Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood (2019) - Review

The ninth (apparently) film from Quentin Tarantino, 'Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood' is the legendary writer/director's tribute to late 60's Hollywood, from television to cinema, 160 minutes of call-backs, tributes and references, that also revolve around the murder of actress Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie here). Naturally, being a Quentin Tarantino film, the story doesn't play out quite as one would expect, and the potential criticisms with Tarantino turning a real-life tragedy into one of his films is certainly something the man himself tries to overcome with the finished film.

Set in 1969, 'Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood' follows ageing cowboy legend Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) struggling to propel himself back into stardom. Known for his turn as a classic cowboy in western series 'Bounty Law', Dalton has struggled to keep his career going beyond that, and with the help of his stuntman/driver Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), tries to figure out what to do next. Being a Tarantino film, this almost inexplicably links with the story of Dalton's next-door neighbour Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who has recently married famed director Roman Polanski, and also - even more inexplicably - the strange cult of Charles Manson.

Despite the initial controversy, Manson himself appears briefly in one scene of the film, relegated to a mysterious figure whose role in the story is clear to those who know the historical context of the film, but completely bizarre to those who don't. Even Sharon Tate herself barely registers as an actual character in the story, and feels more like a symbol for the golden age of Hollywood that Tarantino clearly pines for. Tate is presented as a legend, a goddess, and whilst Margot Robbie's casting makes sense, she doesn't get as much material to sink her teeth into as perhaps one would expect in a Tarantino film.

Instead, the focus is on the double-act of Dalton and Booth, played by DiCaprio and Pitt respectively. Both are absolutely fantastic in their roles, showcasing their talents beyond being almost generic movie stars at this point. DiCaprio is particularly great at playing a more nervous and unsure of himself character, whilst Pitt's straight-faced line delivery can oftentimes lead to the funniest moments - think Pitt's Italian scene in 'Inglorious Bastards'. Pitt in particular gets a lot more involved in the story than any of the other characters, and whilst Cliff Booth's morals are presented as rather ambiguous, he does get some cracking moments throughout.

The story is naturally a bit vague and woolly, and one can't quite help but feel that Tarantino should one day make a film with a definitive story as opposed to continuous scenes of characters just interacting. Here though, it does feel as though Tarantino actually had an editor, and doesn't over-indulge in the way that he does with several of his other films. The characters are slightly less witty than usual, which makes them more relatable, but the dialogue nevertheless sparks with Tarantino's sense of humour. The film has a pretty good pace, and whilst it could have definitely been considerably shorter, it is fun to just spend time with the characters. It's less violent - aside from the ending - and there's a lot there to enjoy, including glimpses of Rick Dalton's film and TV career.

It is however the ending that leaves me a little bit confused. Tarantino naturally decides to go in a much less predictable direction than one might expect, and whilst this gives the film a unique hook towards the end, it does serve as a half-hour of completely bafflement. In hindsight, its easy to see exactly what Tarantino wanted from such a bizarre and out-of-left-field ending, but nevertheless it did leave the entire cinema with very mixed emotions.

Filled to the brim with Tarantino-isms despite feeling oddly restrained, 'Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood' is another great film from Quentin Tarantino. It's probably not everyone's cup of tea, and the film doesn't do a good job at explaining its historical context, but there's lots to enjoy here, and naturally being a Tarantino film, it is a fantastic production. It looks and sounds brilliant, and the ensemble cast are all fantastic, even if the focus is very much on DiCaprio and Pitt. It might not be the director's best, but it's well worth going to see. 8/10

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