'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' is an exceptional tale from Tarantino

Sony Pictures Academy Award winner Leonardo DiCaprio and Academy Award nominee Brad Pitt star in Quentin Tarantino’s ninth and newest film: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

Leonardo DiCaprio sits on a Western television set, explaining the plot of a dime novel to a young aspiring actor – not actress as she emphasizes – and quickly finds the story he is telling is his own.

Quentin Tarantino really is the master of small conversations, usually scenes that last about 20 minutes or so. Most of his best films are compilations of these moments, with Pulp Fiction’s chaptered pace coming to mind.

Ironically, that was the last film that was edited by someone other than Tarantino. He has made fantastic films since then with many small scenes that really shine: the basement bar scene in “Inglorious Basterds” for example.

Tarantino movies are still very much an event, the name on a movie poster will draw large crowds by itself. His films still always have some sort of controversy and many could use some editing: the largesse of “The Hateful Eight” definitely, though I enjoyed that film.

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” has some of those best Tarantino qualities and actually cuts down on other tropes of his. Yes, there is a violence-filled final act and plenty of feet shots to scare a podiatrist, but the overwhelmingly good writing and unparalleled acting from two of our biggest leading men – DiCaprio and Brad Pitt – outshine those other bits.

Let’s look at the scene I mentioned where DiCaprio’s character Rick Dalton, a TV actor from the ’50s who has had trouble translating to the Easy Rider generation of the late ’60s. He is reduced to small guest spots on other shows, which is where he is when he meets Trudi Fraser (Julia Butters), an 8 year old with the acting dedication of Daniel Day-Lewis.

She asks what he is reading and Dalton abides, telling the story of a bronc buster who used to have it all, but now is old and past his prime, trying to keep the illusion alive for one more day. Dalton realizes he is telling his life, and though DiCaprio is definitely not washed up, the movie world is filled with so many character actors and dime-a-dozen leading men that the era of singular movie stars like he and Pitt is even starting to fade.

Scenes like those are the reason I go to Tarantino movies. What is great about this entry, his ninth film, is the movie isn’t that deep at all. I mean, it has great moments of reflection and a charming Sharon Tate tribute, but it might actually be Tarantino’s funniest film.

DiCaprio as Dalton and Pitt as Dalton’s stuntman Cliff Booth form one of cinema’s all-time friendships. Dalton’s friends have evaporated with his dying career and Booth’s not-so-clean personal history scares off a lot of employers so all they have in the world is each other.

In an actor like DiCaprio’s career, it is hard to pinpoint what his best performance was. He finally won the Oscar for “The Revenant” in 2015, with this being his first movie since, but that might not even be his best role. He gleefully dives into Dalton’s persona and the result is an all-time performance.

Tarantino takes advantage of the period setting and occasionally shows Dalton in spaghetti western roles, a guest spot on the Green Hornet, and my personal favorite: a nod to Inglorious Basterds as DiCaprio cuts down Nazis with a flamethrower in a filmed dubbed “Fourteen Fists of McClusky.”

Pitt is a bit easier to go through his career. He has had his great moments, bursting onto the scene in “A River Runs Through It” for one and my personal favorite in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Cliff Booth will go down as one of the best Tarantino characters in what I think is Pitt’s best performance in years, possibly his career.

There have been drawbacks to his character’s history as Booth may or may not have killed his wife with a harpoon gun, which is very Tarantino-esque, but aside from that and a Bruce Lee portrayal that wasn’t very flattering, the film is really good.

So, plotwise, Dalton and Booth are living it up in Los Angeles (beautifully recreated as the locale is its own character in this movie) while the hippie movement is going on. Dalton lives on Cielo Drive, right next to Roman Polanski and his new wife: up-and-coming actress Tate (Margot Robbie).

My biggest qualm with this movie is the lack of Tate. She is maybe on the screen for 20-25 minutes. Not very long for an actor who is kind of the reason behind the film.

When she is on screen, Robbie plays her wonderfully and you can see that Tarantino has kind of made this a love letter to her, right down to having Robbie watch a screening of “The Wrecking Crew” where we watch the actual Tate perform her craft.

Along the way of this sprawling Southern California epic, Booth meets up with the Manson Family as we even see Charles Manson in one scene. The family is portrayed as carefree at the beginning as Booth picks up a member played by Margaret Qualley and they just seem like regular hippies.

As soon as Booth gets to Spahn Ranch, though, there is a feeling of unsettling squeamishness, most felt when Booth meets the real-life scary personage of Squeaky Fromme, played by Dakota Fanning.

It is a hard subject to tell in Tarantino’s style, but he gets the right mix of horror and comedy that ultimately pays off in an ending that I really enjoyed. I won’t spoil it, but it seems like a fitting end to a film that I think will go down as one of Tarantino’s best.

Rating: R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references.

My score: 96/100

Jordan Bishop is the assistant news editor at the Stillwater News Press and can be reached at jbishop@stwnewspress.com.