Saturday 3 September 2022

High anxiety: "Fall"

It can now only be a matter of weeks before James Cameron, in the service of promoting the upcoming
Avatar 2 (and more precisely in the service of the box-office for the monumentally expensive Avatar 2), begins once more to make the case for the primacy of 3D to the cinema experience. (If only because it will add at least the illusion of depth to an American cinema that generally appears incapable of real depth.) The new B-movie Fall is by no means in the Cameron league, and it's going for something slightly different anyway - it's going for height, stranding two over-confident adrenalin junkies at the very top of a 2,000-ft TV mast - but it amply demonstrates that it's still possible to render effects, spectacle, thrills and spills on a fraction of the budget, and with no more dimensions than two to play with. Like most successful/functional multiplex options of the past few years, Scott Mann's film is a throwback to former glories, reminding this viewer of the Renny Harlin-directed Sly Stallone vehicle Cliffhanger, an artefact from a time when such projects were routinely framed as major movie events rather than mere screenfiller. Once again, we get the establishing trauma (a husband plummeting to his death from a cliff face), the long climb back to something like standard practice, and then the jawdropping destabilising incident, in this case the sudden and unanticipated withdrawal of the ladder that got our heroines up the tower in the first place. Thereafter, they - and we - are invited to sit steady, strap in, hold on, and look down only when they (and we) can bear to.

If his film represents a largely mechanical exercise, Mann at least shows a keen interest in the mechanics. You spot as much early on, from the wicked cutaway as the girls - grief-stricken widow Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) and perky pocket rocket Hunter (Virginia Gardner) - first set foot on the rusting ladder, revealing the overburdened guy rope holding some part of the tower in place; then again from the knowing close-ups of nuts and bolts that don't seem as secure as we might all want them to be. (Worse is promised when they eventually slip loose, plummeting to the ground at a lethal rate of knots.) We might only be reassured if the girls' highwire act were flagrant fakery - if it carried an air of blue or green screen, if the long drop beneath them had been visibly patched in during postproduction. One or two overhead shots betray the odd stray pixel here and there, certainly - and we're aware that a movie with this limited a budget would be unlikely to afford the insurance premiums attached to shooting two actresses in actual mid-air. Yet it's also clear that some substantial part of Fall was shot by sending a camera and a hardy cameraman - likely the cinematographer billed only as MacGregor, casting first name to the wind - up a tall, exposed structure, the better to take an altogether too leisurely look around. When the worst happens - and the ladder shears away with a colossal crash and bang, leaving the girls stranded on a manhole-sized observation platform with night and vultures coming in - the film becomes a very different, arguably more interesting proposition. First it switches into problem-solving mode along 127 Hours lines (the durability of these cellphone batteries may be a sticking point for some), then into relationship drama, as something comes out at a moment you probably wouldn't want your best-kept secret to come out in. It is, like, totally awks for a bit, and then the full gravity of this situation kicks in, forcing a renewed commitment to getting back down alive.

With my climbers' hat on - hard hat, naturally, with integral chinstrap - I feel obliged to note that neither Currey nor Gardner quite possesses the upper-body musculature to entirely persuade in the scenes of perilously heavy lifting; indeed, the latter's most prominent physical attribute is her Wonderbra-assisted cleavage, a choice Hunter makes for optimum selfie likes and Mann approves for a few extra B-movie points. (It's an extension of that old-and-dubious Steve Martin gag about putting women on pedestals making it easier to see up their skirts; this camera recognises it also makes it far easier to look down ladies' tops from certain angles. It is a Mann film, after all.) Yet these actresses convince both in their individual dishevelment and the ebbs and flows of their friendship. If there's a major flaw, it's that for a film about two people stuck at the top of a telecommunications tower in the middle of nowhere, it feels narratively overstuffed: consider the final act, which takes a (wrong) turn in the direction of the Shyamalanian before getting back on course with a brilliant-daft moment of catharsis involving one of those vultures. Something starker and more existential might have been more memorable, ultimately, but then you could equally argue these wild and wayward deviations are what we want from our B-movies, being the cinema's own imps of the perverse. For this viewer, the real pleasure of Fall lay in witnessing a multiplex option with this (pardon the inevitable pun) heightened level of spatial clarity. Mann draws one long, thin vertical line down the centre of the screen, gawps up at it from below, peers down at certain death from above, and then whispers get a load of that in our increasingly unbalanced ear. Why overcomplicate it so, Jimmy C?

Fall is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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