Review: Tarantino's return paints picture of colorful Hollywood era

'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' ably mixes comedy, drama in lively style

Courtesy of Sony Pictures
Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino has made some amazingly intense, clever, and sometimes over-the-top films, beginning with 1992’s “Reservoir Dogs.”  

The one-time video store clerk and student of movies followed up with an impressive string of hits, from “Pulp Fiction” to “Kill Bill”  to “Inglourious Basterds.” But his last effort -- 2015’s disappointing “The Hateful Eight” -- made some people worry that the 56-year-old, one-time wunderkind might be losing his mojo.

Now, after a nearly four-year absence from the big screen, Tarantino is back with a movie that looks at a particularly colorful time in Hollywood -- the late 1960s.

Leonardo DiCaprio (who teamed with Tarantino previously on “Django Unchained”) stars as Rick Dalton -- the former star of a western TV series called “Bounty Law.” (We’re treated to clips from that show which spectacularly duplicate the filming style of that era, down to some very hokey dialogue.) The actor’s subsequent movie career went nowhere and he finds himself doing the same old guest roles on various TV shows.

DiCaprio delivers another wonderful performance as an actor with undeniable talent who still harbors incredible insecurities. He has one particularly wonderful scene opposite 12-year-old Julia Butters (from “American Housewife”) as a no-nonsense child actress who takes her craft VERY seriously.   

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Co-starring as Dalton’s best friend, driver, and confidant is another Tarantino alum -- Brad Pitt (“Inglourious Basterds.”) He plays Cliff Booth, a struggling veteran stuntman with a troubled personal history but a strong sense of right and wrong.

Pitt is excellent, giving an understated performance that still demonstrates his character’s strength. Some of his best scenes are when he meets one of Charlie Manson’s female followers (wonderfully played by a dynamic Margaret Qualley) and has a memorable encounter with the family at the movie ranch which they’ve taken over. 

Rounding out the three main leads is Margot Robbie as real-life actress Sharon Tate, the wife of filmmaker Roman Polanski who was brutally murdered by Manson’s followers. In the film, she and her husband live next door to DiCaprio’s character, which has major consequences.

Robbie’s character doesn’t have much dialogue, but her exuberance is so infectious that she gloriously dominates every scene in which she appears.

The whole 1960s era also plays a big part in the movie and the production design is incredible. From the period muscle cars to miniskirt-wearing flight attendants, to a Playboy mansion party back in the heyday -- the visuals here are a sight to behold. 

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Rated: R

Run time: 2 hours, 45 minutes

★★★★ out of 5

Tarantino also drops in a lot of 1960s characters -- be it Steve McQueen (played by Damian Lewis) or the Mamas and Papas singing group, and even martial arts icon Bruce Lee (fantastically depicted by Mike Moh).

Some very talented actors appear throughout in small but memorable roles, including Kurt Russell playing a stunt coordinator, Al Pacino portraying a movie producer, Dakota Fanning as the very scary Manson follower and would-be presidential assassin Squeaky Fromme, and the late Luke Perry as a television actor playing a scene opposite DiCaprio’s character. Sadly, this would have been Burt Reynolds final film, but he died soon after a table read of the script and before filming.

One of the many impressive things about this movie is that it manages to mix comedy and drama, not an easy feat considering the subject matter. I won’t give away any spoilers, but “Once Upon a Time In Hollywood” has one of the wildest endings in recent memory -- one that people will be debating and discussing long after they leave the theater.

Tarantino and his cast have delivered with a movie that really captures the look and feel of the late 1960s, and although at 160 minutes, the film is a bit long, it’s still a very entertaining and worthwhile experience.