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Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood


You’re going to hear a lot of the overused term “love letter” thrown around in terms of Quentin Tarantino’s nearly three-hours long  drama/comedy Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and that shouldn’t and won’t surprise you. After all, even when Quentin Tarantino was making movies set in Germany (Inglorious Basterds), the Deep South (Django Unchained) and Old-West Wyoming (The Hateful Eight), he was really only repeatedly paying homage to past decades of American filmmaking. So turning the director loose in the playground of late sixties Los Angeles delivers what you might expect — a comprehensive, almost virtual-reality experience of what life, culture and “the scene” looked like on Sunset Strip at the corner of action-movie machismo and the free love movement.

One thing Tarantino has always excelled in, perhaps above all, is creating the parameters of a world and setting a voyeuristic spot for the viewer within it. In Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs, for instance, he created a seedy world of low-budget crime and allowed us to see the mundane and everyman conversations even the most violent thugs chat up to pass the time. His Kill Bill films delivered a half-real life/half-anime world where it seemed completely plausible that an all-female team named after venomous snakes could move freely within its margins. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (a film destined to be abbreviated for the rest of time as OUATIH, because that’s just way too much to have to type out over and over again) is a complete visual feast, with no stone unturned; every kitchen cabinet item, every park bench movie ad, every store front seems to have been pored over and hand-picked by the director himself. It’s not just a world of which, after three hours, you feel a part — it’s a world in which you wish you could live.

OUATIH’s (see?) tandem protagonists this time around are has-been television actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his ex-stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Cliff’s main job is to chauffeur Rick around Hollywood, as his wellspring of work has dried up with Rick’s, and the two seem to spend an awful lot of time just bro-ing out. As Rick courts new work and desperately tries to cling to the last tendrils of television stardom, Cliff lives a simpler life as Rick’s valet, retreating to the outskirts of Van Nuys by night where he lives with his dog in a run-down Airstream camper. The duo’s day-to-day exists as the film’s main thread, with Pitt oozing McQueen-style bravado (though Steve McQueen himself is a character in the film) and a drunken DiCaprio killing it with comic pathos as Rick overzealously tries to make the rounds and stage his comeback.

Tangentially related to the duo’s exploits is the parallel storyline of Sharon Tate, played with bubbly sweetness by Margot Robbie. Tate and her husband, director Roman Polanski, have just moved in next door to Rick, which thrills the aging actor in hopes he’ll end up in one of the lauded Polanski’s next films.

Casting a queasy cloud over all of this is the inclusion of the fringey, cultish Manson family, which lives on an abandoned movie set outside of town. It’s difficult, knowing history, not to let this add a certain uneasiness to the proceedings — especially considering you know Tarantino features them in order to address the events leading up to Tate and Company’s brutal murders on the night of August 9, 1969.

And this is all I’m going to tell you about this film narratively, because you don’t need to know anything else. Trust me. Just forget it and let’s move on.

You will be happy to learn, however, that all of Tarantino’s most oft-visited fetishes are on display here. Mid-sixties television references abound, as do brutal violence and gratuitous, lengthy scenes of people driving in classic cars (at least twenty minutes of the film’s runtime is dedicated to POV of people driving). Soundtrack-wise it’s probably the director’s most populated yet, and here’s hoping an extended cut of it will include the classic radio banter between songs during all this aforementioned driving. Noticeably absent is a memorable long-form monologue scene, a la Walken’s pocket watch scene in Pulp or the guns-under-the-table tavern scene from Basterds, but the indulgences Tarantino in the past has funneled into hearing his own words have somehow, almost sweetly, been replaced in OUATIH by visual indulgences of old-school Taco Bells and clips from classic television. Rest assured, though, that there are still plenty of shots of bare feet. Dirty feet hanging over the backs of chairs, feet mashed up against car window glass — it’s all here in true QT fashion.

At the end of the day, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear some argue that this is Tarantino’s best film — I think there’s certainly a case that a particularly rabid lover of it could make (personally, I don’t think anything can top the brilliance of Pulp Fiction). But while I don’t think it’s his best, it’s probably very close to the top of the director’s list. I do think it feels like his most loved film, in that it has a certain quality of feeling like a favorite child, a true pleasure for Tarantino to make. If you’re counting at home, this victory means Tarantino is nine for nine, which is no mean feat, and this gentler, funnier Tarantino may signify a more chilled-out and less violently frenetic latter half of his career. It may not be completely perfect but it’s pretty close and a lot of fun; at the very least, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is one hell of a Hollywood Hills hang.

Article written by C.M. Tomlin

All I want is a HI-C and a turkey sandwich. @CM_Tomlin

18 responses to “Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

  1. runningunnin.454

    Helter Skelter madness; I doubt Steve McQueen is in the film; but, did you know he was invited to the Tate-Sebring party that fateful night; but, made other plans at the last minute, and carried a handgun to Jay Sebring’s funeral.
    The father of TV’s Lennon Sisters was murdered that same week, as he left the golf course where he worked as a pro; but, it was overshadowed by the Manson murders.
    Sounds like a throwback to the golden age of Hollywood film noir, and I can’t wait.

    1. runningunnin.454

      Incidentally, one of Tarantino’s protagonists, John Travolta, was recently in another film noir flashback, “The Poison Rose”. It also starred his real life daughter.
      Critics panned it; but, I enjoyed the movie…the film noir is back.

    2. 4everUKblue

      There many other murders in Laurel Canyon during that time, or should I say mysterious deaths of people in the entertainment industry.

    3. 4everUKblue

      Funny thing about Laurel Canyon, at that time NY was the main center of the music industry, yet all the 60’s artists flocked to Laurel Canyon for some some reason. Could be that every single one of them had fathers with who were part of the military industrial complex and oddly enough there was a massive film studio owned by the military smack dab in the middle of Laurel Canyon. Many of the big Hollyweird stars of the time worked there from time to time.

    4. runningunnin.454

      You’re right, 4ever. Sam Cooke’s death was ruled justified, but was probably planned. Bobby Fuller of “I Fought the Law” fame was also probably murdered. Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys was lucky to extricate himself from the clutches of the Manson family.
      BTW, if you’re a fan of the dark film noir genre, I really recommend “The Poison Rose”. While set in the ’70’s, the opening scene shows one of those retro theaters showing ’41’s “The Maltese Falcon” starring Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor as the femme fatale. Nice touch.

    5. 4everUKblue

      Thanks RG, I’ll check it out. By the way “Weird Scenes Inside The Canyon” is a good book about all that went on in Laurel Canyon back in the 60’s.

  2. 4everUKblue

    Laurel Canyon was also where the Wonderland murders happened which John Holmes was connected to.

    1. runningunnin.454

      Yep, and go back a little further to ’59, TV’s “Superman”, George Reeves’ death was probably not by his own hand. Hollyweird is certainly apropos.

    2. 4everUKblue

      Then there was Bob Crane of Hogan’s Heroes.

  3. 4everUKblue

    Apparently p o r n s t a r is a word not allow but the modbot.

  4. 4everUKblue

    During the ten-year period during which Lenny Bruce, Ramon Novarro, Sal Mineo, Diane Linkletter, Carol Wayne Inger Stevens, all turned up dead, a whole lot of other people connected to Laurel Canyon did as well, often under very questionable circumstances. (Dave McGowan from his book)

    1. 4everUKblue
  5. Ned T.

    No thanks. Tarrentino’s movies are full of self-indulgent violence, and his politics are worse.

    I will watch Andy Griffith re-runs instead.

    1. runningunnin.454

      The violence might be a valid objection; but, I would advise against a political litmus test for actors, actresses, and musicians. You may be limited to Kelsey Grammer, Jon Voight, and Ted Nugent.
      Besides, are you familiar with Andy’s politics? Evidently not.

  6. Ned T.

    I only said Tarrantino, not all of Hollywood. Try again. But, I am glad you mentioned the three conservatives in Hollywoood. Actually, Nugent hates the place, so he doesn’t count.

    And, Andy Griffith did not parade around like a pompous know-it-all telling people this his values should be theirs.

    You can have anything Holywood. I hope it is the first city ruled by Sharia Law and all of the liberals are beheaded by their rulers.

    1. 4everUKblue

      Just the fact that you think conservatives are better than liberals or vice versa makes you part of the problem and not the solution. That is all about keeping the people divided and fighting among ourselves while the elite slowly but surely take away more and more of our rights. As I’ve said before, the United States is a corporation and not a government and it’s run but the elite and not the POTUS and “Con”gress. Trump gets his orders handed down just like all the other presidents before him and if they don’t follow the agenda they will end up like JFK. Wakey wakey!

    2. runningunnin.454

      Whew, Ned, all right then; but, are you sure the violent scenes in Tarantino’s films really bother you all that much?

    3. Ned T.

      Good lord, 4everUK, get your tin foil hat and head to Area 51 now.

      Yes, the depraved violence in those films is disgusting. And—to me—boring because the story IS the violence. Waste of my time—give me a Wes Anderson movie any day over Tarrantino nonsense.