Browse all reviews by letter     A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z 0 - 9

USA 2019
Directed by
Quentin Tarantino
161 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4.5 stars

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Synopsis: It’s 1969 Los Angeles and Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) finds that his career as a go-to TV cowboy is over. At the same time his next door neighbour, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), is on the way to becoming a movie star.  Meanwhile, not far away, a rag-tag group of hippies at Spahn’s Movie Ranch are plotting bloody mayhem.

With only the Coen brothers to keep him company in the upper reaches of modern day genre-filmmaking writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s latest film amply confirms his standing as the crown prince of pop cultural proficiency and yesteryear style. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a mix of fanboy obsessiveness, freewheeling invention and self-aware wit that is always fun, at times brilliantly so.

Roughly speaking the film follows the intersecting stories of the three main characters although the main focus is on the pairing of DiCaprio and Pitt who plays Dalton’s easy-going factotum, Cliff Booth.  Much like the Jackson -Travolta pairing in Pulp Fiction (1994) their bantering relationship is the axis along which the narrative turns.  Margot Robbie pretty much gets a free ride as a flower child wonderstruck by her unanticipated stardom, variously admiring herself on screen or dancing around in floral patterned miniskirts.

From the get-go with excerpts from a faux late ‘50s black-and-white Dalton-starring TV Western series called 'Bounty Law', Once Upon a Time in Hollywood plies us with a cornucopia of cheesy period references from Bonanza to Spaghetti Westerns and kung-fu movies as Rick and Cliff traverse the head-spinning 1960s.  Thanks to CGI Rick takes Steve McQueen’s place in The Great Escape (1963) whilst Tate goes to the cinema to see herself in Dean Martin’s long-forgotten Matt Helm comedy The Wrecking Crew.

After a while, and given that the film runs 161 minutes this is quite a while, it starts to feel  like the story is really nothing more than a framework for Tarantino to exhibit his pop cultural smarts. But the Manson family angle starts to emerge as Cliff goes to the Spahn ranch, home to the group (Bruce Dern gets a cameo as George Spahn) and particularly given that we know the historical facts we begin to feel a certain apprehension mounting, even more so because we are aware of Tarantino’s fondness for splatter.  But surprisingly he makes a major about face, radically re-imagining the events as per the film's title and what violence ensues is actually more in the vein of comic relief than anything else (well, maybe Roman Polanski wouldn’t feel that way), in part an axe-grinding castigation of hippies as Inglourious Basterds (2009) was Tarantino’s swipe at the Nazis.

The fastidious retro stylings (the film is beautiful photographed by Robert Richardson) and kaleidoscope of pop cultural references that is nicely embellished by a raft of Top 40 hits of the time will be impressive enough for the average viewer but Tarantino fans will enjoy the self-referentiality of the casting with DiCaprio back from Django Unchained (2012) and giving an outstanding performance as the troubled actor and Pitt from Basterds displaying an easy charm reminiscent of his break-out appearance in Thelma and Louise (1994). Tarantino veterans Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern and Michael Madsen appear in small roles (Tim Roth gets a credit even though his work was left on the cutting room floor) and there is a typically provocative aside on violence as entertainment and its effect on the American psyche. But then there are all sorts of ideas discernible in the film, not necessarily made much of but their presence provides it with a texture that makes the typical action comedy which this film might be classified as, seem terminally retarded.  For all the mundanity of the story there is a certain epic quality that amply justifies the Sergio Leone-referencing title. There is only one area which left me slightly wanting and that is Cliff's wife-killing history. There are verbal references to it and one brief scene aboard a boat that points to it but despite (or perhaps, because of that) the matter is left unaddressed.

Fans will argue over whether Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s best movie to date but it is certainly is his most sophisticated.

FYI: Co-incidentally (or perhaps for legal reasons as Manson died in 2017) two other Manson-related films were released in 2018, the not-so-good The Haunting of Sharon Tate and the very good Charlie Says.




Want something different?

random vintage best worst