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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood -

This is a sometimes funny, sometimes terrifying and always entertaining love letter to that era of cinema Tarantino adores so well: the late '60s, which he undoubtedly loves for having as many classic studio movies as classic B movies. Our hero, much to his chagrin, is in the latter camp: fictional actor Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), who headlined a popular Western series in the 1950s, but now scrounges for guest spots and lead roles in spaghetti westerns. His best friend and assistant is stunt double Cliff Booth (Pitt), who's been with him since his heyday. Rick lives on Cielo Drive and is neighbors with the very real Sharon Tate (Robbie).

Like a talkative guest on a podcast whom the host cannot talk over such as, well, Tarantino tends to be, the director's movies exhaust me when his crew cannot keep his excesses under control. This is why I can take or leave his two westerns. Despite what this one's runtime would lead you to believe, more of it is spent in service of what I like about his movies than what I don't. DiCaprio and Pitt earn their Oscar recognition, the former for how Rick transitions from a prima donna to accepting of his new lot in life. The scene where he tearfully talks to a child co-star about a book hes reading and how its main character's sad state resembles his own is easily my favorite and features what could be the best acting in DiCaprio's career. As for Pitt, he's convincing as the best friend anyone could hope for and a man who has quit trying to rid himself of his bad habit of picking fights. Both veterans also demonstrate that there is no more reliable comedy than when the handsomest or most beautiful performers play roles that take their egos down a notch, the highlights being when Rick gives a passionate monologue while wearing a ridiculous moustache and Booth's acid trip. None of what they, Robbie, et al do would be convincing if the movie didn't look and feel like '60s Hollywood, which is never a problem. It resembles the paradise Tarantino imagines it to be, so much so that there are moments when I wondered how they did it, especially when Pitt drives down a road covered with historically accurate signage, Rick appears in The Great Escape and the TV series FBI and of course that breathtaking moment when the lights turn on at landmarks like Cinerama and El Coyote. This is not all just a nostalgia trip, though: when Dalton and Booth get involved with Tate's unwelcome visitors, Tarantino delivers the chills. The moments when Cliff is subject to the dead-eyed glares of the residents of Spahn Ranch would not be out of a place in a horror movie.

Besides its history lesson, what else did I get out of this movie? The question "why don't the good times last" and all the bittersweet vibes that come from asking it, if anything. It's a question the movie asks in many ways from it being on Rick's mind half the time to the heinous crime that Tarantino argues ended these good times. I'm late to the party on this movie considering social media users barely share its best shots and memes anymore, but I'm glad I watched it now because the question would not have resonated during the miserable times when it came out like it would have during today's much more miserable ones. The movie is not perfect: there is a scene with Bruce Lee that rings false and whenever Tarantino reveals his most notorious fetish, it distracts much more than it contributes. I still rank it as one of his best, particularly for how it made me appreciate late '60s cinema even more than I already do, but especially for how its conclusion optimistically rephrases that big question: "what would it have been like if these good times lasted forever?"