Irish director John Carney's "Once," which was presented Sunday by the Macon Film Guild and hits DVD in about eight days, works just as well for what it is as for what is isn't.
Thankfully, it isn't either of the two things I had thought it might be going in, being neither a sappy romance nor a straightforward musical. I could probably fall in love with one or the other, but rarely can I stomach them in tandem.
Instead, Carney's movie presents a completely convincing snapshot of one week or so in the life of two people who connect on a very high level on the streets of Dublin, which play a huge part in the story.
And it works so well in equal part thanks to Carney himself and to his two actors, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who are also musical collaborators who released the CD "The Swell Season" in 2006.
What Carney brings to the table is a simple style that just lets the story unfold at its own pace, with only natural lighting (and unfortunately, as I'll address later, problematic sound.) What he accomplished with just $160,000 (which he apparently gave to his actors) is not much at all short of remarkable. It contrasts favorably with the muddy look of Noah Baumbach's "Margot at the Wedding" (which I also enjoyed quite a bit, in spite of its lighting shenanigans.)
And it's clear from the outset that Hansard and Irglova are friends who have a real chemistry despite their obvious difference in age (which gives the movie much of its spark.) Hansard, leader of the Irish band The Frames (because, as "The Commitments" made clear, every band should be a "The"), handpicked the Czech Irglova to be his co-star. Their naturally awkward flirting gives you both hope for the two of them and at the same time the sense their relationship is doomed from the start.
You may remember Hansard as Outspan Foster in his only other movie role (I believe), the aforementioned "The Commitments," and the two flicks make an interesting contrast in styles. They both open (or nearly) with Hansard busking on the streets of Dublin, and they both in their own way tell the story of the formation of a band. But whereas "Commitments" was a ribald ride full of energy (and still one of my favorite films), Carney's low-key approach to Hansard and Irglova's recording project gives it an organic feel that's almost as enjoyable.
As for the songs themselves, they're far too earnest for me on paper. I listen to much sillier fare, a lot of Southern soul and more hip-hop than anyone of my age ever should. Hansard's tunes do, as the lone critic to put this down at Rotten Tomatoes (Chris Cabin) put it, often sound as if "James Blunt sat on a stage in front of an empty bar saying 'this one's for the lady in the back.' " I can say, however, that if you let yourself get taken away by this charming little tale, the songs' shortcomings start to matter less and less.
And my final quibble with this otherwise thoroughly satisfying movie: The sound is not particularly good at all, making it often hard to understand the Irish and Czech accents. Though I was certainly never tempted to do so, the older couple behind me actually walked out because they couldn't make out what was being said, a valid complaint. In fact, as I was going home I couldn't help having the rather depressing thought that this is exactly the kind of magical European movie that American producers like to throw a lot of movie at, then suck the life out of them for soulless remakes (please believe me, that's not what I'm suggesting that anyone do with this one!)
With it still fresh in my mind, John Carney's little movie is hovering just near my Top Five for the year, and may still make that cut when 2007 finally comes to a close. Sound issues aside, I encourage everyone to rent this when it hits video next week (and remember, if it is a problem, you can always turn on the subtitles!)
Two tidbits and a trailer
That went on already a little longer than I had planned, but I did want to share a couple more things, one good and one bad, plus a somewhat promising trailer.
Turn on the "Lights"
First the good. Despite the ongoing strike, it seems that network TV's best drama, NBC's "Friday Night Lights," has six or so more episodes already completed and ready to go when the show returns early next month. And, in even better news, the show's move to Friday nights seems to be paying off, with it winning its time slot among the coveted 18-34 crowd (of which I, of course, am no longer a part.) Huzzah to that!
Stop me if you've heard this one before
Never ones to back away from a blatant ripoff, the Wayans brothers (all three, including Keenan) are getting back in the "movie" movie game with an idea they clearly stole from the sublimely silly "Hot Fuzz" (which will be on my year's best list too.) Yes, having crapped all over horror movies for years now, they're now turning to a "spoof" of action movies. Though I probably don't have to, I still beg of you please, please, please don't go see whatever comes out of this madness.
"How to Lose Friends" trailer
And, judging from this trailer I found on YouTube, "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People" may well debunk my belief that it's impossible to shoot something with "Hot Fuzz" star Simon Pegg in it and have it turn out anything but hilarious. Here he just seems to be annoying, but watch the trailer and decide for yourself, and have an entirely bearable Monday. Peace out.