Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★

Watching Quentin Tarantino's latest film is kind of like staring at one of those "magic eye" pictures. It takes a while for you to figure out exactly what you're staring at, but then you catch it from just the right angle and it all makes sense, everything just clicks into place. I used to find those pictures maddening. I just didn't have the patience for them, I suppose (I've got no time for Sudoku either). And a lot of viewers will probably feel the same way about "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood": it will bore them and frustrate them. Anyone who leaves before the last half hour of this film could leave feeling that the experience was a complete waste of their time. But that last half hour is where you look at the thing from just the right angle, that's where it all clicks into place, and I mean EVERYTHING. The first two hours or so are mostly set-up. The final act is where it all coalesces into something worthwhile.

I think that's what makes Quentin Tarantino one of the best working filmmakers. His gift for dialogue is phenomenal, the ear delights at a Tarantino picture, at the colorful and simultaneously revealing nature of it, even when the topics of conversation initially seem trivial and inane Quentin seems to always use those trivial topics as a way of excavating something deeper about the characters, or the themes, or the story or, hell, Life itself. The surprise of where Tarantino's conversations lead are as important to their entertainment value as what's actually being said (which is usually very well written). He's got a keen eye for composition and a lovely, slightly grungy color pallet as well. And in most of his movies, he finds novel ways to keep things moving and keep the viewer consistently on the edge of their seat. But all of these gifts nearly pale in comparison to how marvelously Tarantino sticks the landing every time. I felt like this was one of Quentin's weaker films while watching it, but the ending is such a perfect capstone that it validates the entire experience and makes it one I'm ready to jump into right away all over again as soon as the credits have rolled. Even Tarantino's weakest film (I'm leaning toward "Death Proof") might occasionally be a chore, but the ending is such an amazing burst of high octane entertainment value that I've still watched it several times (and may have to do so again here soon).

"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" often felt shapeless and unfocused to me. I spent a decent portion of it wondering where the hell all of this was going. I was still pretty entertained throughout the film, but it just doesn't have the rhythms and propulsion that I've come to expect from Tarantino. It felt meandering a lot of the time. I still liked it, for the most part, but it seemed a bit sluggish (until it all clicks into place in that final act). I understood the themes (the way he presents the contrasting narratives of Rick Dalton struggling to maintain his career while Sharon Tate builds hers, contrasting his desperate grasp at relevance while showing Sharon savoring her own ascent, effectively shows the end of the Old Hollywood era and the rise of New Hollywood) and I certainly enjoyed the characters (DiCaprio is a wonderful ball of insecurity and neuroses as Rick and Brad Pitt's Cliff Booth might be one of the coolest and funniest creations Pitt has ever brought to life, and that's saying quite something) and the atmosphere that Tarantino crafts immerses the viewer in the styles, music (the film is almost wall-to-wall with hits of the period as well as old radio commercials from the time, in a way that initially feels neat and then feels kind of bludgeoning) and general vibe of 1969 so well that it often feels more like a time machine than a film. These are all great attributes, but the movie's strange flow takes some getting used to.

I did, however, get used to it. Once I attuned myself to the film's unique rhythm, the cumulative effect of all these seemingly random scenes worked its magic on me. Even before that stellar ending, I found myself liking it more and more and sitting there with a big smile on my face. It would probably be impossible not to enjoy the extended sequences at the Spahn Ranch or with Rick melting down on the set of a Western pilot or, in my favorite pre-third-act sequence, Brad Pitt merely hanging out at his trailer making mac and cheese and drinking beer and interacting with his adorable pit bull. These are great sequences, but the flow of them all felt strange and stifling to me until I finally got into its groove. You never know what you're going to get with a Tarantino movie, which is part of why he's so thrilling (the Mansons are involved, but you still don't know how this will play out...after all, this is the man who killed Hitler that we're talking about) but it also can make the initial viewing of one of his films a bit challenging. I tend to enjoy his movies more on the third viewing than on the first.

The flow takes some acclimating to, for me, and I would have liked Margot Robbie's Sharon Tate to have a bit more character and a bit more to do here (she's mostly a gorgeous enigma and we admire her from a distance, like seeing a princess in a tower and hoping someone saves her) but "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" is still a damned fine film and a juggernaut of entertainment. Tarantino plays with conventions and goes in unexpected directions, but he always entertains first and foremost which is what makes him so damned much fun. I was cackling with glee in some places, which more than compensates for the bits I found slow or bewildering. And I have a feeling that I will appreciate even those bits even more on repeat viewings. Hell, I can't wait to HAVE repeat viewings of this, so it's definitely a successful film. Just be warned that you might take a while to get on its wave length...but doing so is still a lot of fun.

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