PLOT In 1969, a television actor tries to become a Hollywood star.
CAST Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
RATED R (extreme violence)
BOTTOM LINE A bloody valentine to the movies from director Quentin Tarantino.
As a summer of so-so movies draws to a close, Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time In Hollywood" arrives to remind us what we've been missing. Remember when movies had style, star-power, an original vision, a sense of excitement? Tarantino, one of the last true cinephiles, certainly does. His latest release reaches into the past — 1969, to be exact — to pull some of that energy into the present.
The movie features two of today's biggest stars playing minor celebrities. Leonardo DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, an actor trying to parlay his Western television series "Bounty Law" into a movie career. Brad Pitt is Cliff Booth, Dalton's longtime stunt-double and gofer. While Dalton goes on auditions, Booth runs errands or does minor repairs on Dalton's manse in the Hollywood Hills. Dalton's neighbors are the recently wed director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and the actress Sharon Tate (a brief but enchanting Margot Robbie), who will soon cross paths with Charles Manson.
DiCaprio's Dalton is a treat — a total ham but, as we intimate from his slight stammer, a dedicated one. The movie's heart, however, belongs to Pitt's weather-beaten Booth. Though a man of few words and even fewer ambitions, he's the guy you'd want in a pinch; in one terrific scene, Booth gets into an on-set fistfight with Bruce Lee (played as a preening poser by Mike Moh). Pitt's quiet, confident Booth isn't too far from his brusque lieutenant in Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds."
What do the fictional Dalton and Booth have to do with the very real Manson Family (played by Mikey Madsen, Austin Butler, Lena Dunham and many more)? The plot will bring them together — in spectacularly violent fashion — but Tarantino seems to be making a bigger connection: Just as the 1969 Altamont Speedway concert killed the hippie dream, so the Manson Family killed the glamour of Old Hollywood. It isn't the most airtight theory, but it has a certain subconscious logic. More important, it gives Tarantino an excuse to fully exploit the year's colorful clothes, cool cars and energetic pop music. (Truth be told, Tarantino often lets the production design and soundtrack do more talking than the screenplay.)
Historically accurate to the last detail — except when it totally isn't — "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" may not be Tarantino's best work, but it might be his most personal. Tarantino, who grew up in Los Angeles, has compared his film to Alfonso Cuarón's "Roma," also inspired by a childhood time and place. With its grace notes of sorrow and glimmers of optimism, "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" is both an ode to a bygone era and a celebration of an art form that, in the right hands, can still be vibrant and thrilling.
"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," in which Leonardo DiCaprio plays a struggling actor, joins a long list of movies about the movie business. Here are just a few of the better ones:
SUNSET BOULEVARD Billy Wilder's 1950 noir begins with a failed screenwriter (William Holden) floating dead in a swimming pool — and then it really gets dark. Silent-era actress Gloria Swanson and director Erich von Stroheim also star as twisted versions of themselves.
THE STUNT MAN A young fugitive (Steve Railsback) hides as a stunt-double on a movie set controlled by a grandiose director (Peter O'Toole). Richard Rush's comedy-drama from 1980 remains a cult favorite for its clever blending of reality and fiction.
SWIMMING WITH SHARKS Kevin Spacey gives a tour-de-force performance as a vicious studio executive Buddy Ackerman in this indie gem from 1995. The character later inspired Jeremy Piven's Ari Gold character in the HBO series "Entourage."
THE PLAYER Robert Altman's 1992 gem stars Tim Robbins as Griffin Mill, a studio exec who thinks so little of screenwriters that he actually kills one. Curiously, after making this unflattering satire of Hollywood, the outsider Altman was welcomed back in and went on to make "Short Cuts," "Gosford Park" and many others. — RAFER GUZMAN