In Your Queue: Cutie and the Assassin (“Cutie and the Boxer”, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”)

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Cutie and the Boxer – Zachary Heinzerling (2013)

Cutie loves Bullie. Bullie loves liquor. Typical. But nothing is really that easy or straight forward in this sober documentary about the artist couple, Ushio and Noriko Shinohara. In its telling, it’s about the art — Ushio’s boxing art and cardboard motorcycle sculptures, and Noriko’s Cutie graphic stories —  but really, its another love story, but a little bit more complicated than most love stories. Cutie and Bullie are Noriko’s creation, one that is loosely based on her own struggles with falling in love with Ushio. Ushio is a dominating presence, both in their marriage and in their art lives and it’s easy to see how much better off she might have been if she had fallen for anyone but Ushio, but sometimes life doesn’t let you make that decision. It just happens and leaves you paint splattered. Heinzerling is mostly hands off, letting the story unfold at a natural pace as Noriko struggles to find her artistic voice and Ushio struggles to get someone to pay him for his so the couple can keep the lights on. They are a dynamic pair, both as opposites and as artists, one you root for without quite understanding how or why it all works, but it does.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind – George Clooney (2002)

After producer Arnon Milchan outed himself as an Israeli spy last week, I made a joke about how he could start up a club with Chuck Barris, the creator of The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show and, as he claims, a CIA assassin. This joke immediately got me thinking about Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the 2002 biopic of Barris written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by George Clooney. It was a slick directorial debut for Clooney, who must have taken copious notes from David O. Russell and director of photography Newton Thomas Segal while he was working on Three Kings. Segal joined him as DP on Confessions as well, bringing his bag of photographic tricks along with him. If nothing else, it’s a very pretty film to look at. Much too pretty and slick for Kaufman’s tastes it turns out, and the writer eventually disowned the film. But the film is more than a pretty thing to look at. Whether you believe Barris’s claims or not, it makes for a great story with a high body count and Clooney and Sam Rockwell (and Rutger Hauer of course) really brought out the best, adding a cockeyed layer of black humor that settles down the more ridiculous elements of the producer-hitman story. It’s damn funny, and a great film whether Kaufman wants to admit it or not.

In Your Queue: Idiots All Around Us (“Frances Ha”, “Dealin’ With Idiots”)

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Frances Ha – Noah Baumbach

At certain age benchmarks we tend to change, usually rapidly. Thirteen, eighteen, twenty one, thirty — they are times in our lives where we might change our clothes or the kind of music we listen to, the kind of people we want to be when we grow up. Sometimes we change friends, sometimes best friends at that. Frances Ha is about just that, slow dissolution of a best friendship between Frances (Greta Gerwig) and Sophie (Mickey Sumner) as they come frighteningly close to reaching 30. They are the kind of friends who describe each other as “the same person with different hair”, roomates with no boundaries but with no boundary issues either. They are the new Oscar and Felix, until Sophie decides to leave Frances and move in with her boyfriend.

After a certain age making new friends is a difficult thing. You’re used to being you without a filter. That you can be too much for a new person, but the filter makes you boring. Frances’s new reality is full of people, but none of whom she really connects to, with or without a filter. The idea of two ships passing in the night comes to mind, but Frances Ha is more like two ships passing in the daytime. It’s a stark and funny, a well observed portrait of friendship and moving on, but a little bit painful to watch if you’re around 30, as one ship sails so smoothly from port while the other —  the graceful dancer — sputters in circles helplessly with no life jacket to rely on. 

Dealin’ With Idiots – Jeff Garlin

This is probably the strangest recommendation for a movie that I’ll ever write. It is, essentially a giant spoiler, but for an improv comedy feature, the trailer ruins more than what I’m about to say, which is: this movie is not that good. If they made an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm about psycho baseball parents, but did it without Larry David, this is what it might be like. It’s flat and only occasionally funny. Often, in fact, it is brutally unfunny, and even JB Smoove and Bob Odenkirk fall on their faces a little in this movie — that’s the big risk with improv — but it is 100% worth watching because the ending absolutely pays off on the promise that the film’s core idea is about. The ending is actually kind of genius, the way everything falls apart so perfectly and idiocy is so well confronted. So that’s my strange recommendation, to stick with this film through the ending. Fast forward through scenes if you need to, but stick with it because it’s so, so worth it.

In Your Queue: Why Must I Be a Teenager in Loo-ooove? (“Say Anything…”, “Mermaids”)

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We’ve been skewing to mostly newer films available on VOD and other streaming sites lately, but we’re feeling a bit nostalgic and full of feelings this week.

Say Anything… – Cameron Crowe

If there is a more iconic image of the lovesick young man than Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) and his boombox in Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything, I’ve never seen it. It’s one of those images that so becomes the film that it almost ruins the film in a weird way. It’s like the house falling around Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr. You keep waiting for it to happen, and that waiting causes you to think that whole film will be Lloyd standing there in his trench coat arms aloft as he courts the smart-beautiful-loving-rich-wonderful Diane Court and her father (the eminently watchable Ione Skye and John Mahoney, respectively), especially the first time you see it. Of course the scene is very short and not really the focal point — and not nearly the best scene in the film.  For me, that distinction goes to the “what do you want to do with your life?” scene:

Isn’t that the dream? Isn’t everything about this film the dream for teenage boys? In real life Diane Court is the kind of girl who would never date you. Not because she is a bitch, but because you are not as self-possessed and charming as Lloyd Dobler. It just takes a few more years to realize this fact and try and do something about it. It’s almost a fantasy role reversal. Diane Courts exist and are, probably, lovely; it’s Lloyd Dobler who is set in the fantasy mold, giving out false hope that maybe one big gesture of true love will whitewash all of that fumbling insecurity, all of that charmlessness and all of those zits. It works so well in its time, but hopefully it becomes nostalgia after.

Mermaids – Richard Benjamin (and like 8 other guys Cher had fired, including Frank Oz)

When the filmmakers were putting Mermaids together, they probably thought little about it beyond that fact that it would be a Cher vehicle to put dollars in their pockets. They probably did not think that they would be getting a rare gem of an early Winona Ryder performance or that they would discover Christina Ricci in the process. It didn’t put many dollars in their pockets, but ended up a rich and endearing document of the lovesick young woman during a New England school year when Kennedy was shot. Ryder plays the narrator, Charlotte Flax, a fifteen year old who is devoted to Catholicism (despite being Jewish) whose inner monologue is a game of angel-devil between God and sex with the hunky handyman, Joe (Michael Schoeffling). The film tends to get a bad wrap, but it charms with its Catholic deadpan and array of strange characters, playing out like a long episode of The Wonder Years if it were narrated by Winnie instead of Kevin.

The bad wrap comes mostly from Cher. At times, it’s unfortunate that she is in the film. She is clunky and a bit of a diva (on screen and off), but she is also a gateway to more Lou, the worst painter in the world, played by Bob Hoskins in his most affable performance ever. It was jarring to realize that these family-type roles (this, Roger Rabbit) were a new style of character that Bob Hoskins was trying on after years of being a hard man in British gangster films. It still is jarring when a new-old film of his shows up on Netflix. I tend to think of him as lovable Lou or as the wounded Eddie Valiant, connections I made to him at a very young age, not as the homicidal maniac he is actually famous for. Is it true range to be able to play a London killer and a small town New England gossip? I don’t know, but I like the outcome anyway.

In Your Queue: Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock (“A Band Called Death”, “The Other F Word”, “Sound City”)

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A Band Called Death – Mark Christopher Covino, Jeff Howlett

Though the story is not quite as fantastic and strange as the other long-missing Detroit musician, Sixto Rodriquez (documented in Sugar Man), A Band Called death has its own sense of mystery and wonder. The band called Death were an all black proto-punk band formed in the early 70s in the mold of Iggy Pop, the MC5 and Alice Cooper. In that time, in their neighborhood, rock n’ roll was about the most rebellious thing a bunch of kids could do. And the Hackney brothers did it well. Their sound is a well manufactured mix of that pre-Ramones, pre-101 Club sound, but with a slightly harder edge to it, like the Stooges if they were led by Phil Lynott instead of Iggy. A Band Called Death’s religious overtones do stick out as being somewhat strange in a story about a punk band and it will likely rankle the non-religious audience, but it’s more of an incidental focus of the film. There were mystic coincidences that brought this story together. The Hackney brothers believe it was faith. I don’t think there is a God, but I do like to think that he would be a guardian of music if he existed, and that he would deliver bands that deserve to be heard to us.

The Other F Word – Andrea Blaugrund Nevins

When I was a kid, this is the side of punk rock I never thought I would see. Adulthood, fatherhood, sobriety, home ownership; it never even occurred to me. Punk rockers were supposed to be the true Earthly embodiment of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, never growing up, staying drunk and pissed off and young until an untimely drug overdose or something. Punk rockers are punk rockers because of having horrible parents, right? But it’s that fact that actually makes it make sense that they would end up being loving, good guy moms and dads. Still, it’s strange to see Fat Mike (NOFX) spoil his daughter; to see Lars Frederiksen (Rancid) scare the other parents away from the playground because of his tattoos and his hair. The film’s most interesting story though is ex-Pennywise singer Jim Lindbergh, who family life – wife, 3 daughters, dog – is becoming incompatible with his life in a punk band. His bandmates, in their 40s, really are the lost boys, but Jim has grown up. It’s kind of heartbreaking to see from a band perspective, but from an F Word perspective it would be heartbreaking if he stayed a lost boy forever.

SoundCity – Dave Grohl

This deviates slightly from the punk rock theme, though certainly the famous recording studio SoundCity has seen its share of punk rockers over the years. Bands like Fear, Bad Religion and Rancid have recorded there, but it’s most famous for being the studio that albums like Nirvana’s Nevermind and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Damn the Torpedoes were recorded in. During its heyday, it was one of the most popular recording studios in the world – and then the digital revolution happened and suddenly people didn’t need it so much. The film’s main focus, aside from the bands, is the studio’s one-of-a-kind that was achieved at the studio. The sound came from two sources: the drum room and the soundboard. Grohl does well for his first film, filling the documentary with every famous name he could find in his rolodex, and one more still: Paul McCartney, who, in a weird way, took the place of Kurt Cobain in an odd little Nirvana reunion that is documented towards the end of the film. It could be argued that the film loses steam once it stops being about the recording studio and becomes about the Sound City jam sessions, but only an idiot would argue that. This documentary is must see if you are even casually a music fan.

In Your Queue: This [stuff] ain’t checkers (“Brooklyn Castle”, “Computer Chess”, “Zero Charisma”)

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Gaming is often serious business, one that can either end in elation or with the board being hurled furiously across the room, sometimes both at the same time. There have been three films released this year that capture that all-or-nothing soul-lifting/crushing addiction to outmaneuvering your friends in the world of small pieces, and don’t require a spec of knowledge about chess or RPGs to enjoy.

In Brooklyn Castle, a public junior high school in New York runs riot over the competitive chess world, winning tournament after tournament, team and individual. But now budget cuts threaten the existence of the school’s chess program and its incredible 10 year run. Chess is usually used as a metaphor for life in film, and it is here to a degree, but it’s also a something of a MacGuffin: chess is the door that lets us into this world filled with special kids who are all playing chess for different reasons, whether it be to help with ADD or to help get into a good college. Getting to know these kids — and the school’s chess coach Elizabeth Vicary, who emerges as a star — even for a minute, even through video, is an enriching life experience on its own, one that puts back a little bit of the hope that Teen Mom and Jersey Shore sucked out the world.

Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess takes a slightly different route with its chess story. In this early-80s-set faux documentary, computer programmers take up battle against each other in a depressing roadside hotel ballroom in Texas to see who has the superior machine. Peter (Patrick Riester), of the returning champion Cal Tech team, discovers a flaw in the latest version of their software: it would rather play against humans than computers, and nerdy sexual tension begins to pull at the story when he asks the only girl at the tournament, Shelly (Robin Schwartz) from the MIT team, to help him figure it out. The theories range from programming error to government involvement in this deadpan, quirky comedy. The film was shot in black and white with an early vacuum tube video camera. It’s a strange flourish, one that could have been a distraction, but actually ends up helping sustain the film’s warped sense of atmosphere. As the Dissolve’s Matt Singer put it, “every color of the autism spectrum in muddy black and white.”

In Zero Charisma, a charming, nerdy hipster joins a long running D&D-type tabletop role playing game and butts heads with the surly, overweight cartoon character of a Game Master who has sucked all the fun out of the proceedings. The Game Master, Scott (Sam Edison), is the that guy, the geek who lives in his high school bedroom and works in a donut shop. He is the living embodiment of the quote, “Yeah dating is cool but have you ever had stuffed crust pizza?” The lack of life comes out in Scott’s intricate RPG writing, but the thin structure it provides him shatters easily when things stop going his way for a second. He ends up losing his game to Miles (Garrett Graham), the nerdy hipster, and his friends along with it. The film trades on long held stereotypes about geeks and cool kids, and why they don’t necessarily mix, but directors Andrew Matthews and Katie Graham paint an enchanting, realistic story with their limited palette. The lows are quite low and the victories are very small, but that’s how real life tends to work.

In Your Queue: “Boy” and “Call Northside 777”

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Boy – Taika Waititi

Set in New Zealand in the mid-80s, Taika Waititi’s Boy should have been a critical darling, beloved by everyone and then eventually hated by everyone else when the love got too gooey, but the film went as underloved as it’s titular main character, Boy (James Rolleston), an 11 year old who loves nothing more than Michael Jackson, his pretty classmate Chardonnay (RickyLee Waipuka-Russell), and his father, Alamein (Waititi), who is pretty much the best dad ever except for the fact that he isn’t around. Tales of his father’s perfection at every endeavor attempted, from wood carving to soldiery, abound, mostly from Boy’s wild imagination. But when Alamein finally comes home one night, Boy might have to confront the fact that his father isn’t so perfect.

Boy is Waititi’s second film after the equally imaginative Eagle vs. Shark, but shows off a peculiar but deep maturity in Waititi’s writing — especially the lyrical dialogue, a mix of tall tales, curses and slang that falls so perfectly out of everyone’s mouths — reveling in all things immature to reach a certain point about family and idolization. Though the film never takes anything about itself seriously, there is nothing frivolous about Boy. Unlike Eagle vs Shark, this is a serious work that happens to be swaddled in a gauzy wrapping of oddball quirk like bubblegum flavored medicine, but there is a heartbreakingly relatable story underneath it all.

Call Northside 777 – Henry Hathaway

Henry Hathaway dips into Jimmy Stewart’s darker side in this murder mystery noir from 1948. Stewart plays JP McNeal, a cynical beat reporter for a Chicago daily who can’t stomach the rules. When an ad is placed in the personals offering $5,000 to anyone with information about the murder of a police officer 11 year prior, McNeal is sent out to on a fools errand to suss out whether Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte), the man locked up for the crime, might actually be innocent.

Because of films like It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (maybe even Harvey and The Shop Around the Corner), it tends to happen that we mostly think of the loveable aw-shucks Jimmy Stewart when he is remembered in the popular imagination. His will to be a gentle soul and blind believer in angels and invisible rabbits mark the films that made him a cultural touchstone to everyone everywhere throughout time. But in films like Northside, and like Vertigo and Anatomy of a Murder, his dark, cynical side was no less profound, no less a touchstone for the everyman. In fact, his range as an everyman is remarkable, and Northside plays up both ends of it as the cynic slowly becomes the believer. In that slow turn, Hathaway keeps his distance and his hands off, allowing McNeal to come to the story at his own pace, even if he is a little slow to the punch.

In Your Queue — “Some Girl(s)” and “Europa Report”

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Some Girl(s) – Daisy von Scherler Mayer

Adapted by Neil LaBute from his stage play, Some Girl(s) travels alongside with a newly successful writer (Adam Brody) as he crisscrosses the country, tracking down a series of lovers from his past before his impending marriage so he can right some of the wrongs from he old life. Or so he says, but not all of the girls are buying it. It’s well turned-over territory of course (what isn’t these days?), but LaBute’s reversals and wordplay never sag, and von Scherler Mayer coaxes standout performances from Jennifer Morrison, as the high school sweetheart he did wrong, and Zoe Kazan, as a friend’s little sister who crushed on him as a kid. Though the film barely suffers Brody’s generic charm much of the time, he does have his own moment in the Boston scene, opposite Emily Watson, that brings that brings the best out of him. As with any multi-story film, some threads are winners and some are losers, but Some Girl(s) wins more often than not.

****

Europa Report – Sebastián Cordero

Though Europa Report is another entry in the found footage genre, there is something slightly different about its use here. The footage — the film is told through a series of onboard monitors that catch everything — isn’t used a gimmick to mindfuck you, as it is in most films of the genre. Here, it’s a legitimate story telling tool, employed to tell the story of the first manned space expedition to Europa after something goes horribly wrong. Europa is the moon of Jupiter that is though to be the best chance for life outside of Earth because of its subsurface liquid water, and it’s exactly that chance of life that these explorers hope (and somewhat idly fear) they will find once they land on the moon’s icy surface — that is, if they can get there. Europa Report is not the hard science fiction that screenwriter Philip Gelatt wanted to make (you really have to turn your science brain off if you know anything about Europa) but it’s always been the soft science of movie logic that allows the suspense to really take shape and grip us with a sincere and exciting “what if…?”

In Your Queue: All Your Filez Are Belong to Us (“We Steal Secrets: The WikiLeaks Story”)

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We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks – Alex Gibney (2013)

There is a scene in Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs when Dark Helmet and Col. Sanders decide to find Lonestar by watching a copy of Spaceballs: The Movie even though they’re in the middle of making it. It’s one of the best movie bits Brooks ever came up with, and it seems to have a modern parallel coming true. Were documentaries always this quick to be captured, processed and released? The story that director Alex Gibney has set his sights on here — the website WikiLeaks and the cult of personality that sprung up around its’ leader, Julian Assange — is still actively unfolding. Even though Gibney’s film takes the longview, tracing Assange back to his hacker youth in 1980s Melbourne, at the end of the film we’re looking at now now: Assange, frail and emotionally (and ethically) compromised, as a refugee in the Ecuadoran embassy in London, where he remains to this day, still fighting his extradition to Sweden on sexual assault allegations which he fears will lead to extradition to the United States.

WikiLeaks started from a noble idea, that a well informed society is better than nanny state, but because of the pressure applied by the governments who were targets in the leaks and the personal failings of its founder, it eventually strayed off course. WikiLeaks became synonymous with Assange himself, with, it’s alleged, much of the site’s funding going to Assange’s legal defence, leaving Assange with few allies, and Bradley Manning — the Private who actually leaked the trove of documents and videos — mostly abandoned to a cruel military justice system.

The only problem is that if you’ve been paying attention even a little bit, you know all of this stuff already. That’s a problem of time and distance, which Gibney has not allowed enough of. The story is still fresh in our minds and so covered by so many journalists around the world that We Steal Secrets breaks no real news in its two plus hour running time. This is, at this time, essentially advanced reblogging for profit. Gibney’s interest in the subject may be sincere, but it’s not discovery of a subject.

In Your Queue: Cannes Edition (“The Conversation”, “The Panic in Needle Park”, “Punch-Drunk Love”)

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Year in and year out, Cannes, a small city on the French Riviera, becomes the biggest tease on the film calendar. The stars and the parties are grand spectacles, sure, but it’s the movies that really matter. Despite the hype that immediately builds up around them as each screening happens, it’s months before we get our first glimpse of any of the films here. The best we can do while Steven Spielberg and his jury pick a new winner is dig back through Cannes history and relive past winners.

There are winners in life and then there is this: Francis Ford Coppola put out two films in 1974; one of them, The Conversation (now streaming on Netflix), won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for Best Picture, and the other one was The Godfather Part II, which won Best Picture at the Oscars. A cold psychological thriller, The Conversation taps right into the paranoia, secrecy and guilt that drove media in much of the 1970s. It stars Gene Hackman as Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who begins to struggle with the ethics of his work after recording a couple having a cryptic conversation in the park. The deeper he gets into the recording, the more he fears for their safety if he hands over the tape to the men who commissioned him (played by Harrison Ford and Robert Duvall). Hackman plays Caul as reserved and introverted, a particularly careful man who maybe is a little too trusting once his guard is down – basically the opposite of Popeye Doyle.

Kitty Winn won Best Actress at Cannes in 1971 for playing Helen, an innocent girl from the Midwest who comes to New York and ends up a junkie, in The Panic in Needle Park (streaming on Netflix). Co-written by husband-and-wife duo Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, and starring the then little-known Al Pacino as the charismatic hustler Bobby, Panic is a stark, withering account of drug use that remains just as relevant 40 years later. Though she starts out straight, curiosity finally gets the best of Helen and she sneaks a hit while Bobby is out cold. There is a devastating moment later in the movie as they walk the streets together. He cradles her face and sees the drugs in her eyes. “When did that happen?” he asks sadly, but she can’t answer. The line may be Pacino’s but the scene’s disquieting heartbreak is all Winn’s.

We saw a completely new side of funny man Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love (streaming on Netflix), for which Paul Thomas Anderson won Best Director at Cannes in 2002. As Barry Egan, Sandler is still essentially playing a man-child looking for love, but differently than we’re used to. In one of the best fan theories ever floated, the film is viewed through the prism that Lena (Emily Watson), the object of Barry’s affection, is actually an alien seeking love. The clues seem to fit and to wade so freely into Barry’s supreme weirdness, she’d almost have to be.

In Your Queue: Undersung Music Films (“This Must Be the Place”, “Fish Story”, “The Swell Season”)

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This Must Be the Place (directed by Paolo Sorrentino; streaming on Netflix, Amazon) Taken at a glance, it’s not a surprise that This Must Be the Place never found an audience. It’s a dark indie comedy that stars Sean Penn as Cheyenne, an aging goth rocker who owned the ’80s but has since given up music because of a personal tragedy. The film takes a strange turn when Cheyenne adopts his dead father’s lifelong mission to find the Auschwitz guard who humiliated him during the war. Despite an almost painfully slow first act, Penn chips away at you with his total inhabitation of Cheyenne and eventually wins you over with the coyness of his deadpan delivery. There is a lot of power and wisdom behind that timid voice once it seeps in – you just have to let it in.

Fish Story (directed by Yoshihiro Nakamura; streaming on Netflix) A song can save the world, right? When people say that, they usually mean something a little more spiritual, something about human connections made over a piece of lyric or the swell of a orchestra that keeps you sane or even alive. They usually don’t mean it did so through a convoluted chain of events that unfurls over the span of 50 years. This movie attempts to spin a tale about a 1975 punk song with a minute-long gap of conspiracy-laden silence spliced into the middle ends up saving the world – literally – by stopping a comet from destroying the Earth in 2012. Nakamura weaves a delicious comic tale that isn’t so far-fetched, riffing off Armageddon, The Karate Kid and doomsday cults along the way.

The Swell Season (directed by Nick August-Perna, Chris Dapkins, Carlo Mirabella-Davis; streaming on Netflix, Amazon) The end result of the 2007 Irish indie film Once – aside from the critical acclaim, album sales, sold-out concerts, a Broadway musical and an Oscar – was that its stars, folk-rock duo Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, were introduced to a wider audience and cast into the public spotlight. They were a fairy-tale couple whose dreams came true, and the world was that much better just because they existed. But all dreams exist in an untenable state, and the bitter wakeup eventually comes. As a documentary crew follows them as they’re on tour to promote Once, the cracks in Hansard and Irglova’s relationship are revealed. It’s not the film that the crew set out to capture, but it’s a heartbreaking and fascinating experience to watch this couple crumble under the weight of fame, success and expectation.