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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Fall (Blu-ray)
The Fall (Blu-ray)
Sony Pictures // R // September 9, 2008 // Region Free
List Price: $38.96 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted August 30, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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P R I N T
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The story of The Fall is extraordinary even without taking a look at the movie itself. Tarsem -- a commercial director best known for helming R.E.M.'s video for "Losing My Religion"
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as well as his one and only other feature film, The Cell -- envisioned a sprawling childhood fantasy, equal parts beautiful and bleak, that would span dozens of countries. He'd spend nearly seventeen years scouting for locations the world over while shooting commercials, continually developing a project that seemed as if it might never see the light of day. Hollywood was interested, but they were really only drawn towards the breezy fantasy that's woven throughout The Fall, and a green light would mean smoothening away the dark undercurrent that propels it. After Tarsem came across Catinca Untaru -- a charming five year old Romanian girl with no acting experience and not all that much of a grasp of English -- he felt such a drive to finally push through his vision of The Fall that he financed the exceptionally ambitious film himself. The scenes with Untaru were all filmed in one fell swoop, and the rest were shot piecemeal over the course of four years, with Tarsem cherrypicking commercial directing gigs that'd put him the closest to his ideal shooting locations.

As compelling as the making of The Fall is, the movie itself is even more exceptional.

For a film with this sort of unrestrained visual ambition, the core of its story is surprisingly straightforward. The Fall is set during Hollywood's silent era, opening shortly after a fledgling stuntman named Roy (Pushing Daisies' Lee Pace) cripples himself leaping off a bridge. Roy may not have been a leading man in the pictures, but he has the charm and good looks for it...enough to intrigue Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), an odd five year old who skulks the halls of the hospital they share. Bed-ridden, Roy entertains the little Romanian girl with an epic fantasy he doles out day after day: an intricate story halfway between The Arabian Nights and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen about six wronged men from throughout the globe who band together to seek revenge against the nefarious Governor Odious. These adventures play out on screen too, colored by Alexandria's blissfully innocent view of the world along with...well, her clunky grasp of English. One of the central characters in Roy's story is an Indian, but even with the nods to squaws and all, she pictures turbans and the Taj Mahal instead. Alexandria's completely fascinated by the story, and who wouldn't be? Escaping a butterfly-shaped desert island on an elephant, a mystic with a bellyful of tweety-birds shrugging his way out of a half-exploded tree, a romance with a kidnapped princess, not to mention fistfuls of dynamite, legions of sword-toting Spanish warriors decked from head to toe in black leather, and Charles Darwin lugging a monkey around in a bag...she's hooked.

This sounds like a warm, endearing children's tale, and to a point, it is. Alexandria is so smitten with Roy that she eventually drops him into the role of the story's masked bandit, taking the place of her late father. Everything about The Fall is so warm and charming -- it's an artfully shot peck on the check -- that when the movie takes a darker turn, it's devastating. No, The Fall is too smart and too sharply-crafted a film to settle for cheap melodrama or whatever you might be picturing. I won't spoil what Roy's ulterior motive is for weaving this fantasy together for Alexandria, but it's truly heartbreaking for both of them, and the barrage of emotional slugs in the gut build up to an intense, teary-eyed crescendo.

The skeleton of The Fall may bring back memories of movies like The Adventures
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of Baron Munchausen
, The Princess Bride, or -- if you share Tarsem's tastes -- the 1981 Bulgarian film Yo Ho Ho, but there are two things in particular that distinguish this film from any other. The first is the natural and hopelessly endearing Catinca Untaru. There's nothing precalculatedly precocious about her, and her reactions...her heavily improvised dialogue...they're real, not coached or overrehearsed to a glossy sheen. The extras on this Blu-ray disc show just to what extent Tarsem went in order to capture her, from not plastering cameras in front of her face, limiting himself to a skeleton crew during the early stretches of the shoot (even cameramen and the sound crew were kept out of view), ensuring that the entire set was oblivious to the fact that Pace wasn't actually parapalegic, and even only introducing the movie's two stars when cameras rolled for the first time. It's raw, unpolished, and wholly engrossing -- maybe even the most remarkable performance from someone who's not a professional actor since Haing Ngor in The Killing Fields a quarter-century ago. Her fascination with Roy and his story is sincere, not scripted, and the impact of The Fall demands that the audience be every last bit as enthralled. It wouldn't have just been a lesser movie with anyone else in the role; The Fall would've been unrecognizably different altogether.

Its other great strength is Tarsem's uncompromising visual eye. If not for already having read that The Fall was self-financed, I wouldn't have had any trouble believing that this was a $65 million studio film. The Fall was filmed in more than 24 countries after half a lifetime of location scouting, and Tarsem clearly sought out so many astonishingly beautiful and exotic locales that there's no need to resort to CGI trickery. From the city surrounding Odious' fortress being bathed in a bright blue to the faint outline of a butterfly on a desert island to an impossible series of staircases that look like they could've been nicked from an Escher drawing, The Fall is one of the most visually breathtaking movies ever committed to film, and virtually every last frame was accomplished in-camera. Its clever transitions, vivid colors, lavish costumes, jaw-droppingly beautiful backdrops...The Fall is as much an experience as it is a movie, and it's greatly appreciated that Sony opted to release it with such a striking high-definition presentation on Blu-ray.

The Fall is a story, ultimately, about the power of storytelling...about the childlike, wide-eyed sense of awe a really well-crafted tale can inspire. Alexandria is hopelessly entranced by Roy's sprawling story about swordplay and a cacklingly evil governor, and I felt every bit as enthralled with The Fall myself. Tarsem's last outing as a feature film director may have been mostly shrugged off as style over substance, but The Fall delivers a tremendous amount of both. Visually dazzling and wholly engaging, The Fall reminds me why I love movies as much as I do, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

For what it's worth, I completely disagree with The Fall's R rating. Admittedly, this is an emotionally intense movie, and as Roy's epic fairy tale builds to its horrifically bleak climax, the violence is likely to be too much for particularly young children to handle. There are inarguably some adult situations, but I don't feel that there's anything in The Fall that'd be
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inappropriate for young teenagers at all, and I find it difficult to believe it wouldn't have gotten by with a PG-13.

Video: The Fall is an intensely visual film that demands to be experienced in high definition, and this 1080p, AVC-encoded presentation -- culled from a 4K digital intermediate -- easily ranks as reference quality. Despite being filmed over the course of more than four years, the quality is unwaveringly consistent throughout. The levels of fine detail and clarity are both outstanding: there are several shots where the camera is literally a mile away, and yet each and every character in the frame remains clear and distinct. The 1.85:1 image boasts an almost tactile sense of depth and dimensionality, and black levels are remarkably robust. Film grain is tight and unintrusive throughout as well, and the weight of the grain remains consistent even in the many interior sequences shot purely with natural light. The Fall's use of color is especially dazzling. The palette looks almost painted on in the fantasy sequences -- it's a vivid and very distinctive look -- and Tarsem has more than enough of an inventive visual eye to ever allow the many scenes in the hospital to settle into the cold, sterile cliché. The Fall is a jaw-droppingly beautiful film, and its release on Blu-ray is among the most extraordinary that the format has to offer.

Audio: This Blu-ray disc's Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is nearly as impressive as its sparkling high definition visuals. The Fall's dialogue is reproduced cleanly and clearly, showing no signs of strain and is never overwhelmed even with as chaotic as the action can get. The surrounds are brimming with color, from lapping waves to howling wind to the bleat of a conch shell. With one of the fantasy's lead characters being a demolitions expert, it kind of goes without saying that bass response is impressively muscular: titanic explosions, cracks of gunfire, and even the snapping of a Spanish soldier's neck as he plummets to the ground are backed by a thick, meaty low-end. The sound design is extraordinary, trumping blockbusters with many, many times its budget, and it translates to Blu-ray flawlessly.

The other audio options are more limited than the usual gaggle from Sony. There are no dubbed soundtracks, and the only subtitle options are in English (both traditional and SDH) and French.

Extras: The extras
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on The Fall are fairly lean, and that's a disappointment considering that its sprawling and extremely unconventional production could easily fill a feature-length documentary on its own. Even some of the extras mentioned in the audio commentaries -- the contents of the box Tarsem filled while location scouting, Catinca Untaru's audition tape, and additional deleted scenes -- are nowhere to be found. What few extras are on this Blu-ray disc are compelling, though.

The disc's two making-of featurettes shrug off interviews, narration, and any sort of retrospective bent, instead using clever editing and reams of fly-on-the-wall footage from the shoot to artfully shape its own narrative. "Wanderlust" (28 min.) opens with Tarsem navigating his young actress through a visual outline of the story as well as explaining to the cast and crew the playful tone he wanted to establish on the set. As its title suggests, much of "Wanderlust" emphasizes the location shoots, including the crew lugging the princess' carriage through a neatly-swept desert, prepping for an elephant swim, pigeon wrangling, and managing half-battalions of grips and extras. A good bit of time is spent as Tarsem discusses with and directs his cast for some of the key emotional sequences, and this is also an emphasis in the second featurette. "Nostalgia" (30 min.) is focused more intensely on the filming of some of the final scenes in the hospital, although it tackles everything from adjusting the wardrobe of whirling dervishes to staging the climactic assault on Odious' fortress to prepping Untaru how to best handle her character's emotions. "Nostalgia" also captures the joy and frustration of a seasoned director working with such a young, raw talent like Untaru, and I appreciate that it doesn't whitewash over that wide array of emotions. It's also intriguing to see that these exotic environments and impossibly elaborate backdrops aren't CGI trickery. Both featurettes are presented in standard definition and in 4x3.

The centerpiece of The Fall's extras is its pair of audio commentaries. Writer/director Tarsem takes a slightly different approach to his commentary track than most, devoting the two hour discussion to responding to each individual scene rather than speaking about the movie as a whole. More general notes -- how he approached finally getting a movie he'd been scheming to make for nearly two full decades off the ground, the pain of self-financing, and the 'communist' pay scale for the crew, for instance -- don't appear to any great extent until the end credits start scrolling. Even if the structure is a bit unconventional, this is a wonderful commentary, carried by a personable director who's never at a loss for words. Coaxing the most endearing and natural performance out of Catinca Untaru is a particularly favorite topic, and other highlights include a list of some of the headaches of the globetrotting shoot, the one and only digitally tweaked backdrop in the movie, and struggling with the tone of the finale.

There's remarkably little overlap between Tarsem's commentary and the second track, this time piling star Lee Pace, writer/producer Nico Soultanakis, and writer Dan Gilroy into the recording booth. With two writers in tow, it follows that
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quite a bit of the discussion swirls around just how much the screenplay evolved over time: creepy montages being yanked out, another intro with a Punch and Judy show, and pointing out some characters who wound up slipping further into the background and others whose motivations became less and less clear at the outset. Some other topics of note include the unrecognizably chipper movie the studios envisioned for The Fall, why Pace and his young co-star were deliberately kept from meeting or speaking with each other until cameras started rolling for the first time, the dramatic necessity of The Fall's exceptionally bleak final act, and...um, struggling with a lapdog on her period. Both commentaries are well-worth setting aside the time to give a listen.

Two very short deleted scenes run just over a minute and a half in total, and both are presented in high definition with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. The running theme in these outtakes from Roy's story seems to be characters shouting "Darwiiiiiiiiiiiin!"; the first follows our six heroes as they're hopelessly lost in the desert, and the second shows just who the caretaker of an abandoned nephew is.

Rounding out the extras are an extensive still gallery and a set of high definition trailers and teasers.

Conclusion: Entrancing, uncompromising, and visually dazzling: The Fall feels like the best moments of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Princess Bride, and Pan's Labyrinth sprinkled throughout a drama that's equal parts charming, warmly natural, and emotionally devastating. I didn't want The Fall to end, and when the closing credits did start to make their upward crawl, it practically took a concerted effort for me not to immediately play it again from the beginning. To my eyes, The Fall is perfect -- there's not a role I'd recast, not a scene I'd gut out, and not a line I'd change -- and it's a film I get the distinct impression has something new to discover with each successive viewing. Its presentation on Blu-ray is exceptional as well, and the only thing separating The Fall from DVD Talk's highest possible rating is the thinner than expected selection of extras. The Fall is a near-essential discovery on Blu-ray and comes very, very Highly Recommended.
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