Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger has his ups and downs too—but the film version would consist mostly of mouse clicks, meetings, and lots of commuting.
A comedy that makes you cry. A drama that makes you laugh.
After watching so many of them, I've become suspicious of foreign films with lots of stars and palm fronds on the cover, right next to 6-point font claiming that the movie in question was an "Official" selection to some festival or another. The movie inside this highly decorated sleeve is often uneven, unduly depressing, perhaps marked by the weaknesses of first-time directors held up to the piercing glare of the world stage. In other words, though the films have their own merits and charms, I feel duped by an overabundance of adulation. So it was with some trepidation that I watched Up and Down, with its six palm fronds, four stars, and two prominent quotes on the cover.
Facts of the Case
Up and Down is a loosely connected web of stories about life in the contemporary Czech Republic. Martin Horecký (Petr Forman, Burning in the Wind) is arguably the main character, a prodigal son who returns to visit his ill father Ota (Jan Triska, Undercover Blues) and bitter mother Vera (Emília Vásáryová, The Turn of the Screw). He faces his young stepmother Hana (Ingrid Timková, Angel of Mercy), with whom he has a checkered past. This past fascinates Martin's stepsister Lenka (Kristýna Bokovÿ). All of them must struggle with the interpersonal ripples created by Martin's visit home.
Meanwhile, Franta (Jirí Machácek, Dungeons & Dragons) and Mila (Natasa Burger, Sweet Dreams) are simply trying to subsist. She is crazed with baby lust, unable to have a child of her own. Franta's exuberance at a soccer match has cost them the chance to adopt. He works as a security guard and buries his past while she stalks unattended babies.
Something's gotta give. When it does, chances are that one of the small-time hoods who swarm about the Czech Republic will be nearby to bear witness, or even lend light fingers to inflame the situation.
My initial trepidation was, thankfully, unfounded. Up and Down is not a weak film propped up by international nods. It is a polished film by an accomplished director, able to hold its own on the international stage.
Jan Hrebejk has a decent body of work already behind him. He's been a director, a writer, a producer, and actor. As one ignorant of Czech cinema and Hrebejk's previous work, I have to take the word of the making-of featurette that he is beloved for capturing the Czech spirit on film. If you believe this somewhat self-promotional featurette, Hrebejk is revered and the actors are excited to be working for him.
Up and Down gives me no reason to dispute the palm fronds on the cover or the words of praise in the featurette. It has a rich soundtrack, pleasing cinematography, and strong writing. The acting is superb, the direction tight. And the stories, though loosely integrated, are individually gripping. Up and Down simply works; the peek into uniquely Czech concerns is a bonus.
Hrebejk's film echoes the struggles of the modern Czech Republic. As we hear in the extras, a sentimental memoir is easier to sugarcoat because it is already filtered. No one is certain what lies in store for the Czech Republic, not even Hrebejk. He doesn't have the freedom to sugarcoat the present or the future. His film has criminals, immigrants and emigrants, racism, prostitution, police corruption, and violence. It also has beauty, love, fine food, graceful dancing, and joy. These varied tones never feel false or forced. Though they have a strong Czech flavor, the themes are universal. The balancing act lends Up and Down broad appeal while retaining a distinct nationalism.
Realism is king in this film. There's no mistaking its cinematic abstraction, but the core of the film is a dogged insistence on real emotions and stories. Up and Down seems almost like a synthesis of urban legends, an amalgamation of the worst day ever. Almost, because none of it is unbelievable. These things could happen and the characters could be real, so the stories take on poignancy that is often missing in similar films.
We can understand and pull for any of these characters, even as we despise some of their actions. No one in this film is completely right or wrong. In fact, right or wrong isn't the central question. The issues are much more complex. Is it better to stick life out in your downtrodden homeland, or to seek sunny shores elsewhere and be happy? Is it right to impulsively follow love, no matter the cost to others? Is there ever a circumstance under which it is okay to buy another human being? Up and Down asks these questions, but introduces them so gently and seamlessly that you aren't aware you're watching a morality fable play out.
Racism is one of the recurring themes in Up and Down. It permeates everyone's speech and actions. Ironically, it is the most blatant and despicable racist in the film who gives the most convincing argument for his fierce bigotry. When this skinhead begrudges the vast swaths of land claimed by Asians and Africans, wanting only his small dot on the globe to remain natively Czech, I found myself momentarily commiserating with an icon of intolerance. I was equally embarrassed for Hana when she falsely accuses a foreign man just trying to eat his supper. The extrapolation of these characters' attitudes to nationalistic concerns is not difficult.
Even though themes sometimes take center stage, characters rule the day. The cast is uniformly convincing. Any time two people are on screen talking, you can feel their particular tensions straining through the screen. Up and Down is an ensemble effort, and as much as I'd like to single out one actor or another, the truth is that the ensemble deserves the recognition, along with Hrebejk for crafting so many distinct characters.
If Up and Down has a weakness, it is pace. Some of the setups become obvious early, and we wait for them to play out. This gives us time to absorb more of the thinly veiled hostility, such as when discarded wife and young mistress square off across the table, but it also threatens the watch-check threshold. Of course, a perfectly acceptable counter-argument is that my attention span needs a workout.
Speaking of the family reunion dinner scene, it is hilarious when Hana furrows her brow, gets up from the table, and returns with a shop-vac to vacuum up some crumbs that Vera scatters onto the tablecloth. In general I would not label Up and Down a comedy, but the tagline is apt: A comedy that makes you cry, a drama that makes you laugh. Dark comedy peppers this film like a fine seasoning, lifting our spirits above the pessimistic subject matter.
When the film reaches its open-ended conclusion, any potential closure and resolution have vanished. (Spoilers ahead!) Franta's flirtation with becoming upstanding and responsible is irrevocably gone. Instead of being a stable father and husband whose violent outbursts are behind him (a difficult path he willingly struggled to take), Franta is relegated to a life of cartoons, beatings, and pub brawls while Mila huddles alone on the street. Martin returns to his self-imposed exile in Australia, leaving both his mother and father to uncertain fates. The hopes we nursed for the characters—and by extension, perhaps, the Czech Republic—have been dashed on the sharp rocks of a more likely reality. Sadly enough, this final peek at the characters feels natural, right—even if a rosier future was unfairly withheld from them. The sunny moments in Up and Down become but memories, absurd in hindsight.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Up and Down's dynamic, enveloping Dolby Digital surround track is full of infectious music and hair-raising surround effects (such as the rabid chanting in the sports bar). This fine track is tainted, however, by the sickly yellow pallor that saturates the print. There's such a thing as warmth, but when reds become oranges and blues become aquas, the color balance is hard to justify. Even neutrally lit indoor scenes suffer this saffron cast. I also had extreme difficulty making out shadow detail, particularly in the opening scenes. I didn't even know there was a baby involved until they moved indoors. Part of this is due to my LCD projector, but I can usually make out at least some hint of a shape. Fortunately, Up and Down is fanatically clean, free of print damage or transfer artifacts.
Up and Down assumes shades of Tarantino and other international crime films such as Nine Queens. It isn't derivative, necessarily, but I caught a hint of borrowed shots and framing decisions.
Having seen Up and Down, I feel I understand Czech culture better. I also saw an entertaining tale of frank humanity, acted well and directed well. Up and Down is a sure bet for fans of foreign film.
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• Making-of Featurette
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