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No. 30: “The Fall” (2006)

“There’s no happy ending with me,” stuntman Roy Walker (Lee Pace) tells Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), the inquisitive little girl who sneaks into his hospital room. Truer and more heartbreaking words were never spoken. Wasted by heartbreak and paralyzed by a stunt gone wrong, Roy is sticking around just long enough to commit suicide. Young Alexandria, hospitalized with a broken arm, looks like a suitably gullible accomplice. But then Roy starts to weave an epic tale of vengeance, love and honor, and his own story shifts in ways he did not see coming. The telling changes him, and Alexandria, too.

Such is the beauty of Tarsem Singh’s poetic, wrenching and visually striking “The Fall,” a film that marries unforced yet dynamic performances (Pace and Untaru are splendidly matched) with bold characters and vibrant landscapes. This is a story within a story, and the players in both act in ways we do not anticipate. To create one such story, where the characters surprise and touch us, is quite an accomplishment; to create two in one movie, impossible, yet somehow Singh has done it. By the end, “The Fall” struck me speechless.

Still, a film like “The Fall” deserves a lot of words, so this dumbstruck routine cannot hold. The central story involves the unlikely friendship between Roy and Alexandria. Roy, paralyzed on set by a foolish stunt he cooked up to impress the girlfriend he lost anyway to the movie’s star, has no desire to live. But he finds Alexandria an amusing distraction. So Roy creates a story for her about five heroes — Luigi (Robin Smith), an explosives expert; an unnamed Indian (Jeetu Verma); Otta Benga (Marcus Wesley), an ex-slave; Charles Darwin (Leo Bill); and the masked Blue Bandit (Pace) — all out to kill corrupt Governor Odious (Daniel Caltagirone). The story weaves in and out of Roy and Alexandria’s reality, set in a hospital in 1920s-era Los Angeles.

Later, there is a line that suggests Roy’s intentions aren’t totally pure: “You always stop at the same part, when it is very beautiful,” Alexandria tells him. He has a sneaky reason for this: He holds the full story hostage to convince her to do something he can’t do for himself. But it’s more complex than that. Pace’s eyes here suggest Roy has other reasons. Maybe this broken man wants to remember things that way, when the edges were softer and the emotions kinder. Or perhaps he wants to leave Alexandria with memories of vigor and beauty, not the pain and rage he can’t shake. There is not one single motive, but many, and they all get tangled up in Roy’s larger-than-life tale.

There’s no doubt that the heroic story, with its villains and roiling, chaotic emotions, demands much of the viewer’s attention. Visually, the Blue Bandit’s pursuit of Governor Odious looks awesome, with its electrifying colors, innovative costumes and double casting. A few glorious fight scenes in (note the Bandit/Odious showdown), it’s clear that Tarsem Singh is the kind of visionary Guillermo del Toro should envy. “The Fall” feels every bit like the cinematic equivalent of a Dali painting, with eye-popping colors and images. In fact, the look of the Blue Bandit’s quest seems, at times, enough to overpower the story of Roy and Alexandria.

The reason the visuals don’t win out? Untaru and Pace, who make a strange but electrifying pair. The Romania-born Untaru doesn’t speak much English, but she hardly needs to — she has a natural curiosity that feel completely authentic. She’s innocent, but we get the sense that she might understand the story Roy creates has more to do with his real life than he’ll admit. Her plea for Roy to make her a part of that story, and then to give her some control over its outcome, is devastating. And what of Pace, who’s been creating an impressive resume? Wow. Just … wow. His layered performance as Roy is blistering, with its mix of resignation and increasingly unchecked wrath. He’ll shred your heart, tear it right out and then sneak it back in a little bigger and stronger for the wear. With Pace at the heart and Singh at the helm, “The Fall” is just that kind of powerful moviegoing experience.

Ones to watch: 10 stars on the rise

If there’s one thing I love, it’s “Golden Girls” reruns. If there’s one thing I love more than that, it has to be seeing actors with enormous talent bust right through the showbiz ceiling. Because, quite frankly, it’s the quiet talents, the lesser-known actors, who often prove to be the most interesting.

And so I present you with a list of actors and actresses primed to hit, as Postal Service would say, such great heights:

  1. Sarah Burns — If her perfectly timed performance as the love-obsessed Hailey in “I Love You, Man” is any indication, there’s no stopping this comedienne. Get some more films on that resume, Sarah, and give the people what they want. 
  2. Jack Carpenter — Remember the day Jack bowled you over with his gawky charm in “I Love You, Beth Cooper” because a few years down the road, he’ll be the next Jay Baruchel, only more accessible, less quirky. Count on it.
  3. Jemaine Clement/Bret McKenzie — HBO, in its infinite wisdom, saw fit to give “The Flight of the Conchords” to the world, and we fell hard for the saltine-dry comedic stylings of Jemaine and Bret. Take that to the big screen, boys.
  4. Brandon T. Jackson — As Booty Sweat-swigging Alpa Chino in “Tropic Thunder,” Jackson held his own against Robert Downey Jr. — no mean feat. It’s clear he’s got talent to burn, so smarten up, directors, and give him the match.
  5. Lee Pace — Pace is destined to be remembered as “that weird piemaker guy” from “Pushing Daisies.” But heads up, Hollywood: This Oklahoma-born talent has dramatic chops perfect for meaty leading parts like Calpernia in “Soldier’s Girl.”
  6. Aubrey Plaza — Aubrey steals whole scenes from Amy Poehler in “Parks and Recreation.” Then she steals Seth Rogen’s heart in “Funny People.” And she’s got a ball-busting indie hipness as cool as her bangs. What more could you ask?
  7. Kristen Schaal — This funny lady is hardly new to showbiz — she’s popped up in movies like “Adam & Steve” for years. But if it took her hilariously weird turn as Conchords stalker Melanie on “Flight of the Conchords” to make her a household name? OK, then. 
  8. Paul Schneider — Schneider might be the most underappreciated actor of his generation. He balances subtle comedy (“Lars and the Real Girl”) and drama (“All the Real Girls”) like a champ, and now he’s giving prime-time TV a whirl. Let’s hope he’s on the cusp of something big. He deserves it.
  9. Amanda Seyfried — My but the brick-brain girl from “Mean Girls” has come a long way. She made dumb look funny, then won us over as Lilly Kane in “Veronica Mars” and a conflicted bride-to-be in “Mamma Mia!” Methinks becoming part of Diablo Cody’s “It” list (re: “Jennifer’s Body”) will take her even farther.
  10. Charlene Yi — She played a perpetually stoned Yoko to Martin Starr’s Lennon in “Knocked Up,” and now she’s co-written what looks to be the sleeper indie rom-com hit of summer ’09, “Paper Heart.” We haven’t scratched the surface of what this girl can do.

Everybody knows how this works (you’ve been here, you’ve bought the T-shirt, you spat your gum out behind that tree root): What other actors/actresses do you see poised to do great things?