Thursday, May 29, 2014

Once (2006) - Directed by John Carney

 Note: This review is posted as part of the 101 Greatest Romance Films of All Time countdown occurring at Wonders in the Dark, coming in at #93.

Once is one of the defining romantic films of the new millennium, and the most touching elements are the chemistry and song writing skills of the two leads in the film. Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova had known each other for years, performing together as a folk duo prior to any involvement with this film. Hansard, as lead singer of The Frames, met Irglova back in 2001 in the Czech Republic when her father had organized a music festival, inviting The Frames to play there. Hansard, a veteran of the Irish music scene for years, began supporting Irglova and her piano career. Hansard and Irglova soon decided to join forces as a duo to write and record and play live as The Swell Season, releasing their self-titled debut album in 2006. On the album appears the seeds of Once, with the tracks Lies and Falling Slowly seeing their initial release. It would be on the backs of these and other songs, a real-life relationship unfolding, and the chemistry of hope and promise that would spur on this film that is touching, romantic and bittersweet and one of the best musicals of the modern era. It’s also a film that positions romance not necessarily defined by sex or declaration, but by inspiration, openness and friendship.

Irglova and Hansard were consulted by John Carney (former bassist for The Frames) for a film about street musicians in Dublin. Originally, Cillian Murphy was cast opposite Irglova, but pulled away from the project, unable to commit to singing Hansard’s songs. Hansard was then pulled in, creating an intimate opportunity for life, music, and film to overlap with astounding honesty and commitment. It’s about a Guy (Hansard) who’s Irish and a Girl who’s Czech (Irglova) who meet on the street when the Guy is playing songs on the sidewalk. They start off a tentative relationship, where she learns he repairs vacuums and she needs a vacuum fixed. The Girl and Guy begin to flirt and end up meeting again because of the vacuum, and then walk into her favorite music shop where she is allowed to play piano. He has his guitar and they both decide to play a song together that he has written. “Falling Slowly” unfolds before the camera as collaboration, mutual affection, and inspiration mesh in the lyrics and the eyes of the musicians. He is healing from a past relationship and she is living with her mother and daughter, while her husband is back home in the Czech Republic. This new relationship is a cautious but earnest dance of romantic yearning and companionship as they begin to play music together and share ideas. The Guy has several songs he wants to record and recruits The Girl and some other local musicians to rent out a studio for a day, where songs are recorded in one long session, creating a document of relationships, past and present. As the film ends, The Guy and The Girl part ways, he heading off to London to retrieve his old flame, and she, equipped with a new piano he buys her, is living again with her whole family, husband included. It is a delicately played finale, using hope and reflection as romantic climax.

There is no kissing or real romance on display whatsoever in this film, unless you count delicate eye contact, honesty, and friendship as romantic. Surely there are countless “romances” that never fully materialize for one reason or another in the fashion that most movies equate with the definition. It could be argued that some of the most touching and devastating romances in cinematic history, though, are defined by lovers not consummating the relationship or who don’t stay together at the end. Once is in this vein, but is even more restrained in its approach, almost to the point of emphasizing these are “just friends”. Yes, friends who are attracted to each other, but friends just the same. If the film achieves anything, it is all because of the utterly real chemistry of the two leads as they portray this friendship. Around the time of the making of the film, Irglova and Hansard became romantically linked and then on for a period of a few years. Thus, the film contains real, unforced, onscreen chemistry, like Bogie and Bacall or Hepburn and Tracy. But it is not filtered through professional acting and instead reflects a kind of ragamuffin, honesty. Due to their unfamiliarity with being filmed, Hansard and Irglova were often filmed from afar as it made them more comfortable not being so close to the camera. One can see examples of their lack of polished acting, yet it almost works to the advantage in this cinema verite style of filmmaking, where imperfections in acting are leveraged by the filmmaker for greater effect.

Maybe the best way to convey what works about this film, is from a segment of an interview that Irglova did with The Huffington Post back in 2011:
Huffington Post: Along with Glen Hansard, you received an Academy Award for Best Song for the movie Once. Marketa, your on screen chemistry was amazing. Though your music was beautiful and the plot was special, I honestly think what drew people into that movie the most was the beautiful depiction of your relationship.
Irglova: Oh, thank you. Once is a perfect example of synchronicity and serendipity in life that happens when you're open. There are so many parallels between the film and real life and the lives of John Carney--the director and the screenwriter--and Glen and mine. The script was written and my character was developed before John Carney even met me, and there were so many similarities in terms of my life and the life of this woman and how the two characters in the movie meet and how Glen and I met, so it was this beautiful thing of the lines blurring in terms of what is real and what is fiction. I think that's, in a way, the perfect way to it to be because sometimes art imitates life and other times, life imitates art. It really walks this full circle, in a way. Working with the director on the film was most inspiring in a way that it was very much open. He recognized the friendship between Glen and I, and that was a big reason why he cast us in the first place--because he saw us play together in Dublin, and whatever chemistry we had together onstage was the one he was looking for in his film. So, once he cast us, he kind of allowed us to express the friendship that we naturally had and allowed for that to be felt throughout the movie within the context of the characters that he had written. So, I absolutely agree that there's something very authentic and sincere about the love between the characters and the love that Glen and I have for one another.”

Through collaboration and honesty, both The Guy and The Girl end up better people through the relationship. It is a film that defines romantic epiphany not through sex, but through inspiration, with the lasting document of this inspiration being the music they created together. Though they don’t consummate this love, they “birth” music and achieve a different kind of family unit together.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Touch of Evil (1958) - Directed by Orson Welles

I’m not sure if it’s the saddest tale in all of Hollywood, but Orson Welles’ fall from grace within the studio system surely left quite a large stain upon cinematic history. As I’ve grown older, I've become more attuned to the passing of time as both a marker of progress and of what was left unaccomplished. In the case of Orson Welles, we should actually count our lucky stars that we have what we have. There of course is Citizen Kane, made at the outset of a career where he was a wunderkind who quickly fell into a situation from which he never recovered, having film after film taken from his controls. Most consider the lost passages of The Magnificent Ambersons to have contained elements that may have made it even greater than Kane. Then there’s all the messiness of the rest of his career, loaded with unfinished films, bizarrely financed ones, the Shakespearean adaptations, the “documentaries”, and of course Touch of Evil. There is something just so gloriously cathartic and sad about an aging and paunchy cop in the throes of his own demise, made terrifically humanistic by Welles’ portrayal in this film. What makes it resonate even further, are the struggles that Welles had to even get the film released as he envisioned, something he never saw happen in his lifetime.

Welles’ Touch of Evil is one of the last examples of film noir from the classic period. It stars Charlton Heston as Mike Vargas, a drug enforcement official for the Mexican government,  who has just been married to Susie (Janet Leigh). They witness a car bomb explosion on the U.S. – Mexico border and quickly, several investigators join the scene, including police Captain Hank Quinlan (Welles). The investigation leads to a suspect named Sanchez, who is interrogated in his apartment. 2 Sticks of dynamite are found in Sanchez’s apartment, but Vargas suspects that Quinlan planted the dynamite there to frame Sanchez. Vargas decides to look into Quinlan’s police records and determines many of his cases involved evidence that the accused was not aware of. Meanwhile, Susie ends up in some trouble of her own after she begins staying at a small, rather vacant motel (Psycho anyone?), where she is kidnapped and then used by Quinlan to try and ruin the name of Mike Vargas by framing her for the murder of a thug named Grandi and with drug involvement. Vargas is at the end of his wits when Quinlan’s assistant detective Pete Menzies (Joseph Calleia) notifies Vargas that he found Quinlan’s cane at the scene of the crime, thereby convincing Vargas that he was right all along, leading to the fantastic conclusion where Vargas and Menzies attempt to bug Quinlan’s conversation to incriminate himself in order to bring Quinlan to justice.

For all the convoluted-ness of the plot, it’s actually remarkable how well the film holds together despite the raggedness and disjointed qualities. Many key sequences of continuity were lost once Welles lost control of the editing of the film for its theatrical release. His 58 page memo to Universal Pictures detailed his wishes of what should be fixed in order to make the film complete. It was reduced to 93 minutes from his original 112 minute cut for original release. In 1998, the film was restored, to the best approximation possible to Welles’ information found in his memo to the studio. However one looks at all the different versions and incarnations of the film, what is so staggering is the look and feel of the film. There is so much kinetic camerawork that was filmed by Russell Metty with a few key tracking shots and shaky-cam shots giving a vibrant sense of discombobulation. Also, Welles’s prototypical Dutch angle shots and low angle shots predominate, along with low-lit scenes with deep amounts of shadows pervading throughout. Welles’s vision of creating a world where wrong outweighs right seems to reflect the bizarre and garish lighting and angles, along with Mancini’s pulsing and often atonal score. There is an uneasy kind of squeamishness to the whole film that is hard to look away from and is one of the reasons why I love the film so much.

What I love best though, is the performance by Welles himself, who here gives his greatest on screen performance. Welles was so often a vocal actor in his earlier career. His voice inflections carry so much weight that it’s hard to sometimes focus on the physical quality of his acting. Not so in Touch of Evil, where the sheer physical size of his presence and his bulbous and swollen face seem to be larger than life. The camera likes to over-emphasize this at key moments, positioning Welles’ face in grotesque close-up at sometimes odd angles. In fact, Welles seems to be relishing the opportunity to undermine his own sense of stardom, tossing off the trappings of youth and ambition and laying it all bare for the world to see, nearly deliberately making himself repulsive. Welles captures and embodies a kind of sad-sack persona in Hank Quinlan, a pathetic and previously confident man who is quickly seeing the end of a long run at the top of the heap. How Welles makes Quinlan such a compelling figure is a great feat of acting. Quinlan is such a sleaze-ball, yet I’m torn between wanting him to see justice and also feeling pity for the guy. Perhaps it’s because Welles toned down his vocal ticks and aggressive confidence in this film, which forced him to stretch for effect and emotion in other areas, like quietness and pensiveness and sadness and regret. It’s a terrific performance and not something to be ignored. I don’t think Touch of Evil is Welles's best film. That would be a hard argument to put forth. It’s just my own personal favorite of his.