Posted by Matthew Thornton on Sunday, July 28, 2019

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writers: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
Runtime: 161 mins
MPAA Rating: R

      Whether you like him and his immoderate style or not, Quentin Tarantino is immensely popular among critics and general audiences alike having written and directed an eclectic set of eight memorable films (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Inglorious Basterds, Hateful Eight, Kill Bill: Volumes 1 and 2, Django Unchained, Jackie Brown, Death Proof…in rough order from my favorite to least favorite) across nearly 30 years. Tarantino takes pride in meticulously crafting both the written and visual aspects of his productions and has even stated that he intends to retire after making ten films so that the quality of his output never gets a chance to degrade. Knowing this is his supposed penultimate work, I came in with pretty high expectations and…

      …was definitely not disappointed. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an intriguing interleaving of late 1960s Hollywood narratives based around the lives of the fictional Western television actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), his stunt double and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), and his neighbor, the real actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Though the central narrative follows Dalton’s faltering career, the story shoots off down different subplots when it wants to and is able to grab your full attention in a variety of ways. Despite being seemingly disconnected at certain points, the film cleanly ties itself together by the time it hits ending credits.

      Rick Dalton is a compelling character as a painfully insecure former TV star who once played the undaunted and poker-faced renegade bounty hunter Jake Cahill in the Western series “Bounty Law”; he is at the point in his career where he has been reduced from a leading man to always playing “the heavy” or intimidating bad guy who the young up-and-coming hero beats up. Early in the film, producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) wisely informs him that such roles are just as damaging to his professional image as they are to his character’s body, and that he should pivot to being a leading man in Spaghetti Westerns, a move that Rick believes will cement him as a has-been. DiCaprio sincerely yet humorously portrays the alcoholic, emotionally vulnerable, and ultimately self-obsessed Rick who is easily reduced to tears at the very though of not being at his peak anymore and struggles to keep himself together even in professional settings. Despite DiCaprio’s dexterous performance, Brad Pitt steals the show for most of the film as the ancillary Cliff. Even as Dalton struggles to find meaning in his work, Cliff sticks with him serving as his driver and right-hand man in what at times seems like a genuine tight male bond and at other times feels like a mutually unhealthy relationship. Though his reputation is less-than-favorable due to a serious allegation, Cliff is disarmingly charming, confident and fearless to the point of recklessness, and, most importantly, loyal; he has the character and wherewithal to keep the borderline unstable Dalton afloat. While Rick is off trying to pull himself together for his latest villainous role in the series Lancer, we get to exclusively follow Cliff around on a series of misadventures that are the most interesting sequences in the movie. Pitt is clearly having a blast in this role as Cliff and is the highlight of every scene he is in. Interwoven with Rick and Cliff’s shenanigans is the rise of Sharon Tate as a star though she is not explored too deeply as a character, rather functioning as a constant portend of a darker ending to come; Margot Robbie does a fine job and bares a strong resemblance to the woman herself. Though the rest of the characters are not strongly developed, no performance is poor, and I enjoyed quite a few of the cameos throughout the movie. As the title implies, this movie functions as a sort of fairy tale and is in fact a glamorization of Hollywood life from fifty years ago, taking many liberties with how the time and the real-life figures are portrayed. If you have done even cursory research about this movie, you know that the story ties into the Manson Family and the associated murders so I would recommend reading up on that bit of history if you are not completely familiar with the details before going to the theater.

      Some might fault this movie for meandering too much, but I did not mind the sequence of events or pacing at all even though the runtime is north of two and a half hours. Tarantino’s skillfully verbose script holds everything together, elevating what would be throwaway scenes in lesser movies and keeping the audience engaged throughout the duration of the film. On top of that, it is subtly impressive how Tarantino progressively establishes each recurring setting and inculcates various plots elements that get reincorporated later. I will admit that the movie drags a bit in the middle stages, but the story quickly picks back up for an outrageous finale. Other than that, there is an excessive amount of admittedly humorous narration stringing some scenes together that I am not sure was entirely necessary.

      Tarantino, an avowed physical film aficionado, uses a variety of era-specific presentation formats to help visually build the time period. Though the majority of the movie was shot on typical anamorphic 35mm with a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, Tarantino throws in several scenes shot in smaller aspect ratios and selectively uses the grainier 16mm and 8mm formats; his emulation of 1960s movies and television is essentially flawless. He pulls off a very specific look in terms of color, texture, and lighting in every segment of the film from opening to end credits. The late 1960s are effectively recreated through attention to detail in the production design, highlighted by a variety of movie posters, era-appropriate music choices, retro automobiles, and even entire made-up city blocks in downtown Los Angeles. His skill behind the camera is particularly evident in the way he frequently uses cranes to do complicated moving elevated shots, his precise framing within both foreground and background, and more than a few extended takes. During one sequence which shows the real-time filming of Rick’s latest acting gig on Lancer, I particularly liked how when Rick flubs a line, the camera backtracks to the beginning of the scene before the take starts over again; it is as if the audience is experiencing the scene through the camera that would actually be filming it on set. The visuals and editing are fairly subdued by Tarantino standards, but enough of his style is retained as evidenced by the seemingly random points at which successive jump cuts are used and the lingering shots on Margot Robbie’s feet. Overall, the technical merits of this film are considerable, and it is definitely a pleasant visual experience.

      Overall, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is probably Tarantino’s most restrained work to date and shows maturation as a filmmaker. In many ways, one might construe this as a personal reflection of Tarantino’s own life: a middle-aged filmmaker in the twilight of his career dealing with impending irrelevancy…or maybe not…who knows. Well, as the film makes readily apparent, he has not quite faded into irrelevancy just yet, and I will be anxiously awaiting his tenth and possibly final film. If you like Tarantino’s past films, you will definitely enjoy this one as well. If you were turned off in the past by his stylistic excess, I would still give this movie a chance. Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is definitely the best theater-going experience I have had thus far in 2019 and will probably be one of the best films I watch this year.

RATING: ★★★★

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