Movie Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

“I’ve got a flamethrower in my toolshed.” – Rick Dalton

Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, opened three nights ago at my local multiplex. As regular readers of this blog can attest, I’ve been an unabashed fan of Tarantino’s work ever since Pulp Fiction was released twenty-five years ago, and have proclaimed more than once that his first movie, Reservoir Dogs, was the best first movie since John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon. I also thought that Jackie Brown, the two Kill Bill movies, and Death Proof were unqualified successes. Beginning with Inglourious Basterds, however, I began to have reservations about Tarantino, reservations which increased with Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. This is not to say that those two films don’t have a lot going for them, they do, but it seemed to me that in both of them, Tarantino fell victim to the siren song of commercialism, and in his desire to put butts in the seats, so to speak, relaxed his artistic standards. In my review of Django, I wrote, “I would like to see Tarantino return to the more balanced intimacy of his earlier work, in which spectacle had no part, and violence, while integral to the lives of his characters, was not the film’s reason for being.”

I’m happy to report that in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino has taken a significant step in that direction. This is primarily a story about Hollywood in the late ’60’s, and about two men: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former TV star whose acting career appears to be in a death spiral, and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Dalton’s longtime friend and stunt double. It also deals with the Charles Manson clan, and with actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who lives with her husband, film director Roman Polanski, in the house next to Dalton’s in Beverly Hills.

Here, just to give you a taste of the movie, is the trailer for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

It has to be said that in this movie, Tarantino once again indulges a writer’s prerogative – which we saw him exercise for the first time in Inglourious Basterds – to alter history to suit his own purposes. Tarantino is more concerned with creating entertaining and effective cinema than with historical accuracy, and I, for one, am happy to accept his right to do that. We don’t go to the movies – not a Tarantino movie, at any rate – for a history lesson.

Having said that, I have to call your attention to the extraordinary detail that Tarantino lavishes on the props and sets in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. We’ve come to expect this in a Tarantino movie, but in Once Upon a Time, he outdoes himself. He succeeds completely in re-creating the Hollywood of the late ’60’s, right down to the billboards, movie marquees, and bus stop posters.

In my review of Django Unchained, I referred to Tarantino as, “the rightful heir to Hitchcock’s title, The Master of Suspense”, and this movie provides additional evidence, if any were needed, for the legitimacy of that claim. The vast majority of the audience knows who Charles Manson was and what he and his followers did in the summer of ’69. This awareness creates a suspense in the viewer that is absolutely palpable, and which increases with each successive scene. This may well be the funniest film Tarantino has ever made, but the comic moments are so fraught with tension that you may not know whether to laugh or hold your breath. In that context, I invite you to watch carefully for the Mexican standoff without which no Tarantino film would be complete.

I can’t conclude this review without telling you of my one reservation about this Tarantino movie. I can watch a Tarantino film, with all of its violence and crude language, with a certain amount of detachment. After all, I’m used to crude language; that’s the way more and more people talk, especially in the movies. I’m also used to movie violence, and I like seeing the bad guy get the stuffing knocked out of him as much as the next person. But when a woman, especially a defenseless woman, gets the stuffing knocked out of her by a man in an unspeakably brutal way, that bothers me. I felt that way watching The Hateful Eight, and I feel that way about this movie too. I can’t help but wonder if the director is pandering to that segment of the male population that wants to see a woman brutalized.

This film features exceptional performances by both Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. I won’t be surprised if both of them receive Oscar nominations for Best Actor. All things considered, and despite its running time of two hours and forty-one minutes, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is definitely worth seeing, and if you’re like me, once may not be enough.

Derrick Robinson

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