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With the help of a cast of top-shelf actors, Quentin Tarantino's ninth film provides a nostalgic escape

'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood'

5 of 5 stars

Columbia Pictures

Starring: Leonardo Dicaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino

PHOTO COURTESY OF COLUMBIA PICTURES - Al Pacino (right) plays a supporting role to Brad Pitt (left) and Leonard Dicaprio's characters in 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,' due out in area theaters this week.

an a movie directed by Quentin Tarantino and starring four premier actors ever be bad? That was the question I kept asking myself when I stood in the lobby of the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, staring at the poster for 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' prior to an advanced screening on Tuesday.

It's not like I wanted it to be bad – in fact, I was excited. This felt like the place you're supposed to watch an homage to a bygone era of cinema. The 35mm film projector clicked on and it felt – rightly – like stepping into the past.

'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' lived up to the expectations of a film with a legendary director and star-studded cast. It was a thoroughly entertaining, layered masterpiece that told a fictional story rooted in reality. This is a great movie for people who like movies.

The character around which the story unfolds is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an aging actor experiencing a career tailspin of sorts, frustrated with the downward trajectory of the roles he plays and his ability to play them. His best friend, stunt double and driver Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is carrying Dalton's load in more ways than one in their seemingly uneven friendship.

And yet, despite Dalton's reliance on Booth to prop up his career and life, the two share a deep and often hilarious bond. DiCaprio and Pitt's onscreen chemistry makes for constant smiles and laughs, often at the expense of a downtrodden Dalton.

While Dalton tries to keep his head above water, the audience follows his fun-loving and effervescent next door neighbor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) as her acting career begins its rise. The inverse direction of Tate and Dalton's careers is obvious, but the tragedy of how the real-life Tate died hangs over her character even in the most bubbly, vivacious moments. It's easy to dread what seems like the inevitable, even as Robbie portrays Tate's personality so warmly.

The Manson Family is the overarching villain, but for much of the film they tend to lurk in the narrative shadows and creep out the viewer from afar. The actors charged with playing key cult members (Austin Butler as "Tex," Margaret Qualley as "Pussycat" and Damon Herriman as Charles Manson) do a great job seeming gross and possessing a tendency for violence.

But just when tension has built to the precipice of a dramatic moment, it is often broken – successfully – in this movie. Where 'Hollywood' shines is its ability to not take itself too seriously and provide near-constant laughs. It's apparent throughout that it is a buddy comedy, a retrospective examination of the film industry and a western all rolled into one.

The final few scenes can only be properly experienced in the theater and they are classic Tarantino. It leaves the viewer feeling like they know exactly what the movie was leading up to all along, even if that seemed unclear for almost two hours. A perceived lack of clarity doesn't prevent it from being a genuinely fun experience, though.

'Hollywood' is proof that movies don't have to be depressing or pretentiously introspective to be great. While it serves as a timestamp for an important time in film history, it also makes a statement about movies in general that only an artist like Tarantino could convey.

In an era where it seems like everything on the news is depressing, popular TV shows provide examinations of some of humanity's darker instincts, and blockbuster movies often feature anti-heroes or end tragically, it was nice to sit in a movie theater for nearly three hours and laugh at a great piece of art.

Isn't that the whole point of going to the movies – to escape?

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