Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Fall (2006)

Director: Tarsem (The Cell)

Even with David Fincher and Spike Jonze names attached to this movie, it didn't get as much recognition as I thought it deserved.  There are so many wondrous and amazing things in this film that I don't even know where to start.  And you know? They are real.  There were no computer effects used at all in this film.  Every color, every location, every bizarrely placed step and labyrinth, all exist somewhere in the 28 countries in which Tarsem filmed the movie.  I read nothing about this movie before I watched it because something told me that there was something there and I wanted to be a part of it in my imagination before the reality of it was shown to me, and yet the reality was just as breathtaking.

The story is set during World War I in a hospital in Los Angeles.  In one wing, several actors and stunt men.  In another, infants and children.  One child in particular, Alexandria, who is five and has immigrated from India with her mother and sister after the death of her father.  She is forced to pick oranges with other immigrants or starve.  Alexandria fell from a tree while working and broke her arm badly enough that she is staying in the hospital until it heals.  Alexandria, played by a young Romanian girl named Catinca Untaru who was discovered by Tarsem while playing at school, has captivated the staff at the hospital with her sweetness and mischief. 

The actress is the most endearing child actor I have ever seen in a film.  I cannot name a single one who is better at acting, better at bewitching, and the girl could not even speak one word of English until Tarsem discovered her.

Alexandria wanders around the hospital and runs into a stunt man who had a stunt go terribly wrong and is now paralyzed, temporary or maybe even permanantly, in his legs.  Roy, played by Lee Pace, is young and that stunt was his first acting job.  Now his career depends on his legs coming back to life.  To pass the time, Roy begins to tell Alexandria an epic adventure.  Here is where the magic begins, in the movie, and in the film making.

Roy begins a story about an Indian, or rather, a Native American and his squaw and what happened to them to bring the Indian to a deserted island with four other odd characters.  Only in our vision, we are shown the story through the eyes of the five year old girl from India.  Alexandria shows us a man from India although the words Roy uses tell a different story, which is part of the charm.

The story tells of Governor Odious who is a terrible man and has done harm to each of six misfits:  Charles Darwin the American Naturalist, The Indian, Luigi the Bomber, The Mystic, and The Bandit (whom Roy told to be Alexandria's father, but whom Alexandria turned into Roy himself at which point he becomes The Blue Bandit), and The Slave.  The epic adventure is populated by people in Alexandria's life:  orderlies, nurses, doctors, priests, other orange pickers whom we do not even see until the end of the movie, and people who visit Roy in the hospital.

Roy alters the story from cues he picks up from Alexandria as the tale moves along and the two become closer.  Until one day when Alexandria comes to Roy for another portion of the tale and finds him upset after a visit from a woman and two men whom Alexandria knows right away are important, famous men.  Roy's girlfriend has just left him for a famous actor who is wealthy and not possibly paralyzed for the rest of his life.

The story begins to take a different turn though it is very subtle as Roy plummets into thoughts of suicide and Alexandria is swept away in the make-believe and in his real life descent.

Catinca Untaru is brilliant.  I cannot say enough about her.  She is beautiful, talented, and has some air about her that sweeps the audience along with her into the fantasy.  If you don't break down in tears in the last half hour of the movie right along with her then you have a heart of stone!

Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies,Wonderfalls) does an excellent job as well.  He alternates back and forth between the bed-ridden patient and the dashing, heroic Blue Bandit with such believability that sometimes I forgot it was the same person.

But where the magic comes from is in the locations.  Tarsem used no CGI, no special effects in creating the scenary.  From the Infinite Staircase to the Blue City, every location is a real place.  Sand dunes, The Labyrinth of Dispair, even the mundane hospital were all real, all there, in every foreign and beautiful place the world possesses.  The Blue City of Jodhpur; The observatory that was the Labyrinth; even The Infinite Staircase is real, a reservoir in India considered cheap and tacky looking by the locals. They must be seen to be believed.  Right along with Alexandria, I laughed and cried and cannot think of another movie that moved me in such a way as this one.  It is everything from every childish fantasy to every grown-up heartache rolled into one movie.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Meantime (1984)

Director: Mike Leigh 

Meantime's most remarkable feature is that it debuts Gary Oldman and is Tim Roth's second film. As you watch the movie, it is quite easy to see how Tim Roth will progress into the star he is today. Not as much for Gary Oldman, in my opinion. Tim Roth plays Colin, a young man in his late teens or very early twenties who is simple-minded. His performance is brilliant. The character is handled lovingly and with care and understanding. Colin seems to be the soft-spoken voice of tranquility in a world that is loud and confusing and out of control. He watches what goes on around him, processing it with his own unique views on the world, sometimes with clarity.

Gary Oldman plays a secondary character, Coxy, a local skinhead who bums around with his friends. The group is always shown acting up and laughing and having fun, while the rest of the unemployed, Thatcher-era masses are downtrodden, sour-faced, and angry. He is goofy and his dialogue is often hard to understand. I think this could be due to the terrible sound on the DVD as much as the way he's speaking, though.

The movie centers around the Pollock family: Mother Mavis (Pam Ferris), Father Frank (Jeff Robert), older son Mark (Phil Daniels), and younger son Colin (Roth). The sons are past the age that they should be moving out of their parents' home, but the economy does not allow them the pleasure. All four members of the family are unemployed. Mavis goes to bingo in hopes of winning a jackpot to free them of their financial burdens. Frank is lazy, not even bothering to call the building manager when windows and other things break in their tiny flat. While he is shown lounging around in a bathrobe like a lazy sod, there is the sense that some of these cliche behaviors are due to depression over his job failures and the successes of his wife's sister and her husband who live in a nearby town in a large house in a nice neighborhood.

The movie also showcases friends and neighbors of the Pollock family.  There is a local girl named Hayley who seems to have a past with every boy in the neighborhood.  She seems only marginally more functional than Colin, slumping everywhere and barely talking.  Hayley's friend and her boyfriend are shown briefly.  The girl is pregnant and living with her mother.  She and the baby's father are both unemployed.  Uncle John (Alfred Molina) and Aunt Barbara, who are upper middle class, have no children of their own.

The relationship between the two brothers seems to be the focal point around which everything else in the film unfolds.  Mark seems to care for Colin, and worry about him, but he is also torn by jealousy.  He is feeling the pressure, as the oldest, to try to find a job and make a way for himself, while watching his former friends (the skinhead gang) loafing around happily stuck in a sort of teenage limbo.

The movie is more guided than scripted.  There are some shots that you don't see often in movies that make the scenes around them more effective.  There is one scene lasting several minutes of the wash room at the Pollock's house that features the washing machine and a bottle of detergeant in its center, focusing only on the legs of the family members as they walk around it.  Another scene, when the aunt is upset and sitting on the floor of her bedroom, the camera focuses on Alfred Molina in the doorway.  He moves about changing clothes from work, and moves out of the shot several times, but the camera remains focused on the empty doorway, what his wife is seeing as she waits for his return, to see the effect of her words on his face.  It gives a starkness to the film, as if the viewer is there, part of what's going on.

The soundtrack is horrid, though.  At times it is louder than the voices and it's a very annoying, after-school-special sort of generic music. It was made for TV (a year later released theatrically) so that's forgivable.  I do think it would have been a lot better if it had had some actual music. I kept wanting a soundtrack of The 4Skins or some other relavent oi bands.  Instead there was that blaring trumpet and sudden outburts from an electronic keyboard at inappropriate times.  Otherwise, the movie is a lovely slice-of-life drama that portrays characters whose lives before the film are obvious, and whose lives after the film is over continue.  You can hear their conversations after the screen goes black and the credits roll.  It makes the viewer want to imagine what happened next, but even though you don't know for certain, it still feels as if the film had all the closure it needed.  It's dated, but should still be watched to see the beginnings of the careers of two of the best actors of our generation.