“Once Upon A Time In Hollywood”: Quentin Tarantino Wrestles Back Control From The Sequels, Reboots & Superheroes

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood prompts Simon Evans and Luke Ostler into a polemic on the state of mainstream cinema while rejoicing in arguably the writer-director’s best work since Pulp Fiction.

A few years back I was starting to fear Quentin Tarantino had peaked. After the director’s original three masterpieces Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown had been and gone, had he begun an inevitable decline?

All directors have a lifespan; some lengthy, some all too brief. Alfred Hitchcock maintained his peak period for 30 years from 1930-60, while Stanley Kubrick’s spell at the top of his game lasted until his death. Some directors can summon only a single shining moment of brilliance before sliding headlong into obscurity; I’m looking at you Richard Kelly of Donnie Darko fame.

So then, was Tarantino’s brilliant period to span just a few sparkling mid-90s turns of the globe? The next films off the conveyor belt, Kill Bill volumes 1 and 2, were horribly disappointing, with all the verve and wit of his 90s efforts lost within a ponderous, overlong revenge flick.

The Death Proof portion of the Grindhouse experiment at least was an improvement on the Kill Bill disaster but couldn’t help becoming muddled in its second half. The fact it was a rare box office disaster for Tarantino certainly didn’t help matters.

By the release of Inglourious Basterds in 2009 it had been 12 years since Jackie Brown and I had all but written off Tarantino as a has-been. So naturally, that Basterds proved to be fantastic was a hugely pleasant surprise; superb casting, wonderful cartoon violence and a total disregard for conventional storytelling techniques. In short a triumph.

But what went up again came down; Django Unchained is an anticlimax, its scintillating first act dissipating into tedium as Tarantino loses faith in the magnetic star he uncovered for Basterds, Christophe Waltz, and hands over the second half of the movie to the incredibly dull Jamie Fox.

If Inglourious briefly looked like an isolated return to form, The Hateful Eight – a superbly cast chamber piece with a trademark tricky plot construct – proved otherwise. Due to its one-set design, it feels like ‘low budget’ Tarantino, but it’d be more than churlish to criticise one of the sharpest scripts of his career.

We need Quentin Tarantino more than ever before

And so to 2019, where at the point of release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood we find ourselves needing Tarantino more than ever. Since The Hateful Eight in 2015 the landscape of cinema has shifted significantly. The first of the latest slew of Star Wars films was released that Christmas, and since 2015 the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ has added a bloated thirteen films to its creaking canon.

Disney has bought half of Hollywood as well as deciding to remake all its classics into live action versions. Originality in the film industry is at an all-time low. In the 1970s, there were seven sequel/remake/films as part of a series in the top 50 grossing films of the decade (Jaws 2, Star Trek, Rocky 2, The Muppet Movie, Moonraker, The Godfather Part 2, King Kong). Of the top 50 grossing films of the 80s, 19 fall into this bracket. So far in the 2010s, of the top 50 grossing films a frankly scary four films are not a remake, sequel or part of a series (Frozen, Zootopia, The Secret Life of Pets, Bohemian Rhapsody).

To summarise, in the 70s 43 of the 50 top grossing films were original. In the 2010s so far Bohemian Rhapsody is the sole original film aimed at adults in the top 50 grossing films of the decade. This is nothing short of horrifying. As a society we’ve come to worship the known and recoil from the new.

Our critical press do not help matters, lauding vapid rubbish like the recent The Lion King remake while shunning original works such as The Current War. One is a thoughtless remake of a 25-year-old film, with a guaranteed audience that needs no persuasion from the critics. The other is a thought-provoking, ambitious, superbly acted drama that needs all the positive press it can get to make even a slight dent in this broken industry. Those panning it should hang their heads in shame.

Could Tarantino possibly wake the general populace from this cultural slumber? Of course not, but maybe for a few weeks, and for the few audience members that aren’t completely brainwashed by Marvel and co, he could remind us of what truly great cinema looks and sounds like.

A reminder of what truly great cinema looks like

I suggest you do a bit of background reading before going to see Once Upon a Time, because this movie is so much better if you at least have some understanding of the real-life events it portrays – and if you’re American, you’ll already know all about it.

The films purports to be about the killing of Sharon Tate and her friends by the Manson family, but in reality Tate has no more than a minor supporting role. Is the film really about former Western star Rick Dalton, played with hilarious nuance by Leonardo DiCaprio, coming to terms with his declining status? Maybe it’s a buddy movie focusing on Dalton and his bodyguard Cliff Booth (a similarly stellar Brad Pitt)? Think John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson’s relationship in Pulp Fiction.

None of this, of course, is important when we’re in Quentin Tarantino land. Tarantino was born in 1963, and the film is set in 1969, so his formative years in the 70s would’ve been completely shaped by this period. Although Death Proof draws heavy influence from the era, it’s remarkable Tarantino has never actually set one of his films in the 60s or 70s – until now.

We’ve seen contemporary (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, Kill Bill, Death Proof), WW2 (Inglourious Basterds), Old West (Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight), but never this period. Drinking in the film, it’s clear that Tarantino was born to commit this era to celluloid.

The greatest Quentin Tarantino film ever?

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood - Quentin Taratino - Leonardo DiCaprio - Brad Pitt

This picture is nothing short of a visual masterpiece. I consider it to be the 60s equivalent of what Ridley Scott did for 2019 in Blade Runner. The recreation of a particular age in history is quite breathtaking, the attention to detail staggering. The 35mm photography, itself a dying technology, is stunningly beautiful. Will celluloid film be consigned to history when real artists like Tarantino retire? What a sobering thought.

The scale and inevitably immense cost in assembling this motion picture must have been colossal, but as they say in old Hollywood, it’s all there on the screen. Tarantino affords each of his characters equal adoration; minor roles with a single scene are as lovingly crafted as the leads. I would suggest you go to see this film and be prepared, not for ubiquitous superhero boredom, but for a painstakingly formed universe to become fully immersed in.

The 2hr 40min runtime seems long on the page but once you’re luxuriating in Tarantino’s stunning creation the time flies, and you won’t want it to end. It seems hasty to compare Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to Tarantino’s past triumphs so soon after release, but I firmly believe this is a heavyweight contender for the greatest ever Tarantino film, duking it out with Pulp Fiction for that esteemed title. Let’s discuss again in 25 years time.

Words by Luke Ostler & Simon Evans

Luke Ostler & Simon Evans
About the Author
Luke Ostler and Simon Evans are the perfect film reviewing team: one's a trained journalist, the other a bona fide film buff!

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