Upside Down


Beyond topsy turvy.

Beyond topsy turvy.

(2012) Science Fiction (Millennium) Jim Sturgess, Kirsten Dunst, Timothy Spall, Blu Mankuma, Nicholas Rose, James Kidnie, Vlasta Vrana, Kate Trotter, Holly O’Brien, Elliott Larson, Maurane Arcand, Janine Theriault, Vincent Messina, Cole K. Mickenzie, Paul Ahmarani, Carolyn Guillet, Pablo Veron, Don Jordan, Edward Langham, Holden Wong, Jayne Heitmeier. Directed by Juan Solanas

Sci-Fi Spectacle

Most science fiction stories begin with the idea of “what if?” while the best ones end with the viewer shrugging their shoulders and accepting “why not?!”

For example, consider this; two planets that orbit one another and have dual gravity; on one world, gravity works normally but on the other it repels rather than attracts. The two worlds nearly touch on their highest mountain peaks and one corporation, Transworld, has built a skyscraper that connects the two planets permanently.

Both worlds are inhabited and are essentially products of their gravities. Those who live on one world will be untethered to the ground on the other and vice versa. On the middle floor of the skyscraper, there is one group of cubicles on the floor and another on the ceiling. There are a few other buildings with similar situations.

Adam lives on the lower world which some call Down Below. This is a world that has been ruthlessly exploited by the people of Up Above, who live in luxury and comfort. Down Below seems to exist in perpetual rainfall and gloom and its inhabitants eke out meager existences on the scraps of what they can acquire from up above.

As a child (Larson), Adam had met Eden (Arcand), a young girl from Up Above. The two click immediately but police from Up Above are not allowing any sort of interplanetary romance. In trying to return Eden to her home world, Adam watches in horror as she falls, apparently to her death.

Years later, Adam sees an adult woman (Dunst) from Up Above on TV and realizes that it’s Eden and she’s still alive. His love for her hasn’t undimmed over the years so he figures out a plan to use a beauty cream he’s invented to get him into Transworld, then pursue her and make her his. The problem is that Eden has a rather inconvenient amnesia and can’t remember anything before the fall. Secondly, in order to stay “grounded” as it were on Up Above Adam has to use a rare metal that tends to burst into flame after an hour’s use. Thirdly the authorities on both worlds are none too keen about having the interplanetary romance referred to earlier. It seems that Adam’s love is destined to be on another planet.

The concept here is truly interesting which is one of the movie’s grand advantages. It also is one of its biggest obstacles; the concept itself tends to paint the filmmaker into a corner. Solanas, an Argentinean filmmaker currently living and working in France, sets up the movie in an extended voice-over at the beginning of the film but I think he essentially tries to explain too much rather than just letting the audience go with it. That sets up the expectation that the movie is going to have a kind of rulebook that it will follow.

In fact, there are lots of holes in the theoretical aspects; for example, why don’t the people themselves combust when on opposing planets instead of just the metal? Wouldn’t the upward falls kill you just as dead as a regular downward fall? How can there be a sunrise or sunset when the two planets are both perpetually in each other’s shadow?

Truthfully, I’d be fine not requiring an explanation for any of those things but Solanas himself creates the expectation you’re going to receive one with the over-technical voice-over. A simple line could have done it – “I don’t know all the physics. It just works.” End of explanation and the show can go on, plot holes and all. Michel Gondry never bothers to explain himself; neither should Solanas.

Still even given that this is one of the most jaw-dropping imaginative visual stories you’re likely to find. The visuals of one group of Up Abovers dancing the graceful tango in a ballroom while on the ground Down Belowers dance in a seedy nightclub is striking, and much of the visual look recalls the Dutch artist M.C. Escher.

Certainly the have and have-not societies seem to be a nod towards the original Metropolis, one of the greatest science fiction films of all time, but Solanas doesn’t really pursue that aspect of the story. Instead, he’s looking to make a love story and this is indeed more of a romance than it is a science fiction film although the visuals are probably what you’re going to remember.

I don’t know if I would have used an idea for this kind of society to illustrate a kind of West Side Story thing; it’s a story that’s been done a lot of different times in a lot of different ways. Why create this amazing environment and then tell a story you could tell anywhere? However, that environment makes this movie worth seeking out. With attractive actors like Sturgess and Dunst delivering decent performances (and Spall in a supporting role actually standing out) this makes for a really good movie. I think it could have been a great one though.

WHY RENT THIS: Nifty concept. Nice performances by the leads.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: More of a romance with sci-fi overtones. Too many plot holes. Somewhat oversaturated cinematography.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence but not enough to be troublesome.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Floor Zero scenes were two sets constructed side-by-side as if the screen had been sliced down the middle and folded open. When characters interact from both worlds, the scenes were shot on both sides of the set simultaneously and then inserted into the frame digitally.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a surfeit of storyboards and how-they-did-it featurettes.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8.1M on a $50M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Stream/DVD), Amazon (rent/buy/DVD), iTunes (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle continues!

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Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Di Renjie zhi tongtian diguo)


Detective Dee don't need no steenkeen captions!

Detective Dee don’t need no steenkeen captions!

(2010) Adventure (Indomina) Andy Lau, Bingbing Li, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Chao Deng, Jean-Michel Casanova, Yan Qin, Jinshan Liu, Aaron Shang, Deshun Wang, Lu Yao, Jialu Zhang, Yonggang Huang, Richard Ng, Teddy Robin, Xiao Chen. Directed by Tsui Hark

One of the things I most like about Tsui Hark’s films is that often they contain everything but the kitchen sink (and sometimes, that too) – adventure, outrageous plots, lush settings, fantasy, action, a kind of Peckinpah-ish loner hero, breathtaking martial arts and beautiful heroines. They don’t always make sense to Western eyes (and I suspect quite a few Eastern ones) but they are always pure entertainment. It’s nice to see that some things haven’t changed.

In seventh century China, the coronation for Empress Wu Zetian (C. Lau) approaches. She will be the first female empress in the history of China, so it’s a pretty big deal – and not everyone is happy about it. To placate her opponents (and perhaps as a monument to her own ego which was said to be considerable) she builds a gigantic Buddha statue with her own face. During an inspection, one of the architects bursts into flames unaccountably and perishes.

Police officer Pei Donglai (Deng) investigates, his suspicions turning to the surviving builder Shatuo (Leung) who lost a hand while imprisoned for taking part in a rebellion eight years prior. When Pei’s superior bursts into flame in front of the empress with Shatuo nowhere nearby, the empress consults the Chaplain, who communicates through a magic stag. The stag informs her that she needs to release Detective Dee (A. Lau) from prison, where he has been languishing in prison for leading the rebellion Shatuo was also jailed because of, for the past eight years.

The empress sends her attendant Shangguan Jing’er (Li) to fetch Dee from prison but shortly after leaving they are attacked by assassins. Later, while staying at an inn, she attempts to seduce Dee on the orders of the Empress but their coitus is interruptus, once again by assassins. Some guys just can’t catch a break.

When Dee sees a bird struck by one of the assassins arrows burst into flame when it comes into contact with sunlight, he examines the arrows and discovers they are coated in an unknown poison that does that very thing. After some research, he discovers that the poison is the extract of a rare fire beetle that was once used for medicinal purposes.

That sets Dee and his associates Jing’er and Pei – neither one of which he fully trusts – into a web of corruption, deceit and murder with the very throne of China at stake. The further Dee investigates, the fewer people he can trust and when he finally discovers the spider at the center of the web he will not just be fighting for his own life but the lives of thousands.

Like many Tsui Hark films (which include such Hong Kong classics as Once Upon a Time in China and Chinese Ghost Story) this has a mish-mash of genres that go flying at you like a storm of shuriken in a samurai movie. This isn’t as frenetically paced as some of his other films but when the action sequences come they come straight for your throat.

Andy Lau, one of the most popular action heroes in China, is at the core of this movie and he carries it with a mixture of CSI and wu xiu moves. Dee is a combination of Wong Kar Fei (a legendary Chinese martial artist) and Sherlock Holmes, his powers of deduction proving to be as formidable as his martial arts moves. Lau makes both sides of the character blend together and be believable – as believable as lead characters in a Tsui Hark movie get at any rate.

Carina Lau (no relation that I’m aware of) is positively regal as the empress, giving her a Queen Victoria-like “We are NOT amused” mien but with an exceedingly clever and politically savvy mind below the pomp and circumstance. She is quite capable of anything and could well be a terrible tyrant that will ruin China for centuries to come.  Lau carries off the part nicely, all the more impressive as this is her first feature role in four years.

There is a lot of CGI – a lot – and not all of it is top of the line which can be irritating to audiences used to much more of a blend between the real and the digital. The practical sets are magnificent however and breathtaking at times. While for the most part the film moves along, it also drags occasionally and might have benefitted from some further trimming although to be fair American audiences tend to be less patient with longer films than audiences elsewhere in the world.

This is entertainment with a capital E and most people except for real movie buffs don’t know a thing about it or Tsui Hark. While this isn’t his best work ever, it is certainly very representative of his style and you could do worse than using it as a starting point. Certainly if you’re looking for something different but not necessarily requiring a lot of brain power to enjoy this would be right up your alley. Give it a try – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

WHY RENT THIS: Andy Lau is at his best, bringing gravitas and kickass martial arts moves. Carina Lau is regal. Production values are something truly to behold.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: CGI is weak in places. Could have been trimmed about 20 minutes off of the film and still have been okay.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images and plenty of martial arts and fantasy violence, with some hints of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Detective Dee is based on a real Chinese folk hero, Di Renjie who lived during the Tang dynasty (approximately the 7th century) who became popularized in the West in a series of novels by Robert van Gulik where he was known as Judge Dee.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $51.7M on a $20M production budget; this was a huge hit in China and elsewhere in Asia.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cast a Deadly Spell

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Zero Dark Thirty