Not a Movie Snob - Once Upon a Hollywood (2019)

Posted on Friday, July 26, 2019 at 06:00 PM

"California Dreaming"

Once Upon a Hollywood (2019)

Movie Review by Griffintainment X

Once Upon a Hollywood would have been the best swan song for Quentin Tarantino’s career. QT has been saying for years now that his 10th film will be his final. “Ten films and I’m out” he declared, “nothing lasts forever.” The marketing for his films seems to confirm this. On every poster since the first Kill Bill movie, the number of the movie precedes the filmmakers moniker. “The 4th film by Quentin Tarantino”, “The 5th film…”, “The 8th film…” and so on. And now, we arrive at movie number 9. It’s hard to believe that Tarantino, who is only 56 and who has enjoyed a level of success throughout his career that very few human being will ever experience, is only going to make one more film and then call it quits. I mean, Woody Allen is still churning out a film a year at 83. Clint Eastwood, at 89, will often release two movies in a single year. And Spike Lee, Tarantino’s contemporary and only a couple of years older than him, is already 25 movies into his historic career.

But, the man can do what he wants. And if what he wants is to bow out after film #10, kick back and watch movies on 35mm for the rest of his days, then he’s earned the right to do so. Still, this would have been a great 10th film to go out on.

Once Upon a Time…is multilayered, exuberant yet restrained, exciting yet suspenseful. A joyous and nostalgic love letter to late 1960’s Hollywood. A Hollywood on the brink of transformation. The old studio fare wasn’t making money and the ‘Movie Brats’ of the 1970’s, such luminaries as Spielberg, Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola, DePalma and Milius, were about to change everything forever, taking the power away from studio moguls and putting it into the hands of the filmmakers themselves; giving them unprecedented creative control, which would lead to some of the biggest movie moneymakers in film history.

As such, Hollywood 1969 was imbued with no shortage of identity crisis and the anxiety of the unknown. Tarantino plays with this in the film, sifting it through the story of Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, a 50’s TV star who tried, and failed, to make the transition into film. The reaction to his failure takes the form of drunken self loathing and depressive realizations that he may never be anything but a bit player in other people’s vehicles. Along for the ride, and to dry Rick’s tears, is his stunt double and personal assistant Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt. A man too attractive to be someone else’s stunt double and yet apparently without the motivation to be anything else. A third (or so) of the film is dedicated to the story of Rick and Cliff, as they attempt to circumvent the realities of waning careers in the entertainment industry (Hollywood is less forgiving of ageing than professional sports). But they aren’t together all the time, and at one point Cliff gets waylaid giving a ride to a hippy girl he picks up in Hollywood and drives out to an old, abandoned movie set in the desert. Which, it turns out, is now occupied by none other than the infamous Manson Family, who aren’t infamous when we meet them, as they haven’t killed anyone yet.

The final third of the film is dedicated to Sharon Tate, radiating unforced sexuality and played with boundless adorability by Margot Robbie. We all know the story of Sharon Tate and what befell her and some of her friends on the evening of August 8th in 1969, an event that sent an electric shock of panic surging throughout Los Angeles and the entire film industry. The fact of this tragedy taking place in and around the time this story takes place, laces the film with an undercurrent of dread and a level of anticipatory anxiety, even in one of the movie’s many comedic moments.

But that is a defining characteristic of every Tarantino film. The tonal shifts in his movies are as eclectic as the cinematic influences that inform them, as the music that gives them their backbone. And there is no shortage of backbone in Once Upon a Hollywood. Endless shots of characters racing around in classic cars listening to funky, driving, fuzzbox 60’s garage rock are peppered throughout the film from beginning to end. And the period accurate radio advertisements for things like root beer and coconut tanning butter, with the DJ jawing on about this hip song or that out of sight tune leading the listeners right into the weekend, baby, are as fun to listen to as Tarantino’s snappy dialogue must have been to write.


In the oeuvre of Tarantino’s filmography, Once Upon a Time represents one of the most noticeable moments of his filmmaking evolution. And I don’t mean that the snappy dialogue is so much snappier, or that the blood is so much more gruesome. Truth be told, the evolution apparent in this film is the willingness of Tarantino to ease off of the pop cultural gas pedal and blatant fetishism of hyper violence that has trademarked most of the rest of his catalogue. This film is very focused on not violating the terms of its period. That means that unlike, say, Django Unchained, where you have James Brown and 2Pac tunes thumping overtop a former black slave shooting racist whites in 1850’s Antebellum, here, all the music you hear is music you would have heard on one station or another, or one record player or another in Hollywood in 1969. It also means that the characters don’t speak in pop shop dialogue, and there aren’t really any major monologue moments, like the ones that often open Tarantino’s films. Most notably Christoph Waltz’s Oscar winning soliloquy at the beginning of Inglourious Basterds, going on and on about tasty milk and Jewish rats and German hawks. Here, Tarantino lets the story be the star and has the actors service the story, not the words coming out of their mouths.

And the acting is uniformly fantastic. There are really only three major roles, but there are a whole host of Hollywood character actors, a-listers, bonafide legends, b-movie bit players and ‘whatever happened to’s that jump in and out of the movie with a line here or a moment there. And in true Hollywood fashion, this makes perfect sense.

And in true Hollywood fashion, this movie, in all of its dizzying displays of filmmaking bravura and its multiple storylines snaking in and out of each other like a Los Angeles expressway at rush hour, make perfect sense. It feels like what it is: the culmination of a movie geek turned movie god’s 27 year career paying homage to the films of his life. But also to the place those films were made and the people who made them. Tarantino, like most people who find their way to the City of Angels looking for fame and fortune, is a Hollywood transplant. Born and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, not under the W of the Hollywood sign, as one would expect. But he has made the town his own and siphoned from it every drop of talent and inspiration it has to offer.

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood may not be his best film, but it is the best example of the gift Hollywood has given him in his time there. And it is the best gift that he could give it in return.  

Rating: *****

Calgary Showtimes: Once Upon a Hollywood >


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