Monthly Archives: June 2007

Once (2007)

Once is the perfect antidote to noisy summer blockbusters assaulting the theaters. It’s a small, hardscrabble indie that’s completely unpretentious, unassuming, and sweetly divine. Once is not mawkish, nor overly sentimental, but it does leave you with the sensation that you’ve just had your best hopes about love reaffirmed, no small feat. This is a movie for people that love music and the innate power it can unleash.

A Dublin street singer (Glen Hansard) works in his father’s shop and fixes vacuums by day, while he sings his heart out in public at night. Then one day he meets a Czech immigrant (Mark√©ta Irglov√°) who becomes his biggest fan. They start seeing more of each other and share their joint passion for music. It’s through the music that the beginning of a special relationship forms between them, however each has their own baggage. He’s nursing a broken heart after his girlfriend cheated on him and then moved to London. She lives with her mother and works several jobs to take care of her young child. Her husband left the family but there’s a chance he may return. Together, they write enough songs and raise enough money to record an actual album in a studio, something that can stand the test of time.

When you boil it down the story is very simple. Boy meets girl. They run into each other some more. They help each other write music, ending with the accomplishment of a studio-produced album. Then they part. That’s it from a synopsis point of view, but Once is far more than that. This is an honest to God real-life musical, where the songs advance the storyline and the lyrics express the emotional desires and changing moods of our leads. People don’t break out into choreographed song and dance numbers; no, this is set in a modern and realistic world. Once could be described as a musical for people that hate traditional musicals but I think that sells the film too short on its merits. Once is a very stripped down but enormously romantic love letter to music and human connection. Watching the movie is akin to be serenaded by a soulful crooner that clearly wears its idealistic heart on its sleeve. There’s something undeniably magical about watching Once; you feel transported by the sheer exuberance of feeling and emotion. The openness may seem awkward or a bit cheesy to a more cynical lot. The story is a rather bare-bones affair (no pun intended), but that’s where the film takes the opportunity to explore the burgeoning relationship between our leads in their short yet important time together.

Of course it helps a musical if the music is something worthy of listening. I’ll say this: Once is the first movie since 1999’s Run Lola Run that I immediately went out and got the soundtrack for after watching. Unfortunately, as Once is still expanding most large retail stores do not carry it just yet. I guarantee by the end of the summer that every one of them will have it well stocked. The songs are largely acoustic guitar and piano arrangements, and the heartfelt, slightly biting yet optimistic lyrics are reminiscent of acts like Bright Eyes and The Shins. The music is softly beautiful and lilting and a great showcase for Hansard’s sensitive yet powerfully evocative vocals. Irglova is a classically trained Czech pianist and sings with a breathy Bjork-like style that blends well with Hansard’s graceful and rich tenor.

The music is a big reason for the film’s success as a sweeping romance and human drama. The standout track is “Falling Slowly,” which is a stunning turning point for the film and for the characters. In the film, they assemble in a piano shop and put together an impromptu duet. The song builds, and our singers coalesce smoothly, and the soothing sounds stir something inside them as well as the audience. Both characters are realizing that they can make beautiful music together, and they’re exploring one another’s desires and intentions. They definitely sense something new; the music is what binds them, but the music is also their most lucid platform for expressing their escalating feelings.

Writer/director John Carney, who used to be a bassist in Hansard’s band The Frames, gives the movie a fly-on-the-wall viewpoint, probably more due to a limited budget of around $150,000. In fact, the home movies footage Hansard watches of his former flame looks identical to the rest of the movie. The performances are naturalistic if a bit amateurish, but this also works with the realistic tone of the film. Much of the 85-minute movie consists of full-length songs and performances, so any audience that isn’t really jazzed by the music may grow restless.

The MPAA, in its irritating wisdom, has decided that Once should be rated R, thus distancing it from an armada of impressionable youth. Once has a handful of F-bombs, though you could argue their inclusion is diminished because of the occasional indecipherable nature of heavy Irish accents. The restricted rating is a shame because this movie doesn’t have a profane bone in its body. Teenagers, people who are struggling for meaning and acceptance, and re-configuring their musical tastes, should see this movie. I think they would relate to the personal struggles and the romanticism. Hansard may populate many a teen girl’s bedroom in poster form soon enough.

Once is a lovely and charming modern musical. I suppose the music is really going to be the breaking point for people; either you enjoy its sweet harmonies and light acoustic arrangements, or, um, you don’t. I adored the music and was transported by the deeply romantic current running through the film. Once is a small movie with a big heart and some wonderful music. In between pirates, robots, super heroes, and wizards, I think there’s plenty time to squeeze in a beguiling and earnest musical.

Nate’s Grade: A

Ocean’s 13 (2007)

Much more like 11 than 12, this latest Ocean’s caper is just as preposterous as all the others but remembers that the audience needs to have fun too. Danny (George Clooney) and his baker’s dozen are plotting revenge on Willie Bank (Al Pacino, looking like a leather couch), a ruthless casino mogul who pushed old friend Rueben (Elliot Gould) out of a business agreement. The boys must outwit casino workers, modern technology, and a super computer able to detect pupil dilation in order to fleece Bank’s Vegas eyesore. Thankfully, all of the players are back and given tasks to do, and some of the means of their scheme are ingenious. How do you pass a lie detector tests? Place a tack in your shoe so that all your truthful answers match the intensity of your false ones. How do you get your hands on rigging dice? You send a couple guys to work in the Mexican factory and, why not, start a worker’s revolt. Ocean’s Thirteen glides along almost too smoothly, barely stopping to enjoy the crazy amount of absurd machinations before they fly by. The dialogue is packed with coded terms and the film doesn’t even stop to explain them. The movie works on the contact high of cool it luxuriates in, but unlike Ocean’s Twelve, this time the gang is given an objective, allows the audience in on their plot, and then we sit back and watch the execution. Steven Soderbergh and the gang have created a slick and amusing sequel. It lacks the freshness of the first go-round in 2001, but Ocean’s Thirteen is the most satisfying three-quel so far in a summer already weighed down by them.

Nate’s Grade: B

Knocked Up (2007)

Judd Apatow scores again. The man has a long history of creating memorable and heartwarming character-based comedy, and Knocked Up is another winner. This man creates thoroughly human and engaging stories that focus on our own foibles and triumphs. Apatow wrote and directed yet another poignant, clever, and uproarious comedy that has so much more below the surface and becomes universally appealing.

Alison (Katherine Heigl) is out on the town celebrating her promotion at the E! Entertainment Channel. She’s going to go from behind the camera to in front of the camera. It’s at this Los Angeles club where she meets Ben Stone (Seth Rogen), a doughy Jewish slob of a man content to drift through life penniless and high. Their night of partying leads to a drunken one-night stand. Eight weeks later Alison is going through extreme nausea and can’t figure out what kind of flu bug she has, that is, until she remembers her one night out. She locates Ben and informs him that she is pregnant and, yes, he is the father. The two decide to try and make it work, forging a relationship as they plan on becoming parents. Alison’s sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) and her husband Pete (Paul Rudd) and their two kids are a potential glimpse into the future. Pete and Ben hit it off real well, to the point that Alison feels like her mate might not be the one for her even if his DNA is growing inside.

Naturally, this is a comedy where sex is at its very inception. The humor is ribald and playfully profane. I believe one of the greatest compliments you can give a comedy is when you cannot single out a single set piece or moment as an instant standout. Knocked Up is packed with many wildly funny scenes but it also has killer one-liners from start to finish and sharp pop-culture references (Ben on an exercise bike: “Matthew Fox? From Lost? You know what’s interesting about that guy? Absolutely nothing.”). Ben credits the flick Munich for the ability to get Jews laid. Ben watches the 2003 version of Cheaper by the Dozen with horror, saying that 12 kids is no laughing matter. The roommates are plotting a flesh-friendly website that notes the time and location of celebrity nudity in films. This commercial venture plays right into the frat house lifestyle for this band of stoners that bet their friend not to shave his beard for a year for free rent.

Knocked Up is bawdy and hilarious, sure, but it’s also far more realistic and a lot more emotionally involving than any romantic comedy Hollywood has offered in years. Apatow seems to have mined his personal parental experiences for a lot of hard-earned truths. The film is most natural when it showcases the male perspective of prolonged adolescence and an unplanned pregnancy, but Knocked Up also has a mature and thoughtful view on marriage and feminism. We see the array of personal challenges a woman would go through but the movie still manage to slip in humor amidst the uncertainty. There’s a montage looking for the right gynecologist. The gauntlet of sexual positions is explored while pregnant, with Ben afraid that his child’s first impression will be daddy’s manhood constantly poking it. When Alison and Debbie go shopping for pregnancy tests we see them fill their cart with every kind of tests, and then test after test comes back positive. “Hey this one has a smiley face,” says Debbie, before realizing, “Oh, that’s not a good thing.” Debbie then tests the reliability of the tests herself and for a brief moment panics when she thinks she may be pregnant for a third time. She then calms down and says, sarcasm-free, “Whoa, that would have sucked.” The inclusion of Debbie and Pete offers a whole other relationship viewpoint, something that Alison and Ben can learn from. She’s paranoid and blunt, and he’s apathetic and passive-aggressive, and Alison is terrified that she and Ben are doomed to a similar fate. The insights into marriage and secrecy are realistic and give the film so much more meat to its bones. This isn’t just a movie about what to do with an unplanned pregnancy; it’s fully about male-female dynamics and what it takes to make a family work.

In the end, you really care about these characters because Knocked Up is a raunch-fest that has a sweet gooey center of sentiment. Ben is pushed into adulthood by this unexpected development and, as they say, puts away childish things after a lot of trial and error. There’s an undercurrent of emotional vexation under most of the comedy, like when Pete confesses that he doesn’t know if he can accept love, and Ben cannot pity this because he sees his love being rejected. Alison doesn’t quite have as big of an arc, but she never gets callously cast to the side and forgotten. She too has a lot of growing up to do very quickly, and when both characters welcome their newborn into this world it’s rather moving and exciting to experience it alongside them. Ben’s confesses to his child that not putting a condom on was the best decision he ever made. In any other movie this ending conversation might seem trite or hokey, but Apatow has paid so close attention to his characters that the emotional payoff is earned and rewarding.

Another hallmark of an Apatow production is how perfect the cast seems with one another. There’s a real camaraderie with the actors and it produces natural onscreen chemistry and amusing improvisation. Rogen and Rudd, teaming again after 40-Year Old Virgin, can riff off one another for a whole movie and I would gladly pay to watch. I loved when the two boys go to Vegas, take mushrooms, see Cirque Solei, and then freak out in their hotel room (“There are five different kinds of chairs in this room”). I was laughing so hard I had tears in my eyes, and I’m sure the crux of this moment was born from the freestyle exchange between the actors. Ben’s roommates have a believable kinship to them as a collection of amicable oddballs and stoners. Mann and Heigl also seem believable as sisters, much more so than would Anne Hathaway, who was originally cast as Alison but left due to creative differences (I guess the difference was she didn’t wish to be apart of a good movie). The Knocked Up cast work together like a truly wonderful team that appreciates the material and each other.

Rogen is destined for stardom after this movie. He can make anything funny with exceptional comic timing and line delivery that never feels forced. Hearing his unique giggle at the end of jokes, you can sense that this sweet and amiable guy would crack himself up and for good reason. Rogen was great in 40-Year Old Virgin and is even better in a bigger dose. Heigl gets to play more familiar notes, from stressing that work will discover her little bun in the oven to the expected birthing scream session. She has a good rapport with Rogen and brings a lot of warmth to her role. Rudd is so effortlessly charming and easy going. Mann plays a perfect bitch, but she also has a nice scene where she explodes at the realization that her days of youth are finally behind her. Special mention must go out to Kristen Wiig. She steals every scene she’s in as an E! Channel employee that makes plenty off-the-cuff passive insults against Alison during two staffer meetings.

I’ve read online that several leftist bloggers are angry and flabbergasted that Alison does not get an abortion. They argue Ben is a fat and unappealing slob, she’s an attractive career woman, and not having an abortion in this situation is, as one put it, “stupid.” Excuse me, but this may be the first mainstream comedy that actually discusses the prospects of an abortion (or as one character deems it, a “smashortion,” as not to offend the delicate sensibilities of his roommate). I also take umbrage to anyone saying 1) choosing not to have an abortion is a bad decision, and 2) that these critics would be so daft to miss the point that if Alison had an abortion there would be NO MOVIE.

Knocked Up is a very funny and very wonderful sex comedy for adults, but it also happens to be an endearing and heartfelt romance. The cast is excellent, the comedy rarely misses a beat, and Apatow is a instant classic hitmaker. Just like The 40-Year Old Virgin, Apatow has explored a deeply personal topic for all the comedy and pathos he could wring from the material. Knocked Up is nothing short of a knockout. I hope you’re happy with your decision Anne Hathaway. I know I am.

Nate’s Grade: A

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