Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

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R |

Director: Quentin Tarantino

by Jason Koenigsberg

Maverick filmmaker Quentin Tarantino is back at his usual shenanigans delivering top-notch performances from A-list actors with his signature style realistic dialogue in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. This is the film QT has called his most personal film. It is a slight departure from his other movies, but also is very much the type of movie that only he could make especially with his revisionist take on history and the power of cinema, something he touched on with his outstanding Inglorious Basterds (2009). Once Upon a Time in Hollywood probably has the most in common with that film out of all his other features but it also is distinctive for having less profanity than most of his other screenplays, less overt themes of feminism and racism, and is his most simultaneously optimistic and tragic film. 

The opening shot is a black and white ‘Wanted’ sign being ripped off a wall and then we see that it was Leonardo DiCaprio who took it. He is an actor who is starring in a Western TV show about a bounty hunter. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is loaded with a lot of Western and World War II imagery, both of which were abundant throughout film and television during the 1960s. This movie is Tarantino’s love letter to the motion pictures he grew up with. He romanticizes the old Hollywood and westerns he watched before Hollywood, and the rest of American pop culture lost its innocence after the Manson family murders shocked the country in the summer of 1969. The release of this film coincides with the 50th anniversary of the murder of Sharon Tate and the events that were widely publicized afterward in Vincent Bugliosi’s true crime novel ‘Helter Skelter’. 

Quentin Tarantino is a master of the use of music in his films. Thankfully he did not use The Beatles song ‘Helter Skelter’ but went with a more subtle music selection of hits from 1968 and 1969, some that are still popular today, and others that may have been forgotten and will be discovered for the first time by audience members that were not alive during the 60s. He is also a great visual artist and directs Once Upon a Time in Hollywood with the same exuberance and confidence he has displayed in all of his films. This movie has a variety of shots. Some great long takes, well-timed close-ups and gorgeous crane shots that were expertly crafted with Robert Richardson, one of the all-time best cinematographers. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood looks at voyeurism in the Hollywood Hills and combines that with historical accuracy and historical fiction to concoct the next chapter in his almost finished filmography. This is Tarantino’s ninth film he has directed and he has long stated that he will only direct ten films.

As mentioned above thematically Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has more in common with Inglorious Basterds than any of his other films but it also feels like his third western after his previous two films Django Unchained (2012) and The Hateful Eight (2015). He has a lot of blatant and subtle movie references in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as most of Tarantino’s films do, this one with a lot of emphasis on the Western genre. This film is loaded with Hollywood insider references and it is appropriate considering the subject matter of movie history is at the center of the plot. Watching this movie again the cinephile viewers will surely pick up on a lot more the second and third time around. He especially makes it a point to mention Spaghetti Westerns and Leonardo DiCaprio’s character Rick Dalton is a has-been actor that has a chance to reinvent himself starring in Westerns in Italy much like the iconic Clint Eastwood did back in the 1960s. DiCaprio is great as usual and seeing him share the screen alongside Brad Pitt as dual leads is a gift audiences could compare to the moment Al Pacino (who coincidentally also stars in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) shared the screen with Robert De Niro in Heat (1995). DiCaprio and Pitt play an actor and his stunt double respectively, but they are more than that. Pitt serves as his assistant who drives him everywhere and helps him around his house, as well as being his best friend. The other performances are good. Margot Robbie is perfectly cast as Sharon Tate, and some Tarantino regulars pop up such as Michael Madsen, Kurt Russell, and Zoe Bell. 

The cinematography, costumes, and sets all have an authentic 1969 look as if they stepped right out of the hippie era. This is a very authentic movie in practically every way. Even the cars stand out and one does not have to be an auto expert to notice the effort put into selecting the cars which are shown on screen. The ending should not be spoiled and the final shot is a beauty that brings extra meaning to the title. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is one of the most entertaining films of the year but is not without its flaws. A lot of the film at times is style over substance. Tarantino is often guilty of letting his films run on too long and this is no exception. He is a glutton for excess and has been ever since his Oscar-winning breakout hit Pulp Fiction (1994), he seldom makes a movie less than two and a half hours long. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood easily could have been at least fifteen minutes shorter and if trimmed properly nobody would have missed anything vital. This is still a film that is highly recommended and one of the very few must-see movies of 2019. 

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