By Chris dos Santos
7th August 2019

In 2019, we live in an interesting time in terms of film marketing - using big names to push a film doesn’t really work anymore. Most people didn’t see ‘The Lion King’ because of Beyoncé; they saw it because of nostalgia. The term "A-list cast" is often thrown around, but doesn’t really have the same impact on audiences these days. Look at last year's ‘Ocean’s 8’: sure, it made money, but nowhere near what was expected. Even The Rock has lost his box office draw with films like ‘Rampage’, ‘Skyscraper’ and even ‘Fighting with my Family’ all falling below studio expectations, despite aggressive marketing campaigns that pushed the star. Even outside of Disney and Marvel (even Disney can’t bank on "big names" - look no further than ‘A Wrinkle in Time’), it’s clear that audiences are looking for familiar stories and not names as much as they used to. Directors also used to be a huge selling point, and with the exception of possibly Jordan Peele, this marketing scheme is another lost trade. James Cameron is aggressively still trying to do this; I don’t think I saw an ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ trailer that didn’t feature him yelling at you to see the film in 3D. There is only one director, at least in my mind, that can really use their name to sell a film - and that’s Quentin Tarantino.

In his ninth feature film, Tarantino transports us back to 1969 Hollywood, a drug-filled, free-spirited time when the film industry was booming and slowly starting to move away from Westerns. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, ‘The Wolf Of Wall Street’, ‘The Revenant’) starred on the hit television show 'Bounty Law', which ended in 1961 when Dalton wanted to transition to film, but having little to no success he's told by Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino, ‘The Godfather’, ‘Scarface’) that he's a washed-up has-been, and Marvin is concerned about his future in the industry. Dalton is accompanied but his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, ‘Allied’, ‘The Big Short’), who drives the star around and waits around on set when he is needed. Booth is rough and doesn’t take kindly to people who disagree with him. Meanwhile, moving into the house behind Dalton is Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie, ‘I, Tonya’, ‘Focus’) whose newest film, ‘The Wrecking Crew’, has just been released.


In Tarantino fashion, the film’s narrative is very loose, simply following Dalton, Booth and Tate’s life in Hollywood from film sets to parties. The biggest throughline is the Mansion Family, but this isn’t a biopic about them, and they are very much a backdrop to the main stars.

The acting across the board is fantastic. DiCaprio is as brilliant as always and definitely a frontrunner come awards season. There are too phenomenal scenes, one involving a lengthy conversation about acting and what it all means with child actor Trudi Fraser (Julia Butters, ’13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi’), who is on the show he's guest starting on, she is sure to charm a lot of viewers. The other scene has to be the movie's most quotable; when Dalton forgets his lines, he runs away to hide in his trailer and has one of the funniest breakdowns on film. Pitt is not usually an actor that stands out to me, but here he is pulling his weight and showing he has extremely good comedic timing. There are a lot of standout moments involving him from a Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) showdown to visiting the Spahn Movie Ranch, and he's sure to go down as a classic Tarantino character.

Robbie is the real standout. While she isn’t in the film as much as the marketing suggests, she really gives it her all. Some may view Tate as your typical pretty girl who just likes to party and wear skimpy outfits, but Robbie gives her a voice beyond that, providing some emotional depth to her character. There's a scene where she goes to watch her new film and the ticket saleswoman doesn’t know who she is, and while subtle you can see her get hurt by it and that bubbly, friendly personality slips away. Even in the cinema, seeing her worried if the audience doesn’t laugh or cheer for her character in the film and the validation she gets when they do is fantastic, though a lot of people may underrate her performance.

The other big standout was Austin Butler (‘The Dead Don't Die’, ‘Yoga Hosers’, though being a 'High School Musical' fan, to me he's just Vanessa Hudgens’ boyfriend). He is a Manson Family member, and there is a scene where it switches from comedy to terrifying darkness where he transforms from this young man to a horror villain instantly; he is going to be one to look out for. If you are a ‘Stranger Things’ fan, there is a nice little surprise from a Scoops Ahoy member that will also please longtime Tarantino fans. The Manson Family is played a lot of young actors, from Dakota Fanning (‘The Twilight Saga: New Moon’, ‘Coraline’) to Lena Dunham (TV's ‘Girls’). With such a huge cast, it’s hard to talk about everyone in this movie, - I haven’t even touched on Timothy Olyphant (TV's ‘Justified’, ‘Mother’s Day’), Bruce Dern (‘The Hateful Eight’, ‘Nebraska’), Kurt Russell (‘The Fate of the Furious’, ‘Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2’)... the list goes on, but everyone is great.

In Tarantino fashion, the film’s narrative is very loose, simply following Dalton, Booth and Tate’s life in Hollywood from film sets to parties. The biggest throughline is the Mansion Family, but this isn’t a biopic about them, and they are very much a backdrop to the main stars.

Also, a very special shoutout to Sayuri who plays Brandy, Cliff Booth's dog, who is sure to be everyone’s favourite new movie dog.

The film almost hits the three-hour mark, and while for the most part you don’t feel it (and I say this as someone who did love this movie) there are areas that could have done with some trimming. While fun, we get a lot of cutaways to various Rick Dalton films, with some running 10-plus minutes, and we could have done without some of those. For the most part, it does work with its length; it just could be a little tighter.

This movie has a lot of expectation riding on it, and I think a handful of people will be disappointed. Tarantino is at a point where everything he does is either a masterpiece or it’s not worth it, and while ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ may not reach the heights of some of his other works, it’s probably my second-favourite film of his after ‘Django Unchained’ (Most Tarantino films are great personally, but I think because of a mix of overhype and being late to the game they aren’t my all-time favourite films). This is definitely his most mainstream film while still keeping in all his usual tropes. The big third-act final does, however, give those die-hard fans what they want, even if some are divided on it - without spoiling, I can see why there are complaints, but I don’t think he was ever being insensitive with what happens. If you go in wanting a Manson Murder biopic you will be wildly disappointed as that’s not what the film is setting out to be. The film isn’t called Manson, it’s called ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’, and that’s exactly what it does: take audiences back to Los Angeles in 1969.

The movie isn’t for everyone, of course, but it’s a fun ride back to the past with fantastic performances, hilarious comedy and beautiful aesthetics. Tarantino is the one director in 2019 that can get huge names without people referring to his films as "that Leo film", and I think that’s worth something whether you’re a fan or not. It’s rare for a film like this to be a mainstream release, and in the lacklustre year of 2019 I think it’s about time we got something in cinemas that's original.

Looking for more Melbourne International Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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