Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Fall

First off, I'm going to say that if you at all enjoyed Pan's Labyrinth, you need to see this movie. It isn't as magical a story, but The Fall is a very unique fantasy that is unlike most films you've seen. Also, unlike Pan's Labyrinth, it's in English.

I was rather surprised how little attention this film received. Despite being produced by both David Fincher and Spike Jonze, and getting Roger Ebert's glowing praise, (He described it as a movie you should see simply because it exists,) it failed to make a splash of any sort. It didn't even get so much as an art direction nomination at the Oscars, (perhaps proving theory that an art film released over the summer will go completely unnoticed by the Academy.)

The Fall is a movie about storytelling. It's set in Los Angeles during the early days of cinema. A stunt performer named Roy is confined to a hospital bed after an accident. He befriends a little girl named Alexandria and tells her a strange, anachronistic, epic tale about an Indian, an ex-slave, an explosives expert and Charles Darwin. The four are out on a mission led by a masked bandit to get revenge against a man named Governor Odious. The tale begins as a fun adventure, but as Roy's depression deepens over the possibility of being paralyzed, the story he tells becomes darker and more sinister.

The narrative bounces back and forth between Roy's story and what goes on at the hospital. Alexandria draws from what she sees about the hospital and incorporates it into the tale, casting the patients, visitors and employees in the various roles. I almost wish that the entire focus of the movie was on Roy's tale, because it's such a visual departure from most fantasies, but the tale only works when juxtaposed against Roy's frustration at the events that sent him to the hospital.

The film plays about with the tale as Roy tells it versus how Alexandria imagines it, so the visuals don't always immediately match up with the tale as it's shown to the audience. For example, the Indian, as Roy describes it, is a Native American. He has a squaw who lives inside of a wigwam. However, Alexandria imagines him as an Asian Indian, with a long beard and a turban.

Occasionally, the setting also changes as Roy's description of a scene becomes more detailed, which results in some amazing displays of editing. In one scene the Masked Bandit and his crew are lost in a rocky desert valley. A mystic man takes charge of the situation and shows them the way to a lush green field that clearly was not there before, but was somehow there all along.

Perhaps this film's greatest strength is that the director, who goes by the name Tarsem, used no almost no computer generated imagery. If you look at the trailer, you'll realize just how incredible a feat that is considering how surreal this movie's imagery is. All of the exotic settings were filmed on location. There's actually montage where the characters in the tale are sent all across the world, dashing through places like Cairo and Paris. This meant that Tarsem sent the actors there for single shots lasting barely a second.

When Tarsem uses truly exotic locales, it makes the fantasy elements of the story seem unexpectedly convincing, something you don't get from George Lucas-style cartoon worlds. The deserts, the mazes and cities don't look like places that should really exist in the known world, but whether they do or don't there's not a second where you doubt the characters are really there.

If the visuals of The Fall feel strangely familiar, it might be that you recognize elements from Tarsem's previous work The Cell, also known as that Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Lopez movie from 2000 that looks nothing like what you'd expect a Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Lopez movie to look like today. The Fall is considerably more family friendly than The Cell, so much so that I'm a bit confused by it's R-rating. The swearing is minimal, and there is absolutely no sex at all. I can only assume that the R-rating is for the violence, but again that's minimal. Any blood shed onscreen is completely artful and would never be described as gory. By comparison, I'd be far more hesitant to show a 10 year-old the PG-13 rated The Dark Knight than this movie.

Fans of the show Pushing Daises would also want to check out this movie. Roy the stuntman is played by Lee Pace who Pushing Daises fans will recognize as Ned the pie man. Pace plays a considerably more assertive character in this film than on the show, but is still just as likable, (even when he tries to traumatize the little girl with his story.) His performance in this film is so good that it was a shock to see that he'd wound up as the dad in Marmaduke. After seeing him in The Fall you'll agree he deserves a better role.

Catinca Untaru gives an equally noteworthy performance. She plays Alexandria, the little girl. i suppose you can debate over how much of her performance is her acting ability and how much was just her being a good casting choice. Apparently Catinca learned to speak English as the movie was being filmed, so much of her dialogue is jumbled as she tries to find the right words to say in English. Whether deliberate or a happy accident, her character's struggle to speak English leads to a few great dialogue exchanges as Roy tries to get Alexandria to understand what he's saying.

The Fall has already started to find it's audience among film buffs, so I wouldn't be surprised if in a decade filmmakers start mentioning this as an influence or making sly references to it in their own movies.

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