On Monday night, we saw Once, another movie that came out roughly two million years ago in the States and is probably already being remade with Josh Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale (along with those "Irish" gangsters from Heroes as their band members). It comes out on DVD there in December and we could have just bought it then and had it sent over, but we'd waited months to see it already, listening to increasingly fervent reviews all the while, and couldn't wait any longer. Any longer than Monday night, that is, because our weekend was already booked up with Guitar Hero.
It was a wonderful movie, the kind that makes you glad to be alive in a world where people make films like this, and if you haven't yet seen it, please do, and then come back here and thank me, and maybe PayPal me a little of your gratitude as well. I also accept gift certificates -- we're not picky here at Shades of Caruso.
Anyway, though it was a beautiful movie in sentiment, that wasn’t the case when it came to locations, filming style, film quality, or leading actors (sorry, Glen Hansard; you are a very talented musician and singer, but your eyes are wicked googly).
The film was obviously shot handheld on digital video, and apparently they didn’t always get permits to film and had to shoot on long lenses for public scenes and use friends’ houses for others (apparently it only cost $160,000 to make, and I’m afraid it shows, though happily it’s grossed more than $11 million). The camerawork was distractingly bad in certain scenes, especially an early one in a piano shop, which is shot as if someone’s dad is holding the camera and breathing heavily after one too many Coors Lights. I know this movie was low-budget, but guys, you couldn’t have shelled out for a tripod? They cost like twenty bucks. You could probably return it after you were done, since your movie was shot in two weeks and most places give you a month if you’ve got a receipt. I’m just saying. For Twice (the sequel, of course).
Luckily these distractions soon become unimportant, and the unprettiness of the locations was integral to the story. Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s characters both live in flats so depressing that they sent us both into bad-memory spirals as we recalled some of the unsavory places we’ve lived or visited and unfortunate characters we’ve known. No wonder they want to get out of Dublin (to go to London, which seems better until you realize that’s where Hackney is). And though the movie is a sort-of musical, the songs (especially at the beginning) are recorded quite badly — they often seemed on the verge of blowing out the camera’s mic, and even sounded rickety on the theater’s speakers. Again, though, this works for the movie — the sound is bad when Hansard is busking on the street at the beginning of the story, but by the time he and his makeshift band go into a recording studio, the songs are recorded beautifully, and are as smooth as a cat’s eyeball (sorry — as I write this, our cat Sydney is staring at me with her usual expression of insane confusion).
The story is a fairly simple one, though you may not want to read on if you haven’t seen it yet. Guy and Girl (for those are their “names” in the movie) meet, Guy is a broken-hearted hoover-fixer-sucker guy who busks at night, perpetually lugging around his worn-in guitar; Girl is a flower-seller who plays the piano. They begin to make music together, eventually recording some demo tracks so that Guy can go to London to try to make it. They both clearly begin falling for each other, but Hansard's character is dismayed to find out that Irglová is still married to the father of her child (though he is back in the Czech Republic); in truth, he himself is still pining for his ex-girlfriend, who cheated on him. The ending of the movie is bittersweet; the characters part, having never so much as kissed each other (though Irglová's character confesses at one point, in Czech, "You are the one I love"), but having changed and bettered each other immeasurably. Perhaps it's better that they don't end up together, as the time they spent together was (as the title implies) a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence (a la Lost in Translation, another sob-inducing chaste romance). Still, I can't help being cheered by the fact that Hansard and Irglová are dating in real life. Aw! Bet that wouldn't have happened if they'd cast Cillian Murphy, as they'd originally wanted to. That creepy blue-eyed replicant.
As I mentioned, Once is a semi-musical; there are no flights of fancy where the characters suddenly break out into song, but musical conventions are cleverly sneaked into the fabric of reality -- Hansard and Irglová begin falling for each other when they play a song together for the first time; Hansard reveals his troubled romantic past with an impromptu song on a bus (an especially nice character touch, as it's easier for him to evade a real answer by singing instead of talking); Irglová sings along to a track she's listening to on a CD player while the camera follows her. And the music itself is absolutely lovely -- beautiful folk-pop songs that come alive when Hansard and Irglová croon to each other. The fact that both of them are professional singers, not actors, was an excellent choice -- they both have amazing voices, can handle difficult songs easily, and most importantly, infuse the songs with gallons of emotion. Their naturalistic acting styles fit the tone of the movie perfectly, though obviously Josh Harnett would have been my first choice.
I think my favorite thing about the movie, though, was that it was a low-budget indie that avoided all the usual indie cliches. No wacky dysfunctional families, no tweeness, no overly coincidental plot contrivances, no miserably "real" couples (tangentially, Tell Me You'll Procreate With Me is getting a bit better on this front, though nowhere near where it should be. Once basically kicks its ass in this arena). In fact, the only indie movie it reminded me of was Before Sunrise (and its sequel, Before Sunset), and that's no bad thing, as both of those movies are quite possibly my favorite movies ever, and the only reason I think Ethan Hawke shouldn't be squashed like the little rat-faced terrier he is. Both stories show us a heart-burstingly beautiful story of two people beginning to fall in love, and the movies ring so true that it's hard to believe they're fiction.