Movie review: 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' is Tarantino's ode to a bygone era

Fred Hawson

Posted at Sep 01 2019 10:20 AM

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt star in 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.' Handout

Quentin Tarantino's latest opus (and his films are always major cinematic events) is his ode to old Hollywood in the end of the 1960s. Tastes in film and television are changing fast, so many actors from the old system are losing roles to the more current "hipper" crop of actors. The hippies are taking over Los Angeles with their rebellious counterculture. 

In August of 1969, a cult of brainwashed drug addicts called the Charles Manson Family committed a notoriously heinous crime of murdering actress Sharon Tate and her friends. Tarantino decided to set this film to depict that critical time of transition leading up to that fateful night of violence which shocked not only Hollywood, but the whole country.

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Rick Dalton used to be a lead star in the TV Western called "Bounty Law" in the 1950s. However, during the 1960s, after his show closed shop, Dalton had been limited to playing the main villain in various TV pilots launching the careers of new action stars. His depression about his sagging career led to alcoholism, which later affected not only his driving record, but his film performances as well.

Leonardo DiCaprio went all-out with his peculiarly eccentric, yet deeply emotional portrayal of Rick Dalton on the wane of his career. The highlight of his performance here was from that sequence when Dalton was shooting the pilot of the TV series "Lancer" where he was playing the "heavy" (the villain). His scenes with 8-year-old child actress Trudi Fraser (played by 10-year-old Julia Butters) and his breakdown scene in the trailer after flubbing a number of lines were of definite Oscar caliber. 

Cliff Booth used to be very active as the stunt double of Rick Dalton in his TV and movie career. However, as the big roles diminished, so did Dalton's need for Booth. Therefore later, Booth would serve as Dalton's driver, bodyguard and best friend. Booth was the one character of this film which was signature Tarantino. He lived alone with his pitbull and rumored to have killed his wife. He was fearless, tactless, reckless.

Brad Pitt went against type to play Cliff Booth, shedding off his glamor boy looks and image, looking older with his sun-damaged skin on face and body, wearing thrift shop clothes. He had to dim down his own megawatt star power to be credible as DiCaprio's inferior, if that's at all possible. It was Booth that had direct interaction with the hippie members of Charles Manson's Family, so Pitt was the one who got to do the film's most tensely suspenseful, breathtakingly violent and darkly hilarious scenes. 

As a whole, there seemed to be no definite unifying plot for the film. Tarantino was expounding on how Hollywood was evolving in the 1960s -- the actors and the films. He was taking his sweet time following three separate stories: Dalton and his plummeting career path, Booth crossing paths with the Family, and a third one following Sharon Tate (a luminous Margot Robbie) on a day out to the city to watch her own film "The Wrecking Crew." These three threads only merge together in one extended, super-intense, wildly outrageous sequence of savage events in the last 20 minutes of the film or so. 

For a long 161-minute film like this, there will be those who would not see the point of it all, only seeing disjointed segments that don't come together and feeling how self-indulgent Tarantino was. 

Regarding that controversial Bruce Lee (played by Mike Moh) segment, Tarantino was being funny, but I can how the lines Lee was saying can be offensive to loyal fans of the Asian martial arts icon. 

However, if you share Tarantino's love affair with old Hollywood, you will enjoy this long but potent ride, with all the nostalgic pop culture references from that era being dropped left and right for the similarly-inclined audience members to lap up. There were several name actors in cameo roles (like Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Luke Perry, Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning, and others) which was also exciting to take note of. The meticulous period production design and energetic musical soundtrack clearly deserve award-consideration.

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."