Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★

The title says it all: Quentin Tarantino has made his own version of a fairy tale, full of archetypes and staples of the children’s stories we were read at bedtime. The valiant heroes, the evil villain, and the journey everyone must take to receive their just deserts – all of it is blended smoothly into a terrific-tasting mélange with his unmistakable flair. However, this is a different side of Tarantino we’re seeing here, as it’s a more introspective. Yes, his typical sass, time-jumping, and feet shots are present as always, but we find him playing more to spaces and allowing his period piece to breathe.

Twenty-five years after "Pulp Fiction" changed cinema, "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood" finds Tarantino at his most laid back, mostly due to our foreknowledge of the Manson murders. We’re treated to the most Hollywood of stories. A tale of the fall from grace and the redemption which follows. It’s a buddy movie featuring an action hero and his stuntman/driver/best friend struggling to deal with the downslide of a career. Tarantino keeps our focus solely on Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), chronicling the best and worst moments of their 9-year partnership over the film’s 161 minutes. We laugh some, we cry some; but most of all, we smile a lot while we see both of them fumble around their everyday lives.

Sharon Tate, as played by Margot Robbie, is still in love with Hollywood and the movies; we see her going to a screening of her latest film and being lifted up by the audience’s reaction to her klutzy character. Her spritely innocence and charm break through for the briefest of moments. Tate winds up a minor character, only present to give context to the film and provide a mournful hope that fate can be avoided.

As Cliff, Pitt nails the matter-of-fact, devil-may-care attitude made famous by Hollywood stuntmen, a cocksure grin on his face and the balls to back it up. DiCaprio provides Rick with just the right combination of ego and crushing self doubt. In a nice character bit, Rick's nervous stutter becomes more prominent during moments of stress, especially when it concerns his suffering career.

Tarantino dials back from his usual wordy screenplays and mind-bending dialogue, letting simplicity reign between his characters and allowing the camera to do the talking. We’re taken from West L.A. to the Vasquez Rocks and everything in between, with Robert Richardson’s cinematography and John Dexter’s art direction shimmering and glowing, tempting us to drink every last drop. This should have been the film that Tarantino chose to shoot in Ultra Panavision 70, not "The Hateful Eight." Granted, the Ultra Panavision 2.76:1 frame was used well there, but the location shots of "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood" would look spectacular on the wider expanse. A stunning long take highlights an impassioned performance by Mike Moh as Bruce Lee, complete with a well-choreographed bit of hand-to-hand combat (with some humor at Lee’s expense not to be taken seriously).

That’s what "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood" is: a look at perfection. During this period, we had plenty of political and world strife. The Cuban Missile Crisis; the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the Civil Rights Movement; the war in Vietnam. Throughout it all, Hollywood was there to provide us with the escape we needed. The murder of Sharon Tate heralded the end of a certain period of innocence, and our knowledge of it drives the tension of "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood." We’re wondering if Charles Manson (Damon Harriman) or members of his “Family” are going to be coming around the corner in his beat-up ice cream truck. They’re only in plain view when Tarantino wants us to see them, which makes this film all the more tense. Switching between the Rick/Cliff story and Tate's day to day life keeps her in the plot without being an active player, and that’s a large part of this film’s magic.

Rick and Cliff are endlessly watchable. For a large part of the film’s second act, they’re separated and on their own adventures, but their struggles somehow bear similar weight on the set and in the real world. Rick is tearfully reminded through his conversations with an 8-year-old actor (a superbly precocious Julia Butters) that he’s a falling star, but he somehow manages to pull it together and impress the cast & crew with a superb performance as the villain of the week guest shot. Cliff gives a sexy hitch-hiker a ride to Spahn's Western Ranch where he encounters members of the Manson cult. Throughout it all, these two remain the only true things about "Once Upon A Time In Hollywood", where the price of glitz and glamour goes unseen by the viewing public. The film is just as much a celebration of their friendship as the era in which they’re living. "Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood" ditches Tarantino's usual cynicism and irony to indulge a simpler time in the world of make-believe.

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