★★★★★ - A Review by Cameron Kanachki
Love him, hate him, or have mixed feelings about him, you can't deny that Quentin Tarantino has made an indelible impact on modern American cinema. From his blistering debut, 1992's Reservoir Dogs; his breakout hit, 1994's Pulp Fiction; & my personal favorite work of his, 1997's Jackie Brown, to his revenge double feature, 2003's Kill Bill: Vol. 1 & 2004's Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (yes, they are two films, & if they are truly one film, then Quentin Tarantino owes me $8. But I digress...); his half of a grindhouse double feature, 2007's Death Proof; his WW2 revisionist thriller, 2009's Inglourious Basterds; his slavery Spaghetti Western (or "Southern"), 2012's Django Unchained; & his 70mm roadshow, 2015's The Hateful Eight, Tarantino has enraptured many with his colorful dialogue, nonlinear storylines, & wondrous originality, but he also alienated many with his cartoonish violence, extensive use of the N-word, & his unapologetic foot fetish. Nevertheless, I consider Tarantino to be one of my favorite filmmakers. However, as a person, he just really irritates me.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is, by far, Tarantino's best film this decade. Set in 1969 Los Angeles, the film follows Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an aging actor in Hollywood. Once the star of the Western TV series Bounty Law, Dalton's career has faltered due to a floundering film career, & has now been reserved for playing the bad guy of the week on TV shows. As a result, he mostly spends his time with his best friend & stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a war veteran who drives Dalton around Los Angeles, & has also suffered from lack of work, due to rumors about him & his wife.
After a meeting with agent Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino), Dalton comes to the conclusion that he is a has-been, as his roles as the bad guy of the week are dragging his star power down, & the only work he can find as a lead is in Spaghetti Westerns in Italy, which Dalton detests due to their low quality. However, Rick finds some hope in the fact that actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) & her husband, director Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha), have moved in next door to his house on Cielo Drive, as befriending them could be the rebound he needs for his career. That night, Tate & Polanski attend a party at the Playboy Mansion, where Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) tells a story about how Tate left hairdresser Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) for Polanski, but Sebring is, more or less, a third wheel that Tate will go to if the relationship between her & Polanski sours.
The next day, Dalton goes to work on the set of Lancer, the new Western TV series starring James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant) & Wayne Maunder (Luke Perry). The pilot episode Dalton is appearing in is being directed by American expatriate Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond). Booth tries to see if he can work on set, but Dalton tells him he can't, since Randy (Kurt Russell), a stuntman, is on the set as well, & he deeply despises Booth, not only for the rumors which his wife Janet (Zoë Bell) believes, but also due to Booth's destructive fight with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet. On set, Dalton strikes up a conversation with Trudi Fraser (Julia Butters), a young method actress.
After fixing Dalton's TV antenna, Booth drives around. He eventually picks up a hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), & drives her to Spahn's Movie Ranch, a ranch used for filming Westerns some years prior. He does this since he knew the owner, George Spahn (Bruce Dern), who has let Pussycat & some other people live on his ranch, including Charles Manson (Damon Herriman), Charles "Tex" Watson (Austin Butler), Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Dakota Fanning), & Gypsy (Lena Dunham).
Meanwhile, as Dalton works on Lancer, & Booth runs into the Manson Family, Tate goes to see herself in the film The Wrecking Crew. All of these storylines will eventually coalesce on one night in August.
The cast is terrific. Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of his three best performances. He is commanding, sincere, & hilarious all at once. Brad Pitt is at his most humorous in years, further showing that he is as terrific in comedic roles as he is on dramatic roles. Margot Robbie is absolutely phenomenal as Sharon Tate, bringing her back to life & embodying everything we loved about her.
From the supporting cast, Margaret Qualley, Mike Moh & Julia Butters are the standouts. Qualley gives a very mystical touch to her performance, covering her character in mystery. Mike Moh brings Bruce Lee back to life. And Julia Butters is wonderful as a precocious child actress, & I hope she gets more roles after her performance here. The rest of the supporting cast, especially Austin Butler, Luke Perry, & Al Pacino, give great performances.
Quentin Tarantino's direction is phenomenal. Tarantino's sense of world-building is turned up to 100, as he makes us feel like we're back in 1969, when the streets of Los Angeles were draped in neon & the counterculture ruled society. He also brings back his trademark visual style, where the visuals are visceral & bursting with energy. And, surprisingly for him, the atmosphere has no sense of nihilism or bleakness, but is instead filled with nothing but pure warmth & sincerity for the people, the time, & the place.
Quentin Tarantino's screenplay is brilliant. The plot is always ready to keep us on the edge of our seats & subvert our expectations. The characters are wonderfully realized, & also lovingly idiosyncratic. And the dialogue is, as always for a Tarantino film, perfect.
Robert Richardson's cinematography is gorgeous. Richardson colorfully paints 1969 Los Angeles in neon colors & bright sunshine, always giving us a huge burst of nostalgia for the time period. And when it couldn't get better, it does; its projection on film gives it more of a timeless quality, perfectly fitting that wondrous era. If you get the chance, please see it on 35mm film (or, if you're lucky, 70mm film).
Fred Raskin's editing is excellent. For a film that runs over 2.5 hours, the film races by so quick. Also, it is so perfectly cut, using fast cutting the way it should be used.
Arianne Phillips' costume design is beautiful. The costumes are so colorful, period-accurate, & just so lovely to look at.
Barbara Ling's production design is spectacular. The set completely immerses us in 1969, with all the colorful architectural styles & studio backlots perfectly matching the era.
The makeup & hairstyling is superb. The makeup is colorful, & the hairstyling is completely period-accurate & lovingly realized.
The sound design is impeccable. The sounds are perfectly edited & mixed, especially when it comes to the sounds of Tarantino's trademark violence.
And the soundtrack is incredible. The music of the era becomes a character in & of itself. With songs such as Deep Purple's Hush, Neil Diamond's Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show, The Buchanan Brothers' Son of a Lovin' Man, Los Bravos' Bring a Little Lovin', The Mamas & the Papas' Twelve Thirty (Young Girls are Coming to the Canyon), Vanilla Fudge's You Keep Me Hangin' On, & The Rolling Stones' Out of Time, the soundtrack is a mix of major hits, one-hit wonders, & lesser-known singles that perfectly serves as a backdrop to the characters & the setting.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is one of Tarantino's three best works, along with Jackie Brown & Inglourious Basterds. It is Tarantino at his most laid-back, sincere, & hilarious, but above all, it is a gorgeous love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was seen by me at the MJR Marketplace Digital Cinema 20 in Sterling Heights, MI on Thursday, July 25, 2019. It is in theaters everywhere, & it is showing on 35mm film at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, MI. Its runtime is 161 minutes, & it is rated R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, & sexual references.