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Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

July 26, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

The much hyped ninth film from Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a love letter to the pop culture of the 1960s that features all of the director’s best impulses, and a tribute to the year 1969 in particular.

Why 1969 you might ask? Well, in addition to being a landmark year that represented a true cultural turning point in America, the filmmaker also credits 1969 as being the year that formed him, despite the fact that he was only six years old at that point in time so his memory of the year remains a bit fuzzy.

It’s this fuzziness with historical fact that ultimately defines Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which oscillates between offering an authentic portrayal of 1969 and a fairy tale version of it. The film is suspended somewhere between fact and fiction in its portrayal of the Old Hollywood studio system and the actors within it who are facing the end of an era. The year also helped usher in the end of the flower child subculture that rose to prominence during the Summer of Love in 1967, with the Manson Family murders in August of 1969 reframing the hippie movement in much darker terms, events that also factor heavily into Tarantino’s film. Either way, it’s one of the director’s best works.

The film follows three actors, two fictional and one real, over three very specific days. At the forefront is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), the fading, alcoholic former star of the 1950s Western series Bounty Law. He left the series to pursue a movie career, but is now forced to rely on bit parts in B-movies and background roles as the heavy on different network shows in order to keep his face on screen and money in his pocket. Rick’s closest friend is his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who also acts as his driver and confidante, and the friendship between these two men shapes much of the film.

Meanwhile, Rick has a new neighbour in Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a young actress who has just moved in next door to him on Cielo Drive with her husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). As we all know, in real life, Tate was murdered on the night of August 8th, 1969 by several members of the Manson Family, a cult run by Charles Manson (Damon Herriman), whose followers took over the old Spahn Movie Ranch in Los Angeles County as their commune. The Spahn Movie Ranch also provides the setting for one of the film’s best sequences, when Cliff ends up there after picking up a young hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley).

The collective knowledge of what happened in real life adds a sense of foreboding to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that ensures there is a constant, underlying feeling of suspense fuelling the film, much of which unfolds as a laid-back hangout movie. The loose, meandering plot includes Tarantino’s signature extended dialogue scenes, clips from the many films within the film which are shown in different aspect ratios, and at least one pseudo fantasy sequence. It’s all as sharply written and brilliantly acted as we have come to expect from the Pulp Fiction filmmaker.

In playing a fading movie star, DiCaprio proves that is he is one of our most enduring modern stars, delivering an engaging and fully fleshed out performance that is rich with the weight of somebody confronting the end of their career and trying to cling to fame. Pitt matches him beat for beat, delivering an excellent, nuanced performance that reminds us why he is such a compelling screen presence. Robbie rounds out the film’s central trio, with Tarantino casting her as the young, bright-eyed ingenue whose innocence counteracts the jaded cynicism of her older co-stars. She rises to the challenge, and her presence is felt in the film, even when she isn’t onscreen.

The supporting cast includes a multitude of recognizable faces, including Kurt Russell as the producer of a movie that Rick has been cast in as the bad guy, who also serves as the film’s narrator during some of the most memorable sequences. Also watch out for young up-and-comer Julia Butters, who has a small but mighty supporting role as a precocious and unexpectedly wise child actress whom Rick interacts with on a movie set. She does an incredible job of not only handling Tarantino’s wordy dialogue, but also going toe to toe with DiCaprio and more than holding her own alongside him.

The cinematography by Tarantino’s frequent collaborator Robert Richardson is spectacular, as he finds ways to make the director’s extended dialogue scenes between characters unfold in ways that feel wholly cinematic. Fred Raskin, who previously cut Django Unchained for Tarantino, does a good job of editing the film. While some will find the 162 minute running time to be self-indulgent, I personally think that it justifies this length. The film simply flies by and doesn’t feel like close to three hours. The soundtrack offers a rich tapestry of pop songs from the era, often playing in the background or leaking out from car radios.

The film builds towards a sequence of deranged violence, which won’t be a shock to anyone who is familiar with Tarantino’s work. It’s the ending of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that will prove most divisive, and yet this is also where Tarantino takes his biggest swings. Some will be put off by the film’s revisionist history, but movies aren’t supposed to necessarily be like real life, and Tarantino obviously knows this. Sometimes movies are supposed to be cathartic and help us process reality, and I think that’s what he is ultimately doing here. Similar to how Inglourious Basterds became a Jewish revenge fantasy that envisioned a radically different outcome to World War II, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is in some ways about reclaiming the mythos of 1969.

The film works as a wild ‘60s hangout movie that is both incredibly entertaining and twinged with a bittersweet, nostalgic sense of sadness. There are long stretches that are as captivating and wonderful as any film this year, offering a perfect marriage of images, music, dialogue and acting that ranks among Tarantino’s best. This is the director’s tribute to the westerns and war movies that he grew up watching, and have influenced all of his work, but it’s also a love letter to cinema itself. This sprawling, ambitious, weirdly moving, and often magnificent film ultimately offers the chance to watch a cinephile director craft a movie about making movies, an art form that he clearly loves very much.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is now playing in theatres across Canada.

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