Ironically, after nearly a decade spent watching, thinking and writing about film, I've learned to never put too much stock in critical buzz. Given that the vast majority of films viewed over any 12-month period range in quality from miserable to almost tolerable, it's more than understandable when a keenly felt, deftly realized work like Once crosses one's path, that the immediate reaction is spontaneous glee coupled with a burning desire to tell everyone you see that they must seek out this film. Get enough people talking and suddenly, what began as a quiet, delicate cinematic experience becomes watered down and somehow cheapened, a thrill no longer.
I'm happy to report that writer/director John Carney's debut Once is as electrifying as I'd hoped it would be, a tour-de-force synthesis of original music, almost instinctual acting and a keen eye for the often unpleasant realities of love. Not to damn with faint praise, but Once is one of the best films of 2007 and almost certainly, one of the best films of this decade.
The barest wisp of a story -- talented, nameless Irish troubadour (Glen Hansard, frontman for Irish rock band The Frames) meets lovely, determined -- and nameless -- Czech girl (Marketa Irglova) and together, they make beautiful music -- is reflected in the film's scant 85-minute run time. Yet a full, emotionally engaging tale is told in that spare stretch of minutes; Once never feels as though the narrative has been shortchanged. It's a neat trick, one which Carney, Hansard and Irglova pull off with aplomb.
And the songs -- roughly a baker's dozen, taken altogether, songs with gorgeous melodies, incisive lyrics and the ache of real love inside them -- all woven into the fabric of the film seamlessly. Hansard's day job in The Frames often relies upon his literary, fiercely compelling compositions, and the tunes he co-wrote with Irglova for this film are no less so. There probably hasn't been a modern musical that has affected me on this level since Moulin Rouge (oh, let the hatin' commence). Once sets a very precise mood and I'll admit, you have to be in just the right frame of mind for it to work its magic.
Once isn't a showy Hollywood vehicle, dolled up with lavish sets and opulent costumes; rather, it's nearly a film from the Cassavetes school, outfitted with an absorbing, fantastic soundtrack -- a stark look at the formative stages of an artist's career and the sacrifices that are necessary in order to take that crucial next step. Most astonishingly, you feel none of this weight -- Carney keeps the plot flowing smoothly, leaving much of the exposition to his actors' expressive visages -- Once glides along, delivering a bittersweet coda to this tale of unrequited love, one final high-wire trick in a movie that will leave you teary-eyed and breathless at its dexterity. An astonishing, unforgettable masterpiece. The DVD
Presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer of its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, Once isn't a film stocked with vivid visuals. Shot on high-def video, there are plenty of rough-looking moments, but these verite-inspired images only serve to heighten the story's emotional intensity and unique tone. The transfer cannot be accurately judged owing to Fox's supplying a screener disc rather than final product. Plenty of smearing, pixelation and motion blur are evident throughout the film. Should final product be provided to DVD Talk, this rating will be revised to reflect the quality of the image. The Audio:
Don't expect a speaker-shredding musical experience here -- these are raw, plaintive works adorned with little more than piano or acoustic guitar. As such, the Dolby 2.0 stereo track is perfectly suited to the lo-fi ambitions of the film; again, given Fox's screener copy, it's hard to accurately assess the quality of the soundtrack, but there were no glaring deficiencies apparent. An optional Spanish Dolby 2.0 stereo track is included, as are optional English, French and Spanish subtitles. The Extras:
Carney, Hansford and Irglova sit for a relaxed commentary track, although Carney tends to dominate with his recollections of filming; the trio also contributes a song-specific "musical" commentary, which features a greater presence of the actor/musicians discussing each track in the film. The 12 minute, 42 featurette "Making a Modern Day Musical" takes you behind the scenes, as the nine minute, 49 second "More Guy, More Girl" further explores the nameless lead characters. A 57-second Webisode titled "Broken Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy" is on board, as is the option (for PC users only) to download "Falling Slowly" via a DVD-ROM drive. Trailers for Amazing Grace, The Commitments, Blind Dating and 2 Days in Paris complete the disc. Final Thoughts:
Once isn't a showy Hollywood vehicle, dolled up with lavish sets and opulent costumes; rather, it's nearly a Cassavetes film outfitted with an absorbing, fantastic soundtrack -- a stark look at the formative stages of an artist's career and the sacrifices that are necessary in order to take that crucial next step. Once glides along, delivering a bittersweet coda to this tale of unrequited love, one final high-wire trick in a movie that will leave you teary-eyed and breathless at its dexterity. An astonishing, unforgettable masterpiece. The film alone is enough to consider this disc worthy of inclusion in the DVD Talk Collectors Series, but its informative, witty supplements, particularly the pair of commentary tracks, simply seal the deal.