This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Aydan Nolan’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
It might be the fact I bought and hung up the poster prior to the film the first time around but I have not been able to get this out of my head for two straight weeks. So after what felt like a lifetime I've come out the other side of my second viewing of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood with a clear understanding that this now has a permanent sector in my brain that will rotate among my daily thoughts until the end of time.
Seriously though, off the bat I'll say that my second time was more or less the same - stuff I liked the first time around I still love and some of the issues I had I maintain today. Obviously more good than bad, but as it were with movies of this quality and calibre, the problems feel much bigger because of how spectacular everything else is, or how much better I'd view the movie if those problems weren't there. I'm very open about this so I should mention as well as I have before, these problems could mean jack shit in the future after I've seen this 5+ times, which if I'm just being honest is lowballin' it, but of course this is how I'm feeling right now so what can ya do.
I will die on the hill that just about every Tarantino film has a supremely goofy scene and this has a few, though the most prominent is that one Bruce Lee scene which I still find super odd. Thematic representations out of the way which I don't mind at all, the way he's presented is so weird and I really don't understand the decision to show him this way. I don't know if that's completely true to his persona but it definitely feels more caricature than truthful portrayal so I spose I'm on the fence. I feel more or less indifferent but it really stands out as a unusual and straight up bizarre moment so I don't know what's up with that.
Still a little disappointed with the secondary characters in the film, which is everyone bar Rick and Cliff, who come across as cameos rather than distinct characters. I get the intention is different to those like Pulp Fiction and The Hateful Eight (the latter might be cheating but I'd argue every single film he's done has memorable and penetrable supporting characters) but their background characters are so striking and almost each one gets a moment in the sun. I still feel no one is outright bad and to be honest I don't think he's ever had an outright bad performance in his films, but that being said no other performance is great which is pretty disappointing. Even Pacino's character felt underdone, like he's fine in the role and the role itself isn't awful but like, that's Al Pacino the dude can clearly bring his A game. I enjoy his presence, as I enjoy Margot Robbie's and Kurt Russell's, Timothy Olyphant's, Margaret Qualley and Julia Butters and even Scoot McNairy and Michael Madsen's brief appearances. But presence is a different conversation than performance, and to me only Brad and Leo were truly great.
My other two complaints are the Spahn Ranch sequence and Sharon, or rather that plot backdrop and the ending. I'll start with the former, which I should mention isn't awful and actually quite entertaining as a whole, but when I reflect on that part of the film it's quite hollow. It's a significant portion of the film and really the only thing to come from it is for Cliff to recognise those 3 later in the climax. It's undeniably tension filled and in the moment you certainly feel that stress and intensity but the conversation with George isn't overly important if at all and everything else is sorta just there. It's enjoyable but when it's really only providing a set-up for something that's not actually vital and to compliment Cliff's thematic representation (which I'll get into later) it makes me wonder why this entire sequence makes up so much of the film when very little is meaningful. I feel that for a little bit of this film, namely the stuff around Sharon Tate, which brings me into my second main complaint. In my first review I mentioned my (in what I can now say) excessive expectations that I wanted QT so badly to rewrite history in that Manson was involved in getting torched. I've come to terms with a lot of the decisions he made regarding the violence overall and the limited utilization of it and the overall lack of overarching narrative. But that being said I still kinda wish that was the case, so maybe I've learnt nothing.
It remains a problem for me largely because, again like I mentioned in my review, there is no thread that's left about Manson being captured or deterred away from ever doing or promoting anything like this again. Instead we can believe he's still out there and will continue to live among his 'children' at the ranch and speak of hatred and starting race wars and all that bullshit the real Manson partook in. In Inglourious Basterds I am left with immense pleasure and an overwhelming sense of joy and hope, as those in charge of the Nazi regime are dead and the war is now over. In Hollywood there isn't that same sense of hope because I know he's out there and could easily repeat that initial plan a week or month later. When the entire presentation of Sharon feels less like a character and moreso a tribute to a person that died in a tragic incident, it's weird to me that she exists in this film as if that tragedy will take place, only for it not to. I love so much the melancholia of it all as we compare the films' final moment to real life where this potential of her life and career is at it's apex, and I find great emotional value in that. There's hope for Rick, as I feel he'll be fine career wise or at least reaching acceptance that it's over. I would say that applies to Cliff even more than Rick. But with Sharon it's not really there and that may be naivety or stupidity thinking that in this alternate history Manson will do anything to kill her or whatever but I don't know, even acknowledging that I can't say I'm left with anything other than disappointment. I went into this with an open mind like I said I would but I just can't not find that strange. I think the ending of the film is perfect but I just wish it had've come after completely eliminating the threat and thus leaving us with the hope I want to have and bask in.
While I still think Rick and Cliff, and with that Brad and Leo's performances are my favourite aspect, I'm comfortable saying it's tied with the film's themes which I found incredibly poignant this time. The first scene with Rick and Schwarz is terrific and to me another entry into Tarantino's great opening 10 or so minutes. Like how Inglourious Basterds presents and establishes Landa and what to expect from the film overall and his involvement in the plot and other characters, the importance of Hollywood's first conversation cannot be overlooked. The introduction to Rick and the current point of his career and how he feels about the situation is what this film more than anything else is about. I love the dialogue in this scene and how it foreshadows Rick and the events later in the film. Like the hero vs heavy TV show model replicating on Rick himself later in the film and even Cliff and his scuffle with Bruce Lee, the referencing of the Nazi movie Rick starred in and Schwarz's quote saying he loves the killing and guns in those movies which is also brought back later in the climax where he lights up that Manson girl and finally Schwarz bringing up the Batman and Robin TV show which felt like a very clear representation of Rick and Cliff themselves. You feel for Rick in that those themes surrounding him like being washed up and not someone likely to cross over into this new era of cinema hit quite well early on and they're only expanded on throughout the run-time. This discussion opens the film up pretty much and it's a starting point I really valued this time around and is something that leaves a huge impact on the rest of the film.
At the moment I can think of 4 major points that I've really clung to and loved as much as anything else QT has done.
1. As a whole, the idea of a new era replacing the old is quite simple but surely very effective. I love the parallel of this era to the current state of cinema today, where we are inundated with sequels, prequels and adaptations of existing properties and original films have been pushed further away from the limelight than ever before. I find this specific theme very relevant now in terms of the state of cinema and also very effective on Rick himself who has supposedly fallen victim to this changing of scenery. Ushering out the age of Westerns and welcoming the new age of spies and FBI agents - out with the gritty and in with the slick.
2. I love how it presents Rick amongst this but also the comparison to Sharon who is apart of this new wave and who is someone with so much potential at the very beginning of her career. Two distinct points but with the culture shifting around them the parallel is incredibly interesting and as we follow Rick it's something that is quite moving.
3. This article my boy Nolan put in my life about the boat scene perfectly encapsulates the brilliance surrounding that and the overall use of violence throughout the film. That moment is the films' Rorschach test, in that you determine and interpret whether Cliff did or didn't kill his wife and the later use of violence on Bruce Lee and at the Spahn Ranch are just extensions on the decision you instinctively or subconsciously make. It makes a great point about that decision you may or may not have chosen and what that means come the climax and how you perceive Cliff following his actions, which to me is genius.
4. This was actually something my dad actually pointed out after I mentioned my tentative thoughts regarding my initial expectations and why certain decision were made regarding the ending. The way the title of the film plays a role in the events we see and the revisionism in those events and characters. The dream, fairytale-like quality of the title, the opening of "Once Upon a Time" is like the blurring of the lines of historical figures and events and how they truly behaved and acted or played out. Just like Tarantino presents an alternate history of this night, he is challenging our perception and understanding of a person we don't personally know but our image of them. While I still find it weird as fuck, he mentioned the whole Bruce Lee scene as an example of him making a conscious decision to portray Bruce different to what we as the public perceive him to be and what sort of person he was to those. Who do we trust in the films' circumstance? Do we think Cliff killed his wife or do we believe he's innocent? Do we believe Bruce was arrogant and egotistical or should we question the Cliff's memory of him and that scenario? The ending of the film plays out like a fairytale and where the final portion of the title comes in, like a Hollywood blockbuster where there's the happy ending done up neatly with a shiny, red bow is on top. Just like he presents this alternate history of the events later in the film, he's challenging 'reality' or at least our reality of this person or event and having it fall under the umbrella of the fairytale aspect - the what ifs. Just like that boat scene presents a what if, the dreamlike, idealized aspect of the film feels pretty obvious when you consider the title, which I'll be honest was something I'd overlooked. The problems I spoke about earlier are currently present in my mind but this is what I was referring to when I said in my last review that this is an undeniably great movie. There's so much more I haven't talked about like the representation of Hollywood itself as the comparisons and contrasts between the glamorous side and the shitty side (which in this are the Manson family) but I look forward to seeking all that I'm missing and not completely grasping on a later watch.
I said last review that the stuff you'd expect technically from QT he delivers on and boy oh boy is that underselling it. Visually impeccable and like I said in my Inglourious Basterds review, this newer era of his films are so visually appealing it is borderline blackmail to never look at another film again and exclusively watch his stuff from IB onwards. The lighting is tight and I feel just about every movie he does makes me notice how consistently beautiful smoke looks in his frames. It is hilarious and is definitely up there for his funniest film. "I'm as real as a doughnut motherfucker" and "the hell are you looking at you ginger-haired fucker" had me in tears both time and might be two of my favourite lines of dialogue ever. The soundtrack is crazy good and I found myself consistently noticing the top notch foley work which was an appreciative reminder of how awesome it works among the general sound of a scene and in the bigger scope of the entire film - the atmosphere of 1969 Hollywood.
I love a good atmosphere and trust Quentin Tarantino to go the extra mile in every visual facet to completely engross us in that era of Hollywood. I completely understand why he uses the full run-time to show off the incredible detail put into the recreation of that era and while you could argue there's room to shave off those 160 minutes, it is pretty tight relishing in that setting. Whether it's the seriously magnificent costuming or the fantastic locations and interior production design to those amazing vehicles. It's all part of the mood of that era of the US and it radiates a sense of wonder and optimism, and of course a fuck tonne of love from Tarantino of this period of cinema. Once this film begins there is a profound level of immersion and I think that's an aspect that only continues as we see more of this area and these characters that feel so real. The world he creates (recreates?) is so well realized and so lived in and it's so impressive that he consistently nails that element in his filmography. Whether it's Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton or Bounty Law and the spaghetti westerns he stars in, the central component of the film is grounded in reality so well and it's absorption in the world around it is great.
I really value the experience Hollywood has to offer as it's not really one that he's explored previously. Jackie Brown is being brought up quite a bit and I definitely agree, as this film is arguably his most mature right alongside that masterpiece. There is so, so much I love and I eagerly await my next watch to love it some more, which will likely be at least one more time while it's still out in cinemas (it's not even a question I'll be purchasing this on blu-ray when the time comes). I do still think I'm in the 'honeymoon' period where my initial thoughts and expectations largely plague my opinion on the film so I hope there's a day these issues don't bother me - which if I'm being real I expect that day to roll around pretty soon so whatever, I guess this is just me screaming into the void until I come around and accept the genius of this film.