This independent film was originally released in May 2008 in select theaters and then on DVD in September, but, for all intents and purposes, the movie might as well have been released on Mars.
Besides a few Internet ads when the DVD was put out, I saw no advertising for this thing. It's also a shame that it went unrecognized for award season. If it were up to me, I would throw every trophy possible at this film, most especially a myriad of technical ones.
When it comes to makeup, costumes, art design, cinematography and editing, this film scores a perfect 100. I don't even think that beautiful even begins to describe the gorgeous glory on screen here.
Presented by David Fincher and Spike Jonze, the film opens with a three-minute sequence in black-and-white, depicting the aftermath of an accident during the making of a Western.
From the sound and the sights that Indian filmmaker Tarsem Singh produces, you know you're in for a cinematic treat. He describes it as being American, looking busy doing nothing, chaos but no energy. Tarsem then thrusts us into stunningly warm colors, welcoming the audience to Los Angeles, once upon a time. Actually, it's World War I-era, southern California.
We are introduced to Alexandria, an adorable little girl with ponytails, her left arm in a cast and a large gap in between her front teeth. She's played by Catinca Utaru who Tarsem describes as "magical." Never trained in acting, she was completely natural. Alexandria has taken residence at a hospital, run by very strict nuns. In order to break from her boredom, Alexandria visits Roy, a stuntman injured in the opening scene whose injuries may be worse than they seem.
Roy decides to pass the time by telling Alexandria a story about her namesake. Roy develops ulterior motives while entertaining this young girl. As Roy tells the story, it comes to life, growing into an epic tale, so the visuals we see are sweeping and equally epic.
According to the DVD's audio commentary, to get those epic visuals, Tarsem shot on various, real locations all around the world. He went to South Africa to do the opener. He went to Fiji's Butterfly Island. He filmed one scene in Prague. He stole scenes near China's border, and he picked up many places in India.
Tarsem started out as a music video director. Creative, expansive cinematography is something inherent in him. It showed in his previous feature The Cell (2000), starring Jennifer Lopez. Here, he again embraces a narrative involving a girl entering a fantastical realm.
Only this one is based in a little bit more reality, and is not as scary. It's certainly more family-friendly. Despite being R-rated, a rating this film doesn't deserve, it's in fact an excellent children's story that I would rank up there with such classics as The Wizard of Oz (1939).
It's serious while alternately silly. It's wondrous while alternately heart-breaking. I think what most impressed me was how much this film reminded me of what it was like to be a kid again.
It reminded me of when mom or dad at bedtime read a book to me and had me so captivated that I hung on their every word. Not only is that what happens to little Alexandria but that's also what happened to me, as I sat and watched. This film made me feel like that captivated kid, that child caught in the purity of imagination and love.
I added this movie to my top ten list of 2008, only slightly below The Dark Knight. This one may not be as dark or as complex as that crime thriller involving the caped crusader, but it does have its own mysterious masked vigilante who like Batman does fight for justice, or perhaps revenge.
Lee Pace (Soldier's Girl and Infamous) stars as Roy. From his hospital bed, he tells Alexandria a tale of the so-called Masked Bandit. The Masked Bandit, also played by Lee Pace, teams up with a former Slave, Charles Darwin, an Italian explosives expert named Luigi, and an Anxious Indian. All of these characters have a grudge against the evil Governor Odious who has done each of them wrong in some way.
From deserts, green pastures, reefs, castles, and Mosques, these five distinct and colorful characters set out to find Odious and stop him. Not since the documentary Baraka (1992) or the Emmy-winning, TV series Planet Earth has natural vistas been so amazingly photographed.
Inspired by the Bulgarian film Yo Ho Ho (1981), Tarsem fills his frames with such naturalistic things. There are several shots of horses that are nothing short of majestic. There's also a spectacular scene involving an elephant that is uncanny, which Tarsem first tested back in the 1990s. Having fallen in love with Muslim and Persian architecture in the 80s, Tarsem peppers his picture with all kinds of lines and designs of Indian and Middle Eastern structures.
There's prettiness to this picture, a grandeur that harkens back to the old days of Hollywood. Tarsem has an extensive knowledge of film history. He even tells stories from Old Hollywood that inspired this one. There's an ode in montage-form to that time that moved me to tears. It's proof positive of Tarsem's love of film. It underlies the love story depicted. It's an unlikely love, one that's innocent and tender, and strong because it's a child's love.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated R for some violent images
Running Time: 1 hr. and 57 mins.