Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★½

Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is likely the most ‘Tarantino’ movie ever created. It is a slow build up with an electric payoff that has hardly been equaled; a ticking time bomb that gets funnier and denser the more you think about it. The film is absolutely Tarantino at his finest.

Tarantino transmits his nostalgia for Golden Age Hollywood throughout this movie. The longing for a simpler time isn’t portrayed through long monologues by the characters, instead it is told through magical scenes where Cliff drives around.

The production design in these scenes is absolutely stunning. There are 7 minute sequences where the illusion isn’t broken for a second. It doesn’t feel like it was a great set like most movies, it feels like an entire universe was resurrected for this film.

This idealism is also represented through the various adventures of Sharon Tate. She represents a literal perfect girl, becoming the embodiment of the idealism that graced 1960s Hollywood.

The soundtrack for this film, which has joined the short list of movie soundtracks I have bought, is one of the greatest to have been assembled. It’s more than just a collection of great songs, it perfectly represents the world Tarantino is portraying — A golden age long passed.

That isn’t even considering how well Tarantino uses certain songs, just take the opening scene. Which follows Tate in an airport. The scene has this great rhythm in the editing which it takes almost entirely from the song ‘Treat Her Right’. It is these combinations of character and music that give the film its unique identity.

But the other two things that give the film its identity are incredible performances from the two lead actors. I remember finding it very odd when the cast list for this movie came out, “Why did Tarantino cast two of Hollywood’s greatest leading men in the same movie?” I was puzzled.

The answer is simple, this film absolutely wouldn’t have worked without two actors capable of a traditional leading man presence. Pitt gets the supporting credit, and a well deserved Oscar, but he is the central point of just as many scenes as DiCaprio.

He plays the prototypical ‘cool’ character with more bravado than could possibly be imagined. He is given the great task to be a spoof of the traditional Clint Eastwood type protagonist and does it perfectly. When he is on screen, you can’t look away. Pitt’s Cliff Booth is the spirit of old Hollywood alive.

Then there is DiCaprio, who represents the degradation of the world the characters inhabit. Although Booth is the prototypical leading man, he is a lowly stunt double while the pathetic DiCaprio gets all the glory. While Booth exhibits an unstoppable, masculine sex appeal throughout the film, Tarantino does everything in his power to make Dicaprio’s Rick Dalton look as disheveled as possible.

This shows in Dalton’s subplot which involves him shooting a Western TV show. One of the greatest acting masterclasses of the year comes in the trailer freakout, a scene that was improvised by DiCaprio. That isn’t surprising, as the moment feels incredibly raw. Although Dalton eventually finds success, it is in Italy. The changing Hollywood landscape rejecting people like him is what the film is truly about.

There are also moments where you can feel the man behind the camera having fun. Moments which make certain lines of dialogue funnier the more you think about them.

There is one scene where Cliff fights Bruce Lee. It is an awesome moment of Fantasy where you can imagine the excited kid part of Tarantino’s mind going ‘what if Bruce Lee fought Clint Eastwood’. It doesn’t add much to the story, but it is fun as hell. It builds character and atmosphere. This entire film is more concerned with advancing the world than advancing the plot.

Now, I am not saying Tarantino writes a perfect screenplay. Although wonderful dialogue abounds, he continue his well documented problems with pacing. He builds his sequences like an excited kid throwing too many action figures together.

The execution of each moment is brilliant and each sequence carries weight, but he often keeps moments going for much longer than necessary. A part of it feels like he’s so happy with his creation that he doesn’t want any of the moments to end. While this joy is evident in every frame, it doesn’t make for perfect filmmaking.

What does make for perfect filmmaking is the final scene. An immaculately paced eruption of violence and comedy that is possibly the most rewatchable moment of Tarantino’s career. If your heart doesn’t skip a beat when Rick comes out bearing a flamethrower that he is certainly ready to use, I am pretty sure a part of you is broken.

This last sequence is one of the most cathartic finales in film, yet without the 2+ hours that came before it, it simply wouldn’t be as effective. It isn’t great because it’s funny and violent; it is great because it is unbelievably satisfying to watch Cliff finally be the hero after 2 hours of playing second fiddle. It is satisfying because, after following Sharon Tate for half an hour, the film takes a turn that nobody expected.

Tarantino creates a ticking time bomb that he tells us is dynamite. He then blows it up; allowing the viewer to learn it was actually an exhilarating firework show. Every single moment is in service of the film’s masterful ending. It doesn’t matter that parts dragged on, leaving the theater I couldn’t have been more satisfied.

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