June 5, 2008

REVIEW: The Fall (A-)

Background: Despite all the negative criticism thrown at music video and TV commercial director Tarsem Singh for his first film, The Cell, nobody could deny that it at least looked a lot cooler than the average psychotic thriller flick. With J. Lo and Vince Vaughn out of the way and no bizarre murderer plot to muddle things up, "Tarsem" returns with The Fall, a shining example of an independent film if there ever was one. Using virtually NO special effects and shot entirely on location (in 18 countries), Tarsem self-financed and self-everythinged the film, telling friend David Fincher, "I won’t have the passion and belligerence that I think this is going to take 10 years from now." He found Catinca Untaru in Romania and then cast Lee Pace ("Pushing Daisies," Mrs. Pettigrew Lives for a Day), who will be a familiar face for American audiences. Alhough The Fall, which is a remake of the Bulgarian film Yo Ho Ho, first screened at film festivals in 2006, it was not picked up for distribution (by Roadside Attractions) until this year. Watch for it to be in the discussion for some technical Oscars next year.

Synopsis : In glorious black and white slow motion, we see the immediate aftermath of an accident involving a train, a bridge, a horse and a river. Later we learn that stuntman Roy Walker (Pace) has severely injured his legs in the accident and his girlfriend has run off with the film's leading man. Staying in the same L.A. hospital as Roy is Alexandria (Untaru), a young immigrant girl who broke her arm picking oranges. The two strike up what appears to be a cute little friendship, though we soon learn Roy, who is suicidal, is coaxing Alexandria to steal morphine pills for him from the hospital's dispensary. He does this by telling her a story about five "bandits" who are seeking revenge against Governor Odious. Roy is just making this up as he goes along, of course, but the characters in the story are, at least in Alexandria's head and on our screen, actual people who they see everyday. Roy grows increasingly desperate while Alexandria grows increasingly engrossed in the story. By the time she realizes what's going on, Roy is at his wit's end and the story has overwhelmed both of them. A nice little ending is followed by a bizarrely placed but otherwise very cool montage of stunts from some of Hollywood's greatest silent films.

I Loved:
+ The Oscar-worthy cinematography.
+ The first five minutes: black and white + classical music + slow motion = amazing.
+ Two of the best scene transitions I've seen all year: butterfly into reef and face into desert.

I Liked:
+ The totally believable innocence of Catinca Untaru (read a bizarrely written bio here).
+ Lee Pace, with whom I've been otherwise unfamiliar. His stardom might ratchet up a few notches if this makes it out of the arthouse circuit.

I Disliked:
- The penultimate scene between Roy and Alexandria - it was supposed to carry the emotional weight of the film, but left me restless and unmoved.
- The "R" rating. You usually won't find me advocating a lower MPAA rating for a movie, but here it is. I would be totally fine with young teens entering this fantasy world (especially if it exposes them to independent film), and the violence is on a scale far lower than, for example, Prince Caspian.

I Hated:
- The distracting jerk couple behind me in the theater.

Writing - 9
Acting - 10
Production - 10
Emotional Impact - 8
Music - 5
Significance - 3

Total: 45/50 = 90% = A-

Last Word: With only two credits to his name, we already know that Tarsem Singh is a filmmaker who drives critics crazy. Mission accomplished with The Fall, bound to be one of the most divisive and misunderstood films of the year. I'm not claiming to have fully grasped all of its symbolic richness, but I'm also, fortunately, not in a critic's position to have to pretend like I did. I went for the visuals and was surprised to find a nice little story hiding behind the surface, and despite the best efforts of the clowns sitting behind me in the theater, I took a mostly entertaining and exotic trip around the world. I was completely unmoved by the emotional heart of this film (the relationship between Alexandria and Roy), but the hypnotizing images and raw ambition of Singh's daring production are just too impressive to downgrade the film any further. This is high-class art (and it's not much more than that) deserving of the full price of theater admission. Dig this, and learn more about the production background from Marilyn Ferdinand's (Ferdy on Films) experience with The Fall.


  1. *collapses dramatically and faints in a fashionable heap*

    WOW, Danny. I thought you said you weren't that impressed by THE FALL.

    But an A-?! That's incredible...

    Anyone who knows me well (and I'm not going there, believe me...) is totally aware - for a highly disciplined person - how easily I can be led into temptation. The trick is to understand when it's in your best interest to crack.

    I didn't know when this was coming up but I HAD to read your review. No holding back. Spoilers be damned. Fortunately there were none.

    Isn't Lee THE BOMB? It's been a LONG time since an emerging male actor impressed me so greatly with his talent, charisma and presence.

    (I'd have to go all the way back to 99, when I saw JUDE LAW'S performance in THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, which was the very first film I ever viewed him in.)

    That's exactly what I said when I saw Miss Pettigrew (and I do believe you missed that, right?). LEE PACE is going to be a big star.

    Now, three screenings later (mmmmm...) I'm more dug in on that concept than I ever was.

    Still waiting for THE FALL. Wildly. Impatiently. It annoys the hell out of me that the smaller markets seem to be getting a lot of stuff before us.

    No big deal. If it doesn't end up here, I'll rent it.


    Fabulous review, Danny. It's your usual combination of gorgeous prose and well structured analyzing skills.

    You are, as ever, the ultimate Minnesota peach...

  2. I finally see this this on Wednesday. I can't wait!

  3. Oh, I forgot...

    That Tarsem quote is nothing short of spectacular.

    "I won't have the passion and belligerence that I think this is going to take 10 years from now."

    Funny. I always say things like that. But I seem to have an overabundance of both.

    I guess they're not going anywhere...

  4. Haha, "a fashionable heap." Thanks as always for your blush-inducing kind words. Well...the visuals struck me at first sight, but you're right that I wasn't initially impressed with the story, or how the whole thing came together. As it sunk in and I realized what I had seen, it all caught up with me. Like I said, I still didn't get as much emotional juice as I wanted, but my math prevented me from awarding a lower grade.

    Yes ma'am, Lee Pace was pretty impressive in his first role that I've seen him in (I did miss Miss P). As long as he keeps taking these eclectic roles he should go pretty far.

    I HOPE it makes it to you, for your sake! I know you've been insanely excited for it. Direct some of that passion and belligerence to your local theater if it takes much longer. Worst case scenario - at least try to find a really nice TV to watch it on.

    Look forward to yours and Matthew's reviews. My sense is that nobody will find this movie offensively bad, but opinions will still cover a wide range.

  5. Nice job, Daniel. I wonder how long the film will last in memory. Personally, I find myself thinking about parts of it pretty regularly.

  6. I would love to see this, but it isn't opening near me anytime soon :(

  7. Daniel - I clicked through to your link to Rotten Tomatoes (a site I rarely visit and have little respect for) and read the "consensus": More visually elaborate than the fragmented story can sometimes support, The Fall walks the line between labor of love and filmmaker self-indulgence.

    Whenever I see the words "self-indulgence," I want to scream. What was self-indulgent about this film. The press were all over Sally Potter for her "self-indulgence," actually starring herself in The Tango Lesson and exploring her creative process. How dare these filmmakers talk about themselves in any way in their films! I don't understand this criticism. Aren't we all about the auteur, or director as author? Any ideas?

  8. Thanks, Marilyn. Like I said at your place, it's grown on me (even a little bit on account of your review). As impressive as it was, I think there were just too many cool scenes to fully absorb. Everytime I look back at the gallery on the website I remember another part.

    Don't hold me to a perfect film, Nick, but I would still recommend it. Also, a good chunk of it was filmed in your part of the world.

    Regarding RT - well, I know it's gotten a bad rap as of late (because throngs of "online-only critics" are popping up next to Ebert and Co.), but I still find the percentages to be fairly representative of reactions to the films. Especially since you can check the "Top Critics."

    Where they get the "consensus" statement I don't know, but you make a valid point. I definitely see The Fall more as a labor of love than anything else. I'll admit that there are some filmmakers that involve themselves a bit too much (M. Night in Lady in the Water), but you're right - where's the rule against that? It's especially weird in this age when EVERYBODY has a "public identity" (Facebook, MySpace, etc.), and you "brand" yourself with everything you do. Musicians sing about themselves - why can't filmmakers make films about themselves? It's a double standard, to be sure, and I've been guilty of propagating it.

  9. I wanted to like this one so much more than I did, especially when I found out more about its production history. There's so much to admire about it, and it was definitely enjoyable, but there was an emotional component missing for me. I didn't feel that zing I get leaving the theater after a great movie.

  10. Oy, I still need to write a review...

    I enjoyed this, but probably more in the B+ range. A minor difference, but still.

    I too LOVED the opening and closing shots. Need to look up the music; it was beautiful.

    It's laughable that this was rated R. The violence is negligible; this should be PG-13, tops.

  11. Right, Craig. I just didn't get that heart sting I was hoping for. The production info was really special though; almost an "A" for effort alone.

    It ended up creeping that high, Fletch - I didn't think I would grade it has high until I sat down and started writing. I'm curious to see where yours will end up.

  12. Fletch, it's Beethoven's 7th Symphony.

    Daniel, I agree about the climactic scene between Roy and Alexandria, but I may have been distracted by the couple at the front of the theater who laughed the whole way through it.


  13. Gracias, Matt. A gorgeous piece.

  14. Some people's brand of humor makes me question humanity, Matthew.

  15. Roger Ebert has a great piece up at his site on Tarsem and the story behind this film. It may have been covered in some of the links you already provided, but I thought I would post it here nonetheless.

    I can't wait for this one, although I'm already prepared to forgive it whatever missteps it might make.


  16. Ok, that didn't work. Dang blogger and it's "no links allowed" interface. The article is at his site. It's not that hard to find.

  17. Great find, Evan, thanks. Even if I knew most of that info from other sources, it's always great to hear Ebert rave about something he's truly excited about. I didn't know he loved this one so much.

    The Blogger link deal is highly annoying, so no worries - you have to manual html tag it, like this.


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