Movie Review: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Quentin Tarantino (THE HATEFUL EIGHT) has been in the news lately announcing that his next film may just be his last. If that’s the case, then the acclaimed writer-director’s penultimate film, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD, which is opening around the world starting today, is his most mature and perhaps least Tarantino-esque work.

ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD takes audiences back to 1969 Los Angeles, which was a time of change not just for the movie industry but for America as a whole. Richard Nixon had just come into office, the Vietnam War was in full swing, Sirhan Sirhan admitted in court that he killed Bobby Kennedy, NASA was gearing up to put a man on the moon, and hippies were everywhere to be seen. While all these events are swirling around them, TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his long-time stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, ALLIED; THE BIG SHORT) are trying to come to terms with the reality that their careers in Hollywood are pretty much over as they reach middle age. Dalton, a one-time leading man, has seen his body of work of late boil down to a series of guest starring TV roles as the bad guy of the week. His new agent, Marvin Schwarzs (“no ‘t'”), played by Al Pacino, in one of the film’s many brilliant cameo roles, tells him to consider going to Italy to star in spaghetti Westerns to revive his career but, for now, Dalton won’t have it. Booth seems less concerned about his fate, having settled well into a routine of being Dalton’s chauffeur, personal assistant, confidante and buddy. A WWII veteran, he’s an affable guy on the surface but you definitely don’t want to piss him off, as martial arts legend Bruce Lee (Mike Moh, TV’s EMPIRE) learns on a Hollywood backlot while taking a break from shooting TV’s GREEN HORNET. As the film opens, both Dalton and the audience learn that his new next door neighbours on Cielo Drive are director Roman Polanski (Polish actor Rafał Zawierucha) and his wife, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie, MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS; GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN; I, TONYA; THE LEGEND OF TARZAN; THE BIG SHORT). Unlike Dalton and Booth, Polanski and Tate are fast-rising stars in Hollywood.

Tarantino has never made it secret that he’s a movie geek and this film certainly proves it once again. The attention to deal spent to recreate this era is astounding, from the cars, clothing, hairstyles and furniture to the multiple movie marquees, billboard advertising, food packaging and even the way the actors act and the directors direct in the movies and TV shows that are within the movie. There is so much to take in that you’ll find yourself struggling to keep up with the story if you dwell too long on the set design. As for that story, it is lumbering – even bordering on obsessive – but Tarantino manages to keep it moving forward without ever making it boring. The film features a huge ensemble cast that includes a few old-time TV stars like 90-year-old Clu Gulager (BLUE JAY), 79-year-old Brenda Vaccaro, and the late Luke Perry (TV’s BEVERLY HILLS 90210) appearing in his final screen role. Again, there are so many familiar and vaguely familiar faces, you’ll be hard-pressed to recognise everyone before you have to turn your attention back to the story. The cast also includes a number of Hollywood’s next generation of stars including Andie MacDowell’s daughter, Margaret Qualley; Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman’s daughter, Maya Hawke; Kevin Smith’s daughter, Harley Quinn Smith; and Bruce Willis and Demi Moore’s daughter, Rumer Willis.

Tarantino is calling this film his ROMA, referring to last year’s memory piece by director Alfonso Cuarón. With the exception of the film’s two leading characters, almost every other character is based on a real person. Unlike so many of his other films though, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD follows a strict linear structure (I kept expecting the story to flashback by two minutes) as it follows the two men over a few days in February and then six months later in August. The knowledge that Charles Manson’s followers would kill Tate on August 9th weighs heavily on every scene her character is in. Tarantino’s camera follows her around Hollywood as she goes to a party at the Playboy mansion, picks up a gift for her husband and watches herself on the big screen in THE WRECKING CREW with Dean Martin. He doesn’t give her many lines as if he’s telling us that we think we all know her but we really don’t. Perhaps he’s right.

But in true Tarantino style, ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD is a highly stylized work of speculative fiction with wonderful dialogue, (one scene of) over-the-top violence and memorable performances. It’s not his best work but it is darn good and merits not just one viewing but two.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, July 26th, 8:30 am HK time!

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