Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Hidden Gems of Netflix: The Fall

"But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends."
-Anton Ego, Ratatouille

This is one of my favorite quotes about film criticism (from a film!), because it gets at so succinctly what I love most about it: the discovery of something new. That is my main joy in reading about film, and I want to bring some of that to how I write about film. I can give my thoughts on major current releases, and I probably will at times, but you are already aware of those. What I want to try to do is to champion excellent films that are less well known, that you might not hear about otherwise.

All this to introduce my new idea, "Hidden Gems of Netflix"—in which I'll highlight what I consider to be great, underrated films that are available to stream via Netflix Instant—as well as my review of "The Fall" as follows.

"The Fall"

In glorious, high-definition black and white, a man's head bursts from the water. We see fleeting images of a daring film stunt gone wrong: A train engine on a high bridge, surrounded by slow-billowing puffs of steam. A fake leg floating disconnected in the river. A horse in the water. Men throwing a rope. All these set to the graceful, commanding strains of Beethoven's7th symphony's second movement. Then, a title card: "Los Angeles, Once upon a time."

This gorgeous and highly detailed prologue would be worth studying carefully, because it puts into play many of the important elements of director Tarsem Singh's "The Fall." It is the early 1900s, lovingly rendered in period detail, and Roy (Lee Pace of "Pushing Daisies"), the stuntman injured in the ill-advised stunt, convalesces gloomily in a hauntingly lit hospital, where he meets Alexandria, a young European immigrant girl who broke her arm in a fall while picking oranges. The plot is simple: over a few days, as they become friends, he spins a fantastic tale for her—in exchange for her getting him a lot of morphine. The story he tells her involves bandits (including an Indian, an ex-slave, an explosives expert, a bizarre native mystic, an eccentric Darwin, and a stand-in for himself) and their joint quest for revenge against the aptly named Governor Odious. The tale, however, keeps shifting and growing. Alexandria does not speak or understand English very well, and her misunderstandings alter the course of the story, while her wild imagination paints it in vivid colors. But Roy's increasingly prevalent depression also influences it, pushing the fantastic fable into darker and darker territory. Her creativity and innocent hope fight back against his bitterness and despair, and the battlefield is the story. "It's my story!" Roy protests. "Mine too," says Alexandria. As they go deeper into the story and their own traumas, they become a "strange pair"—a surrogate father and daughter who pull the narrative in opposite directions, but also jointly blur the lines between fantasy and reality. The film thus serves as an ode to collaboration. In one of many small breathtaking touches, "The Fall" also celebrates its own existence as a film when Alexandria sees an inverted image "projected" through a keyhole. This is echoed and reinforced later with a beautiful and fitting homage to silent film that serves as a perfect summary of the movie, a tone poem of both joy and melancholy.

Tarsem shot "The Fall" in exotic locations around the world and reportedly largely paid for the production himself. There were also reportedly no computer effects used in the making of the movie, which is truly remarkable given how many splendid and unexpected sights it treats us to. Catinca Untaru, the young Romanian girl who plays Alexandria, was only six years old when the film was made, and is flawlessly naturalistic. The strange and wonderful costumes were designed by Academy Award winner Eiko Ishioka.

This film is like no other I have seen. It is an inebriating marriage of lush and glorious cinematography with a highly emotional story. It is deceptively simple and strikingly beautiful. I have watched it four times now, and each time I find something new. And each time I am again taken aback by how dark it gets as it pushes towards its catharsis. Let there be no confusion, though this is a fairy tale, it is not one for children. It is dark, occasionally bloody, and often bizarre (such as when the mystic eats a poisoned map and then directions appear on his body in a drum-and-dance filled ceremony). Yet, it is at the same time hopeful, joyful, and vibrant. It is some kind of mad masterpiece. It is a "new" worthy of discovery.

"The Fall" (R) ****1/2   (Available on Netflix Instant)


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