15 September 2019 3587 Views

Once upon a Time in Hollywood. The Best Film this Year?

by James Murphy

Summer is officially OVER! So it’s a fair time to look back as the Autumn / Fall approach..


Best movie of the summer and the year?  Well, it was not MEN IN BLACK INTERNATIONAL (pointless) or HOBBS AND SHAW (I hated it in every way possible). I have said already that SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME was a favourite. That’s down to sheer charm, personal attachment to its motifs and now the bittersweet realisation that the movie marked the end of Spidey in the Marvel Cinematic universe and possibly, the beginning of the end for both brands? Also, it’s a way of mourning Tony Stark and I don’t care if they have him cameo in Black Widow et al.

Equally, one can appreciate and even adore a movie in part because of what it embodies and represents and savour its qualities, without any great desire to see it again, whilst wishing it every success in every award ceremony going. And so it is with ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (OUATIH hereafter). This is a long review. But it’s a long movie, that speaks to the whole of the art-form. Critics must try and match that method, somehow.

I’m not writing a review here so much as a commentary and overview, attempting to do justice to a movie and its maker that by their very nature invite multiple, philosophical discussions. Plus, I’m low on editing time this week. 


I have no hesitation in recommending this masterpiece. You MUST watch it! See it in a Cinema / ‘theater’ if you can; before its home entertainment release.  This is a record breaker. 100 million plus at Box Office, despite lacking some super-hero sequel franchise credit with which to be propelled through the busy season. An ‘independent’ movie, albeit with a post Weinstein era, proper distribution from Columbia /Sony and the commercial clout of many a movie star on the cast list.

Plus, Tarantino: the man IS  a brand, himself. Nevertheless, one cannot avoid or diminish the achievements on display, both in terms of financial success and a fusion to still daringly creative choices.

He’s not the first guy to tackle the film industry as its own platform premise for an entertaining night at the movies. There have been countless ‘meta’ (love that word, btw) commentaries on Hollywood, from Hollywood, in Hollywood, down the years.

  • Some were dare one say it ever so slightly overrated (The Player). A few are still hilarious yet satirical in their day: SoapDish /BowFinger / Tootsie.
  • Hail Caesar was shamefully underrated and neglected and showed quite how great an actor Alden Ehrenreich can be. Sunset Boulevard is a meditation on ageing and power dynamics; its characters inhabit yet transcend ‘Hollywood’ life (also: GREAT musical soundtrack spun off from the source material).


  • Singin’ in the Rain is pure optimism and timeless beauty, whilst LA Confidential dwells in the underbelly and pulpy darkness of the entertainment world; providing a truly absorbing period piece thriller. And a first rate cast at the peak of their 1990s power (Russell Crowe, Kim Basinger, Danny DeVito, Guy Pearce, James Cromwell and yes, Kevin Spacey).
  • Naomi Watts is, simply, an exquisite presence in Mullholland Drive. 


  • I appreciate that I am in a minority, but I loathe Birdman with every fibre of my being, because it is to my mind, pure self indulgence and cannot decide on whether it exists as pure fantasy or genuine commentary on the acting craft..each to their own and all that. And to be fair, the director of said film did get Leonardo DiCaprio (Leeeeeooooo) his first Oscar for The Revenant so..I forgive you. Leo was due that award for years and I am so pleased he finally won official recognition via gold statuette.


  • Even more philosophically / obscurely..I would go so far as saying that STAR WARS is in fact, a movie about movies, given that it encompasses and introduces every genre possible, via fairy tale simplicity and charm, with an intention of engendering a love of movies and mythology (sadly..its legacy now is just more..Star Wars..but that’s an argument for another day).


  • What ties all those entirely disparate threads?..Well, a movie about movies but also so much more. With perfect cast and a fusion of tones and styles in one elegant whole..

..I am of course, talking about..OUATIH! ..

It is a bit like digesting the whole of television and cinema history of the 1960s, with hints of the 50s and 70s. All in a long package at 2 hrs 40 minutes yet delivered in self contained chunks or skits that, whilst unconnected by anything resembling a true ‘plot’ in the strictest sense, feel organic, real, substantial and satisfying.

There is a loving recreation of every scenic and stylistic detail from the era; this is a sensual, real, vigorous love letter to its own art form.

One is transported back to a time when an actor’s career stood or fell on the strength of the weekly ‘pilots’ in syndicated television, that either won further commission, or sank without trace. A leading man then had the tough choice to remain safely tenured in television, or take a calculated risk and venture toward movies.

Think Bill Shatner, George Lazenby, Doug McClure, George Peppard, Jim Garner and even Clint Eastwood. Also: David Caruso and George Clooney in the 90s: propelled into big fame by television..one ventured to film, correctly..one..misjudged his exit (guess which one). 

This film is RIGHT in the peak era of Western tv shows, ‘spaghetti’ cowboy /war movies and the occasional, once in a lifetime, leading man shot. DiCaprio is not playing any of those actors; yet he somehow embodies that age, time and stakes for an actor in and out of a studio system. 

Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) is an actor, noted for his ability to play villains with aplomb and relish on every second television show. But he is also known as an almost leading man, whose genuine movie star charms were somehow obscured by his tendency to be tested for the same parts as Steve McQueen. What’s fascinating is that Leo could, theoretically, have thrived in that 60s/70s pool of talent had he been born a few decades earlier. His is a timeless stardom, though he too HAD to choose his movies very carefully to avoid type-casting or reduced commercial viability. Robert Pattinson is in a similar place today, about to play BATMAN and yet having climbed through numerous smaller films as a character actor to truly earn that privilege.

So we have a slice of history and nostalgia yet also a commentary on the precarious position of even the most powerful of jobbing thespian.

Immediately, there: the set up and ‘USP’ of a film that dabbles in real events and brands, whilst propelling you into the world of an otherwise unlikable yet somehow sympathetic, vulnerable hero. 

Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino has pulled off the impossible and managed, somehow, to set a movie within the movies; giving us hints of ‘film within a film’, whilst maintaining an interest in the players presenting that device.

You are glued to the imagery here, even when it feels that one is simply watching fanboy snippets of alternative versions of classic television show episodes.

It is a fairy-tale, for adults, set in Hollywood. A wonderful ride of a movie, from start to finish! Star Wars, for grown ups. Or Sunset Boulevard /LA Confidential et al..for all of us kids who never truly grow up, let alone get ‘old’. 

There are reflections on mortality and losing vitality; the fear of somehow being ‘past it’ or out of favour, whilst recognising one’s own role in the superficiality of the acting trade.


This is, to my mind, one of Tarantino’s best films. There is a sentimental love on show here and a mature, literate, love of his art-form, whilst remaining accessible and fun and dynamic. And  yet this never sinks to the pseudo-erudite stodginess of Hateful 8, the adolescent inanity of Reservoir Dogs /Kill Bill or outright lazy boredom of Jackie Brown.

Quentin here gives us a structure every bit as innovative as Pulp Fiction. 

And it’s an exploration of history as respectful yet anarchic as Inglorious Basterds. 

Every bit as emotionally compelling and uncompromising as Django Unchained.

He MUST win Oscars for this. It is his masterpiece.

Speaking of Oscars: Brad Pitt must surely be due for nomination, at the very least.

Finally, he gets to show the movie star action man and comedian he always was, but now alongside the more high brow character actor credentials he had previously seemed to keep separate from roles whereby his looks / physique were key.

Hence, we have been treated, down the years to his hilarious turns in the likes of Snatch and Burn After Reading; raw physicality and presence in Fight Club; action hero skill and sensitive great outdoors cowboy style (A River Runs Through It; Legends of the Fall).

Brad is a true character actor. Definite movie star.

And yet, when trying to blend the two identities, it never quite worked. He’s as wooden as the horse in TROY and lacked distinction in Mr and Mrs Smith, World War Z and the Oceans 11/12/13 movies. Seriously, you could replace him in those films and nobody would notice.

FINALLY, then, with OUATIH, Brad has truly found HIS finest hour. You BELIEVE him as a tortured veteran of combat both onscreen and off, as his character (Cliff) is both a war hero yet a more tarnished stuntman; competent in his trade yet cast out by Hollywood amid rumours that he murdered his wife.  He’s given stuff to do, in every scene here, even whereby the plot has gone thin.

Something as simple as his driving style, has an adaptation to the context of each scene. An event as everyday and dull as fixing a tv aerial atop a roof, somehow, tells a story, through subtle and textured acting from Brad.

The physique has not been this good since Thelma and Louise: it’s a toned, ‘toight’ body and thereby convinces as a force of nature in fight scenes whereby you FEEL every punch he throws. He’s also HILARIOUS; a kind of accidental savant whose surface simplicity supplies the story some Shakespearean layers of tragedy and comedy alike. This is a truly timeless and instant classic character, delivered by an actor at the very top of his craft. So yes, give Brad an OSCAR nod as it is truly deserved. You will just know it when you see it.

Margot Robbie is also, excellent, here as Sharon Tate. I never bought into the cult of Margot before. Indeed, I felt her to be verging on derivative and overcast in movies simply because she had become the ‘name’ to use, overnight, and mostly, on the back of one performance (Wolf of Wall Street).  But here? Wow! Yet another Oscar contender, perhaps. There is not a great deal for her to say in the film; the character’s dialogue is minimal.

But therein lies Margot’s genius; somehow conveying the tragedy of Sharon. Hers was a beautiful, well meaning yet somehow, unjustly, neglected soul. Tarantino deploys Robbie perfectly to convey that. You want to reach out across the screen, across time and just give the girl a great big hug.

There is a sense of childlike innocence at work, somewhat in love with her new life in the movies and yet completely unaware of the business’ lack of pastoral care for those who worked within its nebulous bubble of impossible dreams.

She is a Princess, in a Tower: a star studded and pampered prison of Hollywood, but a kind of unwitting incarceration, nonetheless. Whilst that breaks the heart, it is, conversely, deeply moving and indeed, encouraging, that Tarantino has somehow honed his craft to convey such subtle truths of the human condition.

This is NOT a movie about the Manson murders and whilst I do not wish to spoil things, the subject matter is treated with a genuine respect.

Gone are the orgies of violence and the almost pornographically prurient love of gangster counter-culture defining Quentin’s earlier, nastier films. Now, he exhibits a far more mature and loving stance that accepts and indeed confronts the darkest sides of human nature, yet nonetheless compensates with a sense of redemptive adventure, verging on an optimistic idyll.

I am not saying that he has made a family friendly, PG-13 style studio tent-pole picture. It’s not a director watering down their tone, though that can happen (notice Spielberg and how tame his 4th Indiana Jones film is relative to its preceding entries in that series).

Indeed: prepare for some truly SHOCKING scenes of brutal action from Tarantino here. There is no getting away from the Manson Family’s aura of evil and believe me, it is conveyed with a chillingly economic cinematic precision. Something primal, verging on a clash with an almost supernatural sense of horror in places. You have to see it to..see it. 

But those features feel earned, punctuating, rather than defining or driving the piece. It’s done rather swiftly and effectively. You won’t get the 90s era phenomenon of non movie fans quoting the script in the dorm and thinking they are so clever.

And very few soap operas / television dramas /inferior B movie rip offs will even dare copy OUATIH the way they did Pulp Fiction. 

Talking of legacy..Coincidentally, Quentin’s going to be a Dad soon, I think. Interesting. It is as though he is passing down a kind of time capsule to a future generation of filmmakers, everywhere. And he has implied that OUATIH is his penultimate film. Shame, as he has more to say, surely?

I’d love to see his take on the comic book genre. Indeed, the production designer on this movie (Barbara Ling: SUPERB WORK!) gave us the visually stunning landscapes of 1995’s BATMAN FOREVER.

A Tarantino Star Trek has been mooted.

I ‘d love to see his take on Star Wars (notice: the Princess, two shaggy heroes and a dog..think Han, Luke and Chewie the hungry wookie…or..think Rick, Cliff, Brandy the very hungry hound and Princess Sharon?! Notice also, The forthcoming Mandalorian show IS basically the kind of western TV show that Di Caprio’s Dalton makes in OUATIH).

And we know how much the man would LOVE to do a Bond film. Based on the evidence from his latest picture, the man IS ready!

Seriously, 007 fans get excited by the idea of a Chris Nolan directed outing for Ian Fleming’s pulp hero spy, yet Quentin is a FAR better bet. Look at his echoing certain visual tropes (blood in a swimming pool; the love of drinking and other pleasures; fights in a tux..it’s all here!) and ‘getting’ the appeal of the 60s period piece, too.

And boy does he use music well. Imagine HIS 007 soundtrack. I’m settling for this movie’s counterpart playlist. Look out for ‘Out of Time’; used in the most apt and surprising way since Jane Fonda had to choose between Jon Voight and Bruce Dern in 1978’s Coming Home.

Incidentally, Bruce  (Dad of Laura) Dern cameos in OUATIH; a hilarious turn though it was supposed to be Burt Reynolds‘ role (Burt sadly died as filming commenced and much like Leo /Brad in the movie, he too, lived and worked alonsgide his stuntman, Hal ‘CanonBall Run’ Needham).


So yeah: give us a Tarantino crowd pleasing franchise film! He may even learn from the discipline,. Seriously. Quentin: you are not QUITE perfect, yet. Just a FEW minor points to..improve, on show in an otherwise flawless OUATIH

  • Quentin, ENOUGH with the FOOT FETISH? It’s just..gross. Not sexy. Not cool.
  • You will not be in a rush to see this film a second, let alone third time, at least until its release on home video.

  • Lots of threads and vignettes go nowhere and could probably have been reduced? Not the Bruce Lee scene, though. That’s comedy gold (and, contrary to gossip, by no means disrespectful: judge for yourselves).
  • THIS IS THE BIGGEST MISUSE MISCAST OF AL PACINO..EVER: pointless part, pointless casting. Cut the scenes, cut the part and cut the actor if necessary. It’s a nothing role and the thing is, Al must always be crucial to a plot, even if his role is small.

One can almost see Al’s frustration, like a kid in a school play, desperately trying to make something of minimal lines. Some actors can do that; somehow finding life in a thankless cameo role (Christoph Waltz, Javier Bardem, Johnny Depp, Danny DeVito, Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson, Samuel L Jackson, Arnie/Sly.., Sir Michael Caine, Warren Beatty and..um..David  ‘Del Boy’ Jason..just a few names that came to mind while watching Al here).

Al..cannot. And he cannot ‘play’ Jewish or small in any sense of the word. He NEEDS a part that propels a plot and he must integrate his innate ethnicity to the charisma and craft at his considerable command.

Coppola said it best ‘It’s like Al has the map of Sicily carved into his face’).

I get why they al(l) want to collaborate. But it’s got to fit, too. This doesn’t. Sorry! Equally, whilst Damian Lewis is great in a split second cameo as Steve McQueen, one is left with the questions: first, why such a brief appearance and second..surely, it’s Daniel Craig who is the obvious McQueen avatar/counterpart of choice?

Another missed opportunity was in failing to give Roman Polanski a bigger role here and I’d have cast Mathieu Amalric: so if they HAD gone with Craig as McQueen..think Quantum of Solace: reunited (a movie, incidentally, whose plot was a salute to Polanski’s own Chinatown).

Minor quibbles aside:

This is the movie of the year as well as the summer. An instant, all time classic. Beautiful to look at, witty, warm, wise, wonderful in just about every way.

Truly immersive and thought provoking. You will laugh, cry and be thrilled and marvel at the best craft from a team at the top of their game, across creative disciplines. A most satisfying trip to the Pictures and certainly worthy of acclaim, commercial success. And an adorable comedy dog!

Full Marks. Grade A +. Thank You, Quentin. 


POST SCRIPT LINK: Review by the Do You Expect us to Talk? Team : nb spoilers are included but you know that, right? Or is that, in itself..a spoiler?? 🙂 


JAMES MURPHY is currently shooting a pilot for a tv show..in Hollywood..and if he does meet Leo, he promises NOT to echo the Dr Evil chant of ‘he’s a special boy’ 😉 



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