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3 ½ (out of 4)
Quentin Tarantino has managed to sustain the novelty of his immediate success rather flawlessly. His filmography really only diminishes in quality based on individual taste and how you feel about Tarantino's exceptional ability to tread the middle ground between high and low-brow filmmaking. The man's reputation long precedes him by now – the inexhaustible penchant for graphic violence, the ear for the musicality of film dialogue, the sheer number of female feet and so forth. Tarantino is a sort of perpetual wunderkind, informed by a multitude of cinematic obsessions and nonetheless a stalwart original all the same.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood broadens the scope of his controlled catalogue and helps make the case that despite his last film The Hateful Eight forming the lowest rung on the ladder of his career, Tarantino's historical revisionist trilogy (Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, and now this) are on par with his most laudable work. His latest doesn’t quite attain the momentary high highs of Basterds' scrupulous tension or deftly merge genres like Django’s fearlessly satirical Blaxploitation/Spaghetti Western hybrid. Once is Tarantino’s most restrained, sophisticated and sweepingly subtextual film in years, and already destined to age finer than anything he’s composed in a long time.
For as indulgent as Tarantino is (really? Tarantino? Indulgent?) with the runtime and the restlessly breathable pacing, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood saves its darkest gratifications for an ending at once marvelously tasteless – like some of his best bloodbath finales, though it's no Crazy 88 massacre from Kill Bill: Volume 1 – and in touch with the purpose of movies. In making a mockery of Manson's murderous followers, he's able to retroactively alter the evil and immorality of the world by creating an idyllic and hopeful antidote, not unlike killing Hitler and exacting retribution upon slavers. Of course the director’s insensitive sensibilities spawn new detractors at every turn (he got away Django guys, he’s going to get away with anything) but any fresh semblance of misogyny or racism is clearly satirical, and any naysayers are probably projecting their values against a radically different period in hope of contradiction. This epic tinsel town fairy tale abides only by well-considered scripting and the intrepid auteur's childhood idea of the era.
Which means the lens with which Tarantino sees late '60s Hollywood is intensely nostalgic if still unusually authentic. Neither Charlie nor Sharon Tate is key to the sprawling, era-capping chronicle. Splendid as Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Tate is, the moviemaking reality here is obviously obfuscated by Tarantino’s ageless playfulness, and the inserted fiction shuffling around the events of 1969 is in sharper focus. The fictitious Western actor Rick Dalton (played to pure excellence by Leonardo DiCaprio), his equally fictitious stuntman Cliff Booth (a perfectly pitched Brad Pitt) and the steady wane of their respective careers form a tragicomic snapshot of the seemingly copious possibilities Hollywood, and popular culture at large, appeared to offer through the 20th century's most culturally prosperous decade.
It’s not exactly worthy of Sergio Leone’s titular legacy and yet, my god, Tarantino's ninth feature is in the same ballpark, which is no small feat. Everyone should witness the sublimity of Once Upon a Time in the West unless you, like Rick Dalton, believe Italian Westerns to be awful. As much as Brad Pitt anchors the film in classic, studied cool and an everyman fantasy only he could provide, Leo is the one turning out perhaps the peak performance of his career (up there with The Wolf of Wall Street and The Aviator). In terms of sheer virtuosity, especially backed by Tarantino's ability to harness Leo's larger than life, 120% persona, you end up with a faultless dramatic display and priceless performances within performances – DiCaprio's really exquisite here.
Tarantino's myriad influences have always been plainly conspicuous but while he's never made a fool of himself in relying so dearly on homage, it's sad that his seasoned skills will likely be with us for only one more film, if he sticks to his word and ends his career with ten features to his name. It's wise to quit while you're ahead but Tarantino's singular style of post-modernist, hyper-escapist, cinematic history potpourri still feels like a taste of a Brand New Wave after more than 25 years in the racket. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood may come across underwhelming side by side with his most unshackled, exaggerated works but it's yet another Tarantino film worth carefully dissecting, gleefully quoting and lackadaisically living in, only this time you can feel reasonably less ashamed.
To keep it brief...
Soon to Come:
The Rise of Skywalker
A Hidden Life
"So what've you been up to?"
"Escaping mostly... and I escape real good."
- Inherent Vice