The filmmaking sensibilities of writer and director Quentin Tarantino are evolving in two simultaneous courses as seen in not only his new film “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” but his last two features he’s presented for audiences. Lavishly elevated by two magnanimous performances from stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, the funny yet grotesquely violent revisionist look at history is a film that will spark debate and conversations within the film community for quite some time. All in all, the film presents itself as a love letter to cinema, as told by Tarantino himself, but not obviously accessible to the casual movie-goer.
“Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” tells the story of faded actor Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as they strive to achieve success and relevancy in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood’s Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles. This all takes place against the backdrop of classic Hollywood actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), as she navigates the same scene just before the time of her real-life murder on Aug. 9, 1969, by three followers of convicted murderer Charles Manson.
The cinematic endeavor lives and soars with the crowning achievement of Academy Award winner Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Revenant“). Putting forth a very compelling case that he has delivered the finest acting turn of his already impressive career. Up until this writing, you can get three to four different “favorite performance” answers from general movie lovers, especially as they recall works like “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?,” “The Departed,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” In this multi-layered outing, he examines the insecurities and fragility of a man desperately trying to harness his bearing in a changing industry of extraordinary talent.
Rick Dalton, who is a former star of a popular Western TV series that aired in the 1950s and early 1960s, is afforded many opportunities to show audiences what not only his craft means to him, but be able to show his humanity as he connects with his stunt double, directors, and small children on the set of his newest vehicle. This is all highlighted by DiCaprio’s dedication to this character, having a cleaner, more appropriate fit than what we saw in his last outing with Tarantino in “Django Unchained.”
Academy Award winner Brad Pitt (“12 Years a Slave,” producer) has often excelled so passionately in roles that allow him to express his comedic judgments. Fans can find prime examples of his in films such as “Burn After Reading” and “Snatch.” As Cliff Booth, there’s a dilemma in which he conveys to the audience about wanting to route for him or fearing a “dark passenger” that exists within his good looks and devilishly handsome grin.
In the creation of Booth, Tarantino shows some of his character-creation missteps. The two-time Academy Award winner of screenwriting “Pulp Fiction” and “Django Unchained,” in many beats emulates his finest outing as a writer yet, at least in terms of dialogue. There are moments where actors are performing the screenwriting gymnastics at Olympian caliber design. Tarantino’s words are infectious and truly shows his appetite for this time period and yearning for this current generation to seek it out. With that said, his treatment of the “female characters” is put into question at times, and not just when they are on screen. Not diving into any spoilers, he gives Cliff Booth a trait that allows the audience to mull over before nearly confirming such “facts” that don’t paint a favorable light, despite how heroic his actions are in the scene.
Sharing the silver screen for nearly 40 to 50 minutes, Margot Robbie is magnetically glamorous as Sharon Tate, with what feels like a dozen of spoken lines. Tarantino gives proper dedication and respect to a late actress that was stolen from our cinematic world far too soon. Utterly provocative as she smiles and dances throughout, she channels her own profound and orphic understanding of a woman that no one really knows. Robbie infectiously explores Tate’s own contagious appreciation for the film craft, and in one scene, in particular, she probes her own understanding of the average movie-goer’s love for film and how they react. It’s quite striking how Robbie has done so much in her career that is all equally matched in quality (“I, Tonya” and “The Wolf of Wall Street“). This performance firmly places her in the hunt for her second Oscar nomination in Best Supporting Actress.
To no surprise, the movie is as polished and precise of the time as it intends. The production and set designs by Barbara Ling and Nancy Haigh are vividly memorable while costumes by Arianne Phillips has her achieving the single best craft outing of her career yet; which speaks volumes considering she has “Walk the Line,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” and “The Crow” under her belt.
Maybe in a minority of reviewers on the subject, but the pairing of legendary cinematographer Robert Richardson and Tarantino hasn’t been the perfect match as it looks on paper. While the “Kill Bill” series has its moments, it can feel rapidly unfocused at times, and “Django Unchained” is actively dull in terms of framing and light usage. On the other hand, “Inglourious Basterds” is lucid and compelling while “The Hateful Eight” builds a world within a single room spectacularly. With all this said, the two frequent collaborators are making magic together in nearly every scene of “Once Upon a Time…” They find the eminent glimpses of life and soul in its movements while focusing on key features of its central characters. It’s Richardson’s best outing since “Hugo.”
Editor Fred Raskin finds a popping pace to the story but if we’re sincerely asking if the film earns its 2 hours and 41-minute runtime, we can’t definitively say it does. It builds gloriously in spots, lags out in others, and has bits you can get rid of altogether. A large and vibrant cast that includes Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell, Damian Lewis, Al Pacino, Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, and the late Luke Perry all call for more time, but may not have earned all the moments they were given.
“Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” encompasses fun and a whole lot to admire for the cinephile who appreciates the origins and evolution of the medium. There will be quite a few who will love the initial premise before falling off by the film’s conclusion and vice versa. To encapsulate, there’s plenty to dissect, and even more to admire in the form of a triumphant and uproarious turn from one of American cinema’s greatest gifts.
“Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” is distributed by Sony Pictures and opens in theaters on July 26.
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