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Quentin Tarantino is one of the best filmmakers of all-time. He has undeniable talent behind the camera, and his movies are fated to leave a mark in each year they’re released. In addition to that, he’s also an extraordinary screenwriter, as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood proves once again. His knowledge of the early decades of film is vast, so every feature he produces is always going to be filled with references to those “fairy tale” years. And that’s precisely what this movie is: a fairy tale in Hollywood, hence its title. Let me just leave this here right off the bat: I’m not going to address any controversy surrounding this film (namely, the whole Bruce Lee depiction and the Manson Family, in general), as I’m always fair and impartial to the movie I’m reviewing. Moving on …
My knowledge of the 60s isn’t that good. Obviously, I know the whole Sharon Tate story, as well as the famous Manson murders, but when it comes to actual films from that decade, well … Probably, I only know a few by name, a classic scene, or a memorable soundtrack. Tarantino uses his large runtime to place tons of references to that period, and that’s one of the reasons the first act of the movie drags. There’s a lot of time spent with characters just driving cars while listening to music (references in the songs), wide shots of the city as they drive by (references in the buildings), or even just playing an LP and dancing to it (reference in the songs, again).
I understand that these mean something, but if they don’t develop the character in any way, then these are just Easter Eggs and have no impact on the actual narrative. The first hour or so is filled with sequences which sole purpose is to show how much Tarantino knows about that time, and there’s nothing wrong with it, as long as it tells a story. That’s the second issue I have with the first act: it takes too long to establish its characters, and there’s no apparent objective within the story. It feels like a person just strolling around with no destination, which in itself isn’t a bad thing. But if you put together repetitive sequences plus a story that no one knows where it’s going or how it connects to the only thing people are actually expecting (the Sharon Tate event), then you’ll bore the hell out of the audience (a lot of people constantly left my theater to get more food or something, and they weren’t in a hurry).
Nevertheless, from the moment we start understanding who Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth are, what they do, what they did, and what they want with their lives, then the film becomes incredibly captivating. It’s definitely a character-driven story. It’s a fairy tale where Rick tries his best to overcome his own personal issues to be the very best movie star, after being on an exponentially negative path. Cliff, as his stunt double, lives off of his buddy by doing everything he needs around the house and everywhere else. These two are inseparable, and their scenes are always filled with laughter and joy, even in the darkest moments. OUATIH works because of its beautifully-written characters.
If you don’t care about them, then you won’t enjoy the film at all. In addition to this, if you don’t know anything regarding the art of filmmaking, then you’ll probably hate it since it will become extremely dull. It’s one of those movies that anyone can like. However, for someone who knows and understands how films are made, it will always be a better time at the theater. You can love this movie, sure. But if you love filmmaking and you have knowledge of its techniques, you’ll love it even more. There are so many technical achievements worthy of appreciation that I can’t get to all of them, so I’ll just address two of my favorites. The first has to be the black-and-white flicks inside the actual film. Putting Leonardo DiCaprio acting on classic westerns with over-the-top performances is an absolute delight. Watching those features in a 4:3 black-and-white screen, filled with classic sound effects, and cheesy one-liners … Wonderful.
The second allows for my favorite scenes of the whole movie: the extensive one-take dialogues. I mean, 10 or 15-minute sequences where DiCaprio just gives it his all. This is how every single film should be done. There’s even a joke in the movie where Rick criticizes a particular type of filmmaking because they would film every character separately saying their lines and then editing them together. Unfortunately, that’s how most features are done today. Therefore, from watching a simple dialogue scene with DiCaprio and Julia Butters (a 10-year-old little girl!) to a bar sequence which belongs to a movie Rick is filming (this one even has Rick asking his lines, and the camera has to go back to its starting point), everything with no cuts whatsoever … What can I ask more from a director?!
Obviously, if this is a character-driven narrative, the cast has to be genuinely compelling. Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie … I mean, do I even need to explain how phenomenal they are? DiCaprio proves once again he’s one of the greatest actors of all-time. The ability that he has to put 200% in every single scene is unbelievable. I even started to tear up once his character is able to find his footing, solely due to the actor’s performance. The Oscar nom is guaranteed, let’s see about the win. Brad Pitt also has tons of nominations on his lap with an astonishing supporting display. He has a subtle performance, but it’s pretty incredible how much he can transmit to the audience by putting (apparently) so little effort. Margot Robbie doesn’t have that much screentime, but her character had the simple objective of showing how glamorous and dreamy an actress’ life could be at that time, so she didn’t exactly need to deliver her A-game.
It’s always good to see Al Pacino (Marvin Schwarz) on-screen, and I’m thrilled that Margaret Qualley (Pussycat), who I know from The Leftovers (one of the most underrated TV shows of the century), is finally getting some recognition. Technically, like I said above, it’s close to a masterpiece. It’s Tarantino, everyone knows what he’s capable of, but having in mind his most recent features, it’s a pleasant surprise and evidence of quality to the naysayers that he was able to produce a film with less bloody action. There are terrific demonstrations of great cinematography (Robert Richardson), and the editing is always impeccable in Tarantino’s features (this time due to Fred Raskin). The score is addictive, and it carries a very significant role in the movie. I would say that if Tarantino was able to shorten its runtime and control its pacing better, this would be a technically perfect film.
All in all, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood isn’t the best Quentin Tarantino’s movie, but it’s undoubtedly one of the year’s best. Filled with award-winning lead performances (second Oscar for DiCaprio, please), this character-driven story is packed with references to the 60s which will be the divisive point in whether people will enjoy the film or not. Its first act is slow and takes too long to set up its story, but from the moment it’s able to find its footing, it’s an entertaining ride. If you love filmmaking and you know the insides of the art, Tarantino delivers a near-perfect technical production. Its alternate ending to real-life events is meant to be controversial, but for me, it’s a vision of how everything should have happened if the world was fair or, indeed, a fairy tale … in Hollywood.