BRIAN VINER reviews Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood

Hooray for Hollywood! In his finest movie since Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino gives us a full-throttle tour of Tinseltown you will never forget: BRIAN VINER reviews Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood

In his finest movie since Pulp Fiction, Tarantino gives us a full-throttle tour of Tinserltown you will never forget.

Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood (18) 

Verdict: A real trip 


Fifty years ago last week, a grotesque series of murders in Los Angeles changed the mood, not just of a city or even a country, but of an era.

Seven people were indiscriminately slaughtered by crazed disciples of the cult leader Charles Manson. They included actress Sharon Tate, the young, heavily pregnant wife of film director Roman Polanski.

For many, those murders by the so-called Manson Family represented the most horribly abrupt end imaginable to the supposedly carefree Sixties.

Manson’s followers were hippies, who were meant to espouse ‘peace and love’. That fallacy died with Tate and her friends at 10050 Cielo Drive, in LA’s swanky Benedict Canyon neighbourhood. 

Quentin Tarantino’s latest blockbuster Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood follows the grotesque series of murders that took place in Los Angeles fifty years ago.  Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt both star in the film which is set to be Tarantino’s penultimate endeavour

Now, Quentin Tarantino has used that infamous event, and its traumatising effect on the movie community, as the backdrop to Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, which he tells us will be his penultimate film.

He will have to go some to beat it next time out. For me, his masterpiece will always be 1994’s Pulp Fiction, but this isn’t far behind, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt both on thunderously fine form.

As is Tarantino himself. Fans of his films will recognise many of his favourite themes, devices and quirks — tics, almost — but rarely have they meshed together so winningly.

DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a self-pitying TV actor worried his career is on the slide and aware that his excessive drinking might be accelerating his decline, but unable to stop. Pitt is Cliff Booth, Rick’s touchingly loyal friend and stunt double.

The story unfolds episodically, with a series of absorbing and sometimes extremely funny set-pieces that don’t particularly connect with each other. There is one priceless encounter between Cliff and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh).

Yet the narrative is driven by a simple, compelling, ominous fact: Rick has moved into a home on Cielo Drive. His next-door neighbours, much to his delight, are Polanski and Tate, the latter played very sweetly by Margot Robbie.

The film takes us on a journey towards that terrible night, but, on the way, Tarantino is in an incorrigibly playful mood.

He has a hoot depicting certain fixtures of Sixties Hollywood — indeed, one can almost hear him chuckling in his editing suite as he sweeps us off to a party at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion, where we find a stoned Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) running an appreciative eye over the female guests.

Margot Robbie takes on the role as Sharon Tate who was the young, heavily pregnant wife of film director Roman Polanski who was among the Manson family’s victims

Tarantino recreates the era meticulously, bombarding us with pop-culture references.

He has, in a way, made the film a love letter to his own square-eyed childhood, with copious references to the movies and TV shows of the time, such as Bonanza, as well as to Sixties fashion and music.

Yet it is also an examination of Hollywood as it teetered on the edge of change and grappled with the challenge of television.

Rick himself has been the star of a Bonanza-type series called Bounty Law, but a hotshot agent-producer — played with glorious, cigar-chomping swagger by Al Pacino — tells him that his career is going nowhere and he needs to get some film roles.

Rick duly lands one, a Western, with Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond) directing, enabling Tarantino to indulge himself with a movie-camera version of a hall of mirrors — DiCaprio playing a baddie being directed by Wanamaker, in turn being directed by Tarantino.

The film explores how Charles Manson’s followers, who were hippies, were meant to espouse ‘peace and love’ but instead indiscriminately slaughtered innocent people 

Rick’s insecurity is encapsulated in a great scene with a child actor, a precocious little girl, who tells him afterwards that she has never seen such excellent acting. He is absurdly chuffed.

Really, he is a self-absorbed wreck of a man and owes far more than he realises to the staunch Cliff, who, after driving Rick back to his handsome bungalow, goes home each night to his humble trailer and devoted dog.

Cliff is unequivocally the hero — but even he has a major skeleton in his closet, with which Tarantino naughtily tantalises us.

Mind you, it isn’t as naughty as the film’s extraordinary, provocative ending, which hasn’t pleased everyone, but seemed to me a touch of genius.

There are so many memorable sequences — and a clutch of eye-catching turns in little more than cameos from stars such as Kurt Russell (who also narrates), Dakota Fanning and Bruce Dern.

There is also, this being a Tarantino picture, a full repertoire of his tricks: voiceovers, split-screens, quirky captions, slow-mo, flashbacks. But they all add to the fun.

Dern plays George Spahn, the old reprobate who owned the ranch where Manson and his disciples hatched their evil.

So behind that fun there is genuine tension as the story inexorably (though not, it has to be said, concisely) moves towards a bloody ending that we all already know… or think we do.

Let’s not dwell on the Tate murders. Let’s just say, to use the vernacular of 1969, that Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood is an absolute trip.

So where does it stand in his catalogue of modern classics? 

Quentin Tarantino has often said he will make only ten films, of which Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood is the ninth. So how does it compare with the others? Here is my ranking of the movies he has made since he burst on to the scene with Reservoir Dogs in 1992, in time-honoured reverse order

 9. Death Proof (2007) 

Tarantino’s interest in brutality and fetishism is unleashed with too much relish in this exploitation slasher movie starring Kurt Russell. 

8. Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2 (2003/4) 

Volume I in particular is an ineffably stylish martial arts revenge thriller, but Tarantino sees these two movies as halves of a whole, and, if he has one flaw as a filmmaker, it’s that he takes too long to tell his stories. 

7. The Hateful Eight (2015) 

Tarantino’s own alltime favourite film is The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, and he indulges his passion for old Westerns by making this a conspicuous homage.

6. Inglourious Basterds (2009) 

One of Tarantino’s greatest scenes kicks off this wild World War II drama: a gut-wrenchingly tense encounter between Christoph Waltz’s urbane SS colonel and a French dairy farmer hiding Jews in his cellar.  

5. Django Unchained (2012) 

His first Western bears Tarantino’s best-known hallmarks — extreme violence, witty dialogue and terrible revenge. 

4. Jackie Brown (1997) 

Based on an Elmore Leonard novel, this showed — following Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction — that Tarantino could adapt another’s material as stylishly as he could originate his own. 

3. Reservoir Dogs (1992) 

Tarantino could hardly have announced his arrival more spectacularly than with this outrageously violent and funny heist thriller. It earned him, before his 30th birthday, instant comparisons with the likes of Sam Peckinpah and Martin Scorsese. 

2. Once Upon A Time …In Hollywood (2019) 

See review above. 

1. Pulp Fiction (1994) 

The greatest and most influential of Tarantino’s works, hailed as a reinvention of the gangster film, and certainly a reinvention of John Travolta, superb as one of a pair of mob enforcers (Samuel L. Jackson is the other). 

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