Review: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Knowing very few particulars about The Manson Family murders going into the theatre, I was unaware that as I went to go see Tarantino’s 9th film late last night it also happened to be the 50th anniversary of the Tate murders (almost to the minute, incredibly creepy). This is important because the movie acutely blends a real-life story with a heavy dose of fiction. There were several ideas about the film I had going in from trailers and it pretty much blew right past them. This movie was very unexpected, yet equally rich in Tarantino style. This is also a difficult movie to talk about because even if you have prior knowledge of Charles Manson and Hollywood in the late 60’s, it almost relies on your guessing of where things are leading and what’s going to happen next. So I won’t give anything specific away here, but there is still much to review.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood very cleverly disguises the real life events as background noise to the character arcs of DiCaprio and Pitt. Their fictionalized characters are dropped right into 1960’s Hollywood and everything that went with it: big name directors, tv westerns, and living the L.A. high life. The two A-listers run away with this “inspired” film, accompanied also by an intermittent Margot Robbie (portraying Tate). I really enjoyed this movie. It reminded me a bit of several Tarantino films, but I can’t say which and why at this time (so many secrets…). Many movies this days rely on either big action sequences or a crazy twist in the story to convince an audience that’s its a “good film,” or at least convince them to make an attempt at convincing their friends to go see the movie. Rather than relying on these devices (he still uses them though), Tarantino gives us a film that resonates with and pays homage to an older Hollywood: an oddly straightforward story, sluggish at times, but also multi-faceted with great character depth. The dialogue and some of the more traditional throw-away scenes are so important to the movie because they work to evoke a feeling of what that time was like. Think about movies like The Great Escape, referenced also in this film. The movie is nearly 3 hours long and most of the time we are watching Captain Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen) and the other POWs dig a tunnel right under the Nazi’s noses. There’s not a lot of gripping action happening, until the very end when they make their great escape (spoilers). Yet as a viewer I still follow that story so closely all the way through because I’m invested in the characters that director John Sturges paints.
This is a movie about Hollywood. It has much less Tarantino adrenaline but also feels much more refreshing. It’s about film and the time and care that actors (and their stunt doubles) put into their roles and the struggles that come with it. Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) used to be a big movie star, but at this point in his career he realizes after a brief conversation with a big wig film producer that he’s more of a has-been, finding himself in smaller and less meaningful roles. He has been accompanied for nearly a decade by his stunt double Cliff Booth (Pitt), who now mostly serves as a personal driver to Dalton, occasionally fixing something at his house or coming over for beers. The two have retained their “friendship” despite the downward spiral in Dalton’s castings. Living just next door to Dalton is the famed actress Sharon Tate (Robbie). Her story is almost entirely separate from that of Dalton’s, yet consequently gives this movie so much value because it meshes together the real with the fictional. Her character’s true story is what ultimately allows this film to work. And as the night of August 8, 1969 draws nearer, both Dalton and Booth unknowingly interact with The Manson Family as they are working to remain useful to Hollywood.
Having done some more reading about the Tate murders after seeing the film, it increased my enjoyment of it tenfold. The path that Tarantino has each of the main characters take is rugged and genuine, yet drizzled with some suspense of what else might be in play (or at least it was for me, but maybe that’s because I grew up with movies like Unbreakable). Ultimately, both DiCaprio and Pitt’s characters find redemption and fulfillment of their own stories and it is satisfying in a way that only Tarantino can provide. Despite the big cast, this film is quite possibly his smallest and most obscure. In addition to the great characters, the film sets (and sets of film sets) are really well done along with great costume design. The look of 1960’s Hollywood almost sells the film itself. The music was fun and upbeat and also helped to transport me as a viewer into that time. The famed director also brought back an old friend, Kurt Russell, for this film to not only play a small role but also give him pointers on what Hollywood in the late 60’s looked and felt like from the perspective of an up-and-comer. It’s small details like that which make Tarantino films so unique and showcase his affection for film-making. It’s comical that DiCaprio and Pitt are washed up actors in this movie, since both of their film careers are skyrocketing at the present time. DiCaprio’s last role in The Revenant earned him his long-awaited Best Actor Oscar win and that same year Pitt was in Oscar-winning film The Big Short, in addition to his heavily buzzed upcoming film Ad Astra. Also, just a question…but can Brad Pitt get any better looking? Because damn, he’s like peak Pitt hotness fixing that roof antenna and he’s 55 years old! Anyway, this movie does not rely heavily on a single plot to follow throughout the film, but instead several smaller stories and moments that find their payoffs along the way, some later in the story than others. It’s a film that maybe feels it’s length and will cause you to wonder if the third act was worth the wait. For me, this is a definite yes.
This film is quirky like other Tarantino films can be. It leaves you with a question or two (like why does it need a narrator???) similar to his other films (like what’s in the briefcase?!?). It has some over-the-top violence he’s known for. It’s a love letter to the time period, and it’s incredibly well done. Like some of his other films, it challenges how a story is told and Tarantino is obviously using what he has learned in his almost 30-year film career to divert into new territory and write a new and refreshing story. Take some time to check out this movie in theatres, it should be out for at least a few more weeks of the summer. I haven’t gotten around to as many of the theatrical releases as I thought I would have by now, but I’m still slowly working my way through them. If there’s one you’re interested in hearing about or discussing, leave a comment and I’ll work toward seeing those ones first. Otherwise thanks for reading, cheers!

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