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The Fall: Beautifully bland 

Tarsem's latest lacks substance but it sure does look pretty

As movies go, The Fall would make a great coffee table book. One-named director Tarsem presents so many exotic settings, bold compositions and hyper-realistic colors that the movie could provide a breathtaking series of glossy still photographs. As a creator of motion pictures, however, Tarsem has the "picture" part down pat, but seems at sea with the "motion" half of the equation.

The Indian director, who's best-known for R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion" video, made his film debut with 2000's surreal serial-killer thriller The Cell. Unquestionably an obsessive labor of love, The Fall was shot on 26 locations in 19 countries, funded by Tarsem's TV commercial gigs and first screened at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival. The Fall confirms that the director has the eye of a genius but lacks the heart of a truly satisfying cinematic storyteller.

The Fall takes place "Once upon a time" at a Los Angeles hospital around 1915, and follows the relationship of two injured patients. Precocious Alexandria (Romanian actress Catinca Untaru) doesn't let her broken arm keep her from exploring the grounds and making friends wherever she goes. Bedridden Roy (Lee Pace), paralyzed after a movie stunt went wrong, is charmed by Alexandria's attentions and recounts for her "an epic tale of love and revenge."

Roy's yarn introduces five disparate heroes, all marooned on an island by the evil Gov. Odious: a masked bandit (Pace), a former slave, a chaste Indian, an Italian explosives expert and nerdy naturalist Charles Darwin. Their Broadway-ready costumes prove as elaborate as you can possibly imagine. Darwin, for instance, wears a red-and-blue feathered coat over what appears to be Malcolm McDowell's white thug outfit from A Clockwork Orange.

Their exploits feature mind-boggling sights, including an elephant paddling through crystal-blue waters, an aborigine who steps from a burning tree, slaves pulling an elaborate coach across a desert plain, and armored marauders who emerge invisibly from rooftop crannies. Like Across the Universe's Julie Taymor, Tarsem pushes cinematography's possibilities in the name of unforgettable visuals, reminiscent of the kind of highbrow commercials whose products you can never remember.

The Fall's inspirations clearly include the fanciful heroes of Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and the hospital-ward fantasies of The Singing Detective. It most resembles a curdled version of The Princess Bride's dynamic, with an adult enthralling a child with tales that include a masked swashbuckler rescuing a princess. The Fall hinges on a much more sinister plot point, however, as Roy uses the story's cliffhangers to bribe Alexandria into stealing morphine.

The hospital scenes maintain a credible tone that comes as a relief given the highly mannered acting in the fantasies (which eventually resemble 2005's overthought Hong Kong fairy tale The Promise). Tarsem draws a remarkably relaxed and naturalistic performance from Untaru, who was only about 5 years old at the time of filming, and comes across as one of the most realistic children to play an on-screen character in years. Pace provides her seemingly unscripted scenes with a charming and patient screen partner, and he conveys dark feelings to the audience that young Alexandria can't recognize.

But the meandering story relies too much on narrative fake-outs and milks Alexandria's feelings and occasional peril to manipulate the audience. The Fall's parallel storylines come together with surprising effectiveness in the finale, when Roy, in despair, begins killing off the story's heroes, while Alexandria persuades him to put a happy ending back on track.

The Fall shows insights into the symbiotic relationship between storyteller and audience, and makes affectionate nods to Hollywood in the silent-movie era, but the film's visual splendors ultimately leave the audience unmoved. Supposedly every picture tells a story, but The Fall's overloaded images communicate too much and yet not enough.

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