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Moriarty’s One Thing I Love Today! Catinca Untaru In THE FALL And The Art Of Directing Children!

Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here. I’m going to hold off on a formal review of Tarsem’s THE FALL until a little closer to release, but I’ll say right now that I haven’t seen a jump in quality from first film to second film like this since Fincher went from ALIEN 3 to SE7EN.




A big part of what impressed me about the film is the work by young Catinca Untaru, the Romanian little girl who is the star of the movie. It either works or fails based on her performance, and Tarsem managed to capture some real magic onscreen, something that any director will tell you is not easy. Some directors would want to use a slightly older child, someone you could really direct and who understood what you were asking for, an “actor” like Dakota Fanning or Haley Joel Osment in their primes. But Tarsem went the other direction, choosing to use a non-actor, someone who had never been in a movie at all, someone who barely spoke English. And he intentionally cast her very young so that she hadn’t reached the age where she would be able to “act,” but instead is just reacting onscreen in every moment. Her performance is wondrous because it’s real. Tarsem set up his scenes like games, and as a result, what you see is a child’s mind at play. It reminds me of the work that Spielberg did with young Drew Barrymore in E.T. or that he did with Carey Guffey in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, and it started me thinking about just how hard it is to capture the reality of children on film. Tarsem was in a very special situation on this film, shooting in bits and pieces over the course of four years. He shot all the “real world” material first, consisting of the story of Roy (Lee Pace) and his unlikely relationship with Alexandria (Untaru) while they’re both trapped in a Los Angeles hospital in the ‘20s. Roy’s a stuntman for the movies, possibly paralyzed after a horrible mishap, and Alexandria is in an awkward cast after breaking her arm in her family’s orange grove. She’s a funny, chubby little thing, full of questions and sass, and there’s an enormous sense of reality to the way she plays her scenes with Pace. When casting her, there was a miscommunication, and Untaru believed that Lee Pace really was paralyzed. As a result, Tarsem changed his shooting plan and decided to keep the whole cast and crew in the dark about Pace, introducing him as a real paraplegic. For 12 weeks, Tarsem had to keep that illusion alive, but the end result is that Untaru really does seem to believe every single moment she’s in. She’s invested in the games she plays with Pace not because of some script, but because of a real relationship you can see develop between them. Much of the material in the film comes out of these genuine moments, like when Roy is trying to convince her to steal morphine for him. He writes the word out on paper, and she reads it as “M-O-R-P-H-I-N-3.” As a result, Tarsem decided to adjust the next scene by having her steal the pills as requested... but only three of them, frustrating Roy enormously. When directors are visually oriented or technically precise, it can lead to some rough situations working with kids. There’s a story about Hitchcock directing Bill Mumy when he was young, and Mumy kept fidgeting and stepping off of his mark. Finally, exasperated, Hitchcock got very close to Mumy and confided in him, “Little boy, if you move again, I shall nail your foot to the floor, and bright red blood will gush out all over your shoe.” Needless to say, Mumy didn’t move in the next take. Great story, but that sort of filmmaking doesn’t leave a lot of room for the happy accidents that can occur when you let a child’s mind lead the scene instead of trying to jam the child into a pre-determined notion of what they are going to do. I think directors who figure out how to capture that ineffable quality of childhood imagination are remarkable, and I often revisit the great child performances in movies like PATHER PANCHALI or THE BICYCLE THIEF or CINEMA PARADISO, amazed that anyone was able to capture these moments of lightning. Tarsem joins a short list with this picture, and it’s mature, impressive work. In a way, I hope Untaru never acts again. It would be wonderful if this was it, our total exposure to her on film. She’s so wonderful that I can’t help but feel no one is going to get this quality of work out of her again. Like the movie itself, her work is magic here. Hats off to all involved.


Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles

Readers Talkback
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  • April 15, 2008, 7:31 p.m. CST

    A Good Tarsem Movie

    by TroutMaskReplicant

    Well that'll be a big surprise...I await with interest ;-)

  • April 15, 2008, 7:44 p.m. CST

    Maybe if he dropped the pretentious first-name-only shit

    by Thick McRunFast

    ...I might not think of him as so pretentious.

  • April 15, 2008, 7:49 p.m. CST

    Tarsem and Brad Pitt making some extra dough

    by AllieJamison

    I just realized that those odd commercials Brad Pitt is doing in germany are in fact directed by Tarsem. Which is even more confusing as -I think- anybody could direct this shit. I'm actually looking forward to THE FALL though. Even more so after this piece. Mori's (almost)daily love testimonals are the best thing to happen to aicn since scorekeeper showed up.

  • April 15, 2008, 7:56 p.m. CST

    I am really looking forward to this.

    by kungfuhustler84

    At first I was more interested in the parts sans-child actor but now that I hear the rest is good, I'm getting more excited.

  • April 15, 2008, 8:20 p.m. CST

    Like I said before

    by red_weed

    I have been eagerly awaiting this for years. I liked the cell, a flawed film yes, but it showed some potential and i'm glad to hear of the improvement. I was watching that documentary on the new close encounters d spielburg vd set with the kid talking about the games played to get his reactions. It's fascinating some of the things they do, but it totally makes the film. I'll look forward to seeing this, hopefully it will get a release in australia..

  • April 15, 2008, 8:26 p.m. CST

    EAT Y'SELF FITTER

    by Guy Who Got A Headache And Accidentally Saves The World

    What's a computer?

  • April 15, 2008, 9:15 p.m. CST

    Danny Lloyd as Danny Torrance in THE SHINING

    by Le Vicious Fishus

    Danny Lloyd was, for my money, the best child actor I've ever seen on film. It is a fact that he gave the best performance in the movie, and that's saying a lot (even if Nicholson got a little carried away at times). I have absolutely no idea how Kubrick got that genius performance out of little Danny, but the kid simply WAS in that film. I'm still blown away every time I see THE SHINING by Danny's absolutely honest presence every single moment he's on film. And THE SHINING *was* Danny's first and last film performance. I think he later became a good baseball player in the minor leagues if I recall correctly.<BR><BR>Another great, thought provoking article, Mori. Thanks!

  • April 15, 2008, 9:17 p.m. CST

    Oh, Mori--while I've got your attention

    by Le Vicious Fishus

    I know this is off topic, but what do you think of Hanks as an actor? I know the man has loads of star quality--much as Jimmy Stewart did. But I want to know this: do you think he is as good as the academy (supposedly) thinks he is? Do you think, for instance, that he is in the same league as Dustin Hoffman (or Phillip Seymour Hoffman for that matter)? <BR><BR> Last week in the JIMMY CARTER thread, MiraJeff asserted the following: <BR><BR> "I don't think I've ever read a dumber statement... ever. You just called Tom Hanks nothing special and compared him to Gwyneth Paltrow. That's gotta be libel or something." <BR><BR> Obviously, that really burned my ass. For the record, I asserted that Hanks is nothing special AS AN ACTOR. And, yeah, the Paltrow analogy applies because they both received academy awards for performances that were inferior to the others nominated (i.e., SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE and FORREST GUMP).<BR><BR> To me, Hanks is just ok as an actor. And obviously overrated. What do you think?

  • April 15, 2008, 9:30 p.m. CST

    Best child performance ever:

    by The Phantom Limb

    Victoire Thivisol in PONETTE. She was all of five years old when that movie came out, and she carries the whole thing. It's stunningly emotional stuff. Some would contend that at that age it isn't really "acting," but whatever it is, I've never seen anything else even remotely like it. Seek it out, people.

  • April 15, 2008, 9:32 p.m. CST

    Spellcheck?

    by Zoinks

    Cool. About time.

  • April 15, 2008, 9:52 p.m. CST

    Damn, TPL!

    by Le Vicious Fishus

    I looked PONETTE up, and by god it does look like film gold! It's also apparently completely unavailable. Even fucking Netflix doesn't have it! Damn!<BR><BR>BTW, "The Phantom Limb" is definitely one of the best screen names I've ever seen. Nice!

  • April 15, 2008, 9:53 p.m. CST

    Looking Forward to This

    by flickchick85

    It's obvious from the trailer that the focus of the film is the relationship between an adult and a child, which always gives me pause because one of the biggest movie killers for me is a bad performance by a child in a lead role. Glad to hear this one's great, so my one reservation about this movie is now gone. Thanks, Mori! Oh, and Lee Pace kinda rocks, too, so I really can't wait for this.

  • April 15, 2008, 9:58 p.m. CST

    The Phantom Limb is...

    by Mr. Nice Gaius

    ...a high ranking member of the Guild of Calamitous Intent. He is not to be trusted.

  • April 15, 2008, 9:58 p.m. CST

    Beehive

    by MediaNerd

    Honestly hadn't remembered hearing anything about this one. Checked out the trailer, looks pretty amazing, though it seemed more action based then I expected from the description Mori wrote. <br><br> As another great child performance, "The Spirit of the Beehive" is very natural and rings true.

  • April 15, 2008, 11:12 p.m. CST

    Terry Gilliam

    by Samwise Ganja

    TIDELAND...... 'nuff said???? the man had "pederast" put on him...... 8 year olds dude.....

  • April 15, 2008, 11:35 p.m. CST

    Interesting insights, I was intrigued of course...

    by nopix

    But you're convincing me this is a strong and moving film.

  • April 16, 2008, 12:06 a.m. CST

    Bingo, Phantom Limb!

    by drew mcweeny

    PONETTE is the exact film that Tarsem referenced when talking about his approach to the casting of this film. He loved that the little girl in PONETTE was only three and a half when they found her.

  • April 16, 2008, 1:15 a.m. CST

    Torturing a child into believing in your fake reality knowing th

    by ThePilgrim

    and having others enamored in your talents/abilities too do so sounds so jugglefucked too me. I don't think it fair how some directors manipulate their actors, even more so when that actor hasn't even learned top properly self associate and decipher fact from fiction. Children are very easy too convince otherwise. <P> Ponette is excellent proof of how fucked up it is to traumatize an undeveloped mind into believing in a world that isn't real. And you guys call it talent when the asshole behind the camera convinces this weaker mind too believe the spectacle it is involved in.. Assholes and Hypocrites the whole lot. This is not talent. You get the child to trust you and the cast and you make them believe in what is happening around them. I for one think it sucks depended on the sandbox you push the child into. Convincing it, thats it's mother is dead. Is fucking mean as shit. Fuck you twats that get off on this shit your no different then a pedophile in my book. It did no good for Drew Barrymoore. Fuck parents think their children are genial goldmines- the shit they subject these poor people through to make some money.

  • April 16, 2008, 1:16 a.m. CST

    "fake reality knowing they will believe it" damn character limi

    by ThePilgrim

  • April 16, 2008, 1:38 a.m. CST

    mirajeff's random post of the day

    by The Real MiraJeff

    Can't wait to see The Fall. And it's good to hear you liked it Mori. Random thought... anyone who wants to feel free to weigh in... but I've been watching Spaced for the last week or so and I'm almost done with the first season. I know it's being remade for American TV. Would McLovin' be a good fit for that series or a bad fit? Just something I wanted to throw out there and hear the reaction to. I think it could work but as I'm sure most of you would agree, I'm crazy.

  • April 16, 2008, 2:07 a.m. CST

    now that i think about

    by The Real MiraJeff

    probably a bad idea. go tarsem!

  • April 16, 2008, 2:12 a.m. CST

    Talk about manipulation, Mori

    by Bodenland Unbound

    I'm talking about the REAL piss scene, consequence of the REAL terror the girl was living. Girl wasn't directed. She was MANIPULATED! The movie is visually intense, but also boring in some passages. The better scenes... are the stock footage at the end!

  • April 16, 2008, 2:16 a.m. CST

    thepilgrim

    by max404

    so pilgrim, where have you read they made the little girl in Ponette believe her real mother is dead? you sound like an extremist

  • April 16, 2008, 2:33 a.m. CST

    Ok About The Fall

    by D o o d

    I'm living in Amsterdam at the moment and the Fantastic Film Festival is on right now. A few friends of mine have seen The Fall already and say it's really great and a few said it's Rubbish. I'm more likely to believe the latter, but I am told that unlike The Cell, Tamsin has actually tried to tell a story. I really hate him for The Cell, but I'll give him another chance and see if I am justified.

  • April 16, 2008, 2:38 a.m. CST

    In discussion with the child acting:

    by mutombo

    I've seen the fall and I too have noticed the naturaly way the child acts. However, unlike Moriarity, I found this natural behaviour seem out of place compared to all the 'acting' in the film. You simply notice it as a viewer, you notice the way she's been directed. And that, too me, is a minor. This all goes away during the 2nd part of the film though, when the story just keeps getting better and better and the ending is really, really strong. Storywize, emotionally ánd on an acting level.

  • April 16, 2008, 2:41 a.m. CST

    the pilgrim

    by mutombo

    shut up. what about the santa clause? Easter Bunny, Jesus, Mohammed, the tooth fairy, leprechauns, god knows what kind of stories I will tell my kids to spark their fantasy when they're young.

  • April 16, 2008, 3:59 a.m. CST

    MiraJeff

    by DirkD13"

    You are crazy my friend. Just pop the series 2 disc in the player, sit back, relax, open a brewski and enjoy the genius of all those involved.<p>And just you wait for the gunfight episode.<p>On topic I always thought that little girl who played Newt was mostly great, mostly.

  • April 16, 2008, 4:05 a.m. CST

    Saw this film at....

    by can-D

    ...the fantastic fest in brussels and I was blown away. It has everything The cell missed. It's very touching and above all very funny. Also the real locations helped to get more sucked into the storytelling world. One to see!

  • April 16, 2008, 5:09 a.m. CST

    by the way

    I wonder how they get babies to cry on cue.

  • April 16, 2008, 5:39 a.m. CST

    Fincher - Tarsem comparison

    by VoxMillennium

    I agree with Moriarty that they have something in common, but in my opinion it is that their first films were judged unfairly harsh in both cases. The hatred on TB against The Cell is totally overblown and unjustified. Sure, the plot is derivative, but not nearly as bad as the majority that comes out of Hollywood; besides, it was the guy's first feature, so give him a fucking break and then some idiot wonders that "Tarsem made a good movie" as if the guy has been making crappy movies for twenty years or so. Tarsem admitted himself that the story was secondary to him. The visuals were fantastic and kept me at least on the edge of my seat throughout the movie. We should be grateful for directors like this who at least try to do things a bit different then 90% of the crap that comes out of Hollywood. The biggest problem with "The Cell" was I think that it missed an emotional core, nobody that took you by the hand and drew you into the movie, and Americans, being sentimentalists, just can't stand being ignored as a viewer that way. Grow the fuck up!

  • April 16, 2008, 7:16 a.m. CST

    I thought Lucas Black was a good child actor...

    by tonagan

  • April 16, 2008, 7:22 a.m. CST

    If you teach your children to believe in Santa Claus...

    by Bobo_Vision

    ...the Easter Bunny, and leprechauns, then you're no better than pedophiles...and terrorists. In fact, you're a terrorist pedophile.

  • April 16, 2008, 8:21 a.m. CST

    when does this get released?

    by Jonah Echo

    Im looking forward to your review Mori. I recall your dislike for The Cell, so Im excited to see that this film appears to have won you over. When is this coming out? Spring? Summer?

  • April 16, 2008, 9:18 a.m. CST

    What spell checker?

    by BGDAWES

    I dont cee any spel chek?

  • April 16, 2008, 9:22 a.m. CST

    ...pilgrim said...

    by redhankyspanky

    "Children are very easy too convince otherwise." - Thats rich, child psychology coming from someone who sucks his dad off for his allowance.

  • April 16, 2008, 10:52 a.m. CST

    Ok

    by Series7

    So what I gather is that like the Cell, the cool Dali/Escher world takes place in someones mind/imaginationland? Thats cool that he got a good story to go along with it, but I want to see this guy just make a whole fucking movie in his crazy cool visual world. Just go all out, don't worry about trying to base the main story in reality. Just go all out.

  • April 16, 2008, 3:12 p.m. CST

    I sympathize, Pilgrim, but you jumped the gun.

    by Jollymorphic

    It would appear from a story in the Chicago Reader's "On Film" section that the actress in PONETTE was not told her mother was dead, but rather was part of a children's acting workshop wherein these scenarios were slowly introduced and developed over a six-month period. Had this not been the case, I would essentially agree with the Pilgrim's sentiments, as falsely convincing a child this age of a parent's death would be an act of inhuman and unforgivable cruelty. Here's the link: http://tiny url.com/553qpx

  • April 16, 2008, 3:43 p.m. CST

    Nice

    by ThePilgrim

    you take me from the knees for saying it's wrong too convince a child into believing in things that could have an immeasurable traumatizing effect. Even if they didn't make the kid believe in her mother being dead. She obviously expressing the emotions of losing something close to her- even digging in the ground at one point to bring it back. It's not about me. It's about how crazy some of you film freaks are. Maybe you find the convincing portrayal of someone who can't tell reality from fiction amazing. <P> I say you do because films for the most part are swallow piss poor examples of reality. As for the cost of a childs developing mind. I say fuck you!

  • April 17, 2008, 12:25 a.m. CST

    Hmm.

    by The Phantom Limb

    Didn't expect to be opening up such a can of worms by praising Victoire Thivisol. I can't say I take too kindly to the intimations that I and anyone else impressed by her work in PONETTE are no better than pederasts. This is precisely why I usually avoid the Talkbacks, as it's so incredibly easy to lob the most incendiary accusations and insults. But anyway. Others have already defended the way in which the film was created (though apparently not adequately for some), so I won't go into that. But I will say that, last I heard, Thivisol is quite proud of what she accomplished in the movie and is growing into a well-rounded young woman. Granted, she's only made two more films since, but isn't that more likely due to the fact that she's in school and even might have found other passions? After all, most children don't pursue the same interests at 16 as they did at 4. And now that I've been duely chastised by the more vulgar and inflammatory members of this Talkback, I'll crawl back in my hole for another couple of years. Ciao!

  • April 17, 2008, 12:32 a.m. CST

    Derr.

    by The Phantom Limb

    Guess I'm not quite done, as I kind of forgot to include part of my point...specifically, that the fact she hasn't done any movies lately is much more likely because she's grown up than that making this film traumatized her. If I'm wrong about this, I will certainly issue formal apologies, retractions, denunciations of the films, the whole nine yards.

  • April 17, 2008, 6:01 a.m. CST

    The FALL is FUN!

    by BranMakMorn

    I didn't expect to write this about a Tarsem film but the one element that was missing in his previous work was a sense of playfulness to his subject matter. This film reminds me a bit of Guillermo Del Toro's more personal films but I enjoyed THE FALL more than PAN's LABYRINTH, and that's saying a lot. This is miles ahead of THE CELL.