Raphael Georg Klopper’s review published on Letterboxd:
For an already renowned director within cinema and with his well established fame of controversial aesthetic of graphic violence; extensive and darkly humorous dialogues and pop culture references; all elements that already refer to Quentin Tarantino's name, and what many nitpick bastards have decided to use as a form of pejorative criticism of the director's authorship as an artist over this days in a boring and mean way; certainly promised to be subverted here in Once upon a time…in Hollywood. The eighth standard of his creative mind, that promises to again cause mixed feelings and shock, while presenting itself as the most personal film of his entire career to date.
While his love of cinema in his past films were always presented "indirectly" within the "subtle homages" he made to several films in which inspired his entire career, in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a wide-open love letter as it deals directly with characters within the industry and with the cinema itself going through a culminating phase. The good old "movies about movies" and surely it was time for Tarantino to make his own 8½.
This is clear from the title's sentence "Once Upon a Time...", which aside from a beautiful tribute to Tarantino's favorite director, mister Sergio Leone, and his two masterpieces Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America, also takes something that was part of the structure and themes in which Leone explored in these two monuments of filmmaking and makes his own version of the “Once upon a time” here. If Leone formed stories about how America was building and composing itself, with West resembling a funeral, a farewell from the old west towards industrial advancement and the death of legends, of heroes and good guys, giving; and America being a story of a life lost in memories and feelings of regret from the past that haunts the present of the characters, where reality becomes almost an illusion idealized by ourselves. While Tarantino’s Once Upon walks through very similar themes, even in its own way.
The real life story involving the Mason family case, which manages to rather accurately portrayed throughout the film involving some of its most famous facts, and whose prior knowledge of it can only enrich the experience, even with some of the liberty taken, shown to be very creative and ingenious for the main purpose within the "plot". Also always being treated as a dark and antagonistic gloom within the film, not only in relation to the characters, but of the era in which they live in Hollywood, a period of rapid and abrupt transition that seems at any moment to implode. Symbolizing the farewell to the happy-ending altruistic films with star-system cults, and giving way to what would be the violent, rebellious, and pessimistic films that would mark the American New Hollywood, or as the film well says: the "hipsters movies."
That is where Tarantino's real point of interest lies, which is to bring to life his vision and memory of a time when he lived and how he remembers, both the cinema he loves and devotes so much, as for the way he remember looking at life in Los Angeles, the metropolis of stars covered in the grime of his reality, but that still carries an air of beauty at its tails and borders, that reveal an air of comfort and home. All of this being conveyed through the experiences the characters are feeling, experiencing, thinking, feeling and acting in the old Hollywood environment in which they live. And to achieve that, Tarantino surprises to adopt this almost silent, meditative tone, which is also very reminiscent of a Howard Hawks hang-out movie, without containing an apparent plot or story as the focal point, but rather much more interested in focusing on the interactions of their characters and their small intimate conflicts, with them leading and shaping what we see developing on screen.
That is thanks to Tarantino’s eagerness to create this kind of fantasy that escapes from a realistic structure of telling a fully chronological story or merely showing what is going on in the lives of Rick, Cliff and Sharon. With montages of images and even entire sequences of scenes, varying the types of framing and colors used almost abstractly in the way the director uses the power of the image being shown on screen and exploits it in his own style, or rather simulating his strong inspiration in Jacques Demy body of ludicrous visual language work. Demonstrating an almost relentlessly silent, prosaic and contemplative visual command, either used with the movies and series scenes that its actors/characters play intersecting in the character’s main narrative reality line, all in succession and demanding your full attention. Or simply devoting time with entire scenes devoted to us just seeing the characters in daily chores: driving and listening to music; going to the movies; giving the dog food, all seeming rather dull and trivial for most of audiences, but it shows its relative importance in the whole experience that covers the film, that frankly I was rooting for more at each passing scene.
While creating an immensely large-scale and vast-scenery of the 70s Los Angeles PERFECTLY recreated in a rich mise-en-scene, and with a strong sense of immersion in every street through which the film travels, with its always-on sense of bigness and pomposity that would make Leone proud. Which even makes you wonder what genre this movie could fit into, since we're going from a classic western city, to constant driving around the streets of Los Angeles like this was a seventies (urban) road-movie like Easy Rider or Two-Lane Blacktop, to even cross the road with horror and a superb build of tension at one point in the movie that even crosses the subtle touches of a worthy slasher thriller. It is the almost blind passion for genres that Tarantino he adapts and inspires from, spilled all over the screen and living in perfect harmony as one breading being. But “satirical-comedy” may take the throne this time, cause the Tarantinesque humor is sharper as it has always been, and at times too blatant in its visual comicality, but the drama in conjuncture also presents itself as intimate and psychological presented in its so-delivered nuances of body and soul by a cast no less than fabulous.
Dalton's character may be seen as this old-fashioned tragicomic caricature of the hysterical quest for success and fame, but he also shows to carry with him a strongly dramatic existential baggage about someone seeking to stay relevant and to be remembered in the field in which he struggles to survive. Even though he is a publicly recognized star, he is no longer capable of deceiving himself with his false valued fame. Which makes him start to accept the roles of villains because he has lost the ability to romanticize his own real-life existence. Perhaps the most tragicomic figure Tarantino has ever written and that allows DiCaprio to deliver one of his best performances, but who actually ends up stealing the scene is Brad Pitt who is hilarious and with perfect timing at every single scene, and I think at his best shape as an actor I hasn't seen him in a good chunk of time, and with an excellently well written character.
His Cliff Booth proves to be equally complex as the secrets that his character carries, contrasting his subtle gloom with the unshakable morale and loyalty for his friend and boss, and his demeanor of cinematic hero who carries on his subtle characteristics. He is brave and loyal, but also flawed and unpretentious, the exact opposite of a hero, at least not one recognized for the same prowess that movie heroes play. But a hero of Tarantino's reality, as a conservative protector of the essence of old cinema, a paradigmatic symbol of how to be a better men, a better friend, a better someone, even with apparent flaws, but who aspires to achieve his best qualities thanks to those who inspire him, his troublesome friend Rick. With both Pitt and DiCaprio sharing a distressingly good chemistry, to the point of making you beg for more scenes of them together, forming this pair of friends The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance type.
But whose other characters may indeed deserve certain definitions of being romanticized or stereotyped, as well as the brief and memorable participation of legendary Bruce Lee perfectly embodied by Mike Moh, but not exempt from carrying a genuine human being in his subtle and so human characteristics. Hell, even Pacino’s energetic agent and Damian Lewis's meager short cameo as a mustached Steve McQueen, manages to leave a mark on the viewer. Which, again, are tone and script choices that are always following a narrative and aesthetic purpose treated with the full care and attention of its director. Thus allowing all of his fictional and non-fictional creations to coexist and be part of this huge, sometimes fun, complex and exaggerated fiction based on the real.
For if the film seeks to make within it this record of the reconstruction of an era and its inevitable decay, it does so through the characters, both in their relationships and in the intimate and personal exploration of the protagonist trio, creating almost individual mini-character studies. All facing this end of the dream city in which they live, each in their own perspective. Rick struggling to adjust himself away from the heroic stardom busyness in different types of roles, and even genre countries; and Cliff meeting a cult of loonies that believe cinematic art inspire the downfall of society’s morale (not so far from today…). But that, as its director, everyone shares this loving and nostalgic look at the magic of cinema, be it the process of creating, acting, watching one's own fiction, and seeking to preserve its classic charm.
This is perfectly represented in the role given to Sharon Tate in this story, which has received so much criticism given the character's "lack of dialoge" throughout the film, her vitally important participation in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood responds to this with the personality that she assumes, that of a spectator (literally and not). Both one who goes to the movies and is enchanted with such a charming look of emotion at her work and the reaction of the audience, as well as someone who lives and contemplates her life with a purity and human altruism, who seeks to live the present in the world as the best she can. It is both a respectful tribute to the figure that Sharon Tate was, and for many still is, as well as a humanization of it. By placing its impending tragedy as the engine of the story, it becomes an instant suspense creator that the film carries till its fateful end, but promises to follow the very rules that the director operates within his particular universe (just watch Inglorious Bastard’s remarkable ending), but here it becomes something, rather surprising (and perhaps hilarious), but also respectful and melancholy indeed, in respect to the real person, and what she represents in the story created around Rick and Cliff.
With the "Once Upon a Time" of its title becoming a symbol...of the fantasy of what could have been, what was, or a mixture of both, which shows where our feelings of nostalgia for a time we experience, shapes our living and eternal memory of it. And it reminds us that only cinema can create beautiful and profound fictions that the real history of our world proves to be impossible many times over.