random reviews, recollections & reminiscings

Monday, July 23, 2007

REEL REVIEW: Once ****

R (for language)
1 hr. 28 min.
written & directed by: John Carney
produced by: Martina Niland
I've been wanting to see this movie since it's release. Actually, I've been in a hurry to see this movie since it's release cuz I know that despite rave reviews, movies about "guy meets girl" usually have limited and short releases. What attracted me? I heard it was about an Irish singer-songwriter/guitarist (the "guy") with emotional baggage who meets a struggling Czech flower seller/musician (the "girl") while performing on a Dublin street. The two discover they are kindred spirits through their music and much more. With that premise, I was sold. I heard that the music was incredible too but most of all it's just hard to find a realistic love story in cinema lately.
This is a love story with real characters in it. There's nothing entirely cinematic about these characters, these are just ordinary people you might see or meet anywhere. No insanely, knock-out gorgeous people here. No Jessica Biel falling for Adam Sandler antics goin' on here. The movie benefits from that premise (and promise) and as well as a documentary, hand-held camera feel with an obviously extremely low budget. There is pure intentions here at the film's heart and a creative passion for musicianship, which is perfect because if there was anything added the film would just come across as rather pretentious.
The Guy (Glen Hansard) is a working-class Irish dreamer, plugging away in his father's vacuum repair shop by day and hitting the streets to perform his songs at night. During one of his street corner concerts, Guy meets The Girl (Marketa Irglova), who is smitten with Guy's guitar playing and touched by his lyrics. After some flirtatious pushing and pulling, Guy asks Girl to form a makeshift band, fashioning a tentative bond between the two that skirts around love, but never seems to settle, much to Guy's frustrations and heartache.
What really sold me on "Once" were the intimate moments between the characters. It just all seemed so real and I cannot think of anything else to describe it....just real. You can tell there was little getting in the way of this film, no studio interference whatsoever is felt here. The end product being a soft, trembling feature that believes in the magic of infatuation and silent agony of unrequited and uncertain love. It's an open wound of stifled emotions, and I was quite taken with the interesting ways it attempts to portray the unstoppable connection between man and woman, here employing the rickety wood bridge of music.
Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova in Fox Searchlight's Once
Hansard's (lead singer of the Irish band The Frames) only other noticeably role was that of a guitarist in 1991's "The Commitments" which is actually to his benefit. It's much more effective to have an unnoticeable actor perform in this role and Hansard being a musician it helps the passion and reality of the character and storytelling. I was blown away with this being Irglova's debut acting role. Just amazing! She responds to those around her naturally and has an astute listening ear. Both actor's performances add a certain freedom to the film. It's obvious that director John Carney likes to rely on the freshness of the talent, trusting their unease with acting will bring out the kindly awkwardness between the characters. This technique works; slowly sucking in the viewer as the two grow more comfortable around each other, especially when they create music. I'll go ahead and say that some may not like Hansard's songwriting or musical delivery. I loved it but then again I'm a big fan of acoustic singer-songwriter work.
Regardless of a viewer's opinions of the music, the passion behind the tunes cannot be denied and speaks volumes about the characters. It really is impossible to turn a cold shoulder to the romantic pining blossoming between the characters when they combine their voices, edging "Once" closer to the musical genre at times. Many have said that this film plays like a modern musical but for me the music is just another star, and inevitable player that progresses the story instead of stopping the story for mere exposition. There is character and story growth while the music is played, it's not just video montage fluff. Does the movie have a happy ending? Let's just say it has a real ending and the "happy" is seen in the realism portrayed throughout the movie.
Marketa Irglova and Glen Hansard in Fox Searchlight's Once
My wife was a lil off-put by some of the dizzying hand-held type camera work but other than that she really loved it. It almost feels unfair or reaching to call out the technical limitations of the film when it really is so sweet and humble. Apparently, it was shot with a commercial DV camera, therefore all the jittery long lenses and camouflaged camera placement to brings that raw, unfettered look at two souls finding perfect sync. Admittedly, it keeps the film baggy; free from succumbing to the pressures of the meet cute and assorted romantic nonsense. Carney may be victim of becoming a lil too enamored by the cinematographic limitations, and it's possibly he loses some excruciatingly important scenes to darkness and lousy focus. But, that's nit-picky to the overall package. I don't really need to see all the moments of emotional longing and heartache, as long as I can feel it.
I liked the quiet moments in this film just as much as the musical scenes.
There's a moment shared between Guy and his father (Bill Hodnett) where they sit in a cramped kitchen and listen peacefully to Guy's demo. Because the character of his father has only been developed slightly, we don't really know what his reaction to the demo will be. His father has already been seen as kind and quiet but he seemed to have a permanent frown on his face. But his reaction is one of subtle sweetness, and it sums up the movie beautifully. This is a warm picture intended for soft hearts who appreciate the ache of attraction. I loved it and consider it my Top 10 of 2007 already. It's too bad it's a movie that will most likely be hard to find in your area theaters. If you're looking for a film to movie you, there's an exceptionally sincere, expressive quality here that is universally appealing.

The Skinny:
  • Neither of the two leads is a trained or experienced actor; Hansard and Irglová are both professional musicians.
  • During the filming of the opening scene, because the scene was shot with long lenses placing the crew far away, and without informing the public, who would be crossing through the scene, a bystander attempting to be a hero accidentally injured the thief as he was running away by kneeing him in the groin.
  • The director and cast were suffering from "South Park" withdrawal during filming and thus one of the characters, a session musician, was named "Timmy" - this is obvious as they depart the studio.
  • The "look" of Dublin in the film is a call-back to John Carney's and Glen Hansard's recollection of Dublin 10-15 years prior to the film's making - a more working class city.
  • Carney was previously a member of The Frames, the band led by Hansard.
  • The story is partially autobiographical as Carney lived in Dublin and maintained a long distance relationship with his girlfriend living in London.
  • The flashback footage of Guy's girlfriend is actually that of director Carney's girlfriend.
  • Hansard's mother plays a cameo as one of the singers during the party.
  • There is a moment when the guy asks the girl whether she loves her husband. She responds, "No. I love you." However, her response is in unsubtitled Czech, so the man does not understand her - nor do audience members who don't know the language.
  • Director Carney, former bassist for Hansard's band The Frames, had asked his long-time friend to share busker anecdotes and compose songs for the film, but had intended the male lead to be played by actor Cillian Murphy, who was an almost-signed rock musician before turning to acting. Murphy was also going to be one of the film's producers. But Murphy supposedly balked at acting opposite non-actor Irglová (then 17 years old) and at singing Hansard's octave-leaping songs, so he pulled out, as did the film's other producers along with their financial resources.
  • Carney turned to songwriter Hansard, who'd previously done only one acting job, a supporting role as guitarist Outspan Foster in the 1991 ensemble film "The Commitments", the story of a Dublin soul music cover band.
  • Hansard was initially reluctant, fearing that he wouldn't be able to pull it off, but after stipulating that he had to be fully involved in the filmmaking process and that it be low-budget and intimate, he agreed. "Though I was initially thinking of using a good actor who could half sing, I quickly realized I should do it the other way around and get a good singer who could half act," Carney said in a Chicago interview.
  • Produced with a shoestring budget of only $150,000 USD, funded by the Irish Film Board, the film was shot with a skeleton crew. Money was saved by shooting the party scene in Hansard's flat, with his personal friends playing the partygoers/musicians.
  • The Dublin street scenes were done without permits and with a long lens so that many passersby didn't even realize that a film was being made. The long lens also helped the non-professional actors relax and forget about the camera, and some of the dialogue ended up being improvised.
  • Hansard and Irglova became a couple in real life, either during filming or later while on a promotional tour across North America. Entertainment Weekly reported,
The chemistry between (the) two leads ... was easy to produce during the January 2006 shoot in Dublin. "I had been falling in love with her for a long time, but I kept telling myself she's just a kid," says Hansard, 37, who has known his 19-year-old costar for the past six years. (The two are now dating.) "There was definitely the feeling we were documenting something precious and private."
  • Yet the real-life couple was quite happy with the unrequited ending for their onscreen characters. In an interview, Hansard states that "Had Fox Searchlight Pictures changed it, had they changed the end and made us kiss, I wouldn't be interested in coming and promoting it, at all."
  • The film has achieved major acclaim, receiving the World Cinema Audience Award for a dramatic film at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.
  • On the May 18, 2007 broadcast of Ebert & Roeper, both Richard Roeper and guest critic Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune gave enthusiastic reviews. Phillips called it, "the most charming thing I've seen all year," "the Brief Encounter for the 21st century," and his favorite music film since 1984's Stop Making Sense. Roeper referred to the film's recording studio scene as "more inspirational and uplifting than almost any number of Dreamgirls or Chicago or any of those multi-zillion dollar musical showstopping films. In its own way, it will blow you away."

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