Monday, February 21, 2011

Top 10 Video Game Levels

One thing that seems to be vanishing from video games is the concept of “levels.” Mainstream games have moved from progressing through a series of linear, isolated environments to embracing open-world sandbox gameplay, which is sort of good and sort of bad. Yeah, there’s something to be said for a game where you can explore everywhere at will, but I hope that doesn’t completely steamroll the old-fashioned level structure, because who wants to play a game where every area you visit looks the same? I don’t. Sorry, Modern Warfare, but I’d rather skip merrily around a series of outlandishly different in-game zones than trudge wearily from one identical colorless environment to another. Growing up with 2D and 3D platform games, I was big on levels, or worlds, or whatever you want to call them. In honor of that, I’m going to give you my all-time favorite levels, worlds, zones, stages, and areas in games I’ve played. These locations all managed to wow me with their uniqueness, their visual beauty, their innovation, their immersive ambiance, their entertainment value, or some combination of the above. Here are...


(Note: This list was written in 2009. I’d probably change/update it if I had to rewrite it today, but it’s still good as it is.)

Amateria (Myst 3: Exile, PC/Mac)
With its pre-rendered landscapes and open-ended concept (you write world in book; world becomes real), the Myst franchise always leads the pack when it comes to gorgeous and unique levels. Case in point: the Amateria Age from the third game, in which you are deposited onto a beautiful island composed of hexagonal stone columns and vaguely Oriental architecture. Amateria’s puzzles are seriously cool and all fit together like a giant pressure lock, as you manipulate energy marbles through a series of pathways and obstacles. The entire world is one big puzzle, and a top-notch one at that. And did I mention how lovely it is? You can almost smell the salty air. Yeah, it’s very linear, but I’ll take a one-way path through photorealistic environments over a free-roaming adventure with crude, sub-WoW graphics (FUCK you, Myst 5). Amateria was achingly creative and deeply satisfying: solve the giant marble run and you get to ride through it yourself, sealed inside a marble. Best...reward....ever.

Anything with Brambles (Donkey Kong Country 2, SNES)

Speaking of pre-rendered graphics, I’ve always been a fan of the shiny, Matel-on-crack environments from the original Donkey Kong series, and my favorites have to be the bramble levels from DK Country 2. They were an absolute bitch to play -- pretty much every solid surface could kill you -- but just look at them! An endless, tangled maze of giant thorns stretching away in all directions. Surreal, dreamlike, as if you stood in the dark heart of Mother Nature. With the aid of barrel cannons or your friend, Squawks the parrot, you could ascend to the very heights of this lethal Eden, emerging victorious from the thorny womb. And then...there was the music. Stickerbrush Symphony, people. One of the greatest pieces of video game music ever, and half the reason I love the DKC2 bramble levels so much. The music plus the visuals plus the challenge equals ambient gamer nirvana.

Black Velvetopia (Psychonauts, PS2/Xbox)
Welcome to Spain! That is, Spain as imagined by a hopeless romantic with artistic passion and a serious screw loose. Every environment from Psychonauts is wonderfully imagined and realized, but the true visual fireworks come when you leap into the mind of frustrated painter Edgar Teglee and find yourself navigating narrow, neon-lit streets where lovely señoras wave from the windows and giant playing cards form a tower to the sky. This level was absolutely fucking gorgeous and I want to hug Tim Schafer for exploring the concept of an environment that is literally a painting come to life. Not only is it lovely, it’s funny, too, poking fun at Spanish clichés as you battle goofy luchadors and receive advice from a series of talking dogs in sombreros. Do the dogs play poker? Of course they do! Perhaps weirdest of all is that fact that the whole level is an idealized hallucination born from a neurotic dude’s traumatic memories of high school. Brilliant. Psychological healing doesn’t get any more engrossing than this.

Castle Salazar (Resident Evil 4, Gamecube/PS2/Wii)
Welcome to Spain....again! Okay, so you’ve spent some hours roaming the desolate countryside and you’re getting rather sick of angry backwoods peasants. Suddenly, looming on the horizon is this massive stone edifice, a monument to classical European decadence. What follows is survival horror gold. Ruled by a squeaky-voiced midget in a Napoleon hat and crammed full of chanting, heavily tattooed religious cultists, Castle Salazar takes everything that’s ever been good about the Resident Evil games and throws it in a glorious blender. It’s fun to look at, it’s challenging and awesome to play through, it’s absolutely hilarious at times (giant walking statue, lol) and terrifying at other times (stalked by invisible man-insects, EEK). In other words, it personifies the campy, old-school horror feel of RE4. Yeah, there’s one shitty thing about the castle, and her name is Ashley Graham. Dodging zombie suits of armor as the helpless teenage twat...not fun. But that doesn’t make me love the opulent, tongue-in-cheek killfest of Castle Salazar any less.

The Forbidden Land (Shadow of the Colossus, PS2)
This is the one entry on my list that encompasses the entire game, and it totally deserves to be here for the sheer hours I’ve spent in it. Shadow of the Colossus takes place wholly in the Forbidden Land, a desolate peninsula long abandoned by humankind and accessible only by a miles-long bridge leading to a massive temple. You must explore this haunted place, its ruined cities and deep canyons, its forest glades, caves, deserts, and cliffs, to find and defeat the sixteen colossi. I’m always amazed by how serene the world is. No people, nothing to fight or kill other than the colossi, just the howl of the wind and the cry of distant birds. The graphics are so-so with a lot of unfortunate bloom effects, but that doesn’t really distract from the incredible ambiance. There are many locations in the Forbidden Land that have no real purpose beyond being a quiet little secret spot for you to find. It’s not for the impatient gamer, but for people like me who value atmosphere, it’s a video game world that’s a dreamy delight to get lost in.

Gruntilda’s Lair (Banjo-Kazooie, N64)
Ahhh, the overworld -- the hub from which every other area of the game is gradually unlocked. All the older 3D platform games had one, and my favorite is a labyrinthine cave complex owned by an evil witch with insecurity issues. Many overworlds simply exist for the sake of convenience, but Gruntilda’s Lair had real personality and was just as challenging to explore as the levels themselves. It was huge, for one thing, and filled with hidden nooks and crannies. To access a level, you had to find both the level entrance and the magic jigsaw puzzle that unlocked it, and there was plenty more to discover as well. I found it genuinely rewarding to uncover more and more of the place, and since Gruntilda the witch was so vain, her lair was filled with various images of herself, leering at you from all sides and never letting you forget who you were up against. In terms of creative world-building, this may have been Rare’s shining moment before they betrayed Nintendo and turned to shit. Sigh.

Kingdom of Zeal (Chrono Trigger, SNES)
It comes out of nowhere. Well into the time-hopping adventure of Chrono Trigger, you’ve already visited a medieval kingdom, a postapocalyptic wasteland, and a prehistoric paradise. You assume you’ve seen it all. Then the game suddenly plunks you down twelve thousand years in the past, during an ice age when the human race had divided into two societies: a highly advanced, arrogant group of scholars who lived on islands in the sky, and a ragged tribe of wretches clinging to life on the snowy planet’s surface. H.G. Wells would so approve! The contrast between icebound desolation and vibrant, golden sky-islands was visually striking and utilized the color palette of the SNES to the max. It was about as beautiful as video game graphics could get for its time, and the addition of this unexpected chapter to the complex Chrono Trigger plot made everything far more fascinating. What could be more tragic than a Utopian society that doesn’t know they’re doomed to be erased from history? Not much, which is why playing through Zeal made me realize that I was immersed in one of the all-time best games of a generation.

Prague (Sly 2: Band of Thieves, PS2)
Welcome to Prague! It’s snowing, the electric tram is running smoothly, and the mace-wielding wolves are out in full force! Oh, and you’re a turtle. I don’t know much about the real Prague, but the stylized cityscape of out-of-control Gothic architecture into which Sly 2 throws you is so cool that I’m tempted to visit just to tell them what they should be doing. The retro, cell-shaded visuals of the Sly Cooper franchise were never put to better use (in my opinion) than during this sequence, wherein Bentley the turtle must free his friends from a vile prison run by a giant spider. Yeah, playing as Bentley was a drag, but soon enough Sly escaped the prison and the turrets, gables, and spires of Prague became an acrobatic thief’s personal playground. It was drenched in atmosphere, it was challenging, and it poked fun at stereotypical Gothic imagery while also embracing it with love and devotion. Ever wanted to explore a game area for hours just for fun? I loved Prague way too much.

Spire (Myst 4: Revelation, PC/Mac)
How come the Myst franchise gets two entries? Because, that’s why. The fourth game was the last hurrah of pre-rendered gorgeousness (FUCK you again, Myst 5), and the world of Spire alone was worth the price. Imagine if you took a vast cathedral, broke it into chunks, and fused it with a crystalline asteroid orbiting a green sun. Austere, bleak, and beautiful, Spire was intended as a prison, but its sole inhabitant turned the entire world into one huge physics experiment, utilizing its gravity-defying properties to construct an escape plan that makes Prison Break look lame. This resulted in some of the most difficult puzzles in the entire Myst series, but their deviousness made it all the more satisfying when you unlocked Spire’s secrets and gained control of its power yourself. I can think of few video game worlds that I found more unique or visually striking; Spire truly warrants the adjective “phantasmagoric.” Look it up. And then look up Myst 4 (if it even still exists) and lose yourself in the elegant, greenlit abyss of Spire.

Toluca Lake Prison (Silent Hill 2, PS2)
Welcome to hell! If you were expecting fire and brimstone, you’re mistaken; this is a more subtle hell, one which creeps up on you, twisting your idea of reality until you make the leap into gibbering madness. And that’s exactly what Silent Hill 2 does to the poor player, thanks in large part to the Toluca Lake Prison, a dismal, rotting, underground gaol that defies all logic and plunges our hero, James Sunderland, straight into his darkest fears. Why is it so scary? Because the game forces you to journey deeper....and deeper....and deeper....down stairways and elevators and black pits....until you feel you must be in the bowels of the earth. Below the decayed prison is a sinister, half-flooded labyrinth where Pyramid Head lurks. Below that, even more foul holes and catacombs, not to mention murder. The whole world seems to be crumbling around you. Daylight and warmth are but a dream. You are fully submerged in a nightmare, unable to look away. It is the most emotionally draining video game experience I’ve ever had, and whenever I replay SH2, I dread the prison area. But I look forward to it as well, because behind the sheer horror is the type of immersion that very few games can achieve. If there is a hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s like Toluca Lake Prison: quiet, foul, joyless, and so, so lonely.


Looking Glass Land (American McGee’s Alice, PC/Mac)
If only my list went to eleven, I could include a trippy dreamscape from this dark take on Alice in Wonderland. But then the Nostalgia Critic would come beat me up for stealing his gimmick. As it is, I did enjoy Looking Glass Land, with its monochromatic chess kingdoms and warped, mirror-filled insane asylum, quite a bit.
The Milkman Conspiracy (Psychonauts, PS2/Xbox)
Every level in Psychonauts rocks. But I couldn’t justify including two levels from one game, and the luminous beauty of Black Velvetopia won out over the twisted, hilarious, paranoid suburbia depicted in The Milkman Conspiracy. It’s a close second.
Various Areas from Final Fantasy XII (PS2)
I dug a number of the environments from FFXII. Say what you will about the MMORPG-style gameplay, but the folks at Square-Enix still know how to create vivid fantasy landscapes. I don’t think I could pick just one, is the problem. Plus, any area gets boring after you have to spend hours grinding in it -- one of the many reasons I despise MMORPGs. Ultimately, I must praise the FFXII world as a whole, rather than drawing attention to a single locale.
Shiver Star (Kirby 64, N64)
My favorite world in Kirby’s one adventure on the Nintendo 64 was icy-cool, had great music, and featured an evil shopping mall as a level. Few things are more amusing than Kirby in a shopping mall. But is “amusing” good enough? Again, maybe if my list were longer.
Riven (PC/Mac)
Riven is my favorite Myst game and one of my favorite video games ever. So why’d I give slots on this list to two other Myst games? Because Riven’s strengths were its complex and brilliant puzzles, its compelling story, and the way in which the game worked as a whole. Myst 3 and 4 are more episodic with weaker plots, but I don’t find the actual world of Riven to be as beautiful or unique as Amateria or Spire. Its true merit lies elsewhere.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


Boredom and have driven me to do this. In the name of shits and giggles, I’m going to enter ten ordinary, innocuous words or phrases into Google Image Search. Each time, I will scroll through the first few pages of results and pick the creepiest and/or most random picture I find. Because this is a review blog, I promise to include some pop culture in this amusing exercise. Also, although I search with all content filters turned off, I promise not to post anything gory, pornographic, or so disturbing that it’s not funny any more.

Let’s see what weirdness lurks on the internet...

Search #1: “Lemon Drop”

Why? Because lemon drops are among the most boring candy out there. I mean, seriously. They’re tasty and everything if you like lemon, but they’re also so predictable. Lemon drops are old lady candy. They’re what sits in a crystal dish on your grandma’s coffee table, slowly collecting dust. If you tried picking one up, you’d find them fused into a single wad. How could lemon drops ever be creepy?

The Result:

Well, that’s horrifying. It appears to be a 1951 comedy starring Bob Hope, but it looks more like how Psycho would look if Norman Bates and his mom were both played by Richard Simmons. And instead of murdering lovely women, he gives them enemas while old men look on in disapproval. His victims can be seen on the right, assuming the humiliating position.

I looked up the plot summary of this movie: Bob Hope plays a two-bit criminal named the Lemon Drop Kid who gets involved in wacky hijinks. There is apparently one scene where he dresses in drag as an old lady. One scene. Talk about blowing something out of proportion. Literally, in this case.

Search #2: “Postage Stamp”

Why? Because postage stamps surely can’t be scary, can they? I mean, yeah, any image can potentially appear on a stamp, but keep in mind that a letter bearing a stamp could be sent to anyone, including toddlers, the elderly, Mormons, etc. Stamps have to be G-rated. People would complain if they got birthday greetings from Aunt Mafalda and saw, say, Carrie White gaping bloodily up at them from the envelope. Nope, stamps are easy on the eyes...

The Result:

Leave it to the Russians.

Next time you have to mail thank-yous to your relatives for sending you argyle socks and books about knitting for Christmas, enact subtle revenge with this handy stamp. Won’t they chortle to see a maddened, psychotic pirate with a Salvador Dali mustache, clearly in the late stages of scurvy, about to murder two bound captives by the Pyramids of Giza, which are being engulfed in a tidal wave of blood! I found this on Wikipedia; apparently this pleasant gentleman is “bloodthirsty Barmalei,” a character created by Korney Chukovsky, who is one of the most famous Russian children’s poets. With Russian kids being raised on stuff like this, It’s no wonder they ride armored bears and shit.

Search #3: “Gullah Gullah Island”

Why? ’Cause I want to ruin my childhood. I vaguely remember watching this show on Nickelodeon as a kid. This was during the political correctness blitzkrieg of the 1990s when everything marketed for kids had to teach moral lessons and educate us about other cultures. (The Gullah are a subculture of Southern black Americans known for their rich African traditions, in case you weren’t aware, you ignorant WASP.) From what little I recall, the show was all about songs, dancing, and learning good manners.

The Result:

BEHIND YOU! Stop singing about the joy of sharing and LOOK BEHIND YOU!! IT’S GETTING CLOSER!!!

Wow, I’d totally forgotten that Gullah Gullah Island included a costumed mascot named Binyah Binyah Pollywog. If you see see Binyah Binyah, nightmares nightmares follow follow. Now, this little guy wasn’t as scary as some costumed kids’ characters, but still. You’d be enjoying a perfectly ordinary episode with a group of friendly Gullah folks, and suddenly BBP would come lurching into the frame, and you’d wonder what traditional African medicinal plants they’d been smoking. Also, the fact that BBP is so small (by costumed mascot standards) makes him creepier. You can’t trust little guys. They’re sneaky. I went with this picture because that poor lady seems unaware that the stunted yellow frog-thing is behind her, leering at her butt.

Search #4: “Flush”

Why? Well, “flush” can mean the flush of a toilet, or a flush in a card game, or to “flush out” from hiding. Lot of meanings. Plenty of potential for weirdness. Still, there are worse verbs I could have gone with.

The Result:

This is creepy because of its persistence alone. When I Googled “flush,” variations on this device appeared over...and over...and over. It is exactly what it looks like: a toilet that contains an aquarium. Because pooping is more fun when a bunch of guppies are ogling your backne and tramp stamp with their big, unforgiving guppy eyes. Fish voyeurism aside, the hygienic issues of this are appalling. I mean, presumably the aquarium part doesn’t connect to the toilet part, but all you have to do is accidentally hook up some tubes the wrong way, and suddenly your fish are discovering what fish hell is like (it’s like a game of Asteroids where you have no weapon and the asteroids are turds and you’re a fucking fish). Finally, this is the piscine equivalent of the house in Poltergeist that was built atop a graveyard. Sweet dreams, fish!

Search #5: “Dakota Fanning”

Why? Believe it or not, I’m not trying to dig up creepy pedophile photos. That would be too easy. I wanted to do a search on a celebrity name and Dakota Fanning popped into my head for some reason. Can a pretty blonde child actress creep me out? Maybe; after all, Shirley Temple was pretty eerie without even trying. Frighten me, Ms. Fanning!

The Result:

Having a wall of Dakota Fannings smiling at you gets a tad unsettling after a couple minutes, but most of the pics just show her looking happy, maybe wearing a pretty dress or posing on the red carpet. And then there’s this.

“She’s cute and should we do her photoshoot? I know, let’s make her look like post-fatal-overdose Marilyn Monroe and give her the creepiest old doll we can dig out of the Hammer Horror Studio’s prop warehouse! Also, mustaches!”

These pics tell a little story, don’t they? She starts out looking cute enough, despite that horrifying fucking doll. Then suddenly she gets weirdly quiet...just sitting there in her underwear, regarding you like she’s guessed how you’ll die someday. And then those doll’s eyes lock onto you like malevolent lasers and Dakota opens her mouth, and what comes out isn’t her voice any more.....

PS: Nice use of the Blade Runner font. This must be what Pris looked like before she grew up to be Daryl Hannah!

Search #6: “Play-Doh”

Why? Because, given enough time and enough Play-Doh, a roomful of monkeys could build a scale model of Saint Basil’s Cathedral. Or something; I dunno. My point is that I’m interested to see if Play-Doh was ever used to build anything creepy. Google?

The Result:

Boom! Creepy-ass advertising! Have you noticed how many ads feature tiny objects flying out of people’s sliced-open heads? We’ve almost become desensitized...until they go and do it to pallid little Aryan children. Little Aryan children with the knowing faces of the elderly.

This might have worked if they hadn’t gone with the ever-popular Village of the Damned aesthetic. As it is, little kids may look at this and become convinced that one’s innards are a bunch of brightly colored rainbows and animals and cookies and whatnot, and if you’re not careful, it’ll all fly out through your skull and you’ll become a walking dough-faced corpse. Better stock up on innards by eating as much Play-Doh as you can, kids!

Search #7: “Goo Goo Gah Gah”

Why? I’m continuing on the theme of small children, and now going even smaller. This is archetypal baby talk, the accepted onomatopoeia for what those little womb-gnomes sound like before they learn how to talk like Mommy and Daddy. It’s really cute; therefore it can totally be twisted around into creepy land.

The Result:

Here we see the Care Bear Hive Queen, surrounded by her newborn offspring. If you look closely, you can spot the Hive Queen’s latest meal vanishing down her craw, its pleading eyes reflecting the horror of still being conscious while your lower body turns to sludge in the corrosive acid of an unholy gullet.

“That’s not creepy!” you will say. “That’s cute!” And you’re absolutely right, it’s cute...on the surface. But look deeper. Experience suggests that when you’re a baby, one toy is much like another. This baby would have been just as happy playing with a bunch of empty Kleenex boxes. It was the parents who decided that their baby had to have every single Care Bear plus a big bloated Care Bear costume with great white shark eyes. That says to me that this baby’s parents have issues. I’m sure they’re already looking for a back-alley tattooist who’ll imprint a little rainbow on a four-month-old’s abdomen.

Search #8: “Guinea Pig”

Why? ’Cause I want to include an animal, and guinea pigs are about the most hapless creature I can think of. We experiment on guinea pigs. In some places, we eat them. Even when kept as beloved pets, they just sit there quivering and pooping. Of all the pets I’ve tried having, they were the lamest and (accordingly) the least long-term. I cannot picture a scary guinea pig. Can you? Don’t answer that question.

The Result:

Oh, come on! Seriously, what the fuck. There is no reason ANY WOMAN would want to stick this in their hair. Is there? Don’t answer that question.

I mean, I suppose you could make something pretty out of guinea pig fur, but only if you leave off any recognizable limbs or gnashing mandibles. This is freaking Resident Evil shit. This is the moment when the boss splits in half and the second stage of the boss battle begins, the part where it can climb around on walls and spit acid. And you’re all out of green herbs.

PS: Judging by its expression and pose, do you think the poor little bastard was still alive when they turned half of it into a comb? DON’T ANSWER THAT QUESTION.

Search #9: “Montana”

Why? Because Montana’s one of those states I know jack-all about. Dude, I’m from New England; anyplace west of the Mississippi and east of LA barely registers. Montana is, um...big....and has hills and air and stuff. Right? Time to educate myself, I guess.

The Result:

Wow, this search netted more pics of Hannah Montana than of the actual state. That’s depressing. Pretty lame pickings overall: just that Cyrus whore and some lovely vistas. But I did find this picture of a creepy plant!

I guess it’s one of those bug-eating plants, but with its dense tangle of bloodstained gooey tendrils, it could totally be an H.P. Lovecraft monstrosity at which you go insane just by looking. For full effect, imagine a screaming little man in a pith helmet at the bottom of the image. Now I can go to Montana and ask, “So, where do I find the flesh-melting crimson madnessflowers?”

Search #10: “Shrivel Egg Pie”

Why? Because it’s three random words that don’t make much sense when combined. I want to see if Google can give me anything at all from these three words in that particular order. Maybe shrivel egg pie is a delicacy in some parts of the world! I can’t wait to find out!

The Result:

Dear viewer, I proudly present a cabbage carved to resemble a skull. Why? I don’t have a fucking clue, and it’s wonderful. This comes from a blog apparently devoted to things shaped like skulls (Link). Not only that, but you can view multiple images of this horror as it slowly wilts and decomposes, its gaping eyeholes peering deeper and deeper into the part of your soul where the dark putrid secrets lie waiting. Fear the gaze. And give thanks for the internet, a place where I can type the words “shrivel egg pie” into a search engine and discover a blog for people who love surrounding themselves with subliminal reminders of their mortality. And nightmare fuel.

Speaking of which, it’s late and I should get to bed. And not sleep, ever. Thanks, Creepysearch!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Fall

Tarsem Singh’s The Fall is a movie made by an ego, the ego of a man who knows exactly what movie he wants to make, is willing to pay for it out of his own pocket, and isn’t all that concerned with what people think of it. It is absolutely and completely a vanity project. You may hear it billed as a “period piece” or a “fantasy film” but it doesn’t really have a genre beyond...well, maybe “Tarsem film” should count as a genre. There certainly aren’t any films quite like the few made by Tarsem Singh, for better or for worse. If you can set aside your preconceptions of what a film should be about, if you can ignore everything that conventional films have infused in your mind, perhaps you can enjoy The Fall, or at least appreciate its artistry. For me, well, it was a rare film that I was happy to be irritated by.

If you know Tarsem Singh, it’s likely from Nike and Coke ads or music videos (he made the vid for “Losing My Religion”). Otherwise, perhaps you’ve seen 2000’s The Cell, a thriller in which Jennifer Lopez ventured into the brain of a serial killer. The Cell was trashed by most critics, partly because the plot blatantly copies Silence of the Lambs and partly because there’s a list somewhere of actors who must be ridiculed, and Jennifer Lopez is on it. But the backlash had a backlash; The Cell has plenty of fans (myself included) who appreciate it for its amazing special effects, which beautifully evoke the dreamlike realm inside a mind. It teased us with sumptuous images, and now we have The Fall, which takes the dream to a new, deeper level (cue the musical chord from Inception: BWWWWAAMMMMPPH.) This is a film that combines fable and myth, tall tales and silent filmmaking and the context of World War I; it’s a story about stories and those who make them. Anyone can tell a story, with words or their voice or just their imagination. The Fall is about that, and, just as importantly, about the reasons why we tell stories in the first place.

There are two storytellers portrayed in the film. One, played by Lee Pace, is a silent movie stuntman named Roy. The other, played by Catinca Untaru, is a six-year-old Romanian immigrant named Alexandria. Both are in a hospital in 1920s Los Angeles. Both were injured by falling, for very different reasons. Alexandria is friendly, chipper, and curious, wandering the hospital with her arm in an awkward cast. Roy has a charm and easygoing nature that masks deep and bitter wounds; he wants to kill himself with a drug overdose, and enlists the little girl as an unwitting accomplice. To ensure her cooperation, be begins to tell her a story -- a story about a deadly bandit (played significantly by Pace again), an Indian, an escaped slave, an Italian explosives expert, an aboriginal mystic, and Charles Darwin, all of whom unite to conquer an vile ruler named Governor Odious. There’s also a princess in distress who looks an awful lot like Roy’s unfaithful girlfriend. Roy weaves the story from threads of his own bitterness, but Alexandria is not the type to get bogged down by angst, and so the story, as we see it, also receives input from her own, innocent mind. Roy in his anger doesn’t stand a chance against cute little Alexandria and her clear vision.

As Roy talespins and both of them envision, we see the heroes of the tale pass through amazing, surreal landscapes, buildings, and dream-spaces. During filming, Tarsem took his production all over the world, looking for real locations that invoke the logic of the subconscious. He also claims that this film was made with no computer-assisted special effects at all. Instead, he turns back time and uses the classic special effects of the early days of cinema, and by God, they still work. The Fall is best when it’s simply lingering on its images. We see the wild-eyed mystic crawl from a burning tree, and later, a map magically appears on his body like a tattoo. We watch as the adventurers descend into a barren, rocky crevasse that unfolds like a magic puzzlebox into a lush, fertile Eden. There is an incredible shot in which a close-up of a man’s face dissolves into an identical landscape in which distant figures and mountains recreate his features. When a corpse is wrapped in a vast hanging shroud, its blood slowly and impossibly stains the entire cloth. These sequences move with a sedate pace, accompanied by echoing orchestral music. Even the action scenes crawl along, taking their sweet time as the heroes do battle with Odious’s guards, whose hideous black armor is inspired by a leather-clad X-ray technician glimpsed by Alexandria in the hospital. This is the work of someone who loves the very act of filmmaking and is not content to compromise his visions as per the demands of some Hollywood studio that can’t see beyond box office gross.

In other words, this is not an easy film to watch and it’s a perfectly easy film to hate. I’m not so pretentious that I’m going to arrogantly dismiss criticism of The Fall for being “lowbrow” or missing the point. The only real point is that Tarsem made a movie that will appeal to a small audience and will likely turn off the majority of the moviegoing public. And that’s okay. I freely admit that I got annoyed by the film’s molasses-like pacing and arch tone after awhile. The storytelling sequences ultimately grow dreary and repetitive. What remains alive is the relationship between the two storytellers and the vitality of their characters. Roy doesn’t think he wants to live, but his self-pity can’t hide his goodness, and Lee Pace plays him as an easily likable man who we’re eager to slap some sense into. Little Catinca Untaru doesn’t “act” in the traditional sense but plays exactly what she is in real life: a smart, no-nonsense little girl who doesn’t know much English but is ready to learn. It’s charming and utterly believable when she gets tangled up in her own sentences; I’ll take her heavily-accented mumbling over any blue-eyed, pearly-toothed child star delivering snappy dialogue like a pro. Both of them convince us that they’re real people, which proves the perfect antidote to the heavily stylized majesty of Roy’s story. By the end, both of them are engaged in a battle of imagination and will, and we pray that the story will end the way Alexandria wants it to, because someone needs to pull Roy out of his funk, dammit!

So, there we have it. The Fall is a vain movie, a highbrow movie, often a tiresome movie. But Tarsem wanted to make it his own way, and he did. It refuses to compromise or pander, it avoids cliché, and the ending sidesteps “they lived happily ever after” in favor of, simply... “they lived.” If you can make it to the end, the closing scenes are well worth it, bringing the movie’s themes together beautifully. Even if you can’t bear the thought of seeing The Fall more than once, do see it that once, just so you can see the work of a true maker of movies. Not a director, a maker of movies. Like Terence Malick or Quentin Tarantino or Stanley Kubrick, Tarsem Singh wants you to check your expectations at the ticket booth and just sit there and look. Look at what it’s possible to put on film. Look at how a story can be told to those for whom stories still matter.