It would probably be safe to say that Quentin Tarantino has meandered a little creatively over the last several years, right? Since Death Proof, which was a bland version of Grindhouse for him, he did Inglourious Basterds (his WWII revenge-y film take) Django Unchained (kind of the same but in the South during the Civil War) and Hateful Eight (a film based on a story he'd been writing for a while before that). When I saw the rather extensive cast of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood I got a little concerned that the film would be just an excuse for people to brag about working with QT, get a line or two in a film and said film be a bit of a mess storytelling wise. Glad I was wrong!
Tarantino's ninth screenwriting and directing effort focuses in 1969 Hollywood, with Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, Django) as a centerpiece of sorts. Dalton was the star of a Western television show on network television and had fallen on hard professional times, and was trying to reconcile taking on lesser roles in productions while weighing overseas offers. His longtime stunt double and friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, Basterds) tries to keep him balanced and stable while trying to get jobs on his own here and there, all of this set against the backdrop of the months and hours leading up to the Tate-Labianca murders that summer at the hands of the Manson family.
I think a couple of differences in the film are notable, the first being QT writing about something he knows a lot about. Sure, we know the origin story and that he has an encyclopedic knowledge of film, which has helped him in numerous storytelling situations through the years. But as one who was a fan of the way he handled Elmore Leonard's book for Jackie Brown I think this was something he grew up around, had an intimate knowledge with and leveraged his film knowledge in the process to make something special. The Manson family's acts helped serve as a change for America on a societal level. But at the micro level, Rick is trying to hold onto something, whether it's glory, fame, money in big roles, I don't know. But Westerns made in America were definitely falling out of favor around that period, if not before, and seeing him try to reconcile that, and DiCaprio's handling of it, provides some comic undertones that are welcome to distract from whatever dread you feel as things march to August 1969. Brad Pitt is cool, he's tough, he's the one every man wants to be and every woman wants to be with. So he's kind of playing himself I guess?
It kind of leads me to the other observation, which is that Tarantino is looking at the era, and isn't that concerned with how the characters evolve in his story. Or perhaps he knows where they're going to go anyway, so why not have a sense of melancholy around the time, where people were exceedingly friendly, had no qualms picking up hitchhikers while blasting Paul Revere or the Beach Boys. That's the era he grew up with and seeing that change as he did was something he wanted to try and mimic somehow. Apparently Margot Robbie (who plays Sharon Tate) was the subject of some curiosity because the film, while having this component about her life, had not that much participation by Robbie in it. To reiterate the point, it looks at the era and getting Tate looped into the story would only serve to muddle the view of her in the film, which I think is a helluva lot better than the view that most have of her now. It humanizes her in a way that few have thought to do, and Robbie is wonderful in the role.
As far as concerns about the sheer number of people in the film, I think those concerns are now unfounded. The movie's long for sure (more than two and a half hours), but by putting August 1969 as far out as possible, it allows QT to give all those names a chance for a moment or two while at the same time wondering how the end will be portrayed, even as Rick and Cliff (your two entirely fake actors in this very real era) try to figure out where the beginning of their third acts of life are going to be. Any missteps in OuaTiH are brief and inconsequential to the overall film.
It may be his ninth film, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino's most personal and perhaps his most emotionally nuanced one to date. Filled with an ensemble willing to jump through the hoops he builds and challenges many of them to their best work in years. The ending may feel like a cheat initially, but after seeing it a second time recently, I can get behind the motivation for it. Avoid going in with preconceived notions and you'll wind up having a better time than you'd expect.The Blu-ray:
The AVC encode given to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood looks excellent in 1080p (looking forward to a 4K upgrade on my end!), with lots of color in the Sunset Boulevard lights, or the sun overhead as Cliff works on Rick's TV antenna. Flesh tones are natural and present fine detail like on Cliff's chin. Robert Richardson gets the chance to do a myriad of things in the film and shoots on a variety of film stock, all of which look good on Blu-ray and looking date and purposely inherent to the source. This looks as great as you would hope it would.The Sound:
Sony gives the film a DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack which rumbles early in the film as Cliff takes Rick to the set in his car, the rumble of the motor making your floorboards rumble. The Tarantino music cues sound as clean as can be (I heard yet another version of the Rolling Stones' "Out of Time" deep into the film and could discern the subtleties in it), and punches and kicks present enough of a thud to put you into the middle of the fight. Dialogue is generally clean and consistent and overall the film is a gem technically.Extras:
The thing that was touted on the video release were a series of deleted scenes (7, 25:01) that while nice, is the biggest extra on the set. Sure, you get Walton Goggins, James Marsden (as Burt Reynolds!) and I think Clifton Collins back from the cutting room, and Damon Herriman's Manson gets a little more frantic and less ominous, but it's nothing too big that makes you pine for an alternate cut. "Love Letter to Hollywood" (5:00) is Tarantino's look at 1969 and the cast and crew's takes on QT's interpretation. "For the Love of Film" (4:34) is Richardson's thoughts on the project, film choices, and whatnot. "Shop Talk" (5:58) looks at the cars in the film, "Fashion of 1969" (6:37) is just that, and "Restoring Hollywood" (9:18) examines the film's production design and changing 2018 Hollywood to its half century older version, and the production's respective opinions on it.Final Thoughts:
In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood you get a familiar directorial face telling a story he could tell and having a lot of resources to help him do so with a balance that most of his other work hasn't had in some time. Tarantino gives you the end of eras on two different levels and does so with humor, drama and comedy that those he works with deliver on. The film looks and sounds great, but the deleted scenes don't distract you from a generally scant video package. Still, if you haven't seen the film yet, you've got to rectify that in short order.