Running late to a big summer movie is always difficult for me, especially in the spoiler heavy days of the internet. Invariably, I'll run across a post that proclaims “I love this show, but wow, I can't believe that happened to this main character!”
You wound me, Facebook. You really do.
Surprisingly, that wasn't the case for Quentin Tarantino's tenth cinematic outing. I went in completely spoiler-free for Once Upon A Time in Hollywood (though technically his ninth if you consider Kill Bill one movie.)
I like Tarantino's movies. I also understand that they are not for everyone due to the ultra-violence that his stories often portray, but I respect his work as a visual artist. He knows, loves, and references old films and filmmaking techniques, and the music he chooses for each of his soundtracks is an integral part of the experience.
While the characteristic scenes that push those hard R ratings are reserved for the last act of the story this time, the journey there is far more nostalgic. Once Upon A Time in Hollywood evokes the gritty, but free-spirited era of Los Angeles in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The cast is terrific, with great performances by Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie. The film opens with an on-set interview of Rick Dalton, an aging and insecure actor (DiCaprio), and his personal stuntman/assistant Cliff Booth (Pitt). The two are close friends and rely heavily on each other for support. Next door to Dalton's residence, newlywed actress Sharon Tate (Robbie) moves into the Roman Polanski house.
DiCaprio's Dalton is a great character, alternating between an eagerness to prove his worth and relatable self-depreciation. Pitt, however, may be the true lead of the film; a confident but easygoing character willing to work with what his life has given him. I do wish Margot Robbie has gotten a little more screen time, simply because it felt like there was more to explore with her, but her theater scene was charming.
There are numerous themes in the film's storyline that touch on controversial subject matters and events, but Tarantino establishes the film's world as an alternate reality to our own. Here, history does not go how it went for us, and it changes things. Regardless, the numerous mentions of “Charlie” set a dreadful air of foreboding up until the end.
Yet at its core, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is perhaps one of Tarantino's most sentimental films to date, celebrating a specific chapter of Los Angeles and the era of movies before summer blockbusters and cinematic universes became household buzzwords. In many ways, the era makes an end of innocence, and for those that have seen it, it rings true.
The film evocation of simpler times especially resonated with me. During my own time in Los Angeles, driving past some of those landmarks were daily routine, as were the moments of set life, with conversations and personalities being an accurate part of that experience. And I recognized the western sets that Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth walked around on: Those were shot at Melody Ranch in Santa Clarita, where I had done my own work on the second season of Deadwood.
I felt a rush of wistful, fond emotion wash over me during those scenes, a reminder of another time. Perhaps I'll talk about those experiences in a separate column if there's an interest. The only thing that didn't vibe with me is how light the traffic was for those Los Angeles highways. That was my first clue this movie was set in an alternate reality.
Despite its adherence to practical scenery and props, die-hard Tarantino fans may find the pacing a little slower for two-thirds of the film. With the rapidly evolving social climate, it's arguable that Once Upon A Time in Hollywood might not just evoke the feeling of another era, but may be the type of film that belongs to another era.
And some may balk at the rejiggering of history for this film's sake. There's a Bruce Lee scene that has already received criticism from Lee's family, and the Manson-related subject matter is appropriately tense and uncomfortable when engaged, but it approaches some bold new ideas that will have armchair historians pondering “what if” due to the potential ramifications.
Overall, Once Upon A Time is a compelling character study that feels real until the third act, wherein it goes bonkers, but I still enjoyed it. Despite its underlying menace, there is a lot of light and dark humor throughout the film. There is a real love for the time and place in every frame, and some great casting choices and action scenes that complement the humorous moments.
As far as mainstream movie experiences go, Tarantino may be one of the last of the old guard, and I found a greater sense of appreciation in that.