Reel Time

Tarantino With a Social Conscience

Jan Hrebejk’s Up and Down; plus, Diary of a Mad Black Woman.

Tarantino with a social conscience: Unlike the fatally disjunctive picture below, the Czech ensemble comedy Up and Down (Sony Pictures Classics) is a wholly successful piece of schizoid storytelling, in which fairy-tale sentiment sits easily beside the harsh reality of crime and racism in suddenly Soviet-less Eastern Europe. It’s a uniquely Czech-ered mix, and it keeps you off-guard—never quite fearing for the characters’ safety, but never sanguine about their future.

The title refers to the movie’s bifurcated structure: one part underclass to one part haut bourgeoisie. The narrative is like a passed baton, with one or two jarring leaps that are more or less accounted for later. The film opens with two truckers engaged in intense conversation, very Tarantino-esque, about eating deep-fried bats in Thailand. The pair turns out to be smuggling human cargo—”dark races”—into the Czech Republic. After a few racist insults, they abandon the illegal immigrants in the forest—only to discover that a sick woman has inadvertently left a newborn baby in the back of their truck.

No, this isn’t the Czech Three Men and A Baby—although it is softer than it might have been: After the first harrowing minute you get the sense that that baby will come through OK. The baton/baby goes next to Miluska (Natasa Burger), gamine in the Audrey Tatou mode, but quite bonkers with grief over her inability to conceive—or adopt, thanks to the prison record of her husband, Franka (Jiri Machacek), who has been swept up in the culture of racist soccer violence. The poor sap—with a harelip and a speech impediment, madly in love with a wife whom he regards as his better, however loco—moans that it’s soccer’s fault: “If I wasn’t such a fan, I wouldn’t have a record.” A short time later, he muses, “There ain’t no God. That’s why I’m a fan.” The baby that arrives from the black market is a source of horror. Not only is the infant illegally obtained and liable to get him shipped back to prison—it’s black.

The segue from the grim apartment of Franka and Miluska to the elegant townhouse of the aging Professor Horecki (Jan Triska), his mistress (Ingrid Timkova), and his daughter (Kristyna Bokova) is a puzzler, but connections gradually appear. The professor lectures on escalating patterns of immigration, while his elegant and gorgeous mistress works in a refugee center—where she ultimately meets the mother who has lost her baby. After some sort of cerebral hemorrhage, the increasingly dotty professor summons the wife and son whom he hasn’t seen in two decades: the alcoholic Vera (Emilia Vasaryova), who now lives in a slum, and the son, Martin (Petr Forman), who fled to Australia for reasons that become clear as we see how the personal and political dimensions of the characters’ lives intertwine.

Up and Down is lumpy, unwieldy, overlong in spots, but endlessly engaging: It tickles and discomfits in equal measure. The strands coalesce, some naturally, some unnaturally, some scarily, some extremely amusingly. By the time the movie winds up, we have a gut sense of what a deeply unstable and dangerous society this is: a world of pickpockets, human traffickers, black marketers; racist soccer-fan skinheads and tides of dark immigrants; and an intelligentsia that doesn’t begin to have a handle on this bubbling, soon-to-boil-over brew.

This is the first film I’ve seen by the prolific Jan Hrebejk, not yet 40, born in Prague the year the Soviet tanks moved in and clearly a thrilling talent: a Tarantino with a social conscience, and a graceful director of actors. My favorite is Machacek as the hapless Franka, a misfit with the noblest intentions but few inner resources to be able to resist the hypnotic pull of his white-supremacist soccer culture. In his eyes you see the coming-together of mankind, and the nuclear explosion that could blow it to smithereens.

Forgive me not: Dear Diary:

This week, I saw a movie, Diary of a Mad Black Woman (Lions Gate Films), that really screwed me up—split me right down the middle. This is the Diary of a Mad Film Critic.

I mean mad in the classic sense, like that poor civil servant in Gogol’s story “Diary of a Madman.” Not like the 1970 movie Diary of a Mad Housewife with the late spark plug Carrie Snodgress: That was more a piece of then-fashionable feminism, with a neglected woman (married to quintessential spineless ‘70s male Richard Benjamin) discovering her, you know, personhood.

The heroine of Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Helen (Kimberly Elise), isn’t crazy, either: She’s just mad as hell at her rich attorney husband (Steve Harris, a nicer lawyer on The Practice), who throws her out of their mansion after 18 years of marriage. Apparently, there was some kind of prenup, although I don’t think it would have too much force after 18 years. I mean, the Donald had to dump the Marla on the threshold of five years to keep her from getting any money, and that ‘ho was pre-nupped to within an inch of her life.

Helen doesn’t do the Diary of a Mad Housewife women’s lib thing, really. She’s on a different kind of journey, a fairy-tale journey to forgiveness—to letting go of anger and finding new love, Christian love, both human and divine.

The film is written by Tyler Perry, who co-stars in drag as Helen’s grandmother, Madea, and as a couple of male characters, too. It’s based on a play of his—Perry has reportedly made millions performing for huge African-American audiences in theaters all over the country. I know why he has a following: This guy is an expert when it comes to pushing his audience’s buttons. He’s a real populist entertainer for the African-American churchgoing middle class—able to weave campy slapstick through a story of faith, love, and salvation, nestling drug jokes side-by-side with antidrug sermons.And Diary of a Mad Black Woman is half inspired and half eye-rollingly terrible.

That opening sequence is just dumb. The pampered kitty-kat Helen (why should we even care about her?) accompanies Charles to an attorney-of-the-year banquet, where he blows her theatrical kisses from the podium. But the next day she finds a U-Haul out front with all her clothes in it and a slinky new wardrobe—meant for someone else—in her closet. In a florid, crude, and frankly unbelievable scene, she’s literally thrown out of the house, kicking and screaming, while the young mistress in a micro-mini dress stands by pouting.

It turns out that over the course of their marriage, Charles has forbidden her to stay in touch with her black-working-class family, to which she now returns, ashamed and, of course, mad as hell.

And here’s where Diary of a Mad Black Woman swerves from heavy-handed melodrama into screamingly funny drag-sitcom territory: Perry’s grandma Madea is a gun-toting, chainsaw-wielding hurricane bent on justice for all black women. And unlike Helen’s mild, elderly, deeply religious mama, played by Cicely Tyson, Madea believes in being a mad black woman.

All Madea’s scenes are howls—they puncture the sanctimony. But much of the rest of the movie is devoted to the courtship between Helen and her blue-collar Prince Charming, Orlando, played by former TheYoung and the Restless stud Shemar Moore with cornrows and a headband. This saccharine Harlequin Romance would make a great camp drag show in Provincetown, Mass., but it’s played soap-opera straight—although I wasn’t sure quite how to take the climax of Orlando’s declaration of love: “I’d go to the grocery store and I’d buy you feminine products, I swear I would.” That can’t be straight, yet it’s said straight, and it’s followed by Helen’s unambiguously straight tribute to this “beautiful, sensitive, and Christian man,” who would not have carnal relations with her that night. “He chose to give me something better,” she tells her diary, in voice-over. “He gave me intimacy.”

I don’t have a problem with the movie’s “traditional” values. I don’t have a problem with the major character who’s severely injured and comes back to life with the help of the Holy Bible, or the junkie mother who finds the strength to kick the habit in church. It’s the insipidness, the preachiness, the easiness, the Lamp Unto My Feet simplemindedness of the writing and directing—and the way it makes the good actors, especially the wonderful Kimberly Elise, look like soap opera zombies.

Maybe a more savvy director than first-timer Darren Grant could have made the two sides of Diary of a Mad Black Woman sit together more comfortably—although I don’t see how.

Oh, dear Diary: How do I pan this awful movie without seeming unsympathetic, even anti-Christian? It’s not enough to say it’s not for the likes of godless white liberal me, that it’s a reflection of the divided tastes of its community. That would be patronizing, and a cop-out.

It’s enough to make me turn to the Almighty.

Yours in despair,