It’s not every day…or, in this case, every year…we get to see a Quentin Tarantino film. The man is incredibly selective, and rightfully so, which always creates a decided buzz around his latest project and this was no different. A masterful ode to the town and the era that inspired his passion, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood delivers in all the ways you’d expect and plenty of ways you wouldn’t.
Before we get into things, I must acknowledge my long-time affection for Tarantino’s work. However, in three years of reviewing films, I had yet to cover one of his. The Hateful Eight was back in 2015 and that was the last film I saw with my mother before she passed. So, caught somewhere between fanboy and critic, I have seen a lot of growth from a variety of filmmakers in three years but this is something personal and truly special for me.
It would have been feasible but unwise to rush something out after going to the Thursday preview. Instead, I wanted to allow it to sink in. Hollywood was on my mind all day Friday and, the more I reminisced, the more there was to adore.
No one person or thing is universally loved and there are going to be plenty of people who don’t like this movie. A large part of that will likely come from people who simply do not like the man himself. It’s difficult to think of another filmmaker who is both so loved and so loathed, with seemingly equal fervor on both sides. Some don’t care for the violence, the language, or just his general narrative approach to filmmaking and, to a certain extent, that’s understandable. However, speaking for myself and probably for Tarantino enthusiasts, that’s the appeal. Either way, he has earned the right to be selective and do things his way.
I can’t pretend to know him personally but Quentin’s the kind of guy who retro-faces an entire stretch of Hollywood Blvd for weeks at a time just to have a handful of establishing shots in the bag, amounting to only a few minutes of the runtime. He’s the kind of guy who purchases a struggling independent movie theater and takes over curation duties just for the love of cinema. His knowledge of, and passion for film is above reproach and all of that was on display in this love letter to Hollywood of a bygone era.
As an auteur, there are certain trademarks we’ve come to expect from Tarantino: witty and often profane dialogue, jump cuts throughout a scene, continuos long shots, unconventional closeups, flashbacks/retrospective scenes, graphic violence, indulgence of his own personal foot fetish, and probably a whole lot more that’s not coming to mind right this moment. All of that remained on the table but this still felt like a departure for him. He’s always been a student of the game and, in this instance, he crafted a uniquely imaginative and still (almost) completely believable Tinsletown story of his own design. However, there was a distinctly different emotional tone right off the bat.
His characters are always well-written and usually very outwardly charismatic but there was more emotional depth and introspection than I’m used to from him. Taking into context the rumors swirling around regarding this being his final film, it makes sense. Hollywood is a wildly romanticized story, taking place during a very particular era, and in order to tell it properly, Quentin had to put all of himself into it. All of his industry-specific inspirations, his passions, and his frustrations are imbedded in the narrative fabric of this film and that’s what separates it from the rest of his film catalog. I never really considered him to be much of an easter egg type director either but there was a surprising amount of it here, eluding to both his own fictional cinematic universe and old Hollywood. It was an interesting technique that not only paid homage to much of the foundation for his work but also firmly established his own legacy as part of cinematic history alongside it. Best Director and Best Original Screenplay are both well within reach.
I have seen the storyline for this film inaccurately stated in other publications. If you’ve seen the trailer and have any familiarity with the chronological setting of this film, there are certain implications in play but I have no interest in spoiling things. I’ll just say it was wonderful to be surprised at the movies again.
There are several parallel Hollywood stories at play here but the two stellar performances anchoring the film belong to Leonardo Dicaprio and Brad Pitt. Teaming with Tarantino once again, Dicaprio is strong as ever in the lead and this is really Leo like you’ve never seen him before. His character, Rick Dalton, is on the verge of being forgotten in Hollywood and he’s desperately clinging to whatever he has left. While Dalton is a fictional character, he was wonderfully crafted to embody the actors of that era and it’s incredibly easy to accept Leo as such. At first, it was a little tough to not see the celebrity, since he’s still playing one, but the aforementioned introspection is a key element in the character arc. Dalton isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed but the self-awareness of his insecurity is refreshing. This was the funniest I’ve ever seen Dicaprio and it may have opened up a whole new world of possibilities for his career moving forward. I would be surprised if this didn’t land him at least a nomination for Best Actor.
Also teaming up with Quentin once again, Brad Pitt may not have been the lead character but he’s really not that far behind. Supporting roles have often been the backbone of Tarantino films and this was another extraordinary example. As Dalton’s stunt double and driver, Cliff Booth, Pitt is always tethered to the lead and, in many ways, his story is just as important as a stark contrast to Dalton’s posh existence in the Hollywood Hills. Booth is poor and lives in a trailer behind a drive-in movie theater, a reminder that not everyone is successful in the movie business and there is an entire world of people who are celebrity adjacent. Pitt played a very complicated character with such smooth finesse and measured calm. He has had a long career filled with memorable roles but this is right there at the top. Not to be too overzealous but I’m calling it right now; this is the best performance by an actor in a supporting role that you’ll see this year. The politics of awards season will certainly weigh heavily on Best Supporting Actor but I stand by my choice.
Margot Robbie was very good as Sharon Tate and served as a yet another branch of the Hollywood tree. The unbridled enthusiasm of a young successful actress in the 60s was infectious. Whether you like his films or not, it’s impossible not to recognize the relationships he has with his actors. In increasingly typical Tarantino fashion, the cast was huge and included many of his long-time cohorts in smaller supporting roles. Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Michael Madsen, and Zoë Bell to name a few. Margaret Qualley had a standout performance as a hippie who piques Cliff’s interest and 10-year-old Julie Butters steals the scenes she shares with Dicaprio. It was both heartwarming and sad to see Luke Perry again since this was the last film he made before his untimely passing. The cast is huge and, if you go through the list one-by-one, you’ll see a lot of familiar faces.
Tarantino’s cinematographer of choice Robert Richardson gave the project the customary visual flair we’ve come to expect, favoring a lot of near-sunset shots where the frames were backlit with a unique yellow brilliance. Either drone or crane photography provided some impressive, sweeping shots in and around the Hollywood Hills area as well as near the Spahn Movie Ranch. Due to the very distinct location, this is going to have a nostalgia factor for Los Angeles residents that may be lost on those who are unfamiliar with the area. Let’s just say they painted a very idyllic portrait of the city.
The person responsible for bringing much of that to life was Production Designer Barbara Ling. She had an immensely difficult assignment. Not only did she have to craft a convincing 60s era Hollywood but she also had to make sure actual footage of old films and television was well-integrated and conceptualize designs for the non-linear flashbacks as well. I’m sure if you were to go over every scene with a fine-tooth comb, you’d be able to nitpick some inconsistencies but, for the most part, the subterfuge was completely immersive. Quentin’s go-to editor, Fred Raskin, had a ton of footage to weave together but at nearly three-hours long, it’s still pretty digestible and doesn’t ever really stagnate. He could have maybe trimmed 5-10 minutes if needed but, in a movie that’s already over two-and-half hours, what’s the point?
Tarantino’s movies always have fantastic music and Music Supervisor Mary Ramos put together another killer tracklist to help manifest the town and the time. Listening to the soundtrack while writing is usually part of my process and this was easily one of the most enjoyable to revisit. Neil Diamond’s “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show” accompanies the trailer and fits perfectly, setting the tone for a fun a heavily stylized adventure. You can also find tracks from Deep Purple, Bob Seger, Simon & Garfunkel, Paul Revere & The Raiders, and many other deep cuts. I can already envision the streaming numbers for a lot of these song spiking in the coming weeks.
There is already internal debate within QT fan circles as to where this film ranks in his own catalog. Even self-proclaimed fans have voiced their displeasure with this film on Twitter. I enjoyed it quite a lot right away but it has continued to grow on me since and I can’t wait to give it a second viewing. Where it falls on my personal favorites list remains to be seen because I’m partial to Django Unchained. Regardless, two things are apparent to me whether or not this is his final film. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is the Best Picture of 2019 and a masterclass in filmmaking. Ultimately, it may be Tarantino’s finest piece once the dust settles and he walks off into the sunset.
Recommendation: Go see it. Go see it on film if possible. This is a no brainer for Tarantino fans but any and all film fans should check this out. I am going to see this at least one more time in theaters and that’s the highest endorsement I can give.