Cinematic Releases: You Always Need a Good Stuntman: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

Quentin Tarantino has completed his ninth film, and regardless of one's feelings about his work, whenever he releases a new project it's an event. Tarantino is often criticized for his love of homage (or "ripping off" depending on who you talk to) but his love for genre films shines through in every piece he makes. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) he focuses less on emulating an era of film and more on romanticizing the late '60s film industry.

The story follows TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) who is trying to transition from television to acting in feature films. His best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is always by his side, not only working with him in the industry but doing personal errands for him as well. Their friendship is the linchpin of the narrative, co-existing with a parallel re-imagining of  the relationship of real life director Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and his then wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). The story builds up to the infamous situation surrounding Tate's murder by the Manson family.

While Tarantino's previous films have often tried to slavishly replicate the style of older movies, particularity grindhouse and exploitation, he uses a different method in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The events of the film itself are directed in a modern style, albeit being a period piece, and Tarantino uses clips of fictional movies to play around with homage. These fictional shows and movies that Dalton stars in range from TV shows all the way to spaghetti westerns and this is an excellent way to have a little fun without disrupting the story too much. This is a film about making films and the meta nature of the concept is executed well, bolstered by Tarantino's patented snappy editing, dialogue, and framing.

There was a bit of controversy regarding Margot Robbie's role as Sharon Tate and the amount of screen time she has, but dialogue isn't the sole component of acting. Robbie has a fantastic presence in this film, and where a lesser director would have focused on the devastating nature of her character, Tarantino decided to humanize her instead. There is a wonderful scene where Tate goes to see a movie she starred in and she exudes pure joy at seeing herself on the screen. These are the moments that should be remembered about her, and it's refreshing to see a female character not be defined by tragedy, but by her happiness.

The main theme of the film is about the transition from the old to the new with Dalton having a mid-life crisis trying to adapt to an ever changing industry. He is from the old school of acting where the actor's real life identity takes precedence over the character he is playing and he is having to contend with the shift from theatrical style acting to naturalistic/method acting. DiCaprio knocks it out of the park with his portrayal and his chemistry with Pitt is extremely entertaining. The entire ensemble cast is on point and while the cameos are hot and heavy, nobody ever seems out of place.

As entertaining and well made the film is, there are some pacing issues, particularly in the second act. It feels a bit meandering and unfocused at times and this is definitely one of Tarantino's more self indulgent works. Occasionally, it seems as though he is self-referencing his own style, perhaps adding in nods and winks to his earlier work (there is a ridiculous amount of shots of feet, for example, almost to the point of it being self parody) and it might be too much for those viewers who are not fond of his quirks.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a love letter to not only Hollywood but the art of film making itself, and a sentimental "what if" fairy tale that envisions a world where a different trajectory was taken. What if they could live happily ever after?

--Michelle Kisner