REVIEW: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Spoiler Free)

Once upon a time in Hollywood, foot fetishes were a BIG deal.

It’s 1969 in the star-studded city of Hollywood where the has-been TV actor, Rick Dalton, and his stunt double, Cliff Booth, navigate their way through an ever-changing landscape in the notorious year of love, death and the American Dream.

The newest feature from cinematic legend, Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood takes the filmmaker on a more subdued approach to his well-renowned style. Allowing Tarantino an arena to completely praise the Hollywood of yesteryear, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood did not exactly operate in the same fashion as the director’s previous work. I would not go so far to say Tarantino’s ninth film was a complete departure from his previous eight, but it did leave me feeling a different way as opposed to his last few.

For Tarantino’s entire career, it has been clear the filmmaker creates his works through strict praise, influence and respect towards classic cinema. If you look at Kill Bill, there are obvious influences pulled straight from martial artist and samurai films derived from Asian cinema. In Death Proof, Tarantino simply revamped the grindhouse B-movie formula made popular in the 1980s. With Inglourious Basterds, the feel of certain European Arthouse movements wash over the film at every turn whilst Tarantino’s recent two releases, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, were clear revivals of Western cinema. Focusing in now on Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, it would seem Tarantino has made the ultimate dedication to cinema by having said film be influenced by… well… literally all of the cinema movements and genres he has either previously covered or were popular in the late 60s.

Its true, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood functions as a love letter to Hollywood before anything else. The film, in much respects, was style over substance that could certainly be enjoyed but didn’t have a lot to really stand for. I have heard people relate this film primarily to Pulp Fiction in general style and feel, and I can understand why, but if I were to judge Once Upon a Time in Hollywood alongside any Tarantino joint it would more predominately be either Django Unchained or The Hateful Eight.

Tarantino has said before that he wanted to make a Western trilogy and, in a way, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood caps off said trilogy. All three of Tarantino’s most recent films derived their flow heavily from the slow burn 60s Western. The passing of Tarantino’s long time editor collaborator, Sally Menke, after Inglourious Basterds, has left Tarantino’s films feeling more bloated and slow, missing Menke’s signature snappiness. Yet, for films like Django Unchained, which follows a hard-pressing revenge plot, and The Hateful Eight, that chronicles an ever-unravelling whodunnit mystery, at the very least the slow pacing could be tolerated. With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood though, my problem came with the fact the film never felt like it was really about anything, furtherly not warranting it’s bloated, slow burn of a pace.

To be honest, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as I wished I was. I do enjoy “hang out” movies to which this film kind of was, but only to an extent. Although entertaining, charismatic and, of course, stylistic, I could not help feeling slightly empty from my viewing of the film. Now granted, this is a Tarantino film, so no doubt will I be re-watching this film in the near future and garnering a new perspective of it, but currently the way I see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is as just a self-indulgent fantasy from the mind of Tarantino.

And I guess, if you were looking for any certain meaning behind this film, that is where you would start: by defining it as a “fantasy”. The best read I could get from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was by dissecting it as a proper fairytale as the fantastical title would suggest.

(Andrew Cooper 2019)

The way I see it, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an earnest attempt from Tarantino at a self-portrait. I believe setting the film in 1969 was no accident. Many believe the Golden Age of Hollywood died the same night Sharon Tate did and ever since said tragedy the filmmaking city has never been quite the same. Therefore, with said threat looming over the entirety of the film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood sees the slow spiralling down of Hollywood alongside a visualised depiction of said fall from grace through the failing actor, Rick Dalton. Similarly, I think Tarantino sees himself as one of the last filmmakers working today currently attempting to keep classic Hollywood alive.

As I said, Tarantino is a cinema lover before a cinema creator. All his films are heavily inspired by classic Hollywood cinema, specifically from the late 60s period that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is set in. Although, Tarantino has made it clear for years now that his intentions as a filmmaker is to only make a total of 10 films. So on his lucky number nine, I can imagine Tarantino wanted to sit back and meditate on his impact in cinema before his supposed final feature. And what has Tarantino’s impact on cinema been for the last few decades? Well, through his various inspirations and odes to classic cinema, I believe Tarantino’s greatest impact has been his ability to keep elements of Hollywood’s Golden Age alive and well to this day.

Yet, like Dalton and Hollywood’s Golden Era in the title film, Tarantino is reaching the end of his line. Like Tate, who’s death symbolised the expiry date to Hollywood’s greatest period, Tarantino too has an expiry date to his own great period: the big number 10, and its just around the corner. And maybe Tarantino believes that once he’s gone, so is classic Hollywood for good. Without Tarantino keeping it alive, who will? And so, a classic artform etches closer to its own expiry date, alongside Tarantino’s.

But Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a fantasy – not a reality. Its a fairytale of Tarantino’s own design where anything is possible. If anything, this film is wish fulfilment above all else. It’s Tarantino pitching his own means of how Hollywood’s Golden Age should have thrived and been cherished by all. There is no doubting this is a love letter. And a beautiful one at that.

Again Tarantino collaborated with Robert Richardson to create a picture-perfect stunning film. Visually, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood really popped as I could easily sit here and point out every department that did an excellent job in making the film look great but… long story short, everyone did an astounding job on this film and I would be here too long picking out every single amazing individual behind this feature, if so.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood also, of course, contained an incredible cast, but, most importantly, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt really excelled in this film. Funnily enough, this was DiCaprio’s first acting role since he won the Oscar for The Revenant four years ago, so its insane to sit and watch an actor of this calibre return to the silver screen for a role he was obviously passionate about. On the other hand though, I honestly think I enjoyed Pitt a little better in this film than DiCaprio. Despite not being a larger-than-life actor’s actor like DiCaprio, Pitt’s more stern and stoic approach made for a memorable performance of a fascinating character that will surely go down as one of Tarantino’s best creations.

I also guess I’m obliged to at least touch on Margot Robbie’s Tate who was, all in all, good in this film. More-or-less a plot device or personified figment of foreshadowing, Tate had a specific role to play in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that worked for the most half. The character held an unbalanced amount of screen time that didn’t always work in reassuring the importance of her role, but Robbie did a pretty fantastic job at bringing the character to life, at the very least.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was more a film that excelled in sequences rather than in its entire runtime, all up. Specifically, the film featured a juxtaposing scene between DiCaprio’s Dalton taking on a Western acting role with Pitt’s Booth investigating a Western-like real life mystery. These two scenes set against one another worked effortlessly in visually reaffirming to the audience the two character’s relationship with one another – Dalton as the fake actor carrying out a fake Western against Booth the real stuntman undertaking the real Western. Also, separately, both sequences were highly entertaining with Dalton’s story edging excellent comedy and Booth’s with genuine tension and thrill.

Also, if we are talking of sequences, my last point would have to be on the ending of the film… oh man, what an incredible ending. Loved it and that is all I am going to say on it.

All up though, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was just kind of tiring. Not all the editing choices worked, the fleeting narration was unnecessary and the movie meandered in a way that just wasn’t enjoyable throughout. I respect Tarantino and still believe he is a master of his craft, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood just needed more restraint – more focus. If this really was a self-portrait and Tarantino truly was attempting to give substance within the amassing style, then kudos to him. Yet, it needed to be less all over the shop and just a stroll down one aisle. In saying all that though, a pretty good Tarantino film is still miles better than any great product a current Hollywood studio would pump out.

Still though, you want a compelling ode to Golden Age Hollywood? Just watch Hail, Caesar!.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a bloody… CRUSADE!!


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