Quentin Tarantino claims that he only intends to make 10 full-length feature films and then retire. This movie marks 9. Had he opted to make Hollywood his send-off, it would’ve been nearly perfect, as this is a legitimately great flick! Say what you will about the man, Tarantino knows his shit and he demonstrates that yet again with this engrossing love-letter to Hollywood, circa 1969.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, in one way or another, every title in his filmography, with Pulp Fiction (1994), Jackie Brown (1997), Kill Bill Vol. 1+2 (2003, 2004), and Django Unchained (2012) standing out for me. He also wrote my Second Favorite Movie EVER…True Romance (1993)…so you could say I’m a fan. Having said that, I will admit to being less than tickled when I heard that he was going to lend his particular ‘voice’ to the Manson Murders. Having read the morbidly fascinating true-crime book Helter Skelter by star prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, I’m fully aware of how horrifying the murderous cult of Charles Manson was and how the high profile murders of Sharon Tate and her friends, and the LaBiancas, had a profound effect regarding the death of the flower child ’60’s, ushering Los Angeles, and by default, North America, into a cynical and disillusioned 1970’s. Tarantino fares best when spinning his own original ‘Tarantino’ yarns, so him tackling a true-crime story, one with such magnitude and notoriety behind it, wasn’t really working for me. Now if it had been David Fincher, as a follow up to his underrated Zodiac (2007), count me in…Tarantino, not so much. So, on one hand, I was excited to see another QT flick on The Big Screen, but on the other, I was also somewhat skeptical, due to the inclusion of Sharon Tate and the spectre of her impending slaughter acting as a ‘ticking clock’ through the plot. I’d seen the trailers, and was won over a bit more by the impressive visual style and production design I saw…but I still had my doubts.
Boy, was I wrong!
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a genuinely great movie…and not just as a Tarantino title either! I had a great time being sucked into QT’s highly detailed world of Hollywood, 1969 and will definitely be adding this oddly feel-good flick to my collection. Yes, you read that correctly…feel-good. I walked out of a QT movie feeling Happy, not just due to snappy dialogue and gruesome, stylized violence (as is usually the case), but because I was given an intriguing story and more importantly, compelling, interesting characters, that I could root for.
As I mentioned, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes place in the heady days of 1969, in the heart of Hollywood, where we meet TV actor ‘Rick Dalton’ (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his pal / stunt double ‘Cliff Booth’ (Brad Pitt) as they navigate the changing societal fabric of Los Angeles and the accompanying effect on the film industry. As ‘Rick’ struggles with his stalled career and ‘Cliff’ puts up a brave front in the face of diminishing relevance, we also fall in line with the life of actress ‘Sharon Tate’ (Margot Robbie) as she also acclimatizes to her growing star in Tinseltown, while also just happening to be ‘Rick’s next door neighbor, all leading up to that tragic night in August of 1969.
Again, I was thoroughly impressed with this flick! For a former Video Store clerk (something I can definitely relate to), Tarantino has earned his spurs as one of the most historically influential writer / directors to have ever emerged from the Hollywood Movie Making Machine. As I mentioned in my intro, had QT decided to make this his final movie, it would’ve been SO fitting on several levels.
Where to begin…?!
This flick feels like a MOVIE, if that makes any sense. Tarantino favors going old-school and has used 35mm film stock to shoot all of his work…and Hollywood is no different and it looks gorgeous. It helped pull me into the story he was trying to tell and added that rough, filmic ‘sheen’ that all my favorite films of days gone by have. I also loved that QT changed up his style just a little and instead of chopping his narrative timeline to shit for his own amusement, he instead let Hollywood just play out in an agreeably straight line. There are a couple flashbacks and time-jumps, but no puzzle-like chapter breaks that play out-of-sequence. Don’t get me wrong, his past style is most definitely HIS style, and I think it’s great, but a new approach is cool too, and it was certainly welcome here. An obvious plus is also that who’s-who of Hollywood players that show up, some in just the tiniest of cameos (lookin at You, Michael Madsen). On top of DiCaprio, Pitt and Robbie, we also get Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Timothy Olyphant, Emile Hirsch, Dakota Fanning, Luke Perry (his last role) and Bruce Dern, among many others. As expected, under Tarantino’s slick direction, their characters come to life and drew me in right away. Another shift QT took with Hollywood was getting to the fucking point with his dialogue. There have been times (lookin at You, Death Proof!) where he’s laid out reams of hip-sounding but plot-useless dialogue, for the sake of jerking himself off to the prowess of his own words, and it can be noticeably self-indulgent and draggy, where the pace is concerned. Not here. There are a few conversations that exist for the sake of humor alone, but they don’t carry on forever and I felt that even when the substance of the words wasn’t bolstering the plot, the manner the scenes played out added to the characters. So good choice there too, QT! Once again going back to earlier scribbles, I had mentioned that I found Hollywood to have left off on an almost heartwarming, feel-good note, despite some characteristically gross (but cartoonishly hilarious) violence that erupts in the 3rd Act, and I say that because my fears of QT exploiting the true crime in question, for his own screenwriting eccentricities, were proven totally unfounded. I don’t want to spoil it but I’ll just say that those of you who remember how he handled his own revisionist version of the fate of Hitler in Inglourious Basterds (2009), may be on the right track for how the Manson Murders are tackled. There’s some serious Tarantino wish-fulfillment at work in this one…and I was A-OK with it. Not going to lie…I actually laughed out loud. Truthfully, I laughed out loud several times, as I found it to be a surprisingly fun and amusing movie. There are some dark elements, of course, but there’s also an unexpected level of whimsy…or so I found.
Naturally, the soundtrack kicks ass. Don’t really need to go much further than that. Hit Play on that one as I was writing this review and bobbed my head as I worked the keyboard. Like all his music choices, there’s a great period-specific selection of famous and not-so-famous tunes, and it all added to the vibe of ’69, especially in conjunction with the constant background of radio, TV, commercials, and movies from the time.
As for Negatives…at this moment, not a goddamn thing comes to mind. Maybe a hint of lag in Act 2, but that’s about it.
In a nutshell, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was legitimately better than I was expecting and can easily be counted as one of QT’s most accomplished films. The cast is excellent, the production design is awe-inspiring, the tunes are great and the story goes in unexpected, and often funny and oddly heartwarming, directions. Don’t worry, gore-hounds, there are a couple good ones in here to write home about too. Even though it runs in at 2 hours and 41 minutes, I never noticed the time…like, at all. I could’ve effortlessly spent another 30 minutes in this world. What I was watching was fascinating and easy to get caught up in and was definitely worth the trip to the tiny theatre a few towns away that I saw it in. I will be adding Hollywood to my collection in Blu ray form when available, with no hesitation. If you’re a fan of Quentin Tarantino’s movies, obviously this one will work for you but even if you have an issue with his style or content, he does change it up here. I would actually go so far as to deem this QT’s most accessible, least esoteric film to date, therefore casual movie going audiences who just like DiCaprio and Pitt stand to get something out of this one too. Easy recommendation!
*There’s a great mid-credit scene that’s a hilarious tie-in to Tarantino’s larger cinematic universe. I walked out chuckling. Stick around for it.
**This is the first time I’ve ever had a film’s end credits tell me that an actor / character had been cut from the final product…in this case, Tarantino regular Tim Roth, who is credited as some butler, but who’s credit also carried ‘cut’ in brackets next to it. Again, a first.