Judge Daniel MacDonald enjoys Guinness and Irish independent films, as well as long walks on the beach.
How often do you find the right person?
The spate of musicals over the past several years might have one cringing at the release of a "modern-day" version, especially one made for about $150,000. But it was the little movie that could of 2007, grossing more than $14 million worldwide in its theatrical run and winning a major award at the Sundance Film Festival, among other heaps of acclaim piled upon it. So should you believe the hype?
Facts of the Case
An Irish busker (Glen Hansard, The Commitments) meets a piano-playing Czechoslovakian girl (Marketa Irglova) on the street, and the two begin playing beautiful music together both literally and figuratively. There's certainly an attraction beyond their respective musical abilities, but each has a past and a present that might keep this burgeoning relationship from becoming anything more permanent. To say more would rob the tension of this charming little picture.
Neither of the two main characters in Once are named: they're referred to as "guy" and "girl" in the end credits. While this might seem a little too precious for the film's own good, I didn't even notice that we never heard their names until the movie ended, which is indicative of this picture's greatest strength, its organic immersion. Once feels remarkably unrefined, the handheld, long-lens camerawork capturing scenes from afar as they play out, the musical sequences growing from character in a completely believable way. Really, when was the last time you could accuse a musical of being realistic? Writer/director John Carney (On the Edge) has crafted a unique, earthy take on a well-worn genre that sneaks up on you quickly and lingers long past its 85-minute running time.
That Once is an absolutely rapturous film is a feat of storytelling over technical prowess, as the picture and sound quality are about as wanting as I have seen in a major studio release. Shot on pro-quality camcorders, Once displays nearly every possible sin of digital video: moiré effects, false contouring, pixilation, compression artifacts, the gang's all here. Granted, some of this might stem from Fox's policy of sending lower resolution check discs for review purposes, but I would suspect these are mostly source problems. Further, shots are often slightly out of focus, and attentive viewers will find that the shadows of camera operators and sound personnel make an awful lot of guest appearances. There's little to really complain about on the sound front as far as defects, but it's in two-channel stereo surround rather than the standard 5.1 mix, a big surprise for a musical.
But none of this seems to matter while you're watching. Once wears its passions on its sleeve, Hansard giving full-out, heart-wrenching performances of songs that don't directly comment on what's happening with our characters but move the story forward nonetheless. Very little actually happens in Once, but the simplicity of plot belies a rich emotional tapestry for the characters of which we see just enough to make our own conclusions. If you don't get swept up in Once's good-natured spirit, well, you're a cold-hearted bastard.
Much of Once's power is attributable to the chemistry between its leads, and the impact of the songs. Hansard and Irglova have an instant spark, a common understanding difficult for even seasoned actors to put across, yet for each this was basically their first film role. From the moment they meet, you can't take your eyes of either, and you're heavily invested in their happiness. The music is largely Hansard's creation, some written for other projects, some specifically for the picture, all of it immensely satisfying. Don't be surprised if you're calling up iTunes for the soundtrack before the credits are done.
In the short making-of featurette, Carney says he wanted to make Once on a micro budget to ensure he could create exactly the piece he wanted, and at an astonishingly low reported cost of $150,000, it would seem Carney got his wish. He cast two professional musicians with little or no acting experience, shot their scenes in almost a hidden-camera style to feature their natural chemistry, and ended up with a gem of a picture that is among 2007's best.
The disc, despite its technical shortcomings, has a fairly decent set of special features, starting with an audio commentary by Carney, Hansard, and Irglova. Hansard and Carney were in a band together before Carney started making films, and Hansard and Irglova are close friends and musical collaborators, so this trio is a pleasure to listen to throughout the picture. While they're often describing what's happening onscreen, there's plenty of trivia and insight to maintain interest. A rather unique feature is the "musical commentary," where the two leads comment specifically on the musical performances. Next up is the 12-minute making-of. It may be short, but this is a fine overview of the conditions in which Once was made, and its laid-back structure blends nicely with the vibe of the film. "More Girl, More Guy" is more of the same, really, basically a second part of the same documentary, focusing more on the main characters. Finally, a couple of "webisodes" that appeared on the Internet during Once's theatrical campaign round out the disc.
A small, unassuming, deceptively simple film, Once is one of my favorites of the year. Not much happens plot-wise, but the roughly sketched characters maintain enough mystery to keep them in your thoughts once the lights come up. Genuine and positive with a fantastic soundtrack, this is a movie about having the courage to follow your dreams, and how life can sidetrack you along the way. Once is highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Writer/Director John Carney, and Actors Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.
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