Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★★

Granted seeing this on premiere night at my beloved New Beverly (Tarantino's house) with a bunch of amped up fellow Tarantino fans didn't hurt. And granted it had a lot going for it from the get-go: a focus on '60s Hollywood; extensive iconography of old Los Angeles (a city I have come to truly love in the last 15 years); a potential revenge fantasy involving Sharon Tate; a phenomenal cast, helmed by Pitt and DiCaprio. And granted half of the fun of this was the lead-up I saw firsthand, from the Bev's screening of The Wrecking Crew three years ago (where QT made a surprise appearance and talked about how it was his favorite Sharon Tate performance), to the extensive makeover he gave Hollywood during filming, to the phenomenal run of '60s films he showed at the Bev last month (many of which are referenced herein). In the end, though -- thankfully -- Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is, for my money, a film that shows Tarantino at the height of his powers.

While I admittedly had some issues with his last two films (Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight), OUATIH reminded me of all the reasons QT was my go-to, never-fail director after 1994, yet it also manages to feel like something fresh and different for him. While even my favorite Tarantino films always felt a little chaotic, like a cinematic game of mix & match, OUATIH is possibly the man's smoothest and most restrained, polished and focused film to date...not to mention one of his least gratuitous. Moreover, Tarantino seems to get out of the way here in a manner he never has before. There are less gimmicks here than before, and there was no scene where I ever felt a heavy-handed presence from him, be it in the dialogue, direction or any other aspect.

While I loved every minute of it, I initially felt like I was going to need another viewing or two to fully digest everything on display here -- as is the case with many QT films -- and I had planned on copping out on even giving this a rating tonight. Then we hit that slight tonal shift in the middle, where the pervasive sense of dread that has been hidden in the background comes more front and center and the focus shifts almost exclusively to the Manson family. This culminates with one of the most extraordinary third acts I've seen in a very long time, full of emotional heft (especially if you know the historical details behind it), dark humor and delivering exactly what I was hoping it would. And that's when I knew I had to give this a full five.

There's a lot of great content here about being an aging actor past his prime -- which perhaps hits harder for those of us who have experience in this field -- and it's beautifully juxtaposed with Tate's real life storyline of an up and coming actress on the verge of motherhood. DiCaprio and Pitt are stellar here as Rick Dalton and his stuntman Cliff Booth, and Robbie is magical and almost dreamlike as Tate, giving her a real ethereal, fairy tale-ish quality (which I would imagine is the point. Just look at that title). Lots of great supporting roles and cameos here, too, including a brief bit part from the wonderful Zoe Bell that had our audience applauding and a "blink and you'll miss it" cameo from acting legend and New Bev staple Clu Gulager, who was actually in the house this evening.

Certainly the best Tarantino film I've seen in a long time -- probably in my top three, to be honest -- and the best film I've seen all year, I already can't wait to revisit this. Congratulations, Quentin. You did it to me again, you "basterd."

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