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.