The first notable problem with ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is that the soundtrack fails to pop the way we have come to expect from a Tarantino film. Of course the soundtrack is very evident and it informs much of the story, however the songs don't feel as carefully selected or as thoughtfully placed. Perhaps this is a symptom of having only seen the film once (maybe a premature judgement on my part). The film is in every sense a reversion to his earlier work, calling upon strong pop cultural references to drive its narrative, which is certainly cut from the same cloth as Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, and where those films boasted an immediately arresting collection of songs, HOLLYWOOD isn't as hit-laden or ear-wiggy.
Other issues include an immodest amount of self-indulgence, unnecessary cameos and grading monologues. With its 1960's Hollywood setting, the scene is set for an eruption of Tarantino-gasms, and we wouldn't expect anything less, however he has indulged himself so much so that the average movie-goer will inevitably disengage from it's endless in-jokes, geeky film-speak and pop cultural intricacies. Suffice to say this is not as accessible as QT's previous work, but....
… it is definitely his BEST work since Jackie Brown. As a filmie with a decent grasp of film history and pop culture, I felt a kinship with the man and appreciated him speaking so deeply to a movie-lover like myself. I admit that I struggled at first. The first act is a slow burn and a meandering series of seemingly trivial encounters had me worried that he might not be able to push through his own hedonism. And then one important scene at the infamous Spahn Movie Ranch flips the story on its head and sends the film barrelling ahead at a million miles per hour, giving retrospective relevance to what had transpired previously.
Inspired by the real life partnership of Burt Reynolds and his stunt double Hal Needham (director of Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run) the film tells the story of Hollywood actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) who find themselves navigating second-rate television guest appearances and lead roles in foreign films. Work is drying up and Dalton's fame is on the decline when a snappy movie producer, Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) offers some sage words of advice and points him in the right direction. Dalton also happens to live next door to world-renowned director Roman Polanski and his actress wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbee) and when Booth's path coincidentally crosses with the Manson Family, the clock starts ticking down towards an inevitable climax on that most infamous night on Ceilo Drive.
This is a film jam-packed with surprises and I wouldn't dare reveal any of those tasty treats for you. What I will say is that Tarantino has captured the 1960's era with precision and filled his frame with absolute nostalgia. DiCaprio and Pitt both deliver what I will argue are the best performances of their respective careers, without any sense of rivalry or competitiveness. Each knows how good the other is and the camaraderie is strong. Robbie is a great addition to the cast as Sharon Tate, giving a mostly muted performance that relies on her character's sense of Hollywood wonderment. She gives a fabulous turn, with one particular scene in a movie-theatre (watching the real Sharon Tate on screen) serving as once of the films stand-out moments.
The cameos, while excessive, are generally good. Few of them grace the screen for longer than a minute but they all fit the bill nevertheless. Pacino does Pacino and Kurt Russell does Kurt Russell, while folks like Bruce Dern, Zoe Bell, Dekota Fanning, Luke Perry and Clifton Collins Jr contribute to a colossal ensemble of blink-and-you'll-miss-em players. Timothy Olyphant and Emile Hirsch are given slightly more screen time and it's great to see Hirsch back in the game following an unfortunate assault charge and subsequent blacklisting from Hollywood.
Some detractors have recently condemned Tarantino's supposed obsession with violence against women, to which needs addressing. I would argue that the number of men brutalised and killed throughout the course of his career far outweighs the number of women, and that those female characters he has subjected to extreme violence (The Bride in Kill Bill, Daisy Domergue in The Hateful 8 and the ladies of Death Proof... not to mention Alabama from True Romance) have turned said violence against their attackers. I would also argue that Tarantino writes strong female characters in his films and that his brand of filmmaking derives from an era of exploitation. We tend not to care when men are pulverised, mutilated and executed in QT's stories, and yet when women are hurt and then empowered it's outrageous and unacceptable. Give me a break! As for the specific violence against the women in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD... it's contextually satisfying and entirely justified. If you disagree then you need to reevaluate your own moral code. To go into specifics would be to ruin the fun and reveal too much...
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is a return to that urban sensibility that put Tarantino on the map. It is also ambitious and gratuitous and all things that make him a cult figure. Were it not for the aforementioned foibles earlier in this review I would be inclined to declare the film an instant classic. It comes damn near close to being a perfect film, and yet misses the mark thanks to self indulgence and a stronger than usual overriding sense of egotism.
This is writer/director Oliver Mann’s feature debut and he proves, right off the bat, that he can not only create a complex and harrowing story populated by emotionally complicated characters, but that he can handle the out-of-order storytelling style he’s opted for in a way that feels like so much more than just a present-day story with a series of flashbacks. The story of older David who escapes his father by moving from New York to LA to have a crack at professional stand-up and the story of younger David who witnesses the domestic violence the father brings down on his family are told in a way where they hold equal weight and continually collide creating the sparks that enliven the movie and provide us with a tale where one-plus-one equals more than two. Likewise, the secondary stories of David’s troubled girlfriend Marcella (Wilma Rivera) and Robert, the friend that tries to help him out only to get him deeper into trouble, provide a depth and texture to the overall narrative that account for an authenticity and grittiness that is, perhaps, surprising for a first feature.
Mann’s work as director is well supported by Sachi Bahra’s strong cinematography and a lilting, sometimes haunting score from Kelli Sae. Performances are strong all ’round with Trigueros a standout in the role of David who navigates his way through the perilous waters of this story and makes a pretty good fist of his comedy club routines. There’s a droll humour to David’s act that might not have them rolling in the aisles but serves the story well in terms of the reflective nature of his humour. As the father, Ashton is believable and frightening, more for the psychological side of his abuse than for the physical. Strang, as the fragile mother trying to hold things together in the face of impossible odds, finds just the right amount of pathos as she loses her grip on reality. And, then, of course, there’s Rivera, with a terrific performance as the damaged Marcella who finds the sweet spot between vulnerable and dangerous that David finds himself drawn to.
The idea that a stand-up comedian’s funny stuff comes from a place of pain and darkness might be a cliché, but Oliver Mann’s screenplay and his realisation of it onto the big screen is anything but cliched in its explorations of his central character’s struggled with the harder sides of life, and his escape through making other people laugh. The dream-like final sequence might not entirely work as a denouement to the complex story (there’s a bit of voice over that suggests a lack of confidence in the imagery to do the job) but it leaves us in no doubt that for all the hope in the world that might bring a story like this to a close, there is still no escaping the dark undercurrents that we bring along with us from the choices we make in our difficult lives.
Making Dave’s teenage self (Brenock O’Connor) the lead is one of the biggest reasons this film pulls off its breezy tone. O’Connor finds just the right balance for depicting Dave’s Bromley-centric worldview, ensuring he conveys the awkwardness of youth without verging into naivete. Rather, his arc is cast as a classic coming-of-age journey, as we watch Dave’s confidence and ability to express himself grow by making friends through the club. Considering most viewers will probably recognise O’Connor from his time on Game of Thrones, it’s a pleasant surprise to see him simply have fun and show his range.
While some of the supporting cast suffer from a lack of material, the few who are given ample opportunity to share scenes with O’Connor are just as entertaining. I was particularly impressed by Jamie Foreman as Bromley owner Charlie McQueen, a character who initially comes across as a one-dimensional villain with no regard for Dave and other fans. McQueen’s perspective is ultimately revealed in the third act, but he’s a welcome presence long before then thanks to Foreman’s exaggerated, flustered delivery and comedic timing. Savannah Baker shows a similar talent as McQueen’s daughter Ruby, though using her primarily for a forced romantic subplot felt like wasted potential. However, this pales in comparison to the underdeveloped roles given to Alan Davies and Martine McCutcheon, two demonstrably funny people, who play Dave’s parents yet are barely seen.
Meanwhile, the film’s 1960s setting is captured perfectly, with the production’s warm and nostalgic approach serving as an ideal complement for the script’s tone. British filmmakers always seem to nail the technical aspects of period pieces and THE BROMLEY BOYS is no exception. From obvious era-appropriate details like the club’s uniforms and equipment, to locations such as the McQueens’ house which are only seen briefly, there’s a sense that the designers look back on the decade with as much fondness as Dave himself. For instance, Dave’s bedroom is filled with Bromley memorabilia both official and handmade, quaint yet specific flourishes emblematic of how easy it is to immerse yourself and simply enjoy the film’s world.
Unfortunately, the film’s story is the only element where it disappoints, struggling to provide an interesting catalyst for the characters and jokes. This is hardly a golden rule for comedy, since there have been plenty of successful films where nothing substantial happens (see Clerks). Yet in the case of THE BROMLEY BOYS, the plot which ultimately emerges is contrived and wafer-thin. Essentially, Dave finds evidence suggesting the club’s best player is being transferred, only for the rumour he inadvertently starts to snowball in unbelievable ways. Likewise, the quasi-twist used to raise the stakes in the third act requires a huge suspension of disbelief and makes Dave look recklessly inconsiderate.
Thankfully, the rest of the film makes such a strong impression that my issues with its story can be overlooked. THE BROMLEY BOYS is plain and simple fun, suitable for anyone who can relate to passionate fandom, or viewers who just want to switch off and laugh.
It’s Halloween and a bunch of people in Halloween costumes are milling around in a party mood at an old railway station with a few old steam trains lined up and ready to go. One of the trains is designated as the ‘Murder Mystery Train’ and out of the steam emerges a different group of characters in period costume all lined up and ready to enjoy a night of role-play and mystery solving... or so it seems. As they prepare to board there’s a strange moment between the group in period costumes and the group in Halloween costumes. But what does it mean? You’ll have to wait for the end of the film to find out.
In the meantime, enter The Host (Frank Lammers) a larger than life character in top hat and mourning coat who chews up the scenery as he welcomes the guests aboard and introduces them one by one with a vaguely threatening overtone revealing truths and secrets about each in turn. Most of our key characters, it seems, don’t really want to be here. Evelyn (Carter Scott) is only here because her friend is one of the actors in the ‘show’. Thomas (Everette Wallin) is only here because he promised his brother he’d come. Eugene (Logan Coffey) is representing his cosmetics company who provide the make-up for the actors. This is his fourteenth time on board and he’s pretty blasé about it. The only one who really wants to be here is young rich kid, Abigail (Shae Smolik) whose parents have sent her along with chaperone, Antonia (Leticia LaBelle) who is the most reluctant participant of all.
The Host has barely finished his introduction when the ‘murder’ takes place. But wait, something’s not right. Turns out it’s a real murder and then, before we know it, there’s a robbery taking place and then, before we’ve got our heads around that, the train takes a bend going too fast and comes off the rails, plunging into a deep river. Now our heroes are stranded in a slowly submerging carriage (looking like a scene from The Titanic) but when one of the show’s characters, Marcus (Daniel O’Reilly) tries to swim to shore, he’s pulled under (like a scene out of Jaws) by some weird looking monster that’s a cross between the double-jawed Alien, the Demogorgon (from Stranger Things) and the Creature From the Black Lagoon. So now it’s a monster movie and our heroes are being picked off one by one.
In theory, there’s no reason why this rapid shift of genres and styles can’t work, and, to a certain extent, there are moments in this film when it works really well. But those moments don’t coalesce into a satisfying whole. Partly it’s a problem of tone. There are moments that feel like the campiness and heightened reality is intentional and that we should be finding this darkly comical if not, at times, hilarious. But there are other moments where it feels like it wants to be a horror film and that we should be on the edge of our seats. The upshot is that D-RAILED sits uncomfortably on the fence between both those possibilities leaving the audience (or, at least, me) feeling quite uncertain about what it is we’re watching.
What keeps it afloat (excuse the pun) are some strong performances, especially by Scott who carries the narrative and is quite compelling on screen. She somehow seems to navigate her way through the story giving us a sense that she knows what this is meant to be, even if we’re not one hundred percent sure. I can’t really talk about the film’s ending, other than to say that there’s quite a twist waiting for us in the final scenes that shifts gears yet again and attempts to provide an explanation for what we’ve been watching for the past eighty or so minutes. For me, the ending is a bit of a let down in terms of how it contextualises the overall story. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of fun to be had along the way if you’re willing to go with the flow and to view the story through something less than a critical eye.