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Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood Review
"It's official old buddy, I'm a has-been." - Rick Dalton

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How weird. Despite Quentin Tarantino being one of my all-time favourite directors, even making it to my top three with Spielberg and Hitchcock, it strikes me that I’ve never actually reviewed any of his films, in all the years I’ve been reviewing films – which is getting to the point that I’ve been doing this longer than I’m comfortable remembering.

When Tarantino came to my attention, he was responsible for directing three films, reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. Each film was captivating and held its own unique appeal. Pulp Fiction instantly became one of my favourite films, despite its meandering, non linear and hard to explain plot.

Kill Bill was another instant hit. As soon as the film started, I knew exactly what Tarantino was doing, what he was channelling because I remember those imported martial arts films and kung-fu craze of the seventies. I saw several of them at the cinema. (Underage of course. But that was a large part of the appeal.) Deathproof – again, having seen films like Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry and Vanishing Point and having sat through screenings of grindhouse type films in the seventies, I got it. The fact that parts of some reels appeared to be missing and the resulting jump cuts and crackly sound recording brought back a wave of nostalgia to when films didn’t have gorgeous, all enveloping Dolby Atmos. Everything wasn’t optimised to absolute perfection and audiences were still content to sit and be happily absorbed by what they saw.

Inglorious Basterds was a slow burn, but I still got its “B” movie origins. Django Unchained neds another viewing, I’ve only seen it once and it’s probably time for a reassessment and I have to admit, I’ve never watched Hateful Eight, as I didn’t really feel like watching another Tarantino western – this is despite my owning it on Blu-ray. It’s still unopened, in its cellophane. But that’s going to change.

I was convinced that Tarantino’s real glory days were behind him, that we’d seen the last of his really, REALLY great movies – probably with Kill Bill.

Then, I started getting some word of mouth about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The good word of mouth became a positive buzz, which became a deluge of praise. I was told that Tarantino was back firing on all cylinders, and I admit when I had heard both the title and direction of this new project, I’d hoped this would be the case.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is one of the best films of the year, and I’d be really surprised if it didn’t win a well-deserved Oscar. This is Tarantino’s loving homage to late sixties Hollywood. A Hollywood that was beginning to crumble under the weight of its own ego and vanity, its golden age a memory in the throes of being tarnished by the unrelenting march of time.  The world was moving on, films were changing as was society itself. Vietnam, civil rights, civil unrest, the hippie movement were all contributing to a tectonic shift in the fabric of American life, and Hollywood was slow to respond. It has been said that this particular age of Hollywood naivete ended in 1969 with the Charles Manson murders.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood isn’t a documentary – it’s a fictionalised depiction of Hollywood at that particular time. Yes, real, actual people are referenced – but in a fictional way. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) never made a film with director Sam Wanamaker because Dalton, unlike Wanamaker, never existed. Bruce Lee never had a two out of three falls encounter with stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) on the set of The Green Hornet for the same reason, and on and on. But within the fictional framework of the script, it’s fun to imagine if all this did happen.

I’ve read criticisms about the film’s inaccuracies but really, those people need to chill the hell out because the clue is actually in the title – “Once upon a time…” What Tarantino is doing here, clearly, is exactly what he did with Inglorious Basterds which started with those three words and proceeded to tell us a story where Hitler died at the hands of the heroes.  Sadly, by the time the film finished, some of the audiences had forgotten that the film started with once upon a time, and were left confused that a band of mismatched heroes killed Hitler. They’ll no doubt be equally confused by the ending of this movie, which although I won’t give away here – I found enormously satisfying.

So, what’s the film actually about? Well, as I’ve said, it’s a fictionalised account set against a factual backdrop of events. Rick Dalton is a fading star of black and white TV westerns in the sixties. Once a huge favourite in his weekly TV show, he is now relegated to playing the bad guy on other shows that have replaced his. He’s depressed, disillusioned, reluctant to accept his fate as a has-been. Cliff Booth is his stunt stand-in and general helper. Remembering his glory years, Dalton’s Bounty Killer TV show is show to us in a series of clips where Tarantino lovingly recreates the look and feel of those TV westerns like Rawhide and Maverick which were shown when I was a child.

Earlier, I mentioned Charles Manson, who also is a small part of this film, but there’s a bigger focus on his real-life victim Sharon Tate, played with guile-less wide eyed innocence by Margot Robbie who is undoubtedly one of Hollywood’s most accomplished actresses – and I’m not saying this because of her stunningly psychotic portrayal of Harley Quinn in the Suicide Squad, I’m thinking more of her performance in I, Tonya.

The film runs close to three hours, but the running time isn’t noticeable. The time just slips away as you’re swept along with an absorbing fantasy movie that hits every note as it unspools. This truly is Tarantino at his best, with witty quotable dialogue delivered by likeable rogue characters which include Kurt Russell as a stunt co-ordinator (sadly not Deathproof’s Stuntman Mike, though) Al Pacino as a movie mogul, Australian stunt performer Zoe Bell from Deathproof and a cameo for Michael Madsen.

As with any Tarantino film, there is extreme and explosive violence delivered here on a par with anything we’ve ever seen the director deliver before – maybe even a little bit further – but you know that violence is part of the package of a Tarantino movie when you buy your ticket.

In summary, all I can say is welcome back, Quentin. I’ve missed you.


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