I’ve had a tumultuous ‘relationship’ with Quentin Tarantino the last seven years. After showing just how fun it can be to kill Nazis with 2009’s Inglourious Basterds he followed that up with the slave era western Django Unchained, a film that (although entertaining) didn’t feel like a classic QT film as it negatively highlighted the way he appropriates past cinema into his work (not to mention Tarantino courted controversy because of the excessive use of the N-word and his depiction of slavery). After that, more controversy followed the 2015 release of The Hateful Eight. Eight is another film where the N-word was used as often as the sun rises, but he didn’t have slavery as a cushion and it came off as one his most mean-spirited efforts to date. It was a film full of unlikeable characters and without that connection it ultimately came off as pretentious and insensitive.

Tarantino has returned with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s his ninth film (and possibly his last) and it appears to be a love letter to Hollywood in the 1960s. Also written and co-produced by Tarantino, Hollywood boasts an all-star cast that includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern and Al Pacino. Kurt Russell even appears briefly while also providing narration.

Hollywood provides multiple stories and mixes real life people with characters created by QT. DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, a washed up television actor coming to grips with his fading star, while Brad Pitt plays Cliff Booth, Rick’s stunt double, driver and friend. Margot Robbie, Hollywood’s female lead, plays Sharon Tate and she happens to be Rick’s neighbor (Tate during this time was married to director Roman Polanski). Roughly two-thirds of the film takes place in one day, and QT uses Hollywood as a backdrop to tell roughly three separate stories. One involves Rick as he works on a television show as the program’s bad guy; the second involves Cliff and his interaction with some “questionable” hippies; the third follows Sharon as she spends a day at the movies.

If nothing else, Hollywood’s performances are fantastic. DiCaprio puts in an award-worthy turn as Rick. He’s both charming and goofy, and he uses Rick to showcase the fading popularity of all superstar actors. His performance is at its peak when he’s on set, waiting to shoot his scenes. Rick is conversing with his young costar, Trudi (played magnificently by 10-year old Julia Butters, Hollywood’s breakout), where he discusses a book he’s reading. It’s about a cowboy whose best days are behind him and is forced to come to grips with it. Rick breaks down and cries while providing the book’s synopsis, clearly mirroring his own situation.

Brad Pitt is both hilarious and stoic, and his witticisms are welcome (and expected) in QT’s world. Pitt’s Cliff is around to keep Rick from going crazy. He’s a true friend, despite the fact he’s not a celebrity and he technically works for Rick. Cliff is as tough as they come and QT provides some backstory that only backs up that fact.

In addition, Cliff owns a beautiful pit bull – a 3-year old named Sayuri. Sayuri plays Brandy, truly man’s best friend who’s as strong as she is gentle (and she steals every scene she’s in).

I think the weakest aspect of Hollywood is the lack of strong female leads. Robbie is wonderful, but she has little to do. Much of her screen time follows her as she shops for a present for her husband, director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), and watches a movie her Sharon Tate co-stars in (The Wrecking Crew). Robbie does well with the little screen time she has, but it’s sad to see such minimal participation by her (or any female character, for that matter), considering QT has written and depicted some amazingly strong women in past projects. Hollywood is a fantastic ode to old Hollywood, but the lack of female representation is a downer.

Just to shift gears a little, Hollywood paints a perfect picture of Los Angeles in the late 1960’s. Much like Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds, Hollywood, through QT’s eyes, is a near-perfect replica. The 60’s came with a different mentality and a different set of rules, including its treatment of women. That is ultimately problematic with today’s viewing audience since we have #MeToo and an active push for diversity. So Hollywood provides an unmemorable Sharon Tate and also includes a one-dimensional Bruce Lee. Mike Moh plays Lee in a brief scene and, if you know little of the action star, you’re likely to see him here and believe that he was simply an arrogant bully who believed he could beat anyone in a fight, even the champion Muhammad Ali. In other words, women and minorities are shortchanged, which again comes as a surprise since QT has regarded both highly in past works.

QT’s revisionist ideas shine brightly during the final half hour. Hollywood’s running time is roughly 165 minutes, and 125 of it seem to be random events. But that last half hour blends the separate stories together perfectly, punctuated with a conclusion that’s exciting and satisfyingly violent. It’s basically a QT fantasy come true, where it’s easy to realize the writer-director-producer’s heart is in the right place.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is excellent. In fact, it may go down as another masterpiece amongst his impressive filmography. This is an effort that bests The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained, films that I didn’t particularly enjoy (despite plenty of love for them). Hollywood is more in line with Inglourious Basterds and his 90’s films, but after 25+ years of filmmaking, Quentin Tarantino’s magic isn’t at the level it once was. What’s crazy is that an okay QT is still leagues better than anther director’s best, so this is something to take in, enjoy and appreciate.

4.5 stars out of 5

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