Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: has Tarantino Still Got It? (Movie Review)

Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino latest, and plays out just as the title would imply: a story of trials and tribulations in the so-called city of glamour that is Los Angeles. The time is 1969 and in an increasingly modern yet still somewhat chaotic Hollywood, our fictional leads are taken through the same kind of journeys of self-reflection and stylised absurdity that have become a staple of the legendary director's work. Suffering from first-act sluggishness, Tarantino's ninth film ends up being an engrossingly mesmerising retelling of history.

Rick Dalton, played by our favourite Oscar-winner, Leonardo DiCaprio, is a famous veteran actor with the direction of his career going stagnant. Being a longtime TV and film star, Dalton's hurt that the recommended next step is for him to take roles in what he deems the lowest form of entertainment: Spaghetti Westerns. After confiding his upset in his driver/part-time stuntman/war hero/possible-wife murderer, Brad Pitt's Cliff Booth, Rick reassures that he'll commit to doing his best and make sure he is ready for set the next day, only to get drunk whilst reading his lines. Featuring Margot Robbie portraying Sharon Tate, an adventure of multiple storylines ensues.

While this would normally be "the boring" part of a review, it became obvious that talking about the camera work in this movie would be an utter joy because just a couple of minutes in. It's clear that Once A Upon Time in Hollywood's cinematography is part of its identity. A doting tribute to the fine works that came out of 60's LA; Tarantino's direction and masterful cinematographer Robert Richardson's skill in crafting camera angles have come together to birth a hybrid of visual flair. Long, drawn out tracking shots and pans typical of the decade hit you in a slow, humble way; causing you to appreciate everything that's going on and present in a shot. During production of one of Rick's films, the shots utilised offer a captivating in-film peek behind the curtain of how you can be grabbed by a scene done right; making you hang on every word being spoken before you're snapped out of it by a fumbled line or a director yelling "cut!".

His first film in four years, Leonardo DiCaprio is an unarguably welcomed return, especially with it being a Tarantino feature. As he did in 2013's Django Unchained, DiCaprio reeducates us as to why as an actor, he's a tour de force to be reckoned with. As performer and director, he and Tarantino seem to bring out the best in one another; with the former being able to convey complex emotions and the latter being a definitive writer of incredible dialogue that serves as a foundation to make them shine.

The pinnacle of this combination is a scene during Rick's time on set of the Western TV series he was drunkenly reading lines for the night before: Lancer. Getting himself together whilst waiting to film, Dalton strikes up a conversation with his 8-year old co-star about the book he's reading. The more Rick talks about its aging and broken protagonist, it's clear that he's relating to it more than even he realised, becoming more emotional with each word; being a stepping stone for wanting to become a better person. Being a mature filmmaker, Tarantino has further perfected the art of making you root for the flawed heroes in his stories; whom when they achieve some form of resolution, it's likely you'll shed a supporting tear of delight to match their own.

As much of a spectacle of a performer DiCaprio is in Once Upon A Time, Brad Pitt is on equal footing. Returning to the Tarantino filmography for the first time since 2009's Inglorious Basterds, Pitt carries his reputable charismatic intensity as the indestructible Cliff Booth, serving in an impeccable back and forth with DiCaprio as well as others around Cliff in his own story; enough to be one of his best roles. The beloved chemistry between the two leads is especially appreciated during the first thirty minutes, where the pacing noticeably drags on enough to make you question where the direction of this story is going, before the progression of the story is finally put back on track.

Despite there being arguably too much runtime, there isn't enough of Margot Robbie's Sharon Tate. From a certain perspective, at least. As much of a joy it is to see Robbie bring the late actress to life before her screentime is seemingly cut short, it's not until the events of the film coming full circle in the third act that you understand why. Without going into spoilers, it's the fusion of the director's legacy for stylish brutality and the desire to change history.

In addition to the unsparing humour in Quentin Tarantino's films, the merciless violence is at its best when it feels justified; when the recipient of the stabs, blows or gunshots are getting what they righteously deserve. On a scale of 1 to 5, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood turns it up to 13 on the Tarantino Meter: making everything you've seen in the two hours seem like the ultimate roller coaster incline before the most satisfactory drop. Saying you'll laugh in elation is an understatement.
Final Thoughts

A beautifully warped portal into 1969 LA, the gorgeous, timely aesthetics and set pieces are not why Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is such a captivating time. Picking up the pace after a stumbled start, this humbled yet enthralling story filled with witty dialogue and Tarantino-esque twists indicates that the director shows no signs of slowing down when it comes to delivering the gut punch of a satisfying finale. Whilst divisive in its audience reception, elements of Once Upon A Time in Hollywood are Quentin Tarantino at his best.

Rating: 8/10

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