Sony // 2008 // 117 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // September 9th, 2008
A little blessing in disguise.
"Are you trying to save my soul?"
It may be the 1920s. Maybe not. It's Once Upon a Time in an L.A. Hospital, where patients sit around eating oranges and hoping to recover. There are a lot of children in the hospital, the most active of which is Alexandria (Cantinca Untara). Most of the children are sick or badly injured, but Alexandria only has a broken arm. So, she spends her time wandering around the hospital looking for things to do. One day she meets Roy (Lee Pace, Pushing Daisies), a paralyzed movie stunt man hoping that he will be able to walk again someday. To pass the time, Roy tells Alexandria a wildly ambitious story about the time an Indian, an explosives expert, Charles Darwin, a Mystic, a Slave, and a valiant Bandit went on a grand adventure.
A lot of critics weren't crazy about The Fall. Many called it a self-indulgent vanity project, others called it a mess, and plenty of folks said the movie was childish. Maybe all of that is true. I honestly don't care. This movie is such a gorgeous, ambitious, completely fearless spectacle of wonder and beauty that any problems which would normally hamper similar films are simply drowned in a sea of passionate flair. I see a lot of movies, sometimes a dozen films a week. I don't see many new things; most films are variations of some sort on something I've seen before. The Fall is new. It's so thrilling to see someone pushing forward into new territory, even if the people Roger Ebert memorably named "timid taste-mongers" will inevitably push back.
The key here is that this is a story seen through a child's eyes. What's so special about that? We see plenty of Hollywood movies about stories seen through the eyes of children. Yes, but in those films, the stories follow conventional formulas and predictable rhythms. Good as they may be at times, they feel pre-packaged. The story told in The Fall actually looks like something that has sprung from the mind of a child, full of elaborate impossibilities, logical contradictions, and innocent imagination. The tale is being told by an adult, the weary stuntman Roy. Alexandria hears his words, but the images sometimes take a slightly different shape. For instance, when he tells her about an "Indian" who has a squaw back home, she imagines a man from India wearing a turban.
The film was directed by Tarsem Singh, who has now shortened his title to simply "Tarsem." Over the past couple of decades, he has directed a lot of commercials and music videos, as well as a feature film called The Cell. It was also an ambitious effort, a crime thriller with fantasy and horror elements starring Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, and Vincent D'Onofrio. There were a few key sequences in that film that were really remarkable from a visual standpoint, suggesting that Tarsem could someday make a pretty stunning fantasy. The Fall delivers on the promise of The Cell. Both are R-rated films, but they feel entirely different in tone. The Cell was quite horrific and gruesome, this one feels whimsical, romantic, and quite innocent. It's a celebration of the imagination (maybe ours, definitely Tarsem's), and also an appreciation of cinema itself.
The images here are huge, lavish, and gorgeous. How did Tarsem convince a movie studio to finance this very personal epic? Perhaps it's unsurprising that he didn't. Tarsem put up a large amount of the money himself, and claims that he has been working on the screenplay and scouting locations for nearly 20 years. It really shows. In an audio commentary, we are informed that absolutely no CGI effects were used in this film. I can only marvel at some of the sets that were built and the locations that were found. The movie was shot in over twenty different countries. Yes, you read that correctly. Each new location we are brought to is breathtaking, and Tarsem gives us just long enough to soak it in before moving on. We would be begging to see more of the same if only we weren't anticipating what might be coming next.
Even with all the remarkable images we're presented with, the film's most fascinating element is not a location, but a person. That would be young Alexandria, played so perfectly by an inexperienced actress named Cantinca Untaru. Tarsem claims that when he discovered this girl, he knew he had to start shooting immediately. "In four more months, she would not have been the same person," he says. With the possible exception of Jodelle Ferland's remarkable turn in Terry Gilliam's disturbing Tideland, I have not seen a better child performance in recent years. Untaru is so natural and so endearing without ever seeming remotely artificial. I would praise her sense of dialogue delivery if I thought she was actually considering such things, she seems so natural here that I'm convinced she is precisely the little girl she plays in the film. Pushing Daisies star Lee Pace (essentially an unknown when he was cast) is excellent as Roy, but the film belongs to Untaru. Unfortunately, not many will remember this enchanting performance, because this film did not draw the viewing audience of, say, Little Miss Sunshine.
I don't want to describe the film too much beyond what I have said, because its surprises and pleasures are best left unspoiled. However, I am pleased to report that the film shines in the Blu-ray format. This is one of those movies that you need to pull out and show to all your friends when you want to prove how awesome Blu-ray is. The colors here are bright and vibrant; blacks are very deep. This is really a rich-looking transfer. Sound is also quite good, with Krishna Levy's diverse score carries things quite well. Several sequences intentionally mute sound effects in favor of letting the music carry things, a great opportunity for any composer. Levy mostly succeeds, with the exception of one scene in which the music shamelessly rips Philip Glass' score for Mishima.
An interesting supply of extras is included here. The best supplement is a commentary with Tarsem, who has a seemingly endless supply of interesting info to supply. I'm particularly amazed at the lengths he went to in order to get the locations he wanted. While trying to shoot scenes in one location, he and crew members were stoned several times. On another location where the crew was staging an explosion, they had to run right after wrapping up the shot, in order to get away from angry government officials. There's also a pretty good commentary with Lee Pace and writers Dan Gilroy and Nico Soultanakis. There are also a couple of deleted scenes, a photo gallery, and some featurettes. The two featurettes are actually just compilations of behind-the-scenes footage, with no narration or interviews included.
It could be argued that the film tries to push a few too many emotional buttons during the third act. This certainly isn't as delicate or subtle as the similarly-themed Pan's Labyrinth, but it still works for me. This is forceful, sweeping filmmaking, turning everything up a few notches. It works for me, but I can understand why some might want something a little less extreme.
Do yourself a favor and see this film. It will take you some amazing places, tell you a good story, introduce you to some wonderful characters, and show you some remarkable images. It's legal, too! Give The Fall a shot. Come on, all the cool kids are doing it.
Review content copyright © 2008 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 117 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Photo Gallery
* BD Live