Tag Archives: pulp fiction

Terrible Reviews: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

I love Tarantino movies.

Which is why what I’m about to say is gonna hurt.

I saw Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs within about a week of each other when I was in high school, under the assurances of my actor friend that the movies were “brilliant” and “hilarious” and all the good things, and like a good friend desperate to fit in I dutifully loved these movies in all their fast-talking, self-aggrandizing, slow-mo-walking, perversity-loving and gratuitous-gore-worshiping glory.

I say that with cynicism but I really did love the movies, and for better or worse, they taught me a lot about movies, and especially about writing; I think there’s more than a little bit of a Tarantino echo in my back-and-forth often-anticipating-what-the-other-guy-is-thinking kind of dialogue. (Or maybe I’m just being kind to myself; always an option.)

Anyway, I loved Tarantino in high school but pretty much left it at that until Kill Bill came out, and while I don’t think that one (well, two) reaches the pinnacle of Pulp Fiction for sheer filmmaking swagger, it’s a heck of a good time and hey SAMURAI SWORDS EVERYWHERE and that’s kind of awesome. Not for nothing, too, it sort of establishes a trope in his movies of the “avenging angel” style of heroine, which is a nice flourish, so I went ahead and loved those too.

Then it was Inglorious Basterds and it felt like we were back to master-class form again, with the masterful opening scene and the bloody inspired performance of Christoph Waltz and the avenging angel in full fiery glory.

Some years further on, then, there was Django Unchained, and while I only saw it once (and consequently don’t remember it as well), it felt very much like a natural addition to his catalog: There’s Waltz again killing it, and oh man here comes Leonardo diCaprio killing it, to say nothing of Jamie Foxx killing it (and everybody on screen), and there’s blood and gore and uncomfortable topics right in your face and COWBOYS YEEHAW.

And it’s like, you know, this Tarantino guy, he seems to know what he’s doing.

And then we get Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. (Here is where the minor spoilers kick in, so, y’know, heads up and whatever.)

And, look, I’m as skeptical as the next guy. All kinds of things can affect your reading of a book or your viewing of a film: the particular circumstance of your life at the time of the reading, who you’re with when you see it, heck, the leftover pizza you had for dinner before you turned it on. Anything can throw the experience off, can make things strike you in a different way, if not entirely wrong.

But I don’t think that’s what happened here.

My wife and I were super bored by the movie for the entire first half. I’ve never felt bored by Tarantino before, and here, I felt bored. We’ve got Rick, the washed-up movie star, and Cliff, his stunt double, trying to figure out their way in a Hollywood that’s leaving them behind, and … well, that’s about it. Rick bumbles around and Cliff is a badass but there’s no particular sense of where they’re going, no particular sense that they’re actively adapting to this new world, just that they’re scraping by within it.

I mean, don’t get me wrong. Not every movie has to have blood and guts and a streak of searing-hot vengeance through its core to hold my interest, but over two decades, I’ve developed a series of expectations for a Tarantino movie, and it ain’t this. It was well done, mind you, and had all the clever dialogue and stuff you want from a Tarantino movie. In fact, taken out of context, each scene could probably be considered masterful, but as a whole, the first half is a snore.

And then we have the second half, which just feels like we were cruising along having a good old time (albeit a boring one) on a peaceful country highway, then suddenly detoured onto a bumpy side road leading up to a satanic church in the woods. The second half feels entirely disconnected from the first in every way except the presence of the main characters; it’s almost as if the second half of the movie is telling its own story independent from the first half.

And that’s … just … not great. As an audience member, I felt like my time had been wasted. And as somebody who thinks a lot about entertainment (specifically, about how an audience feels about their entertainment), wasting your audience’s time feels like the closest thing to an unforgivable sin.

The climax of the film is as unconnected to the rest of the film as the second half is to the first, and it’s nothing to do with either of the two protagonists’ struggles. nor does it test them in any way that challenges who they are or what the rest of the story has taught them. It’s almost as if Tarantino had almost finished the film, then remembered, “oh crap, I’m Tarantino, I’ve got to have some ultraviolence in here somewhere” and that was it.

Seriously. Brad Pitt and his trusty dog go insane on a band of would-be murderers while Leo is zoning out in his pool out back. There’s a flamethrower involved. It’s awesome. But it’s almost nothing to do with the rest of the story. I mean, in Pulp Fiction, you get Jules and Vincent shooting people up left and right, you get Bruce Willis slicing up a serial rapist, but it’s all in service to the narrative. In Kill Bill 1 (the better one), yeah, you get a twenty-minute long orgy of blood and blades as Beatrix slices her way through an entire gang of Japanese mobsters, but the whole movie has been building up to that moment. Ditto when Shoshanna locks a gaggle of Nazis in a theater to burn them alive, ditto when Django shoots up a plantation.

In Hollywood, the antagonists stumble into Leo’s home on a whim.

It’s just so slapdash and haphazard. DiCaprio is crushing his performance, but to what end? Rick doesn’t really go anywhere, emotionally. Pitt’s performance is in the same vein. He trounces Bruce Lee in a sparring match early in the film, so when he curb stomps the killers at the end, we’re just like … duh. Of course he did. Margot Robbie is here, too, and her purpose in the film is … what, exactly?

Contrast that to Pulp Fiction, where you have these two hitmen at a crossroads. They go on a routine hit and it goes sideways; a goon with a gun gets the drop on them and unloads. Shoulda killed ’em. Doesn’t. Samuel L. Jackson takes this as a sign from God and decides to reform his life. John Travolta reads absolutely nothing into it and keeps on mobstering. Later in the film, the two have diverged. Both characters come to meet with other obstacles — dangerous people at the end of their rope — and their actions earlier in the film have consequences. Jackson, with all his serene understanding that he’s on a new path, uses his calm to save not only his own life but the lives of his partner and several others in a restaurant holdup. Travolta goes on from there to get killed by a washed-up boxer because he’s still just blundering around with his guard down. There’s a setup and a payoff. And there is *nothing* like this in Hollywood.

This film is just lost as a story, and it’s frustrating, because as I said some 1200 words ago, I love Tarantino. I love his movies and his characters and the clever way he puts things together and the way little things in the plot pay off. And ALL OF THAT is missing, here.

The film is pretty, the dialogue is sharp, and the individual performances are good, bordering on great. But as a whole, the thing falls on its face like a decapitated Japanese mobster.

Final Verdict: Two out of Five butcher knives shoved into Brad Pitt’s hip.

Collector’s Item

Chuck’s challenge this week: Literary Mash-Up.

I’m not sure if I’ve properly grasped the concept… I end up literally smashing the stories in question together rather than combining elements of each story’s genre, but this is a fun exercise, regardless.

Anyway, my mash-up victims were The Great Gatsby, which I love, and Pulp Fiction, which I double love. Let that serve as a warning that here there be gratuitous violence (thanks Pulp Fiction) language (thanks Pulp Fiction) booze and debauchery (thanks Great Gatsby) and possibly a deeper meaning hinted at but not in the least delivered (thanks BOTH).

Here, then, is Collector’s Item.

Collector’s Item

“We should have Tommyguns.”

Bruce propped one hand on the wheel and leaned his other elbow against the door, letting his fingers massage his bald scalp. Against his better judgment, he answered. “How many are there?”

“Six or seven, what I heard.”

“Hmm.” Bruce didn’t know how he felt about busting into a room with six or seven guys hopped up on moonshine and god knows what else, but he trusted Mr. G., even if Fitz was edgy. He changed the subject. “Where’d you get those shoes?”

Fitz had on a pair of wingtips polished to a blinding sheen. He angled his leg to get a better look at them. “Gypsies.”

“Get the hell out of here. Gypsies.”

“If I’m lyin’, I’m cryin’, sport. Band of gypsies.”

“Where did you find gypsies around here?”

Fitz sniffed and leaned back in the bucket seat, cupping a match to a cigarette and taking a deep drag. “Couple miles outside of town. They have a camp set up out there. Well, had a camp. Moved on since then. Wherever the fuck gypsies go.”

“And how, if I may ask, did you get a gypsy to part with a pair of shoes like that?”

“Gave him my .38.”

Bruce fought back the urge to slap Fitz across the face. “You traded a gun for a pair of sissyfied leather shoes?”

“I traded my old gun for a pair of designer alligator-skin shoes. One of a kind.”

“One of a kind, made out of hundred dollar bills, I don’t care; you don’t trade a fine piece of equipment like that for some shoes.”

“You do, if you have any taste. Look at your feet, man. What are you wearing, dime store loafers?”

“I promise you this: when I’m dropping bullets into somebody’s head, the last thing they’re thinking about is what’s on my feet.”

“See, that’s where you’re wrong. A man looks good, he feels good.”

Bruce shook his head and wiped a trickle of summer sweat off his brow. Fitz would argue the point until the moon got tired and went home. “This is it.”

The lights of the Hilton rose up like a luminescent palm tree in the night. Bruce maneuvered the car around to the service entrance, and in minutes, they had taken the stairs up to the 12th floor. There was some big event in the ballroom keeping everybody occupied; nobody even looked sideways at the two men in black, or at Fitz’s alligator-skin shoes.

“What I don’t understand is,” Fitz continued, having hardly stopped chattering all eleven flights up, “how big G makes all that money in such a short amount of time.”

This again. Fitz was always asking questions about the big boss. Whenever he did, Bruce could feel snakes sliding along the back of his neck. Boss had eyes and ears everywhere, and you didn’t go talking bad about a guy like Mr. G. Not if you wanted to keep your head on your shoulders.

“Do you get paid?”

“What?” Fitz wasn’t a child, but he could damn sure act like one.

“Do … you … get … paid?”

“The hell kinda question is that?”

“We’re on this job. Pays a couple hundred. Now, whether that comes from Mr. G. or from Sweeney or from whoever else, those couple hundred spend the same. Who cares where they get the money from? Long as I get my cut, I’m happy.”

“All right, all right.” Fitz spread his arms out wide, the classic gesture of a man showing you he’s unarmed and means no harm. The twin holsters revealed at his belt as his jacket flapped open belied the gesture somewhat.

Bruce flicked his watch up to his face.  “It’s time.”

Fitz knocked on the door. That damn “shave and a haircut” rhythm: tap, ta-ta-tap, tap… Thick door. Heavy. Maybe oak or something, Bruce didn’t know. Smooth green paint, numbers in gold, fancy carpets all lush underfoot. Nice place to spend a weekend, if you could afford it.

A blaring trumped assaulted their ears as the door swung open on a scene straight out of a … what was that word…

“Can I help you?” The smarmy-looking guy who opened the door leaned in toward them in a haze of booze and cigarette smoke. His eyes drifted in and out of focus as he swept his gaze back and forth across them. Guy was as hammered as a carpenter’s bench.

“Hey, we heard you all were having some kind of party or something,” Fitz said, turning on a positively magnetic smile.

“You heard right, partner! Come on in, the more the merr–” he hiccuped violently then, almost losing his balance. With a grand gesture he flung the door open and stepped aside to allow Bruce and Fitz in.

“Bacchanalia,” Bruce whispered, the word finally coming to him.

There were no less than a dozen people around the room, in various states of drunken disorder. In the middle of the room, one couple danced violently and out of time with the music. Near them, collapsed on the floor, was another couple ignoring the music entirely in their attempt, apparently, to devour each other’s face. The breathy sounds of their kissing and moaning could be heard above the penetrating music. One armchair held a woman drowsily staring at a spot about five inches in front of her face. The couch held two fellows in shirtsleeves passed out on each other’s shoulder. In a poorly-lit corner, one nervous, parrot-eyed man hung on the arm of a woman who looked as bored with him as she probably was with the world, given the clattering assortment of priceless jewelry adorning the arms folded across her chest. All of them, besides the unconscious ones, had that stumbledrunk heaviness to their movement.

The man who had greeted them beelined to the bar, a grand affair of mirrors and gold trim, hosting a litany of bottles with expensive-sounding monikers, all very English sounding. He uncorked a bottle of clear spirits and poured three glasses at once with a swirling of the bottle, splashing booze everywhere. He proffered one to Bruce, who waved it away with a curt flash of the hand.

“I don’t imbibe.”

Undeterred, the man shifted toward Fitz with the drink.

“Not tonight, buddy.”

“More for me, then!” With a mad grin, their host slammed back one of the glasses at one gulp, dribbling about half the drink down his rumpled shirtfront. Then he turned and sashayed back into the madness.

Bruce, meanwhile, had found the record player and dragged the needle, silencing the music with that unmistakable scratch. It was as if he had pulled the plug on a carousel; all the motion in the room ground to a jerking halt. Fitz, meanwhile, hit the lights, and the partygoers blinked in the sudden blinding whiteness.

“Don’t get up,” Bruce said, in a not-exactly-friendly tone, to one of the sleepers, who had woken and rose toward him. Wisely, the man sat down. Every eye in the room followed Bruce as he stalked like a panther among the drunks. He came to rest in front of the only man in the room who wasn’t drunk, a broad-shouldered affair with a weaselly look despite his lustrous blond hair.

“You must be Tom.”

“Who wants to know?” This the man said confidently, smugly, stroking the back of the woman sitting on his knee. Her hand rested daintily on his chest. If Tom wasn’t recognizable by his size and his stare, the woman was recognizable in that she looked as if the angels themselves had set her in the midst of this den of debauchery. Her golden curls tumbled past her shoulders, diamonds festooned her fingers, and her expression was flighty, bemused, and a little otherworldly. Daisy.

Bruce smiled, sliding his hands into his pockets; just chit-chat, here. “I thought so. Great party. Was that Duke I heard before?”

“I don’t know much about music. More important things on my mind.”

Bruce’s eyes glinted, and he pointed a knowing finger at Tom. “Like the way you think, Tom. Like your taste in booze, too, though I don’t drink myself. But I can tell you’re an individual who discerns. Only the finest.” He flicked his eyes momentarily at Daisy.

Tom nodded, cool, in control, but his mouth curled in a sneer. He didn’t care for Bruce’s eyes on his wife.

Fitz had glided soundlessly to stand with his back against the front door, hands resting lazily on his belt. Bruce glanced his way and Fitz nodded the most imperceptible of nods.

“Well, Tom,” said Bruce, “there’s no easy way to say this, but you’ve got something that belongs to my friend, Mr. G.”

“Who the hell is –“

Like a cobra uncoiling, Bruce drew his pistol and fired into the face of the man he’d asked to sit down. His brains and blood fountained all over the other man on the sofa, waking him up. There was an instant of cacophony in which everybody in the room began to scream, but Bruce shot the other man and things got deathly quiet.

“I don’t think we need to pretend, Tom.” Bruce grinned around his gun arm. “You’re smarter than that. We’re here to collect Daisy.”

“Over my dead –“

“Careful, Tom.” Bruce drew back the hammer on his pistol for effect. “She’s going with us. Whether you’re alive or dead when she does is up to you.”

Through all this, Daisy wore a horrified look pasted across her wispy features, but her eyes registered something else entirely, like she knew how she was supposed to act but couldn’t keep her excitement from bubbling through. She yelped when Tom swatted her on the bottom and nudged her up from her perch.

“I guess you’d better go on with… I didn’t catch your name.”

“Didn’t give it,” Fitz chimed in, smiling that winning smile from the door.


“I wasn’t talking to you,” Tom spat, and his bulk unfolded itself, springing out of the chair and throwing Daisy aside. He reached for the pistol at his belt but three bright blooms erupted from his chest – BLAM BLAM BLAM – and he staggered back into the chair, blood and spittle flying from his lips.

The men in the room, who’d seemed a bunch of harmless drunks before, lurched into action, reaching for concealed weapons or diving at the assassins. Intoxicated, though, they were woefully slow. Gunfire thundered off the walls of the little room, and ropes and sprays of blood mingled with the abstract artwork, soaked into the plush white carpet.

Daisy, her blond hair now red with blood, her newly crimson gown clinging to her body, stood trembling in the midst of a mass of death. The few other women in the room were screaming, the shrill sound echoing and magnifying itself in the small space. A dull thwack thwack thwack pounded on the edge of his consciousness; his heart pounding in his ears. It didn’t have to be this way.

With a heavy sigh, Bruce holstered his weapon and looked around for Fitz. Fitz knelt, his weapons spent, pounding the butt of his pistol into the ruined shape of one man’s head.




Fitz whirled, his gun above his head, mid-swing. A manic glee boiled behind his eyes. “Yeah?”

“We happy?”

Fitz smashed his gun into the man’s head one last time and shoved himself to his feet, sniffing derisively. “Yeah, we’re happy.”

“Miss Daisy,” Bruce said, holding his hand out for her with a little bow. Dreamlike, she took it, and allowed herself to be led from the room.

Fitz shoved his gun back into its holster and cast one last appraising look around the room. “We should have fucking Tommyguns.”

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