REVIEW: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

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You can say this about Quentin Tarantino – he’s consistent. His settings and timelines may change, but regardless of the movie you still see a filmmaker unshakably devoted to his style. It’s so pronounced that you’ll hardly see him step outside of his self-defined box or sway too far from his brand. Take his recent conversations about making a Star Trek movie. Right off the bat he confirmed to Empire magazine that his version would be replete with profanity, a needless addition but a glaring Tarantino trademark.

I doubt any of that will be a problem for die-hard Q.T. fans and I can understand why. But as someone who feels his stories are often smothered by his style, it makes it easy for me to keep my expectations in check whenever a new Tarantino movie arrives. His 9th film (10th by release, but whatever) comes in the form of a retro la-la land fairytale set in the waning days of Hollywood’s Golden Age and our country’s perception of innocence. It’s a movie full of surprises, none bigger than this – I kinda love it. And let me get this out of the way – I think it is his best film.

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“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” walks in several of Tarantino’s familiar footprints. It’s set within an alternate timeline, it’s a compendium of the filmmaker’s favorite classic cinema pastiches, and it sports a fascinating array of unique and often eye-popping characters. It isn’t much interested in plot. Instead Tarantino’s focus is on these characters and recreating 1969 Los Angeles with an obsessive level of detail.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as fading TV star Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt plays his reliable stunt double and best friend Cliff Booth. The two are drawn from an era where actor and stuntman worked closely together both on and off screen. If Rick loses an acting gig so does Cliff. And Cliff not only takes Rick’s lumps on camera but he’s his chauffeur, gopher and overall handyman.

Television westerns were Rick’s ticket to stardom (Tarantino’s flashbacks to Rick’s former hit show “Bounty Law” are spot-on and so much fun). But as Hollywood transitions to a new era, Rick senses the industry leaving him behind. Instead of adapting he spends much of his time boozing and feeling sorry for himself. Enter the easygoing Cliff, a good listener and even better encourager.

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As with other Tarantino films, “Once Upon a Time” routinely sees fiction intersecting with fact. An example, Rick lives in a nice house at the end of Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon. Many will remember that street name from the horrific Manson Family murders. Rick’s new neighbors are indeed filmmaker Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and his wife, rising Hollywood star Sharon Tate (played with an effervescent beauty by Margot Robbie).

Much has been made of Robbie’s lack of dialogue, but her portrayal of Sharon Tate has a very unique role to play. In many ways she stands as a symbol as much as a character. She represents innocence, goodness, and compassion. Tate is a constant ray of light and Tarantino shoots her with an ever-present glow. That’s why we’re hit with a looming sense of dread when we get those few glimpses of Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) or when Cliff gives a young hippie hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley) a ride to Spahn’s Movie Ranch. We know what history says and where things are heading.

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As for the leads, “Once Upon a Time” is a very character-driven movie and Tarantino gives his two biggest stars plenty of meaty material to chew on. DiCaprio goes wild in a role that’s big and showy in the same way many Tarantino roles are. Still there are layers of sadness and insecurity that DiCaprio absolutely nails. But it’s Pitt who steals the show. Not only does he look the part with his sun-bleached hair and leathery good looks, but he’s tempered, laid-back, and easy for us to connect with (despite a few potential skeletons in his character’s closet).

The film does feature some of the same Tarantino vices that we seem to get in all of his pictures. For example he has this weird fascination with profanity. He doesn’t use it for realism or emotional effect. It’s something woven so tightly into the fabric of his style and he can’t seem to break away from it. Because of that many the characters across his movies often talk alike and sound alike.

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Tarantino does indulge himself a little too much specifically during a long sequence on the set of Rick’s new western. Admittedly, it’s kind of fascinating watching Tarantino essentially shoot a TV show within his movie. It’s also a segment that features several good moments including Luke Perry’s final appearance and a fabulous performance from 10-year-old Julia Butters (she’s a revelation). But it still feels detached from the film’s other moving parts.

It’s hard to imagine a better looking film in Tarantino’s catalog (bold statement, I know). Every scene gives you an image worth setting your eyes on or a detail that in some way calls back to 1969. You get his nostalgic visual splurges often rooted in his pop-culture fluency. Whether it’s a Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos comic on a coffee table or DiCaprio’s Rick grafted into a scene from “The Great Escape”. And of course there is the sheer technique seen throughout the entire movie. My favorite may be Tarantino’s knack for tracking shots best seen in a neon-bathed nighttime drive down the Sunset Strip and a subtly unnerving pan of Spahn’s Ranch.

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So much else could be said about the rip-roaring soundtrack filled with songs of the period that haven’t been played to death in other films. About Tarantino’s surprising restraint even among such nostalgic excess and the unexpected splash of maturity seen most in his treatment of his characters. And how about the plethora of great cameos from Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, and Zoe Bell just to name a few. We could even talk about how Tarantino’s ending (in its own twisted way) offers us something his films rarely give – a glimmer of hope.

I can see “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” getting criticized from both sides. Tarantino stalwarts who come to the movie hungry for his traditional pomp and shock may be disappointed in how little they get. Those looking for a more traditional narrative may find the movie too messy and light on plot. Me, I love how this film manages to avoid many of Tarantino’s self-induced trappings while still being unlike anything else you’ll see in the theater this year. And while I still grumble at some of his style choices, I can’t deny being completely absorbed in this crazy yet magnificent cinematic concoction.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

63 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

    • Oh thank you. Kind words! I’m really smitten with this movie even though I’m not a huge Tarantino fan. I’m anxious to see how much pushback there will be from QT die-hards.

      • For sure. Me, I was just incredibly impressed with what Tarantino has done here. And really surprised at the hint of maturity he shows here. It’s clearly a personal film for him.

  1. Awesome review, Keith. I read criticisms regarding the lack of a plot. I heard the last fifteen minutes were outstanding. I am thrilled there’s no CGI to recreate a time long gone in Hollywood. That historical climate, I’m guessing, is spot-on. I do want to see it and I’ll rent it. The length of time seemed crazy to me. I’m glad you liked the experience.

    • Cindy, I was blown away by it and I’m a guy who has had issues with QT films in the past. The sheer level of detail in re-creating 1969 Los Angeles and the culture as a whole from that time is nothing short of stunning. As for the plat, there isn’t a lot. It’s all about the characters. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Tarantino put this much energy into his characters. And I don’t mean in making them over-the-top and hyper-stylish. I mean in thoroughly developing them into people we instantly care about.

  2. Your review has me intrigued more than I would be. He has literally never done a single thing I liked. I streamed pretty much every movie and I have yet to finish one. His heavy handed style , excessive swearing and violence leaves me very cold and annoyed. I know he has tons of talent and have enjoyed his framing of shots etc…but he is just not my taste.So to hear of some restraint and even a glimmer of hope in this movies ending, might persuade me to check this out next week with my free movie coupon.

    • Unfortunately you still have to wade through a lot of pointless profanity, specifically from one character. There is definitely a level of restraint here that I haven’t seen in his movies before. Also get ready for an unbelievable amount of movie homages and Easter eggs. I would love to say more, but you definitely don’t want it spoiled.

  3. As I am working on my review of the film right now having just seen it earlier today, man I want to see it again. I love it. Julia Butters is a true revelation while Brad Pitt is just fucking cool. I can’t believe he’s in his 50s and yet is aging better than most people while maintaining that confidence and badassery that he’s known for. He is what Tom Cruise wishes he could be.

    I loved Margot Robbie in this as she just conveys the innocence of Sharon Tate and to see her watching The Wrecking Crew is just so touching.

    I really wish my dad was around to see this as it was from his time and he LOVED those TV westerns.

  4. Really cool to see ya dig into one of Tarantino’s films. He’s definitely a forceful cinematic voice. Definitely unique, but rough with the swearing at times absolutely (I swear like a sailor and I’m saying that, geez!). I’m anxious to get my eyes on this. Probably Tues night at this point. Had a crazy busy weekend at work and am absolutely exhausted now. 😦

    • I’ve seen all of Tarantino’s movies and some definitely work for me better than others. But I usually always run into issues with some of his style choices. Are you a big QT fan?

      This movie sucked me in from the very first frame. And I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Tarantino care this much about his characters. And that’s not even talking about the tons of cinema/pop-culture references and incredible period recreation. It still packs plenty of laughs as well. Man I’m high on this thing!

    • Thanks Ted. I’ve always pushed back on many of his overindulgences which is probably why this particular film was like a breath of fresh air. We definitely get those stylish strokes, but this felt like a openness to be different. Not just in terms of genre, but in actual storytelling. I didn’t talk about it but it’s also pretty funny!

  5. No, I cannot say he is consistent. He used to make good films. This is a mess and honestly it is abhorrent both in its content and the fact he got a pass from the audience and critics.

    • Interesting. I think his dedication to his style has been very consistent. As for this film, I think it is his best by a pretty significant margin. So many of his past films have been all over the map with the story and characters often buried under his excesses. Love the setting. Love the characters. Love the homages.

    • Dayum, I feel your pain, Its mid-august for us down under. Release shecules really are shitty, its one thing about Netflix that I think most would agree is great. Down here tho we need to use a VPN to trick Netflix into showing the US library – the Aussie one is unsurprisingly thin. But it was certainly nice to see the new Coens film along with everyone else, rather than two months later!

      • It’s such a shame that release schedules are so regionally prioritized. I understand (to some degree with smaller films), but couldn’t bigger movies like this one open around the same time globally. It doesn’t seem like a stretch.

      • Yeah exactly my thoughts. Thou not getting Never Look Away till last month gets a bit silly, it seems insane. But we got Parasite – occording to imdb the US isn’t till October I think.

      • yeah man, its bonkers that the Palme D’or -winner- plays here before the US, but a big international film like this is held back.
        I guess South Korea is much closer to Australia, but still…. bah, there’s no use babbling about it I guess! Just gotta take what I can!

        Tho honestly, they wonder why so many Australians pirate stuff… I guarantee that a ton of people here won’t be going to see this cos a crap CAM version of it is good enough for them.

        Oh well… I’ll stop bitching now! =/ Sorry for the rant(s)

  6. Oooooh!! 🙂 We are planning on seeing this very soon. It seems you and I have similar feelings about Q.T., so your review gives me hope that I too will very much like it!

    • Oh I can’t wait to hear what you think about it. It’s such a fantastic time capsule of a movie. The setting is so precise. And I love that Tarantino puts time into the characters. Not just to make them flamboyant and eccentric. But to genuinely make us care about them.

  7. Awesome review Kieth, without really giving anything away at all. Awesome stuff. You guys are so lucky, even Tarantino films take a few weeks to air down here. Hell I am still waiting for Midsommor – August 8th. This comes the week after. Consider yourself lucky!!! =P

    I love some Tarantino films, some I am a bit indifferent too… so I don’t really have any expectations. But your glowing review and, yes, bold statements indeed really do have me looking forward to when it finally plays here.

    Great stuff as always my man =]

    • Release schedules drive me up the wall. They can be so annoying. I’m really anxious to hear what you think of it. A huge part is how well it recreates the look and vibe of 1969 Los Angeles. Feels like you’re in a time capsule.

      • That is what I am looking forward to the most. The recreation of that era. This flick seems divisive, some people haaaaate it. I think, for a few at least, that what they think of Tarantino influences their decision. If that makes sense?

        That’s why I dug your review mare, I like that you said that there is a lot you don’t like about his films, but you didn’t let that opinion change how you saw this film.

        I like that man, shows you have an open mind =]

        Down here though, it is still a week away from us. Hahaha! And Margot Robbie is Aussie ffs!

        But hey, Midsommor finally opened, gonna go see that A-fuckin-SAP!!

      • I couldn’t help myself. The guy made a great movie and I can’t wait to see it a third time! But when my wife loved it…that really blew my mind!

        As for Midsommor, I’m really anxious to hear what you think about it. It’s another divisive 2019 flick that got a lot of people talking.

      • Divisive is usually what I love the most. The Neon Demon was the definition of divisive, and its my favourite film of this decade.

        I loved Hereditary… I know that this different, though not much else cos I refuse to watch trailers. But from what people have said I’m guessing its a pretty dark story. Which again is what I like 😀 I can’t wait to see it, I’ve read interviews with that director and he really seems on the ball.

      • It’s a really dark story. I thought it started off great but then fell off a cliff in the final act. Really forced the weirdness and tried too hard to be ‘shocking’. But others have felt very different.

      • hehe seems my decision has been made! its 4 hours away… argh! I might watch Ben Wheatly’s new film in the meantime, tho he didn’t work with Amy Jump so I am not expecting much..

      • Will do! I haven’t written a review in nearly a month… my confidence is waning. Hopefully I can pump out a few hundred words, I love writing about film but I’m so self-critical I avoid it, for no real reason at all. Its the same with my novel. I’m not some pro but I think I’m half decent and have my own ‘style’ of writing, and especially have improved compared to the reviews from five years ago! I really want to get back into it like I was a few years ago.

        Sorry for the rant

      • No apologies. I got what your saying. I look at reviews like this, just find your own voice and stay true to it. A little simplistic but oh well… 😂

      • damn dude you write something like every day!! Man I wish I had the confidence to do that. And the skill too haha, you are great at giving an idea of the movie without spoiling anything. I should stick to my novel!

      • No man. Write, write, and write some more. Novels are tougher than reviews to me. I wouldn’t even know where to start with a novel! LOLOL

      • I feel more comfortable using my imagination to make up crazy shit than analysing film I guess.

        I saw ‘Once Upon…’ and I dunno, maybe I need to see it again. It seemed like 2 hours just for a entertaining payoff at the end. I am surely missing something, I’m gonna go back and read this. The characters were far from deep too I thought.

        Heh, and for all the accuracy, which was the best part – it felt like the late 60’s in probably the best way ever depicted – he dropped the ball on Polanski ‘going back to Poland to make a film’. Not that he, or most of the characters really, meant much, but he didn’t make a film in-between Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown hehe ;]

        Ha, and I bet the neo-feminist brigade is having a field day with the violence

  8. Great review, Keith, I loved it! I’m so curious to see the movie, especially since it has divided so many people. Unfortunately, it comes out on the 16th of August in my country, so still a long way to go. Can’t wait!

    • Ugh!!! The 16th??? That’s frustrating. I hope you like it too. It has certainly stirred up a wealth of opinions. As you can tell I was pretty impressed.

      Thanks so much for reading!

  9. I waited until I’d seen the film and posted my own thoughts before reading anything else about this movie. The first thing to focus on for me was the revelation that this was not a tangential storyline to the Manson crimes but like Django and Inglorious, it is an alternative reality. I think “that” is the major issue we need to dance around to talk about this without ruining the climax.
    All of the reservations you had are understandable, his dialogue is weighed down by profanity that often ignores distinctions by character. The plot meanders down side paths that are sometimes interesting but ultimately irrelevant. Some scenes go on too long, without a payoff for our patience.
    That aside, the biggest weakness I saw was the shortage of verbal combustion that makes so many of his films worthwhile. The characters often succeed despite a lack of that Quentin Quip Snapple. The passages with the young character are the closest that we get to something resembling his usual standards.
    I have to agree that Pitt is the standout, although everyone is excellent.
    I will probably offer some comments on the follow up post you have regarding the controversies. I’m seeing the film again tomorrow and I’m going to detail some elements I left out of my review. As a kid growing up in SoCal in this time period, I can vouch for the accuracy of It’s representation on screen.
    I will say here, that I sat in that booth at El Coyote on multiple occasions, and Hollywood Blvd. was a backyard for me because my father was there frequently for business. Everybody should eat at Musso and Frank because the food is great and it still feels like old Hollywood.
    I was enjoying the film as I watched it, but I was a little let down. That is until the ending. Tarantino shows no restraint on the violence in that sequence, and emotionally that was so cathartic and satisfying, it raised my opinion substantially.
    As always, you write my ideas more clearly than I do at times.

    • WOW! You really do have a good perspective on what Tarantino is recreating. For me, it felt familiar but not in the sense that I personally experienced 1969 LA. It sounds like you have and I found that to be really cool.

      I’m really anxious to hear your thoughts after a second viewing. Seeing it a second time really cemented my love for the film. The criticisms have been surprising but probably shouldn’t be. He does draw these kinds of reactions. But for me this movie hit almost all of the right notes. I’m seeing Hobbs and Shaw tomorrow but I’m also thinking if seeing this again afterwards. Can’t get it out of my head.

  10. Fantastic review, Keith. Very compelling and smart. However, except for Leonardo’s acting, which was superb, I though the movie a boring, sprawling mess. I thought for sure going in I would feel for it as you seem to do, and I wanted to, but I just couldn’t get into its groove whatsoever.

    • Thanks so much and I understand your position. It moves to its own beats and it’s definitely unique among Tarantino’s filmography. As you can tell I was pretty smitten with it. To be honest though, I wasn’t really expecting to be.

      • Yes, I wish I could be just as smitten because it’s something so far into my wheelhouse it hurts; and you write so wonderfully and make such a compelling case for the flick that I actually feel kind of guilty for how I feel about it; however, in the end, besides its beauty and quaintness, as well as Leonardo’s award-worthy acting… not much love for it at all, I’m sad to say.

      • No, no, no…don’t feel guilty for feeling how you feel about it. That’s the great thing about movies. They often effect us differently which makes the conversations so much richer. I love hearing other thoughts. They often help me examine my own.

  11. This is a wonderful review. I admire how you clearly outlined how this was Tarantino’s best movie without falling to excessive amounts of gushing. I still contend that Django is his best from a thematic point of view. It’s ambitious darkly comic and bold in what it does for slavery on film.

    I thought Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood was a majestic and mature work. I think Tate and Dalton are two shades of Hollywood and they both speak to interesting and different elements of the industry.

    You can find out more by reading my review below:

    https://sgsonfilm.net/2019/08/18/review-once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-2019/

    If you find the piece to your liking, then please like and subscribe.

    • Thanks so much. As you can tell I’m a huge fan of the movie. Even more than I ever expected to. You’re right, it’s a very mature work and surprising deep with meaning. Thanks for linking your review. Anxious to give it a look.

      • Where would you rank this with your other top movies of the year? I’m eagerly awaiting to see this a second time. In my humble opinion, I think this film will grow in stature, as the years go on. Thank you. I look forward to hearing about what you think of my review.

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