There’s a truism about golf that focusing on your grip and overthinking your swing is the easiest way to sabotage your own game. I’m not really sure how true that is, because the closest I’ve ever gotten to a golfball field was the Mountasia mini-golf course that used to sit where my favorite barbeque joint now resides. But I’ve heard the same said of everything from tennis to endurance racing to sex, so I’ll assume there’s some validity to it.
Given that, it’s sort of amazing that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s ninth and reportedly penultimate film, isn’t an absolute swing-and-a-miss. Throughout the film’s 160-minute runtime, it’s pretty obvious QT positively obsessed over every aspect of not just this film but his entire oeuvre, as well as every single trope that has defined his style.
That could have something to do with the fact that this film was in the works when longtime collaborator Harvey Weinstein was outed for years of predatory sexual assault. This is also Tarantino’s first film since he got caught in the crossfire between Weinstein and former muse Uma Thurman, and took responsibility for a car crash that seriously injured her during the filming of Kill Bill. (For what it’s worth, Thurman’s daughter Maya Hawke plays a small but pivotal role in Once Upon a Time, which lends some credibility to Uma and Quentin’s apparent reconciliation.)
I normally wouldn’t mention such behind-the-scenes controversies in a review, since they normally have no bearing on the quality of the work in and of itself. But despite the fact that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has been brewing in the back of Tarantino’s mind for a decade now, you can see the fingerprints of all of the above throughout the film. You can also see the filmmaker grappling with, reflecting upon, embracing, and/or altering the formula that has defined his career.
Say what you will about Tarantino as a filmmaker—and I’ve criticized him as often as I’ve lauded him—there’s simply no denying that it takes serious talent to juggle all of those balls in broad daylight and still hit one out of the park. (And I swear to you, that will be the last ham-fisted sports metaphor I attempt to make in the course of this review.) Once Upon a Time is the first Tarantino film I’ve genuinely enjoyed since 2007’s Death Proof, and it’s arguably his best since 2004’s Kill Bill: Volume 2. What isn’t really up for argument is that it’s his most mature and personal work by far, which is a bit of a conundrum given that this is ultimately a comedy.
I won’t dig too much into the plot for numerous reasons, but suffice to say, the story centers on the relationship between an actor who is past his prime and the longtime stuntman who functions as his right hand, confidant, and personal assistant of sorts. The interactions between these two—played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, who turn in some of the best work either has ever committed to the screen—form the bedrock of what could almost be described as a tone poem about the end of an era, personally, culturally, and politically. It’s a rumination on the changing landscape of Hollywood and of society as a whole at the end of the turbulent 1960s.
While DiCaprio and Pitt stand at the center of this loose tale, though, they can’t really be described as its heart. That function belongs to Margot Robbie, who positively mesmerizes as Sharon Tate, one of a number of real-world figures who populate the wholly (and I do mean wholly) fictionalized world of Tarantino’s film.
QT’s handling of Tate as a character is honestly one of the film’s most fascinating elements. He doesn’t put her on a pedestal. He doesn’t objectify her. He doesn’t turn her into some magical, mythical, or tragic creature. He humanizes her, to a degree I’ve never seen in any of the fictionalized or dramatized portrayals of her. This, combined with Robbie’s pitch-perfect performance, gives her a presence that feels somewhat out of proportion with her relatively limited screen time, not to mention the minuscule amount of dialogue given to her.
Speaking of dialogue, that’s another thing that sets Once Upon a Time in Hollywood apart from Tarantino’s larger body of work. While his characters in previous films often feel like little more than delivery mechanisms for the words in the script, in this one the dialogue works first and foremost in service of the characters. True, those words are still too clever by half much of the time, but that trope works in this case, at least as well as it did in Pulp Fiction.
Once Upon a Time also leans hard on a number of other tried-and-true Tarantino tropes, though not always in the expected ways. As always, pop music plays a huge role in the soundtrack, though the filmmaker seems less interested in digging up long-forgotten deep cuts like “Stuck in the Middle with You” or “Flowers on the Wall,” relying instead of iconic cuts that evoke the era and the personal emotions he’s exploring.
Another trope Tarantino seems to be consciously grappling with is violence. I’ll admit, I’ve never had quite the problem with his use of gore and splatter as some critics, if only because it’s generally so over-the-top and obviously cartoonish that there’s only the most tenuous relationship between Tarantino’s violence and real-world bodily harm. In Once Upon a Time, though, not only is the violence massively downplayed; it’s also shockingly realistic. That combination—the overall lack of bloodshed combined with an undeniable lack of glorification or sensationalism when it does appear—honestly makes this film’s two or three brief violent scenes the exact opposite of cartoonish. In fact, they’re so brutal as to be difficult to watch.
I’m only guessing here, but it seems to me this is intentional. Indeed, one of the minor recurring themes of the film is the representation of violence in movies and TV (including Tarantino’s own previous efforts). Unsurprisingly, it’s a theme he handles with a hefty helping of Gen X irony. But the fact that he’s handling it so blatantly in the first place can’t go unnoticed.
One also can’t help but notice that Tarantino agonized over the look of the film. Shot on a combination of 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm film stock, the color portions of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are outright dazzling, even if the image seems to be a revolt against current digital video standards. If you’re a videophile, be prepared for some seriously crushed blacks, overly ruddy skin tones, primary colors that sizzle with near-neon intensity, and a defiant lack of dynamic range, especially on the lower end of the value scale.
I don’t say this as a criticism of the home video transfer, mind you. The Ultra HD/HDR presentation, especially the one provided by Kaleidescape, seems absolutely true to Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson’s artistic vision. I’m merely giving you a heads-up that if you go in expecting near-infinite shadow detail and subtlety in the color palette, you’re going to be a bit taken aback by what you see.
On the other hand, this is one of the few modern films that genuinely takes advantage of Ultra HD resolution, since it was finished in a 4K digital intermediate. And, indeed, the wider color gamut, as compared with the older HD home video standards, allows the extra intensity of those vibrant primary hues to shine through unscathed.
Interestingly, despite the overall lack of dynamic range on display, there is one very dark scene in the film that I think would have benefited from the dynamic metadata of Dolby Vision HDR. “Dynamic metadata” is just a jargony way of saying the overall dynamic range of the image can be adjusted on a scene-by-scene basis, and it’s one of the major advantages of Dolby Vision vs. HDR10. I know a Dolby Vision master was created for digital cinema exhibition, although the best we have on home video is the standard HDR10. Again, though, that one dark scene aside, the only time the film really calls for enhanced dynamic range is one or two rare instances of high-intensity brightness in the TV-pilot-within-a-film that comprises so much of the movie’s second act.
Overall, it’s a gorgeous film that is well-served by this home video presentation. It simply isn’t what most people would consider home theater demo material, because it has absolutely no interest in acting as such.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack accompanying the Kaleidescape download also does a wonderful job of delivering the film’s mix, which runs the gamut from safe and unobtrusive to unapologetically playful, depending on the needs of the scene. There are creative uses of the surround soundfield that will likely go unnoticed unless you’re taking notes and critiquing the mix from a technical perspective, and other, more obvious surround-sound tricks that seemingly serve Tarantino’s meta-purposes of making a film about filmmaking. But all of this really takes a backseat to what matters most: The fidelity of the soundtrack music and the intelligibility of the dialogue, both of which are unimpeachable.
It’s just a bummer that, for now, Sony Pictures seems fit to have left the Kaleidescape release of this film devoid of bonus features. I’m not quite ready to proclaim Once Upon a Time in Hollywood a masterpiece or anything, but it is a fascinating film made for lovers of cinema, and as such it deserves some supplemental exploration.
The upcoming UHD Blu-ray promises to be pretty packed with bonus goodies, and indeed, other digital releases already available include some substantial extras, including a documentary about how Tarantino transformed modern-day L.A. into a convincing recreation of its late-1960s equivalent without the use of computer effects, as well as over 20 minutes of deleted or alternate scenes. The latter are of particular interest, given that many of the scenes shown in trailers for the film appear nowhere in the finished product, and indeed seem to have no place in it.
Kaleidescape tells me these bonuses will be coming “in the next few weeks,” presumably closer to the disc release on December 10. So, don’t let the present lack thereof keep you from purchasing the film on Kaleidescape if that’s your preferred movie service.
As to whether you should purchase the film at all, no matter the platform, that’s a difficult question to answer. For Tarantino diehards, it’s a no-brainer. On the other hand, those of you who have never found anything to love in any of his films likely won’t be swayed by this one. Despite the obvious self-critique of his own cinematic shorthand, he still relies on it, though not as unapologetically as he’s done in the past.
For those like me who love some of Tarantino’s films and outright loathe or are bored to tears by others, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an interesting work. It isn’t perfect. It isn’t consistent. It is utterly captivating, though. So much so that I’ve been unable to think about much else since watching it.
Will it stand the test of time? Honestly, who knows? I will say this, though: After taking a bit more time to sort out my own thoughts on the film, I’m eager to dive back in and explore it at least one more time.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.