Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood (2019)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
Synopsis: A faded television actor and his stunt double strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood's Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles.
Genre: Comedy, Drama
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references)
Runtime: 2 hr 41 min
Release Date: July 26, 2019
Perhaps no mainstream director over the last 25 years has been as controversial for his artistic style than Quentin Tarantino, an old-school style director who's fearless when it comes to handling delicate subject matter like racism and slavery or other heinous events from humanity's past like the holocaust. In many ways, he's a more hard-edged version of Christopher Nolan--both directors who shoot almost exclusively on film and have a deep love for the art and sanctity of cinema and the theater experience, who prefer practical effects over computer generated effects, commonly use non-linear storytelling and cross cutting techniques, and who elect to choose fewer projects but work on them for longer periods (Nolan has 10 director credits and Tarantino now has 9). With Tarantino bringing up retirement from the film industry with every outing, one never really knows if and when he'll eventually hang things up. Hopefully it's not in the near future.
With Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood, Tarantino creates another love letter to cinema and Hollywood. Set in the late 1960's when the climate of the film industry shifted dramatically from the Golden Age to the New Hollywood, Once Upon a Time centers around television actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) who believes his time as a respected actor is coming to an end. He's played many memorable roles over the years, but after a wake-up call from Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino), Rick realizes he's on the decline--especially when he's offered a role in a Spaghetti Western in Rome--a genre Rick believes is the bottom feeding ground of the industry. The film revolves around his journey to get back on track, while also focusing on his closest friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a former War veteran who is struggling much like Rick but displays a more positive attitude to his situation. DiCaprio and Pitt have great chemistry together (and remarkably this is the first collaboration between the two) and both give strong performances here, particularly Leo, who should nab an Oscar nomination for his role as a struggling, aging actor that in some subtle ways mirrors his own life.
But Dalton and Booth's struggles in late 1960s Hollywood aren't the sole focus of the film, as Dalton just so happens to live next to actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). Margot Robbie gives an angelic performance as Tate, a beautiful, upright actress and human who is constantly enjoying life--from dancing in her room to going to parties to, what is one of the best scenes in the film, going to one of her own films and discovering the joy her performance gives to people in the audience. It's a remarkably simple, yet touching scene that very effectively channels her joyful, innocent personality that we know was viscously and tragically taken away.
Besides strong performances, Once Upon a Time, like Tarantino's other films, benefits heavily from his technical elements and craft. He's known for his ability to craft nail-biting suspense (cue the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds), and this film is no exception. The strongest example is when Cliff Booth visits Spahn Ranch--the home of the Manson family. In what starts out as a spontaneous, fun visit turns into a suspenseful, isolating environment that benefits heavily from the fact that we know Tarantino has the capability to unleash violence at any second, so audiences are on edge with every word, and he succeeds in constantly keeping us guessing as to what will happen.
Tarantino also loves incorporating long, dialogue filled shots in his films, and he does so again to great effect in Once Upon a Time. The two prime examples are a clash between Cliff and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh)--which works well to facilitate the back and forth banter--and a conversation between Rick and a young method actress named Trudi (Julia Butters). The latter scene in particular is highly engaging, not only for a memorable and strong performance by the nine year old Julia Butters, but for the striking contrast yet similarities between the two individuals--as well as the effect her interaction has on Rick by the end of his time working with her.
The other technical element that deserves attention is the production design (another sure Oscar nomination). As mentioned earlier, Tarantino likes to avoid the use CGI whenever possible, and via practical means he manages to transform modern day Los Angeles into 1969 Los Angeles in remarkable, stunningly realistic fashion. You truly feel like you are transported back to 1969, as the mise-en-scene--from the buildings, posters, signs, cars, props, and costumes are all incorporated to take you back in time. And it's all capped off by another strong, signature soundtrack from Tarantino (using songs he reportedly grew up listening to) that captures the spirit and life of 1960s LA.
Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood has all the hallmarks of a Tarantino film--a well-rounded cast provided with rich dialogue, fun, occasionally satirical-laced humor, a golden soundtrack, and a strong technical craft to back it all up. As a whole, it's also one of his least violent films--keywords being as a whole--as when it does kick in, you'll know it. While it's well paced for the most part for its 2 hr 41 min runtime, certain scenes that don't contribute to the overall narrative, like some of the acting scenes in Rick's films, could've been trimmed down, but Tarantino most likely kept them in for his joy of cinema and the filmmaking process. At any rate, it's one of those films you have a grand time watching--from the breathability of scenes to the chemistry in its leads to the well-crafted humor, camera work, production design, and its thoroughly entertaining final act. Pure and simple, it's a film that makes you want to go to the theater to see movies. And in an age where streaming platforms are threatening the movie theater experience, that is worth celebrating.
Written by Anthony Watkins, August 1, 2019