There's been a lot of talk recently of the "death" of cinema and of what may rise in its place. The unsteady giants of online streaming services and the too-big-to-fail franchise series have signalled more than a few apocalyptic prognoses concerning the humble motion picture. Indeed, it seems that with this new era of films as corporate entities first, entertainment (or even, dare I say it, art) second, a little of that indefinable "movie magic" of old is becoming harder and harder to find in the multiplex. It makes the rare, large-scale original title like Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time In ... Hollywood (R16) so much easier to treasure.
The most complex film that the American provocateur has produced since (at least) Inglourious Basterds, this 1960s-set free-love fantasia of a film follows the historically revisionist path of his most recent output - Basterds, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. Once Upon a Time drops a couple of quintessentially Tarantinoan characters into the orbit of the tragically doomed Sharon Tate and the Manson family who murdered her. Leonardo DiCaprio, continuing to flex his ample comedic muscles following The Wolf of Wall Street, stars as Rick Dalton, a preening but sweet-natured ageing television cowboy who's facing the fading limelight as he takes on fewer glamorous acting gigs around Hollywood. By his side is Brad Pitt, in what is arguably the finest performance of his storied career, as Cliff Booth, an enigmatic and alluring stuntman who drives Rick from place to place. Their stories play out in parallel with Sharon (Margot Robbie, luminous) in the days leading up to her death, as Rick and Cliff come into contact with the Manson family, among other (in)famous names.
Hollywood has long gone by another name – "the dream factory" - and much has been made of cinema as the world of dreams. To watch a film is something like a waking dream - and it's within this space that Once Upon a Time operates, right down to its fantastical title. For much of its running time, the film floats lackadaisically through a Tinsel Town as constructed by nostalgia as real history, the lush cinematography seemingly coated in the haze of lost memories. Everything in the film follows this modus operandi - from soundtrack to scene structure, the illusory effect of movies blends into this wistful, melancholic feeling of a time that never was, or never could be; as much a place of imagination as the films constructed there. It's no wonder that many have sensed an elegiac tone of farewell in Once Upon a Time In ... Hollywood. As Tarantino's ninth film (he's sworn he'll only ever make 10), this is an iconic film-maker observing a world he's been a part of for so long and which has started to outgrow him ever so slightly. It's perhaps what makes this film one of his most deeply rewarding - a chance to play new emotional notes, ease back on the formula, and really nail the elements that matter. Quite possibly my favourite film of this year, so far.
Rating: Five stars.