Film review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

After a very long recess, I am back at writing my thoughts on film motivated by the latest piece from one of our best directors: Mr. Quentin Tarantino.

In cinema few directors are as capable as Tarantino on making total losers look impossibly cool.

The 9th and second-to-last film of Quentin Tarantino’s career is also his most relaxed and least focused. In that it seems to be a step towards a kind of filmmaking that is more observant and patient albeit less story driven than all of his previous efforts.

Contrary to what some critics have said, it’s not that Once Upon A Time in Hollywood lacks a plot, but that whatever semblance of a plot it has serves larger and more interesting ideas.

For cinephiles like me, the film is a nearly 3-hour-long feast of pop culture references that speak of a time when the allure of Hollywood was almost inescapable. What is great about the film isn’t so much about who the characters are or what they do, but about how and why they do it as informed by the context they live in: 1960s Los Angeles.

Tarantino gives Di Caprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie plenty of time to shine (they’re all fantastic in their roles), but it is always the city of Angels and Hollywood’s golden age that remain at the center of Tarantino’s interest.

The film is about Di Caprio’s very specific journey as Rick Dalton as much as it is about the parallels that exist between Dalton’s story and a period in Hollywood’s history that was nearing an end.

Tarantino’s nostalgia for the period is in nearly every frame. The long car scenes evoke a kind of old-school sense of freedom and carelessness that would soon go out of style. The immediately iconic Cliff Booth (a seriously great Brad Pitt) as perfect a vessel of Tarantino devilish machinations as there has ever been. In Cliff he channels all of the brutish, indelicate but hopelessly cool ways in which old Hollywood gave space to the likes of geniuses like Sergio Leone and John Wayne.

As entertaining as Pitt and Di Caprio are in the film, the film’s most interesting affectation is with Sharon Tate (an incandescent Margot Robbie). It is with her that Tarantino goes full-on nostalgic. In one of the film’s standout scenes, Margot Robbie’s Tate enters a theater to watch herself in Dean Martin’s Wrecking Crew. The moment is one of Tarantino’s most endearing as a filmmaker as he joins her in a half-empty theater, shifting between the film on the big screen and Tate’s gleeful reactions to it. It is here, and with Robbie’s aloof presence as Sharon Tate that Tarantino accomplishes the feat of capturing that illusive sense of wonder and innocence that must have permeated the lifestyle of some of Hollywood’s brightest stars at the time.

Never shy to display violence in his films, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood uses it as a redeeming force. When it happens, it’s earned and cathartic, the end to a slow burn that began early on and almost inadvertently when a long-haired middle-aged man casually walks up to the house that Sharon Tate and her new husband, a certain Roman Polanski, share at the end of Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills.

Like Inglorious Basterds before it, the latest Tarantino film is contextualized in reality. It spends part of its lengthy running time driving around Los Angeles, down the Hollywood Hills and walking around studio sets, visiting local restaurants and focusing on the many neon signs that dotted the city. We share a moment or two with the likes of Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen, making direct references to their work. Tarantino, however, isn’t interested in historical accuracy, but in capturing a feeling of place and time. In one of the film’s most controversial scenes Tarantino suggests, for instance, that Bruce Lee, the late icon and master of martial arts, was an arrogant prick who, contrary to his legend, could be easily beaten in a casual backstage fight against Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth.

It is in scenes like the one poking fun of Bruce Lee where Tarantino displays all of his love for the excesses and egomania of old Hollywood, while also recognizing it was part of one big artifice.

Now approaching the so-called dawn of his career (Tarantino has gone on record saying he’ll only direct one more feature film), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a labor of love that emanates from a different part of the same brain who created pulpy diversions like Kill Bill and Death Proof. This time, Tarantino lingers less on linguistics and violence and more on quieter moments; crafting an experience and showing us a way of life, rather than a fully-fleshed out tale of fallen stardom and olden days.

Rating: 4/ 5

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