“Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood” Movie Review


     It’s only fair I give full disclosure when presenting my thoughts on a Quentin Tarantino film.  I’m a big fan.  Always have been.  And with his 9th film, “Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood”, the excitement and anticipation of its arrival could not be understated in my household.  Something that also comes with an astonishing level of expectation, given how high the bar has been raised with every one of his eight previous films considered influential pop culture classics.  With this notoriety comes the comparisons to his prior work, as the debate typically centers on whether or not his latest film is his “masterpiece”.  

     My thought on that has always been to allow these films (and this would apply to any film really) to marinate within both the film community and the mainstream for a fews years before jumping to a knee jerk conclusion.  For now, lets say that film is “Pulp Fiction” and see what happens in about ten years.  That said, I am convinced there is literally no one on this Earth, other than Tarantino, who could have made “Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood.”  Simply because there isn’t a filmmaker today who possesses the right combination of cinematic historical knowledge and writing chops to pull it off.  Tarantino was already amongst the greatest filmmakers of all time.  This latest effort just cements his status even further.

     Known to have one of the largest collections of film on celluloid in the world, Tarantino has spent the majority of his life living and breathing the Hollywood scene in a way a film school could never teach.  This is a guy who worked in a video store and spent all of his time watching movies, taking in every word and the manner in which it is spoken, every camera angle and the importance of what is and what isn’t in the frame, and understanding the narrative structure and how it creates tension, suspense, and even comedy.   When you watch “OUATIH”, you begin to understand just how immersed the auteur was in everything from Hollywood culture to Spaghetti Westerns.  More than anything; however, the dialogue comes off as authentic.  As if Tarantino himself had participated in conversations with the studio darlings of the 60s and 70s.

     The story follows a famous film and television actor named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his best friend and stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they negotiate the harsh waters of  Hollywood business and studio filmmaking circa 1969.  For the first two acts, we get a complex character study that sees Dalton learning his star is fading, leaving him to wonder if he has peaked and will no longer enjoy the status that comes with being an A-lister.  It’s an interesting theme to explore, given anyone who has succeeded in their respective profession can at some point realize their best days are behind them, often leaving future prospects to appear bleak.  For a boozing Hollywood has been, this means being cast as a one off bad guy in the kinds of television shows he used to get the lead part in.  

     A meeting with a producer with international film ties, Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino), brings these issues to startling life for Rick, which leaves him to mull an offer to relocate to Italy and make feature Westerns.  Meanwhile, his buddy Cliff, who bends over backwards for Rick while functioning as his personal driver, seems to be on the outs in the stuntman community after a successful run in all of Rick’s biggest shows.  It’s a time when neither of them knows what the future holds, and yet Tarantino, along with cinematographer Robert Richardson, production designer Barbara Ling, and costume designer Arianne Phillips bring forth a colorful and groovy rendition of the era, complete with vintage cars, go go boots, and the familiar brands and culture of the time.  

     It’s doubtful you will recall another film that has recreated the details of a time long since past with this kind of accuracy and realism.  All of this is surrounded by an endless array of faux films, television shows, commercials, music, and movie posters that immerse us into a world where Rick Dalton once ruled the airways, just as everyone in the Hollywood industry had begun to lose their innocence.  

     Wouldn’t you know Rick’s neighbor just happens to be none other than Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) with the third act in the film occurring on, yep you guessed it, August 8th, 1969.  While Rick is busy playing the “heavy” on a new television show, Cliff finds himself running into the same hippy hitchhiking girl on Ventura Blvd for the third time and decides to give her a lift.  A ride that has him drive her to the famed Spahn Movie Ranch, a one time live movie and television set that is now blighted and occupied by a strange group of hippies who immediately raise Cliff’s suspicions.  When he forces a meeting with the one time owner, George (Bruce Dern), the group of strange scantily clad dwellers seemingly want a confrontation, but not before Cliff is able to leave unscathed, but also unsatisfied.

     If you’re familiar with the story of Charles Manson, and more specifically the grisly murder of Sharon Tate in her home while her husband was in Europe filming a movie, then you’ll have an idea where “OUATIH” is going, but then again, if you’re also familiar with the director’s work, then I’d advise you to ease up on your self congratulatory ability to predict what is going to happen at the end of a movie.  There’s plenty of build up throughout, creating a sort of slow burn as you take in a number of interesting conversations between a never ending supply of fascinating characters.  All the while, a grim feeling blankets each scene as the inevitable approaches and these characters you have now spent a considerable amount of time with may fall victim to Manson and his followers.  Or will they?

     “Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood” is easily the best film thus far in 2019, as it boasts Oscar worthy performances by both DiCaprio and Pitt, supported by one of the finest ensembles ever assembled.  There are actors who merely appear in a single scene, and yet they command the screen and squeeze every ounce out of the dialogue given to them in a way that ensures performers such as Al Pacino, Timothy Olyphant, Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Damian Lewis, Margaret Qualley, Luke Perry, and more make a lasting impact.  And in one of the more crowd pleasing scenes, Mike Moh brings Bruce Lee to life in a memorable exchange with Cliff that pits the martial artist against a skeptical stuntman.  There are just too many fantastic scenes and performances to mention, which practically begs for repeat viewings in order to absorb the details you may have missed.

     I don’t know if this is Tarantino’s “masterpiece” so to speak, but it is clear we are looking at something that deserves to be amongst the nominees when awards season begins early next year.  Given the star power and the likely worldwide box office, “Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood” may very well be the Oscar darling we’ve all been waiting for from the “Pulp Fiction” director.  GRADE: A