Movie Review – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

There are some directors who have the innate ability to make the world stop when one of their films is released.  The level of respect the public has for these filmmakers allows the masses to stop what they’re doing and pay close attention to the project –whether it’s because they’re avid film fanatics like myself, or they simply don’t want a case of FOMO.  Some of those directors would include Chris Nolan, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, and Spike Lee to name a few.  But also in that illustrious group is Quentin Tarantino, who’s film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood officially hits theaters today.  Needless to say, the work of the two-time Oscar winner (Best Screenplay for Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained) did not disappoint.

Once Upon a Time is the ninth film Tarantino has written and directed, joining other classics such as Django Unchained, Pulp Fiction, and the Kill Bill series.  He has a unique style of beautifully blending a relevant, masterful story with a backdrop of violence…chaotic, blood-thirsty violence.  In the beginning, it seemed as though Tarantino may have went in another direction with this project.  To be honest, at first, I couldn’t figure out if I was impressed by the evolution or disappointed.  If I only I had known that, like getting a late-night knock on door from the Manson crew, violence was at my doorstep.  The first two hours and change of Once Upon a Time are mainly subdued for a Tarantino flick, but in hindsight I can tell you that’s only the calm before the storm.  In fact, even though the horrific scene Tarantino fans love and look for comes at you from the middle of nowhere, it may be the best and most relevant gory scene in all of his films.  Don’t worry, you definitely get your money’s worth.

Let’s get to some of the details.  The superb cast assembled for Once Upon a Time is a who’s who of Hollywood A-list big-wigs – Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie are the clear-cut headliners, but other greats like Al Pacino, Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning and Kurt Russell also star in the film, while Michael Madsen, Damien Lewis and Emile Hirsch all have cameos.  This movie also unfortunately was the last role for Luke Perry, who passed away back in March at age 52.  The former Beverly Hills 90210 mainstay has a cameo as Wayne Maunder, a cane-bearing middle man character in a film Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) is starring in.

The premise of the movie is that Rick Dalton, a classic 1960s era Western actor, is feeling vulnerable at this stage in his career.  He realizes his time in the spotlight may be running out if his career doesn’t allow him to evolve into other types of roles.  His stuntman and friend, Cliff Booth, consequently also has his career on the brink of extinction.  Cliff has other issues that are negatively affecting his career, but he doesn’t seem to care nearly as much about his impending career demise as Dalton does.  Dalton eventually meets up with Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino), a made man in the biz who sells him on a different, more successful career path.

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Brad Pitt (right) is the gem of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as Cliff Booth, stuntman of Rick Dalton (DiCaprio, left).

In the midst of this storyline is another one, totally different yet arguably more important.  Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is a Hollywood newcomer who is involved in a fascinating love triangle, one of the others involved being legendary film director Roman Polanski.  In an unrelated contrast, Dalton and Booth both find themselves on the downward trend at the end of the 60s cinema era, while Tate is trending up as a fresh new actress to welcome in the 1970s.

Within the Tate storyline, we find a sub-plot dealing with the psychotic Charles Manson and his stable of jailbait junkies at a hidden ranch in the Hollywood hills.  Eventually, this nugget in the story is the link to intertwine Tate’s story with Dalton and Booth’s.

The film also features a few up-and-coming actors, who we may look back years from now and say to each other “remember when they were in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood back in the day?”  Austin Butler, who in real life resembles the second coming of James Dean, plays Tex, a short-fused male figure in a predominantly female cult of Charles Manson disciples that also includes Flower Child (Maya Hawke) and Squeaky (Dakota Fanning).  I think both Butler and Hawke are about to reap the benefits of a huge Hollywood push.  Butler, who is also currently starring in The Dead Don’t Die, is rumored to be portraying Elvis Presley in an upcoming biopic, while Hawke, daughter of actor Ethan Hawke, is currently starring in Stranger Things on Netflix.

I will say without spoiling anything that having knowledge of Charles Manson and Sharon Tate is crucial to fully grasping what exactly is going on, especially at the end.  A quick Wikipedia review of both people should serve as a mandatory prerequisite for anyone going to see this movie – especially for those who were not around during that time period.  Admittedly, I needed to do this myself, specifically for knowledge of the real Sharon Tate.

Once you know the true story involving the two, you can truly appreciate Tarantino’s brilliance here.

Like Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained before it, Tarantino has given Once Upon a Time in Hollywood the ability to turn back the clock and re-write history.  Also in vintage Tarantino fashion, his script allows for ambiguity that fuels discussion amongst its audience.  Some may see the ending differently than others, and I love when that happens in our current era of filmmaking.  Like a painting on the wall of an art museum, several people may all see the same picture but draw various conclusions from it as to what it represents.  At the end of the day, movies are art, and the best ones have this same effect.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a fun, backseat view (literally, in some instances) of a yesteryear culture that still can draw empathy from a 21st century audience.  It’s also an adult fairy tale looking into what could have been if the real events of the true to life characters had played out differently (I can’t say much more than that without spoilers).  Although we view Hollywood as a place that can bring out the worst in people and where morality goes to die, in this case, it’s a safe haven that saved lives.

As a result of the strong performances of everyone involved (Brad Pitt surprisingly stole the show from Leo on most occasions), combined with the enticing script and unique direction Tarantino created, Once Upon a Time’s place is up for debate as far as where it ranks among his eight previous films.  It may or may not be his best film overall to some, but it definitely is his smartest.  That much is undeniable.


OSCAR SCALE: 9/10 (Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Actor, Supporting Actor, Film Editing, Production Design)