Saturday, 31 August 2019

Review: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (second-pass)

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (second-pass / SPOILERS)
Cert: 18 / 161 mins / Dir. Quentin Tarantino / Trailer

Ah, okay. I get it now. All it took was a second viewing of Quentin Tarantino’s ninth movie, and the knowledge that this really is about enjoying the ride because while there is a destination it’s one that’s brought about by external forces and the calendar, rather than any internal plot devices. Fair warning, the review which follows is rambly, unfocused and full of sidelines. But if that’s good enough for Quentin…

After taking in the movie when it opened, writing a slightly disgruntled review and letting that sit for a few days, I began to read other articles on Hollywood. More than I normally would for flicks I hadn’t enjoyed, because I wanted to know what I’d missed that everyone else seemed to love so much. And for the very most part, the pieces I read didn’t fill in any particular gaps for me. They just reiterated the list of reasons I’d been dissatisfied, albeit in glowing terms.


Because even among the critics’ community, the most perfunctory points here are open to interpretation. One take notes that while Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate introduces herself at the cinema box office, she watches The Wrecking Crew incognito to soak up the audience reaction. No mate, she puts on those massive glasses to emulate her character on-screen, looking around at the audience every time ‘Miss Carlson’ gets a laugh from them. She’s trying to be recognised, that’s why she went out of her way to be noticed at the box office - no one in Hollywood knows who the hell Sharon Tate is yet. Her actual claim-to-fame came at the hands of the Manson family - something Tarantino throws in the bin as he gives the actress the Happy Ever After she was denied in our reality. A gift from a film-maker who bleeds celluloid and lives for the micro-detail of every performance he sees in every in every B-movie and supporting feature. I got that the second time. The first, I was just wondering where all this was leading.

Elsewhere, some are saying that the brutal fight finale is "classic Tarantino". It’s not. It’s far closer to something that his buddy Robert Rodriguez would do. While it’s true that Death Proof has some nasty moments, it’s Rodriguez’s flip-side movie Planet Terror that’s the really gory flick - and so is the scrap at the end of Hollywood. Truth be told, it can barely even be called a fight in the interactive sense, more the tonally justified slaughter of three absolute wrong’uns.


And those are two tiny details to pick up on, but that’s what Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is; a lengthy string of tiny details, the minutiae of mundane lives being lived in an unorthodox business in a town famous for creating non-reality. The phrase ‘love letter’ has been flogged to death in reviews for this movie (yeah, even by me), but it’s as much a series of winks to QT’s own career as anyone else’s*1.

And yet he eschews the traditional format of cinematic storytelling. The first 25 minutes of a movie are usually used to establish characters and motivations. Here that lasts for two hours. The second act will be the part where those characters run up against an obstacle which will need to be resolved before the story can end. In Hollywood we get a caption-card that reads "6 months later". Tarantino is openly telling us that the events of 8 August 1969 have precisely nothing to do with anything that happened in the previous half year. It’s just that here they involve characters who’d been moving in and out of each other’s circles back in February. And as for the third act resolution? Well here it’s more Clint Booth meeting some barely-remembered faces from the past and everyone else meeting for the first time.

That disregarding of structure bothered the hell out of me the first time I watched this. And to a certain degree it still does and probably always will.


While the ‘Once Upon A Time’ in the title implies that a tale is about to unfold which isn’t beholden to historical reality, it also creates the expectation that the audience is about to be told a story - ie something with a firm structure and a roadmap - rather than just trailing along behind characters for a few days. And while there are things to look at along the way, that’s not the same as telling a story. This movie is acted, shot and cut beautifully*2. My initial problem was that nothing is happening. A second viewing excuses yet underlines this in equal measure.

Throughout Tarantino’s career, there’s been a secondary level upon which his films can be enjoyed. Not always a subtext in the regular sense, but something which, upon second, third or hundredth viewing, a viewer can dig and try to figure out what Quentin was channeling when he put the scenes together. Wondering what was going on his his mind, in addition to the main plot structure (ie the heist, the con, surviving the night or maybe just trying to assassinate Hitler). The problem facing more casual audiences here (hell, me included) is that Hollywood exists almost entirely on this other level. The main ’what’s driving the story’ element doesn’t exist*3. Stuff just happens because it happens*4. And while that’s arguably true for the likes of Pulp Fiction, that movie at least had intersecting and cyclical motifs matched with a tight pacing. Hollywood doesn’t.

As much as I enjoyed this the second time round (and I did), I still stand by every one of my niggles from the first. I’ve long maintained that you should be able to get something new out of seeing a film again, that’s why I do second-pass reviews and beyond. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is a prime example of how and why that re-evaluation is possible.

Although by the same token, I don’t think you should have to watch any movie twice to enjoy it once. But here we are…

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Well, that’s the question isn’t it?
What have you seen that’s like this?

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
It is, with a certain amount of caution.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
It is.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
Yeah let’s not go mad, okay?

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
Even though I’ve now changed my mind re-ordered my opinions on this, still yes.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There is.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: The voice of Cad Bane is in this.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…
I don’t normally change scores between viewings, but I’m happy to make an exception here. While this and my previous review are obviously subjective (as every review is), I obviously couldn’t go so far as to say the film is badly made. But there are aspects of it which I did not enjoy, and that is a fact. Appreciation is one thing, but it’s not everything. And that’s more what the number is in this case. Not how ‘good’ I think the movie is, more how it made me feel. Last time it was a frustrating 4, this time it was a 6.

My own change of heart certainly makes me wonder what the long-term response to this movie will be, and how much expectation will be placed upon QT’s tenth (and allegedly final) film…

*1 In no particular order: the aerial shot of the Pan-Am plane is a throwback to Kill Bill, Funky Fanfare from QT’s Grindhouse days plays at the drive-in next to Clint Booth’s caravan, the airport interior is a nod to Jackie Brown’s opening sequence, the saloon section is an obvious reference to Django Unchained and the ‘Die You Nazi Bastards’ scene likewise tips its hat to Inglourious Basterds. And unless I’m very much mistaken, the crossroads at which Clint Booth is waiting when he sees Pussycat for the first time is the one from Pulp Fiction where Butch runs into Marsellus Wallace. But I’m going to have to wait for the Blu-ray to confirm that one, because I’m not downloading a bootleg just to do a side-by-side, okay? [ BACK ]

*2 The sequence in the shack at the Spahn Movie Ranch is camp perfection in itself. The undeniable tension as the wildcard ’Squeaky’ sits slumped in front of the TV. Clint padding around the old dilapidated house holding unknown dangers, the feint of a false climax, the music from the suspense show becoming the scene’s diegetic soundtrack. Wall-to-wall gorgeous. It’s just a shame that it’s not actually needed because there’s no story for this to fit into. [ BACK ]

*3 Even though there’s a lot of literal driving around in this movie. And it’s not aimless, ‘take in the scenery’ driving, but it’s not plot specific A-B driving either. It’s mostly the characters on domestic journeys like going to work or running errands. And y’know that’s fine but Quentin, mate, I’m not going to let this one go: nothing happens in this movie until the end. [ BACK ]

*4 Or, to be more cynical about the whole thing, Rick Dalton needs to have a conversation about a flamethrower early on to explain away the fact that he’s got a working flamethrower in the house for the finale. Likewise, Clint Booth needs to be shown as a skilled stuntman to explain the fact that he’s instinctively competent at combat and self-preservation even when he’s off his face on acid, and he needs to be on acid to explain away the utter brutality with which he smashes his assailant’s face off every damned surface in the living room. It’s almost - almost - as if the movie’s climax was written first and the whole thing was ret-conned from there. That said, if QT has fully shot any of the TV episodes we see clips of or produced amended episodes of the ones he’s altered, and if any of those are squirrelled away on the Blu-ray extras for the movie, all will be forgiven… [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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