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Cottonwood Heights Journal

Dan's Review: "Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood" is Tarantino's postcard from 1969

Jul 25, 2019 09:42PM ● By Dan Metcalf

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood - © 2019 Sony Pictures.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (Sony Pictures)

Rated R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references.

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Zoë Bell, Michael Madsen, Clifton Collins Jr., Scoot McNairy, Lorenza Izzo, Keith Jefferson, Eddie Perez, Maurice Compte, Lew Temple, Rebecca Gayheart, Samantha Robinson, Daniella Pick, Spencer Garrett, Martin Kove, Damon Herriman, Madisen Beaty, Victoria Pedretti, Lena Dunham, Mikey Madison, Maya Hawke, James Landry Hebert, Dallas Jay Hunter, Dyani Del Castillo, Parker Love Bowling, Kansas Bowling, Sydney Sweeney, Harley Quinn Smith, Luke Perry,  Damian Lewis, Mike Moh, Rafał Zawierucha, Nicholas Hammond, Costa Ronin, Rumer Willis, Dreama Walker, Julia Butters, Rachel Redleaf, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Brenda Vaccaro, Ramón Franco, Marco Rodriguez, Tim Roth, James Marsden, James Remar, Danny Strong.

Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino.



My relationship with Quentin Tarantino is a strange one. While recognizing his genius for dialogue and storytelling, I am also not a very big fan of his films. It’s complicated but suffice to say I find his penchant for comic, cathartic violence, racial/sexist slurs and use of really obscene language a little too pretentious for my tastes, like that guy at a party who juggles or does handstands to draw attention to himself. I don’t have a favorite Tarantino film, but am able to break his work down into favorite scenes of dialogue, like the “burger discussion” scene in Pulp Fiction or the “fighting in a basement” scene in Inglourious Basterds. I suppose that’s the appeal behind Tarantino’s body of work; a collection of amusing things that rarely result in any kind of tangible story or narrative that we can attach to any kind of learning about humanity. Again, that’s my preference, so if Quentin’s movie style appeals to you, more power to you. Don’t hate if I don’t join your Mutual Tarantino Admiration Society.  Which leads us to Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood.

Set in 1969, it’s the story of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a washed-up TV actor who once had a successful run as the hero in a western series called “Bounty Law.” His best friend, attaché/driver/stunt double is Cliff Boothe (Brad Pitt). Rick is reduced to playing “bad guys” in guest appearances on contemporary TV series, and Cliff makes sure to keep his pal in line by chauffeuring him to and from the various TV studios sets, while also pumping up his ego as his career dwindles into “has-been” status. At the same time, Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and his new wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) move in next door to Rick’s Hollywood Hills bungalow on Cielo Drive. Through several vignettes, flashbacks and a little narration from Kurt Russell (who also appears as a stunt coordinator in the movie), we get a picture of 1969 Hollywood that feels like a swan song to a golden age, with new aged hippie culture moving in and cheesy film series taking over the airwaves. The film’s other centerpiece revolves around Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) and his “family” of cultists seeking to rid the world of cultural woes through violence. Cliff meets the hitchhiking “Pussycat” (Margaret Qualley) a teen member of the Manson family who takes him to the Spahn Ranch, where the cult is squatting by taking advantage of the ranch’s owner George Spahn (Bruce Dern). Other cultists are played by Dakota Fanning (as the infamous “Squeaky Fromme), Lena Dunham, and Austin Butler. The story reaches its climax as the Manson Family sets out for Cielo Drive, where they plot to commit murder under orders from their leader. If you know the history of the Manson Family murders, please watch Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood as an alternative/fantasy version of history, as Tarantino has done in previous films. In other words, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood is a work of fiction, drawn from the enigmatic director’s dark imagination. That’s as spoiler-free as I can get, folks.

So, here’s what’s good about Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood: the aforementioned tapestry of grand, funny and irony-dripping dialogue we’d all expect from Tarantino, who does not disappoint. Also worthy of praise are the performances of Pitt and DiCaprio, who deliver complex, flawed, cool and funny characterizations that will fit right in with so many other Tarantino icons like Samuel L. Jackson and Christoph Walz. Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Sharon Tate gives the film a sense of bubbly wonder and innocence. The other standout elements of the film are Robert Richardson’s cinematography, Barbara Ling’s production design, Arianne Phillips’ costumes, and Joh Dykstra’s special effects design that truly transport the audience back to 1969, with hundreds of era-authentic buildings, streets, and vehicles filling the screen.

The negatives for Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood can be summed up with all the things that bother me about Tarantino’s body of work, including the extreme violence and gore and his tendency to favor style over narrative substance, while also begging the world to recognize how much he loves the kitschy Hollywood scene of his youth. You get the feeling that Quentin would rather live in that time and is having some sort of midlife crisis he wants to share onscreen with the rest of us.

There is fun to be had by taking this trip down into the far reaches of Tarantino’s preferred existence, and it’s okay to recognize Quentin’s talents in Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood.

"Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood" Trailer