'Once Upon A Time in Hollywood'
(R / 159 mins)
Overview: Quentin Tarantino's ninth feature film is a story that takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, at the height of hippy Hollywood.
The two lead characters are Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), former star of a western TV series, and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).
Both are struggling to make it in a Hollywood they don't recognize anymore. But Rick has a very famous next-door neighbor ... Sharon Tate.
Verdict: With this playful ode to cinema, Quentin Tarantino proves that he's a master of weaving complex narratives using both filmmaking expertise and an unusual attention to detail.
A swirling collage of plot threads and sideroads, the film has a seamless feel to it, bringing these seemingly disparate meanderings together into a stunning depiction of Hollywood at a pivotal point in the history of both movies and American society.
With his career waning in February 1969, Rick (DiCaprio) is working as a guest villain on episodic TV with his sidekick, stuntman Cliff (Pitt). But not being a leading man is getting to him, and mogul Schwarzs (Pacino) advises him to star in spaghetti Westerns instead.
Meanwhile, Rick's neighbour Sharon Tate (Robbie) is starting to get some notice as an actress. And Cliff meets a flirty young woman (Qualley), who takes him to a former movie-making ranch in the Valley, where he meets her "family". Six months later, their fates are on a collision course.
As a writer, Tarantino does his research, using what is known about this specific time and place to build suspense around characters who can't imagine what's coming.
This cleverly keeps the audience gripped right to the twisty final act. And along the way, the filmmaker takes a witty trip through the industry, including the relationship between television and cinema at a point when Old Hollywood prestige gave way to a focus on profits.
Performances are earthy and raw. DiCaprio has an enjoyably complex role as a wheezy has-been who still has the chops to steal scenes from a series star (like the superb Olyphant).
His interaction with Pitt is the film's heart, and Pitt gives his most relaxed performance in years, shining in unexpected encounters with the likes of Bruce Lee (Moh) and the ranch owner (Dern). Robbie also finds surprising textures to Tate, a kind young woman who simply adores her life.
Of course there are a lot of cameos, from Damian Lewis (as Steve McQueen) to Lena Dunham (as a Manson Family leader), plus a fantastic side role for Pacino. But Tarantino is the real star, and he's at his bravura best with meaty conversations and technically complex set pieces.
His blurring of Western iconography is particularly memorable here, both in the movies and shows within the film as well as the tense ranch sequence.
Like other Tarantino movies, what feels like a period drama is actually another entertaining romp through his own wild world.