Quentin Tarantino is one of just a handful of directors that demands his movies be appointment viewing upon release. For his ninth, and self-proclaimed penultimate film, Tarantino takes a step back from the ludicrous and paints a deeply personal homage to the history of Hollywood and movie mystique. Behind powerhouse performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood firmly cements itself among the year’s best, and one of Tarantino’s most relatable films.

DiCaprio plays the part of Rick Dalton, a once famed television actor that’s coming to grips with becoming a has-been. Accompanying Dalton is his job-seeking but effortlessly cool stunt double, Cliff Booth, played Pitt. The story centers around these two characters as they traverse glorified Hollywood in the late 1960s with the looming clouds of Charles Manson’s clout casting shadows.

Tarantino didn’t pull any stops recruiting another immense cast. Besides the big tickets of DiCaprio and Pitt, there is also Margot Robbie playing the famous femme, Sharon Tate. The top-billed trio is joined by Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis and Al Pacino; that’s just to name a few. While all the parts vary in terms of length and importance to the main plot, every recognizable face has a chance to shine.

The brightest part of Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood is the one and only Brad Pitt. Walking out of the theater, it’s impossible to not think, or even verbally say, “Brad Pitt has still got it!” Playing the part of Booth, the audience explores all the different parts of Hollywood through his point of view. Spending a lot of time driving with Booth, he acts as the audience’s tour guide taking the viewers to the bustling studio lots, to Dalton’s classic LA home, and to the old Spahn Movie Ranch. It’s through these different environments that Tarantino paints his nostalgia, combining his love for movie history with his fascination in creating history with his own imagination and motivation.

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Pitt is effortlessly cool. His performance of Cliff Booth is like a combination of Randy Newman’s Luke from Cool Hand Look and Steve McQueen’s Bullitt in Bullitt. Pitt has the screen warp around him wherever he saunters. There is no boring scene throughout Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, and Booth’s character has arguably his hands in two of the top three. In particular, his visit to Spahn Movie Ranch. When that scene unfolds, pay attention to the way Tarantino stages and scores the action.

There is a backstory to Booth’s character that is an odd choice. A man that is shrouded by an air of mystery has a flashback scene that directly puts the audience in crux of which version of Booth’s personal history is made up and, which is true. It is all up to interpretation.

DiCaprio takes to Tarantino like a fish does to water. In 2012 he played the hideously evil and historically-underrated antagonist Calvin Candie in Django Unchained. Now in Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, he turns the tide and plays someone who is begging for sympathy and understanding, the self-reflexive Rick Dalton.

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It is a bit of a cliché to say an actor is showing vulnerability, but the part DiCaprio plays forces that description. He is playing the part of a fading star that Tarantino has seen in the movie industry his whole entire life. This is really outlined in the opening 10 minutes of the movie when industry executive Marvin Schwarzs, played by Pacino, explains to Dalton the slippery slope he is on. The monologue has to be a direct highway to the thoughts of Tarantino; it is too specific and honed in to be something written without personal backing.

Dalton’s fragile mindset is explored most in the middle third of the movie. There’s a therapeutic conversation with a young eight-year old actress by the name of Trudi, played fantastically by Julia Butters. It’s followed Dalton’s brittle confidence getting a spotlight when he breakdowns in his trailer. It’s personal to watch DiCaprio portray the frustration of Dalton’s character that he himself has surely felt in his own illustrious actor career.

One little poke of fun I loved about Dalton’s character is his anti-stance on Italian Westerns…AKA Spaghetti Westerns. He is initially against the idea of them despite that fact that in true-to-life, Sergio Leone is known for making those types of movies international box office and critical successes.

Both Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio are at the top of their games. Both will be nominated for Academy Awards.

Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood is the second ever pairing for DiCaprio and Margot Robbie. First playing across from one another in A Wolf On Wall Street, the two had different relationship in this latest go around. Robbie, playing Sharon Tate, is the audience avatar for late 1960s Hollywood.

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Being married to Roman Polanski, played by Rafal Zawierucha, Tate is excited to be part of the bustling industry. We see her go and watch herself in a motion picture and take in the reaction to the crowd around her. Tate is part of the reaction, taking in what’s happening without truly knowing what some of the fading stars like Dalton are having to endure. Tate, and the aforementioned Trudi, represent the innocence in Hollywood of those who don’t know the tribulations.

Special shout outs to actor Mike Moh for his portrayal of Bruce Lee and Kurt Russell and Zoë Bell for their acting as a spousal production couple. Together that trio work with Pitt for a truly remarkable scene; one that could be a selling point for Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood on its own.

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The dialogue of Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood is not the snappy, quick-tongued type like many of his other films. It has a most regular-person human quality; talk that is shared between casual friends rather than rap-battlers type. With that being said, the absurdity and cleverness of a Tarantino’s story line and script does not dissipate. Whether or not you know the true-life story of Sharon Tate’s murder, it is obvious in a good way that Tarantino is putting his own twist on history. All of the vignettes entwine to set a tone that is playful but unpredictable.

Tarantino is not afraid of the violence and in Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, he cranks it up to 11 in quite a hurry. The way his movies glorify the lead-up to and eventual viciousness isn’t mirrored in the same way in this tale, but the end result is still the perfect “oh that is nasty but OH GOD I CAN’T LOOK AWAY.” The final act Tarantino conducts leaves that audience wanting this two hour and forty-minute story to continue on even further. Make it five hours, Quentin. Show us what else you your version of Hollywood 1969 includes.

Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood is going to take many viewings to fully appreciate. Like any Tarantino movie, there are so many details packed in that it is impossible to recognize them in one watch. Every time Booth is in car driving there is something playing on that radio that is historically and culturally relevant. Every store, restaurant or movie theater that is passed has been hand-picked by Tarantino himself. Same goes for the music. There are very few directors that can intertwine songs into movies that way Tarantino can. Vanilla Fudge’s “You Keep Hangin’ On” sticks out, but there is a full medley of songs that are both recognizable and unknown. Each song when you listen to the lyrics plays to the scene in the movie wonderfully. When re-watching Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, pay attention to the songs and when they cue in and out.

Tarantino loves the movie industry, even with all its warts and speed bumps. He shows that appreciation in Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood. It’s safe to expect that Tarantino will earn his fourth Academy Award nominee for Best Original Screenplay. He won in 2013 for Django Unchained after having lost out on Inglorious Bastards and Pulp Fiction. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Robert Richardson get nominated for cinematography, which would be his fourth nomination while working with Tarantino.

Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood is one of the best films of 2019 and deserves to be in consideration for Best Picture at the 2020 Oscars. It is classic but worthy Academy bait; it is a love poem to the industry and its history but still manages to be an original idea that’ll drive solid box office numbers. DiCaprio and Pitt will both clean up well come awards season and I think America itself owes a big thank you to those two stars and the big kahuna Tarantino himself for breathing some life into the 2019 movie calendar with a wonderful and inventive time at the movies.

Stanko Rating: A-

“Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” IMDB
“Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” Rotten Tomatoes

P.S. If you want insight on Quentin Tarantino and his love for Hollywood, I strong recommend the “Quentin Tarantino’s Feature Presentation” podcast presented by The Ringer. Hosted by Amy Nicholson, who also has a great podcast “Unspooled” interviews the Hollywood juggernaut about his inspiration and journey into the industry. If you listen, it may help understand some of the references in Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood.

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