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LAist Movie Review: Tarsem's The Fall

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There are things that should have turned out, you know, good, but unfortunately didn’t. It’s an extremely long list. George Lucas should have been banned from going within 50 yards of a word processor when it came time to write The Phantom Menace. Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip should have been more than a terrible romantic comedy (minus, inexplicably, the comedy.) And The Fall should have been a great film.

I honestly, really wanted to like it. The latest beautiful mess by the monotonously single-named Tarsem (director of The Cell), it's exceptionally pretty to look at, with great performances, settings, and other technical compliments I won't waste your time writing. Sure, if one can use Tarsem’s previous work (including, oddly enough, the video for REM’s Losing My Religion) as a guide, it was guaranteed to be flashy, insubstantial and weird for weirdness’ sake on a level embarrassing even to the Olympian God of Filmic masturbation, David Lynch*. But damn it, whatever his flaws, when it comes to telling the camera where to point, and making it look all pretty in post, he knows what he’s doing.

But it’s also painfully self-derivative, contains blatant artistic larceny, and eventually comes to an unsatisfying conclusion having failed entirely to make sense, or even a point**.

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The Fall concerns the hospital ridden adventures of a young immigrant girl (Catinca Untaru), and a gravely injured Hollywood stuntman (Lee Pace), sometime in the early 1920s. She is recovering from the titular fall (strongly implied to have resulted from the slave conditions she and the rest of her immigrant family suffer under as agricultural laborers in the OC), while He has been temporarily paralyzed by a badly executed stunt. Having recently become healthy enough to run around the Hospital, Immigrant Girl meets Stuntman and thus begins the plot.

Tarsem sure does know how to cast. Lee Pace, who despite his relatively short resume is on his way to a brilliant career, is great as The Stuntman. He’s already been great in Infamous and the unjustly overlooked The Good Shepherd, but his performance here might be deserving of the most praise, somehow managing to eke out surprising layers of depth from the paper thin story he’s been given. HOwever, the most glowing praise must be reserved for Catinca Untaru. As anyone who experienced the Jake Lloyd disaster of 1999 will recall, child actors, used badly, can ruin a film. It's not their fault mind you - they're children, and acting is hard work. It requires the more detached imagination of adulthood that children typically have not yet developed. (Perhaps one of the reasons great child actors seem strangely old for their age, and why George Lucas seems like an annoying little kid.) To get it right, you need an actor with real talent and a director capable of bringing it out. Which, as you have guessed, is where I'm going with this.

As the viewpoint character, Untaru has to carry the movie on her shoulders, and fortunately, there’s never a single eye-rolling "now that's pod racing!" moment, or embarassing obvious rote memorization that leave you wishing that Tarsem had decided to go with a teenage protagonist instead. She's just really goddamned great, and if she can avoid cocaine, put off binge drinking until she’s at least 15, and try not to star in a series of teen comedies with an equally drug addicted best friend, she's going to do a lot of important work.

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The work in question here is the gargantuan task of making us give a damn about a hybrid of Harold Chasen and Rob Gordon. The Stuntman's injuries, we quickly learn, are more than likely psychosomatic - the problem isn't that he can't walk, but that his status climbing girlfriend dissed him and dismissed him to shack up with the star of the film on which he was injured. The heartbroken Stuntman now in full woe-is-me mode has lost the will to live and wants to kill himself, a desire that none of his friends or doctors will help him fulfill.

Enter the Young Immigrant Girl, lonely and eager to help out, but conveniently far too young and not yet expert enough at the English Language to get what's happening. Feeling sorry for him, she strikes up a conversation and The Stuntman, quickly sensing an easy mark, sets out to convince her to unknowingly assist him in pioneering a career in the exciting field of assisted suicide. To do this, he wins her trust by making up an engaging adventure story, a swashbuckler-slash-revenge tale populated by people in the young girl’s life, (and the girl who dumped him), interrupting the tale at key points to cajole the Young Girl into scoring some morphine for him.

From here, the movie alternates between the downcast real world setting of a 1920’s Los Angeles Hospital (invalids! deaths! Old people! Morphine!), and the diverse, elaborately costumed epic landscapes of The Stuntman’s tale. All the while, Pace’s stuntman acts with complete disregard for anyone around him while the Immigrant Girl behaves (she thinks) with selfless kindness. When the consequences of The Stuntman's actions are made clear (and she's faced with the kind of person he is), they're both Changed Forever And Ever.

But a Tarsem film isn't about the actors. He started out in music videos, a learning experience that pays off big in his ability to create memorable shots that make otherwise mundane landscapes look alien, dreamlike, but has also limited his storytelling abilities to, essentially, drawn out, pretentious visuals. Sort of like Ansel Adams manning the camera for a porn directed by David Lynch**. (At some point, you have to ask "when are they going to get to the sex?") But - and you’re going to read it in every goddamned other review anyway, so I might as well get it out of the way now – The Fall is visually stunning. Stunningly so. You could even replace the Taser with scenes from this movie***.

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It begins with an amazing opening title sequence unlike anything an admittedly pedestrian filmgoer like myself had seen (at least until GTA 4*** came out last week), a black and white depiction of a old time film shoot, with the credits imposed on the scenery as though they weren’t added in post but actually found carved out of the landscape, (which naturally required the crew to legally change their names so the shot wouldn’t be a lie). This is followed by an authentic depiction of Los Angeles during the period when it was still trying to figure out what kind of city it was going to be. Neat stuff, that is until the Stuntman’s epic begins, and Tarsem hits the reboot feature in his brain. 10 minutes in, you finally realize that you’re seeing shots lifted frame for frame from The Cell, albeit without being annoyed by the criminal waste of Vincent D'Onofrio’s talent, or by the criminal indulgence of J-Lo’s delusional grasping for respect.

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There’s Tarsem’s trademark mirror-image landscape shot, where an above ground object, say, a mountain, is mirrored by the shadow it makes, or by the earth on which it sits. Beautiful, at least the first 20 times you’ve seen it. Then there’s his obsession with bleak desert landscapes. No joke, nobody films the outskirts of Victorville quite like him, but come on. And don’t forget his gift for bestowing a compellingly sexual allure to trees, grass and assorted shrubbery. Not that I was paying attention or anything. And his (also trademark) mask fetish. He can’t get enough of ‘em. Apparently he considers the art of filmmaking as an opportunity to indulge the dream all boys have of making a real life Snake Eyes or Storm Shadow costume. And it continues thusly for the duration - He repeats himself and repeats himself and so on and so forth to the point that you start to wonder if he spends his free time patting himself on the back.

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You know how people are always shocked that, say, Ethan Hawk could have (supposedly, supposedly!) cheated on Uma Thurman? Tarsem’s imagery is proof that even astonishing beauty gets old. Unfortunately, he doesn’t stop with mere repetition. At the beginning of the third act, the audience is treated to a scene so blatantly plagiarized from Frida, I’m surprised an army of lawyers didn’t burst into the screening room with demands that the film be stopped and every viewer’s notes be confiscated. I won’t give it away here, but it was shockingly obvious, without even a perfunctory attempt to change context or mood just enough to create plausible deniability. It makes the viewer feel simultaneously pitying and angry at the waste. The film had its own visual style – it didn’t need to steal from Julie Taymor.

The story peters out during the third act and you're left feeling like the point was something about the nobility of unrequited love, or self destruction, or some such nonsense. It isn't really clear. The only redeeming quality comes from the final narration by the Immigrant Girl, describing events after leaving the hospital. It's kind of a non sequitor, but it leaves you feeling somewhat optimistic. Perhaps it's entirely appropriate. My cruel and unearned mockery aside, Tarsem spent 4 years of his life working his ass off making this film, paying for it out of pocket, making commercials, essentially bartering his existence to complete it. He poured everything he had into it and there’ve still been significant release delays. And worse, he must have had a stroke when Pan’s Labyrinth came out, because the plot is basically similar to The Fall (though tragedyfied by approximately 50%, and less sweatily suicidal).

Which is why it hurts to say that after all that time and effort, the final product is, basically, pretentious garbage, but that's what it is. Then again, it’s beautiful, mesmerizing garbage, and who am I to judge? Looking over this review, I noticed 400 words that are certain to get this review beaten up by tougher, more popular, less gay seeming articles, and I tend to crawl into my own nether regions too. In the end, while I can’t reccomend the thing, I can at least be glad it was made, and hope despite myself that it turns a profit. I’d prefer a mountain of this to more dreck from the likes of, say, Mike Myers.

See it for yourself and decide who’s more full of shit: Me, or Tarsem. The Fall opens today in Los Angeles and New York City. For more information, visit the official site.

* Sorry, people who think they sound smart for “getting” this masturbating hack’s alleged films. Movies are a storytelling art and Lynch wouldn’t know how to tell a story if it came to him in a mirror image dream, then suddenly reversed itself midway through so that suddenly David was played by a different actor which, like, is like totally weird n’ stuff, so that you don’t know whether the story takes place in hell, or just the screening of the film. Or did I just blow your mind?

** Politeness dictates that you don’t point out the reviewer’s own lack of points-making ability.

*** Don't Tarsem Me, Bro.

**** Truly the finest work of art yet this century.