Monday, March 29, 2010

THE FALL is the 2006 film directed by Tarsem Singh which no doubt ensured his getting the gig of next year's Greek god-fest DAWN OF WAR or WAR OF THE GODS (the much better title) or whatever they're going to call it. He was also responsible for 2000's abortion called THE CELL but the less said about that the better. Here in THE FALL the director completely redeems himself for that Jenny-From-The -Blockhead production. THE FALL is a glorious feast for the eyes which also has a serious emotional underpinning. It's not all froth and cake frosting but instead a deeply felt storytelling extravaganza. It is like nothing you've seen before but at the same time reminiscent of everything from The Arabian Knights, Jet Li's HERO and THE WIZARD OF OZ; the latter film in the way that all the fantastic lyrical events are parallelled by characters in the real life of the main actors. The film has the feeling of an epic while simultaneously its a very small film about personal relationships and emotions.
The quite beautiful credit sequence is filmed in breathtaking black and white and shows the filming of a silent movie (the proceedings take place in the 1920s) in which a stuntman named Roy Walker (Lee Pace) is paralyzed during a leap from an elevated train trestle. The rich beauty of the black and white photography leave one wondering why on earth anyone would make a film in colour. That is, until the film starts and we see the dazzling colour photography which bursts from the screen. Seriously, you can almost taste this movie and it's vivid candy colours used in the fantasy sequences. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Roy is bedridden in a California hospital where he meets a mischievous Romanian child named Alexandria (Catinca Untaru) who likes to throw oranges at the local priest. Roy tells the girl (in hospital for a broken arm) that her name derives from Alexander the Great and proceeds to spin a tale of that great Macedonian warrior. This is when the colour bursts forth; the deepest blue sky like a cloth canopy over the deep orange sand dunes, the gleaming gold of Alexander's armour, etc. Little Alexandra is intrigued by ultimately unsatisfied with this story so Roy tells her to come back and visit him tomorrow so he can tell her a true epic adventure based in India. This she does and the tale he spins takes up the rest of the movie. A small group of heroes are stranded on a desert island (Butterfly Reef) by the evil Governor Odious: ex-slave Otta Benga (Marcus Wesley), the Indian (Jeetu Verma), explosives expert Luigi (Robin Smith), naturalist Charles Darwin (Leo Bill) and his monkey Wallace and the Masked Black Bandit (Lee Pace). Their backstories are presented efficiently and we learn they have all sworn to kill the evil Odious. They escape from the island thanks to a kindly swimming elephant and next encounter the Mystic (Julian Bleach) who emerges out of a tree. The group vow to rescue the Masked Bandit's brother the Blue Bandit who is being held by Governor Odious. Sadly, the evil villain has murdered the Blue Bandit and the group renew their blood oath to kill Governor Odious. Along the way, they encounter a princess (Justine Waddell) whom falls in love with the Masked Bandit until we (and he) discover she is in fact the fiance of Governor Odious. All along we are treated to breathtaking scene after breathtaking scene of visual splendour which totally immerses us into the fairytale adventure.
Constantly throughout the adventure, we cut back to the real world in which Roy is relating the story to a captivated Alexandria. However, Roy soon cajoles the little girl to steal some morphine for him out of the hospital dispensary and we realize that the crippled stuntman is spinning his tale in order to get the girl to steal him enough pills with which to kill himself. It turns out that Roy's actress girlfriend has thrown him over for the slick movie star of the silent movie he was filming and all Roy wants is to end his life. It is this back-and-forth tension between Roy's efforts to kill himself and Alexandria's interest in hearing the rest of the story which is really at the heart of the film. The whole point of this is actually to show how people deal with tragedy and despair. Alexandria's own recent background, we discover, features an angry mob that burned down her house and somehow resulted in her father's death. The deep, caring bond that forms between Alexandria and Roy unfolds organically and truthfully and, by the end of the film, the tears are flowing.
I really can't say enough about the acting job done by both Lee Pace and Catinca Untaru. Pace is hauntingly convincing and real in his deep pain and self-loathing while Untaru is startlingly good in her performance as well bringing a wicked naughtiness and a heartbreaking vulnerability to her role. The rest of the cast is quite adequate in their deliberately theatrical performances quite appropriate for the operatic fairy story in which they're involved. All of the "fantasy" characters in the story have real-life counterparts in the hospital: Otta Benga is the ice delivery man, the princess is a nurse, Luigi is a one-legged actor in the silent movie, the Mystic is an elderly patient, the Indian is an orange picker and the slick movie star is Governor Odious. However, we're really only interested in Roy and Alexandria and it is the performance of Lee Pace and Catinca Untaru which sets the film's feet firmly on solid dramatic ground. It's also quite fun to realize that, while Roy is telling the story, what we are seeing are images that must be conjured by Alexandria as she is listening. A key to this opinion is that Roy talks about "The Indian" as if he is a native American (he refers to the Indian's wife as a "squaw" and his house as a "teepee"); however what we see in the film is a "real" Indian whose backstory takes place in a gorgeous Indian palace. It's also quite nice (and telling) that halfway through the story, Alexandria manages to insert herself into the fairy tale as the daughter of the Masked Bandit (complete with an identical mini-costume)! The roles of storyteller and listener are blurred and combined before the film is finished. There is, in fact, yet another blurring of the line between reality and fantasy: apparently the director convinced actor Lee Pace to pretend to be actually paralyzed. During the entire filming of the hospital scenes (which were filmed before the fantasy sequences), Pace confined himself to a wheelchair and was lifted into his bed for the day's shooting. In the DVD documentary on the film, we get to see the moment when Pace reveals to his 5 year old co-star (and the entire assembled cast and crew) that he can actually walk after all! This is truly a movie you have to see and preferably on a large screen HDTV because it's truly a sumptuous film experience. Tarsem Singh's direction is note perfect and this bodes well for the Greek God/Theseus blockbuster which awaits us in 2011. Seeing THE FALL, I now have the highest hopes for it. Tarsem's grasp of the visual is without peer in the current cinematic landscape, I think. It's quite fitting that THE FALL begins with the shooting of a silent film since there is a touch of silent film imagery as well in the composition of some scenes. Also remarkable is the scene in which the priest's face turns into a desert landscape as well as a "Quay Brothers"-like stop-motion animation dream sequence. THE FALL, while a sumptuous fantasy film, also deals with real emotional pain and I'm not sure if I would recommend it for very young children; the final third of the film is actually quite harrowing and throughout there is occasional quite realistic violence and mild gore. This film, in fact, plays like the original fairy stories of the Brothers Grimm before Hollywood cleaned them up. That's probably why such a fanciful-looking film packs such an emotional impact. For a quick taste, I've provided the movie trailer immediately following this post. Enjoy.

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