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‘Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood’ a Tarantino-style love letter to Tinseltown

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There are no half-measures in Quentin Tarantino movies. There is nothing partial about the films that he makes. They might be shaggy or smug or gratuitous or plain indulgent, but they are never anything less than the full extent of what he intends them to be.

That utter commitment is a big part of what has made Tarantino into perhaps the most influential mainstream filmmaker of his generation. More than any of his peers, he has shaped both the creation and consumption of popular culture over the past quarter-century – largely by celebrating and appropriating the popular culture that shaped him.

In that sense, “Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood” – Tarantino’s ninth (Ish? Still not sure I’m buying the “Kill Bill” duology as one movie) film – is the culmination of a creative journey of sorts. It’s a full-on love letter to the Hollywood of the late 1960s, the Hollywood that produced so many of the influences that impacted his creative development. At its heart, from the title on down, it is a fairy tale. It also might be the most sentimental offering of QT’s career.

While it unfolds using the infamous Manson Family murders as a backdrop, “Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood” isn’t really ABOUT Charles Manson or his followers or even the doomed Sharon Tate. It’s about what it means to fade from a world that is itself fading away. It is about the ever-turning cogs behind the romance of Tinseltown and the notion that the end isn’t coming but has instead already happened without you noticing. It is about what it means to be a rising star and what it means to fall. It is a vivid reimagining of a tumultuous time, all viewed through the lens of one man’s battle against his looming irrelevance.

Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Revenant”) is the former star of a television western titled “Bounty Law.” After that show’s five-season run, Rick tried – and failed – to establish himself as a movie star. Instead, his career has floundered, resulting in him doomed to a revolving door of guest shots, usually playing the big bad opposite the guys in whose saddles he rode just a few years earlier. His agent Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino, “Hangman”) wants him to go to Italy and star in spaghetti westerns, but Rick’s still holding out hope for a stateside break.

His constant companion is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, “War Machine”), Rick’s longtime stunt double and current driver/drinking buddy/assistant/gofer/whatever. Cliff’s a laid-back guy who seems at peace with his relative lack of success, content to be at Rick’s beck and call. Cliff’s past – both personally and professionally – has rendered him a bit of an outsider; his relationship with Rick is about all he has.

Meanwhile, Rick has a new next-door neighbor. Director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha, “Plan B”) has moved in with his new bride, the actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie, “Mary Queen of Scots”), who is currently a bit of an It Girl and appears to be on the cusp of movie stardom. She’s still coming to terms with the rapidity of her star’s rise, confiding in friends like former flame and stylist to the stars Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch, “Peel”) among others.

One day, as Cliff drives all over the city while Rick is shooting an episode of “Lancer,” he encounters a young lady calling herself Pussycat (Margaret Qualley, “Native Son”) who asks him for a ride, one that takes him back to his old “Bounty Law” stomping grounds. The Spahn Ranch played host to numerous TV westerns in the 1950s, but by 1969 had fallen into disrepair. It’s here that Cliff discovers a host of hippies living in the ruins of the ranch, one of whom – Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning, “Ocean’s Eight” – is particularly displeased at Cliff’s presence.

As the connections between these varied circles become both clearer and more complicated, all involved are left to push toward their respective destinies – destinies laden with triumph or tragedy, depending on your perspective.

And really, that’s more or less it in terms of plot, despite the massive 159-minute running time. This movie isn’t really about narrative – not in the traditional sense, anyway. It’s more about the creation of a world – a world populated by wild characters, some fictional, others merely fictionalized. That’s what Tarantino does best – he builds a place and then lives in it, taking up residence for as long as he feels it takes.

Part of what Tarantino does so beautifully is comment on the culture via the culture. And nothing is off limits – he’s less highbrow or lowbrow and more … omnibrow? The level of discourse remains consistent regardless of the subject, but one could argue that he has never aimed at a target closer to his heart. This Hollywood is the Hollywood that first captured young Tarantino’s imagination; whether the output was good, bad or ugly, it didn’t matter. What mattered was that it was there.

As a filmmaker, Tarantino is an aficionado of B-sides, an unabashed lover of deep cuts. Whether it’s his stylistic influences, his relatively obscure soundtracks or the references in his dialogue, Tarantino is constantly showing us what he knows and remembers and loves. And never have those tendencies been more at the forefront than they are in “Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood.”

(Note: As always, the soundtrack is EXCEPTIONAL, both in terms of the quality of the selections and their incorporation into the film. Very few directors understand the soundtrack’s importance quite like Tarantino.)

Like most Tarantino films, “OUATIH” is likely to reward repeated viewings. The detailed specificity he brings to the table means that it’s almost impossible to catch everything the first time through – there’s a LOT going on here. It warrants mentioning that we’re dealing with a time and place in whose lore Tarantino has been thoroughly steeped for decades; those deep-cut tendencies have never had such rich and abundant fuel.

As for the performances, well … buckle up.

This is easily one of the best performances of DiCaprio’s career. Easily. And he’s had some great ones. But the broken, vulnerable Rick Dalton is as good as anything he’s ever done – and maybe better. The egotistical insecurity, the fear, the hubris, the pathos – it’s all here. Rick Dalton is compelling as hell as a tragic figure whose struggles are no less fascinating for being self-imposed. He fully embodies the archetype of the once-great teetering on the precipice of has-beenery.

Pitt doesn’t quite ascend to the heights that DiCaprio reaches, but that’s a product of the character rather than the performer. Cliff Booth needs to exude a laid-back California cool unlike any other; frankly, there might not be anyone out there aside from Pitt who could handle it. The vibe is unlike anything we’ve seen – a sort of hedonistic stoicism that only ever existed in that time and place. He’s a hype man in a Hawaiian shirt, a stuntman who’s now taking very different sorts of falls.

And Robbie as Sharon Tate is absolutely magnetic. While she has relatively little dialogue, the way her presence alters the gravity of the film is undeniable. Tate is full and electric, her energy and joy and charisma embodied through some top-notch physical performance. She’s just plain fun to watch. Her work bears up under the weight of serving as the fulcrum to the story; wherever it begins, we know where it ends.

Aside from those three, most of the rest of the ensemble only appears in a scene or two – and everybody is throwing heat. Qualley is outstanding; she’s going to be a movie star sooner rather than later. Dakota Fanning drips menace as Squeaky Fromme. Timothy Olyphant delights as James Stacy, star of “Lancer,” as does the late Luke Perry as Wayne Maunder and Julia Butters as a precocious young actress on set. Kurt Russell and Zoe Bell are great as a husband-and-wife stunt supervisory team, as is Bruce Dern as George Spahn.

(That sparseness even includes Charles Manson himself; played by Damon Herriman, Manson’s presence is perhaps surprisingly limited.)

Perhaps the most ingenious casting choice is the generational approach to Hollywood. Not only do you have old-school guys like Russell, Dern and Pacino in the mix, but there’s a wealth of Hollywood scions as well, sons and daughters of famous folks. Qualley is the daughter of Andie McDowell. Maya Hawke is the daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman. Rumer Willis, daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, is here, as is Kevin Smith’s daughter Harley Quinn Smith. Yes, it’s stunt casting, but it also serves as a fascinating metacommentary within a film that’s already pretty damned meta.

“Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood” isn’t Tarantino’s best film – that honor goes to “Pulp Fiction,” though you could maybe talk me into “Jackie Brown” or “Inglourious Basterds” – but it’s closer to the top of his filmography than the bottom. In a lot of ways, it feels like his most personal work to date. All of his films have that labor-of-love whiff about them, but this one is a little different. A little more.

It is a fairy tale, with all that that term implies. It is weird and sprawling, filled with sharp edges and gentle curves.

Just like Hollywood.

[5 out of 5]

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