Film review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

 

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*No major spoilers in the review* Quentin Tarantino films are not for everyone though they do feel like cinematic events. The director proudly wears his influences on his sleeve, you only have to look at the title which is a throwback to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Tarantino’s latest (like the aforementioned Leone titles) is a period film, going for an authentic depiction of 1969. Some characters are real people, others are fictional. Sometimes the storytelling is slow yet I could see myself revisiting as many scenes have stuck with me. It feels rewatchable and you don’t need to remember the era to connect with the story. The director has assembled an incredible cast rivalling Stallone’s The Expendables line-up or the recent Marvel Avengers blockbusters.

Stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is one of QT’s most interesting characters, he’s a contradiction of good and bad, his past is shrouded in mystery, and not dissimilar to a real life tragedy involving actress Natalie Wood. Rebecca Gayheart stars as Booth’s wife in a role that is bizarrely comparable to her own tragic circumstances in which she killed a child in a 2001 road accident. The humor and innuendo in the film is pretty disturbing, however if you’ve seen QT’s filmography you know what to expect, in terms of mixing violence, comedy, and entertainment. Another controversy is making money off Roman Polanski’s misfortune. Polanski’s current wife Emmanuelle Seigner shaded QT for not even asking permission. A third controversy involves martial arts legend Bruce Lee which I won’t go into as it’s spoilery territory.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s storyline as actor Rick Dalton has pacing issues, the parts with him acting in westerns felt indulgent but are occasionally heartfelt or funny. Tarantino has admitted Dalton is bipolar which adds another dimension to the character. If you are interested in the stress and challenges of acting, and the hard work that goes into it, then it takes you to those places. The theme of Dalton feeling like a has-been in the industry is juxtapositioned with Sharon Tate’s rise to fame and optimism for the future. The aged relic aspect also has a meta angle to it,  as Tarantino himself is reassessed in a post-Weinstein age. Perhaps QT watched The House That Jack Built (2018), a late career work by Lars von Trier, which on one level is a response to the Danish director’s own conduct and history.

 

 

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Actress Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie) isn’t given much to do in the film but there is a sense of a character. Her already troubled marriage to Polanski isn’t delved into at all, maybe that’s not relevant to what Tarantino is doing here. Sharon Tate’s murder by the Manson gang is seen as symbolic of the end of the Sixties and overshadowed her film work. In the movie, Tarantino wants to focus on her innocence, love of life, going to parties, and enjoying Hollywood stardom. Tarantino goes for a romanticized woman rather than a truthful representation of Tate’s life. If you are hoping to learn about the real Sharon Tate, then you should probably look elsewhere. Instead Tarantino prefers to explore the joy of all aspiring stars seeing themselves on posters and movie screens. It’s easy to label Robbie’s scenes as simplistic, yet despite the sugar-coating of reality, I find her less cartoonish compared to previous cool-for-the-sake of-being-cool Tarantino characters. We only follow Tate for brief amounts of time so it’s hard to dig deeper, but you could question if she is in love with fame and has a need for admiration,  a character study of the pitfalls of fame. Margot Robbie’s performance is engrossing in spite of how few lines she has in the film.

I go to the cinema not to watch politically correct characters but to be surprised and this movie certainly is daring and unpredictable. QT has made a name for himself where anything can happen to any character, and this is what makes his films special. The director’s latest will probably be nominated for an oscar for the meticulous retro 1960s production design albeit disappointing the impatient camera doesn’t linger on the sets which a director’s cut version might fix. Perhaps QT should have turned the script into a TV-series as 2 hours 41 minutes isn’t enough time to tell all these stories while also being too long for a single sitting. A four hour cut is rumored to be heading to Netflix.

 

 

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The soundtrack features lots of great songs from the era. Probably the most memorable choices are Neil Diamond’s Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show and Bring a Little Lovin’ by Los Bravos which play nostalgically when Cliff drives his car and bumps into Margaret Qualley’s hippie character. Qualley could well be in consideration for supporting actress awards.

While QT still continues his juvenile tendency to bask in over-the-top violence, arguably OUATIH is his most melancholy, nostalgic, and compassionate film to date, a love letter to people grinding out unexceptional work. There are parallels to the decline of Hollywood now and the rise of streaming services, as well as the transition from TV to film, and vice versa.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has its moments but is not perfect and in need of an editor. The most vibrant sequences are when Cliff goes to the Manson ranch and the ending. Cliff Booth is one of the most ambiguous characters QT has penned and Brad Pitt may finally win an acting oscar for this performance.

Rating 7/10

 

 

 

What do you think? As always, comments are welcome

24 thoughts on “Film review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

  1. I really want to see this, and your review touches of many of the ways I feel about Tarantino. He is undoubtedly one of my favourite writer / directors, yet he’s also a silly, geeky man child. I probably appreciate him more for that. His ego and lack of subtlety is part of his “charm”.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. @Rol: Plenty of navel-gazing and film geekery. A bit slow yet a well-made vanity project with a great cast. At the same time, the project also feels Oscar-baity as The Academy tend to love stories about the film industry and QT knows that.

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  2. I’m glad you liked this as I also glad you singled out Margot Robbie’s performance as Sharon Tate as it’s a shame she’s known more as a murder victim as I recently saw clips of her in The Wrecking Crew based on those clips and The Fearless Vampire Killers. She actually had some chops and it’s a shame on what we could’ve missed out on if she was still alive. There’s so many little things about the film that I enjoyed immensely about it as it really touched me on a personal level as well as made me think a lot about my dad who was around during those times. If you met him, he’d either be watching sports or a TV western as he is addicted to those shows.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. @ninvoid99: Commendable of QT to sort of bring Sharon Tate’s talent back in the limelight even though it’s iffy not to ask permission from Polanski who lost a wife and unborn child. I liked the details too such as the poster of Corbucci’s The Mercenary when Tate visits the theatre, even if (due to ignorance) I didn’t catch all of the references.

      I haven’t watched any of Sharon’s movies (Fearless Vampire Killers is in my list). I just looked at Margot Robbie’s take on the character. I wasn’t alive for those TV westerns, glad your dad enjoyed them.

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  3. Glad you liked it. I found it to be a bit lacking in a strong narrative to push along the characters. They all seemed to be standing around talking crap and there’s no real plot here other than shadowing the whole Manson murders thing. I found it to be the most dissapointing of Tarantino’s films so far because of this lack of a strong plot, but the way it was shot as a gushing love letter to the 1960’s was nice. It just lacked any forward motion in my opinion

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    1. @Content Catnip: I agree the plot is a bit lacking. I was immersed but some viewers may find it boring. Possibly QT is running out of new ideas. Someone once said that when you do a Greatest Hits album, you’re basically done as a recording artist. I don’t think he’s done, but his best work could be in the past.

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  4. Great to read you thoughts Chris.
    I saw it today and damn man I loved it so f-ing much. Reading that quote you say there could be a four hour cut, sign me up. I was mesmerised by Leo’s Rick Dalton. So many incredible scenes and his mannerisms with that slight stutter, to me, made one of his best performances. The trailer freak out with his booze addiction, the interaction with the little girl showing is own insecurities in his career were amazing. Love his totally fxcked up face in the ice water chatting with Sam Wanamaker coughing and choking with a mega hangover. That scene when he gets his lines wrong and you get to see the camera pan back round to it first position. The Bruce Lee scene was so funny. Mike Moh mirrored Bruce to a tee. I thought so much was perfect. I could watch it over and over.
    Brad was ace too and loved their friendship and who couldn’t love Brandy? hehe.
    Nice and sad to Luke Perry in his final role. A small part but how good to see Al Pacino in a great role again.
    You all know that ends coming. As for over 2 hrs this film is a 15 certificate lol.
    The set designs, none more so that those twilight drives down the strip with all the big lights big city of the era. I loved the Hollywood history, the play on history. For me it was quite perfect. A real strong 9/10 from me. I really can’t wait to see it again. Totally buzzing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. @Wolfman/Mikey: Happy to hear you enjoyed the film so much. You almost wrote an entire review in the comment section 🙂 Thanks for sharing your opinion.
      As I said above, it seems rewatchable, and I look forward to revisiting as well and admiring the set design etc. The four-hour Netflix cut (if happens) should be interesting, hopefully giving Tate and Manson more lines. Those scenes with Leo and also Bruce Lee are pretty funny.

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  5. Went to see it last week and agree with much of your review above. For some reason, despite finding it a bit too slow at the start and overall too long, by the end I had invested in the characters and really enjoyed how the different storylines came together. The Brad/Leonardo chemistry worked well I thought. I deliberately didn’t read up too much about the plot ahead of the viewing but in retrospect it would have been beneficial to know a bit more of the detail behind the Manson Family/Sharon Tate news story as it would have made more sense. A movie I think I need to watch again to truly appreciate but that goes for all of QT’s films – He’s a lot smarter than me so I can get easily confused with the different layers behind his story-telling.

    Funnily enough, the situation in Hollywood in the late ’60s I feel is akin to what is happening now – I went to see the film in a large Multiplex but they’re now practically giving away the tickets and only a few rows were full. Television and specifically Netflix and the like, are killing the cinemas. All our best actors are moving to the small screen and the boxset.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. @Alyson: I agree about the chemistry, and yes a bit slow, especially when compared to the official trailer which sells the film as something different. True, cinemas are fighting for their lives, surviving thanks to the big tentpole movies it seems.

      Re. the length, if you are going to make a story with all these characters I think Tarantino should have opted for a mini-series, but I suppose now we get the best of both worlds, as a longer version is in the cards. Which was also the case with Tarantino’s last film Hateful Eight, which exists in a theatrical and Netflix cut.

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