Friday, July 26, 2019

Once Upon a Hollywood - Review

The idea of making movies that lovingly gaze at the movies is not a new concept. Quentin Tarantino hasn’t quite dipped into the well in an overt way, but the influence of film’s past on his work has always been evident. With Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, however, Tarantino gets to showcase his seemingly endless knowledge of film history for a fairy tale unlike any other.

In 1969 Los Angeles, where everything is changing, TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) make their way around an industry they hardly recognize anymore and attempt to maintain some semblance of a career in the waning Golden Age of Hollywood.

Quentin Tarantino has a distinct style, a clear knack for indulgence and hyper violence in the best, and sometimes worst, ways. However, his ninth film (or tenth, depending on your thoughts on the whole Kill Bill debate) reigns in all of the clear markers of a Tarantino film. Gone are the chapter title cards, no sharp and kinetic cuts, and only one real moment of brutality amidst a 2 hour and 41-minute runtime. It’s a well-crafted, tempered effort from Tarantino, and a film with this kind of a tragic background, is better for it.

And while the idea of Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie, as a character is placed into this film effectively, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is more a love letter to a bygone era than a biopic of what happened that year to the famous actress. 1969 Hollywood is beautifully realized, from the stellar production design to the costuming, each piece works as a whole to transport the audience to a different world, a fantasy world.

Yes, a lot of the film has basis in reality. Well-known actors like Steve McQueen, played by Damian Lewis, or Bruce Lee, played by Mike Moh, pop in for their moment and quickly disappear, almost as if inserted for a tie to a real version of 1969 rather than the fantasy portrait Tarantino has painted. A portrait informed by a love for how movies used to be made, and the stars the populated them, all mixed with the humor and tension that Tarantino has mastered over his nearly three decades long career.

Yet it feels as though the success of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood lives and breathes on the backs of the three performances at the center of it all. By this point, no one questions the talents of DiCaprio, Pitt or Robbie, but they still manage to surprise time and time again. DiCaprio is tasked with filling the role of fairly bad TV actor, which in turn forces him to have to act like a bad actor, and somehow, he absolutely nails it. Pitt absolutely owes Tarantino for once again providing him an opportunity to flex his comedic timing muscles. And Robbie, who’s role and lack of dialogue has been think-pieced and criticized to death already, still manages make her presence over the entire film known and may just have the best scene in the film.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is the most un-Tarantino film of his career, yet he finds a way to make it fit alongside the rest of his filmography somehow. It almost completely neutralizes many of the largest complaints that are hurled at the writer/director, all while telling his new version of history wrapped in the nostalgia of pop culture references and old Hollywood. The performances of the three big names are all likely to feature in the awards conversation, particularly DiCaprio. It’s likely that many will find fault in the runtime or even the shift in classic Tarantino tone, but it’s hard not to love this film for what it is: a tribute to a departed world through the lease of a fairy tale.

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