Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) Review
TARANTINO’S CINEMATIC “LOVER LETTER”
Film director Quentin Tarantino has certainly made a name for himself in Hollywood and within the public’s eye of moviegoers everywhere with his feature film endeavors. Rather than churning out a lengthy filmography of “hit or miss” directorial film works, Tarantino has meticulously selected and crafted his directorial works in a certain way that only someone of his caliber and flair for cinematic storytelling. Because of this, Tarantino movies, including Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill Vol. 1 (and Vol.2), Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight, have always a spectacle fixation of unique moviegoing experience that ranges from “controversial to greatness” (depending on the viewer’s perception of his work). Now, two years after his 2017 release of The Hateful Eight, Columbia Pictures (Sony Pictures) releases Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature film project with the film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Is it cinematic “lights, camera, action” for Tarantino’s latest movie or is it long drawn out endeavor that doesn’t go anywhere?
The year is 1969, the place is L.A, and veteran actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is facing the horrible truth…. the end of his leading man career; finding most of his recent gigs as a “bad guy of the week” on multiple television shows. It’s the prospect of becoming “old and obsolete” that has Dalton freaking out, relying on his stunt man, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), for emotional support as well as odds and ends duties, driving him around town while tending to Rick’s home on Cielo Drive, just next door to new neighbor Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and his new girlfriend Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Rick tries to keep it together to continue finding work, struggling to being “typed cast” in his role opportunities, while producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) presents an offer to the aging actor to make spaghetti westerns in Italy to help revive Dalton’s career. Booth, on the other hand, gets sidetracked and finds his curiosity piqued when he meets Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), a young hippie female who takes him to the Spahn Ranch, finding suspicion there and drawing unwelcomed ire from the hippies who settle there. Elsewhere, Sharon starts to feel the magic / wonder of Los Angeles, delighting in her rising star status, surrounded by close friends, including Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch).
THE GOOD / THE BAD
With such famous directors like Stephen Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, James Cameron, Martin Scorsesse, and Clint Eastwood in current Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino is certainly up there. To me, I wouldn’t say that he’s my personal favorite type of directors, he’s definitely has a unique flavor to his feature film endeavors (and I think that many will agree on that). That being said, Tarantino’s movies are always something to be hyped about….at least to me. I don’t know why, but perhaps it’s because he doesn’t do a whole lot of movies (churning them out quickly to mediocre results / fanfare). So, it becomes quite interesting (and yes…a bit intriguing) when Tarantino releases a movie. Like many out there, Tarantino’s movies have become iconic with my favorite ones being Pulp Fiction, Inglorious Basterds, and The Hateful Eight, but I’m sure some people have some difference on opinions on Tarantino’s best films. In the end, whether you love or hate him his work, when director Tarantino release a movie…there’s a reason to get excited about.
This, of course, brings me to talking about Once Upon a Tim in Hollywood, Tarantino’s ninth film. Much like what I said above, every time Tarantino makes a movie…. people excited for its release and what offerings that director has for his latest cinematic film project. When it was announced that the Tarantino’s ninth film was gonna do a movie revolving (vaguely) around the Charlie Mason’s murders around pregnant actress Sharon Tate, it was definitely something interesting to tackle in both the subject matter as well as it being a well…. a Tarantino production. For me, what got me excited about the movie was in its cast (DiCaprio, Pitt, Robbie) as well as host of “callback” cameos from the director’s past projects. So, like the general public of moviegoers and person who likes movies, I was pretty intrigued to see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; eagerly waiting for the film’s release. What did I think of it? Well, it was good, but it wasn’t my personal favorite Tarantino movie. Essentially, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the Tarantino’s “love letter” to 60s era of Hollywood with plenty of nuances and great performances to offer up some mischievous cinematic fun for the director’s pedigree of moviemaking. It’s definitely a Tarantino movie (tried and true), but lacks a gripping narrative to get fully invest in the movie’s story.
Given the fact that this is Tarantino’s ninth film, it’s safe to assume that many viewers out there know what to expect from Once a Upon a Time in Hollywood….with the director’s terms of style, execution, and substance throughout the presentation. In that regard, Tarantino’s succeeds by crafting the movie with his own directorial workings, film signatures, and movie nuances that mostly accompany his endeavor. So, if you love Tarantino’s movies (in general), you’ll probably definitely have something to like about with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. While Tarantino’s movies have always had different subject matters to explore and / or examining, the director decides to take an intriguing cinematic look at the late 60s in Los Angeles. Essentially, the film’s time period of era is actually quite compelling from the diverse complexity of individuals that live there from celebrity TV / movie stars to free-spirted hippies. So, we (the viewers) really get to side the polar opposites of L.A.’s society status in the movie, with all the bustling work of TV / soundstage sets that Rick Dalton works on to the dilapidated shamble living of Spahn ranch. Thus, Tarantino showcases plenty of the various lifestyles that make up the film’s setting and almost makes it a sort of character throughout the movie. Additionally, there a lot of Tarantino moments” throughout, including a couple of flashback voiceovers scenes and the climatic third act piece that’s really Tarantino-esque….in every single scene of this sequences (if you know what I mean).
Along with shaping the movie, Tarantino also handled the movie’s script, which certain weaves three narratives Rick, Cliff, and Sharon throughout the movie. Naturally, while Sharon Tate’s storyline is the most famous one (due to her real-life counterpart), the stories of Rick and Cliff are also intriguing; finding each one has different journeys as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood progresses. Without spoiling the movie, Tarantino also makes this movie much like Inglorious Basterds in an attempt to fictionalize real-life history of events that took place (just keep that in mind while watching the feature). Interestingly, the story of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (or rather the movie’s title namesake) was definitely a curious one (much like I mentioned above). Of course, once viewing the movie, the title becomes clear….and quite clever on Tarantino. What do I mean? Well (and again this is my personal interpretation of the movie’s title) that movie’s title hints a fairy tale (pretty obvious on that part) and has all the classic nuances from common fairy tales, including the well-pampered lord / noble (Dalton) who’s struggling with his ambitions, the old seasoned knight (Booth), who takes care of the lord / noble and struggling with his placement in the world, and the princess (Tate) who gets caught up with whimsical nuances of her new lifestyle….unaware of what fate has in store for her. Again, that’s my interpretation on the title.
In the film’s presentation, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood looks gorgeous and definitely showcases plenty to see and hear throughout the movie. Given the setup fact of Tarantino present the feature as a “love letter” to the late 60s of Los Angeles, the film’s various set-pieces are also a salute to that particular time period and definitely become a character of their own throughout the movie. Thus, the talents “behind the scenes”, including Barbara Ling (production design), Nancy Haigh (set decorations), Arianne Phillips (costume designs), and Robert Richardson (cinematography), all capture the spirt of the time period beautifully, with Tarantino (I’m sure) making sure that the movie has plenty of late 60s nuances throughout from cars, to product placements, and visual advisements. Additionally, the movie has plethora of 60s songs that play as the feature’s soundtrack, with some like Paul Revere & The Raiders “Hungry”, Los Bravos “Bring a Little Lovin”, Neil Diamond’s “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show”, and Deep Purple’s “Kentucky Woman” just to name a few. To me, that what was a real treat and definitely added a “flavor” to the feature’s story narrative.
There are a few problems that I had with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, finding some of Tarantino’s directions a bit languished and problematic within the feature’s narrative and cohesive structure. While a lot of the film’s setting / timeframe nuances are quite compelling, the story and the narrative progression of it all is rather flimsy….to say the least. Naturally, the movie is invested in the three lives of main protagonist characters of Rick Dalton, Cliff Booth, and Sharon Tate; each one having their own personal narrative thread that the movie follows. However, it’s presented in a way that has a difficult time of getting to the point of what they want to say about each respective narrative thread. This is most prevalent in the movie’s first act, which meanders the three story arcs in way that doesn’t really go anywhere. Basically, I was thinking to myself on where the movie was going and while some viewers might like that appreciate the change of narrative pace from recent Hollywood movie releases (i.e. a “breath of fresh air”), the narrative path of the film meanders its way in a sluggish / confusing way. Thus, Tarantino, who again wrote the script, doesn’t have a streamline picture of where Once Upon a Time in Hollywood wants to go and doesn’t materialize (in a cohesive manner) until the third act.
Coinciding with that criticism, the movie’s pacing is unbalanced, which makes the movie feels laborious long. Of course, Tarantino is infamously known for creating his theatrical films in a lengthy and elongated runtime than most commonplace movies out there. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is no different with an official runtime of 161 minutes (two hours and forty-one minutes) and it certainly feels like that time has passed when watching this movie. To be sure, Tarantino makes this movie very much a “slow burner” and it certainly feels like that. Naturally, the acting talents involved help outshine this criticism (more on that below), but it’s hard to keep up with what’s going on-screen when the feature itself starts to lose steam as it meanders through certain scenes / events (again, most notably in the film’s first two acts). This is most apparent in the movie’s narrative thread that involves the character of Sharon Tate. Of course, she is certainly a main subject of which this movie’s narrative plays around (especially since what happens to her), but the first two acts of her character feel unimportant and uninteresting. Even a lot of story’s supporting characters around her feel less interesting and are merely there for “window dressing”. It all comes together in the third act (I won’t spoil it), but it almost warrants a question of why having her screen presence known in the first two acts.
Then there is also the film’s ending, which (much like Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds) tries to rewrite history a little bit. Some might be turned off by this notion, while others will embrace it. Personally, I liked the ending climax piece as it feels like the truest part of Tarantino movie and definitely works the absolute best (at least in my opinion). The personal problem, however, is the exact place of where Once Upon a Time in Hollywood decides to end its narrative on. Again, it feels like how Tarantino decided to end Inglorious Basterds….meaning that the movie just abruptly ends and doesn’t have a proper conclusion (as if it ended up on the cutting room floor). I know that might sounds like a minor quibble, but I felt the movie could’ve ended on a better note; closing out the narrative (and its characters) on a more satisfying note.
Thankfully, the cast of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does certainly help elevate those criticism, which literally almost everyone on this project delivers on bring a sense of quality performances in their respective characters….be it large or minor. Naturally, the A-list acting talents of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt do headline the feature in the main lead roles of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth respectfully. Of course, both actors have quite the leading roles in the professional movie careers, so it’s quite a treat to see them co-starring in a film together and bringing their sense of “theatrical gravitas” to the characters in the movie….and it certainly shows that in a fantastic way. DiCaprio, known for his roles in Romeo + Juliet, Titanic, The Revenant, has always demonstrated his talents in a variety of dramatic / character roles throughout his career and his role of Rick Dalton from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is another great performance in his acting library. The character of Rick is probably the most multi-façade character in the entire movie, especially since he (Rick) is an actor as well as struggling with his age / career work. In that regard, DiCaprio sells the characters beautifully and acts in such engrossing way that it’s quite interesting and compelling from start to finish. Likewise, Pitt, known for his roles in Ocean’s 11, Meet Joe Black, and Fight Club, is a perfect fir to the seasoned veteran stunt double character of Cliff Booth. To be quite honest, I personally found the character to be have the most screen-time and almost acts like the somewhat main character narrative thread with Dalton storyline springing off of him and Tate’s storyline framing the feature. The character of Cliff doesn’t require to be a fully dramatic performance, which is a perfect fit for Pitt as he can bring enough star power and acting pathos to the role without overacting and / or making the character something he isn’t. Additionally, there’s a certain charm / swagger to Pitt (like a lot of his character roles in other movies) and it’s definitely on display in his role as Cliff; providing some amusing sequences throughout the movie. Altogether, both DiCaprio and Pitt have great on-screen chemistry with each other and it clearly shows in the film in their portrayals of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth. To me, they were my favorite part of the Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
The third big acting talent in the movie (after DiCaprio and Pitt) is actress Margot Robbie, who plays the character of Sharon Tate, an actress who is Rick Dalton’s next-door neighbor. Like I mentioned above, the real-life story of Sharon Tate is quite documented by history of what became of her in 1969, so the movie alludes to a lot of setup during the film’s story….in a sort of anticipation of what befalls her. Sadly, like I mentioned above, the character of Sharon Tate doesn’t materialize until the ending, leaving a lot of what happens with her to be uninteresting and doesn’t really go anywhere. Still, Robbie, known for her roles in Suicide Squad, Focus, and Goodbye, Christopher Robin, delivers quite a nuance performance in the role. It’s not necessarily a “juicy” part to play as the movie is more focused on DiCaprio’s Dalton and Pitt’s Booth, but Robbie’s portrayal of Sharon Tate is pretty good and is very suitable / likeable in the part.
Given the film’s story (or rather the characters that DiCaprio, Pitt, and Robbie), members of the Manson family, including actor Damon Herriman (Mr. Inbetween and J Edgar) as Charlie Manson, actor Bruce Dern (The Hateful Eight and Big Love) as George Spahn, actress Dakota Fanning (Man on Fire and Charlotte’s Web) as Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, actor Austin Butler (The Shannara Chronicles and Ruby & the Rockits) as Charles “Tex” Watson, actress Mikey Madison (Monster and Nostalgia) as Susan Atkins, and Margaret Qualley (The Nice Guys and The Leftovers) as Pussycat (who was loosely based off of Kathryn Lutesinger of the Manson family), play a part of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s narrative…in some shape or capacity. Of course, given the very nature of this grouping, most of these characters are definitely creepy and / or unsetting, with the cast of this characters providing those theatrical nuances perfectly.
Rounding out the cast are several minor supporting characters, with some being portrayed by recognizable faces and / or playing famous people from the film’s time period. This includes actor Al Pacino (The Godfather and Heat) as Marvin Schwarzs, actor Emile Hirsch (Speed Racer and Into the Wild) as Jay Sebring, actor Rafal Zawierucha (Najmro and Jack Strong) as Roman Polansky, actor Mike Moh (Masked Rider: Dragon Knight and Empire) as Bruce Lee, actor Damian Lewis (Band of Brothers and Homeland) as Steve McQueen, actress Samantha Robinson (The Love Witch and Cam) as Abigail Folger, actor Timothy Olyphant (Deadwood and Justified) as James Stacy, young actress Julia Butters (American Housewife and Transparent) as Trudi Fraser, actor Kurt Russell (The Hateful Eight and Escape from L.A.) as stuntman Randy, stuntwoman / actress Zoe Bell (The Hateful Eight and Raze) as Randy’s wife Janet, and the recent passed away actor Luke Perry (Beverly Hills 90210 and Riverdale) in his last role as Wayne Maunder. All of these acting talents are portrayed well and definitely add “nuance” to the movie’s proceedings….in any capacity screen-time, with some bringing their natural screen presence to the feature.
The realm of Los Angeles in the late 60s (full of wonder, commerce, filmmaking, and hippies) takes center stage in the movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Director Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film is his latest cinematic endeavor of his style of movies; offering up a sort of “love letter” to the 60s era L.A and all the flavorful nuances that surround it. While the movie might not essentially reach the exact same caliber as some of his other big hits (finding problematic areas within the film’s pacing, length, and narrative composition), the movie does succeeds in its cinematic nuances presentation of the time period (music, settings, lifestyles, etc.) as well as a very strong ensemble cast, especially with DiCaprio and Pitt. To me, I thought that this movie was good. Like I said, it wasn’t my personal favorite Tarantino one (more probably towards the middle of his nine movies), but it’s hard to deny the director’s intention and his visual style / nuances within his storytelling motifs and character builds. However, I won’t go as far as saying it is Tarantino’s “best film to date” as some are calling it to be. I just wasn’t super enthralled with the movie as I was with Inglorious Basterds or The Hateful Eight. Still, for what it’s worth, it’s definitely a change of pace from the plethora of movie releases this year. Thus, my recommendation for this film is solid “recommended” as it does offer something unique “on the scene” (if you will) and is still a Tarantino endeavor through and through. With a lot of rumors flying around that Tarantino might quit directing movies, which would make this particular movie his cinematic swansong. Whether that rumor is true or not, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood demonstrates a sort of “labor of love” for the director, trying his hand at character study piece and romancing an era’s setting in the process.
3.7 Out of 5 (Recommended)
Released On: July 26th, 2019
Reviewed On: August 9th, 2019
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is 161 minutes long and is rated R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references
Fine review! I’m so high on this movie, more so than I ever expected to be. I do get the pushback especially from those who like Tarantino’s more aggressively flamboyant side. But this hit the spot for me on so many levels.
Great read on this review.. you really got into it.. love that!
I didn’t have much interest in seeing this one, then after a while I did. But after reading your review, I’m iffy on it at best. First, for me a slow burn needs to lead up to something that made the slowness of it worthwhile, so I’m wondering if this will or not. Secondly, I like an ending. Even if it’s an ending I don’t like, I like it better than no ending at all. One like Grey (Liam Neeson) where you know beyond a shadow of a doubt what happens without it showing it is okay, but I don’t like to be left to figure it out. Your statement about the ending adds a “very” to my “iffy”.
It was still a well-made movie (very Tarantino-ish) and was definitely well-acted, but it wasn’t super spectacular as some people are making it out to be. You should check it out….at least once.
This is an excellent and supremely detailed review. I appreciate your points about the ending and Brad Pitt being a good fit for the part of Cliff Booth.
However, I disagree with a lot of your points. I think there was a point to Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate. I think that she and Rick Dalton are two sides of the same Hollywood coin and both embody different ideals of the movie business. You can find out more by reading my review below.
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