Onward and Backward

And so begins the summer of ’09: prequel, prequel. The first of these, opening Friday last, is X-Men Origins: Wolverine, entrusted to director Gavin Hood of little Tsotsi from South Africa. (How much say does a director have, anyway, in fireballs, motorcycle stunts, computer composites, and the like?) It seeks to answer all your questions, assuming you had any, as regards where and when and why the titular superhero got his switchblade knuckles, his leather bolero jacket, his pent-up rage, his blank memory, among other esoterica. Starting back in 1854 (heavy sigh), two mutant brothers, aging up to forty and no further, fight side by side through the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Vietnam War — “That’s enough!” — and thereafter fight head to head for a run-of-the-mill revenge motive, a slaughtered girlfriend. In the build-up to the main event, the already immortal avenger (Hugh Jackman, oiled, watered, undershirted, shirtless, briefly pantless) is made indestructible for military use — a metalized skeleton — and then targeted for destruction when he refuses to be used. The end, by which is meant the coda after the full scroll of credits, reminds us that if there’s still a megabuck to be made, there’s no end. The style of the film, far from suited to a simple prelude, might be described as apocalyptic hyperbole. It could make you tired in itself, or suicidal at the thought of forthcoming backstories for the rest of the X-Men and -Women.

The next prequel, opening Friday this, is Star Trek, the title of which exhibits extreme cheek, extreme lack of imagination, or extreme amnesia, being the eleventh entry in a series that began in 1979 with a film titled Star Trek. (Don’t give me any colon The Movie.) Once over that, I found this prequel more enjoyable than the other, no doubt in part because I’ve found more enjoyment in the Star Trek series than in the X-Men. Certainly the former series had undergone enough degradation, through depleted story ideas, expanded waistlines, eyelifts, spinoffs, and whatnot, to soothe any fears of sacrilege. Let come what may. The chaotic and incoherent prologue might somewhat smother the emotional punch of the birth of James Tiberius Kirk at the same moment as his father’s death, but the reintroduction of the old familiar characters — the assembly of the changeless crew for the maiden voyage of the U.S.S. Enterprise, with Scotty a late arrival in mid-flight — can’t help but be fun for initiates. Chris Pine’s Kirk, sounding as though modelled on no weightier a prototype than Christian Slater, starts out an obnoxious punk and for my taste fails to advance very far beyond that. Zachary Quinto’s Spock, on the other hand, has some big ears to fill and fills them fully, achieving that elusive goal of undemonstrative intensity. Karl Urban’s snappish Bones (“Are you out of your Vulcan mind?”) is so close in face and voice to the original as to pass for an impersonation, while Anton Yelchin’s Chekov, having delightful trouble articulating his vees, has his own special charm. Sulu and Uhura, in the persons of John Cho and Zoe Saldana, are rather more physical than their predecessors, or anyway more than in my memory of them. And Simon Pegg in the role of Scotty is more an outright comedian than merely comical.

If it’s fair to say that the film, rather than stand on its own, benefits from the groundwork of its forerunners — if it safely and securely goes where others have gone before — it would also be fair to object that the speedy evolution of special effects since the last Star Trek outing, seven years ago, serves to render the “ensuing” adventures anticlimactic. Topping what came before (a petty enough creative impulse in the first place) is in effect topping what came “after.” That may not constitute disrespect, but it constitutes disproportion. All of this amped-up sound and fury could be objected to, as well, without any point of comparison. Director J.J. Abrams’s preference for the rambling Steadicam and the trembling closeup reveals him further to be a man of trend as opposed to a man of tradition. With its gigantic hands-of-Freddy-Krueger enemy spaceship, its Mad Max-y tattooed heathens, and its gratuitous CG monsters, the film is, by the standards of the franchise, skimpy on ideas, apart from a bit of time-travel abracadabra that enables Spock to be two places and two ages at once. Which is to say, enables Leonard Nimoy to play a part.

Out on the fringes: Love n’ Dancing, most reasonably a contraction for Love Not Dancing, is a telegraphed musical romance clean enough and sweatless enough for the Lifetime Channel. Maybe also the Hallmark Channel. A slim, pretty, blond schoolteacher, saddled with a preoccupied, stocky, bald fiancé, finds a new love and a true lover when a hearing-impaired swing dancer visits the school for a motivational speech. Amy Smart looks as if she could have gone far on a season of Dancing with the Stars, but she hardly looks ready after a few weeks’ practice to contend for the national championship in West Coast Swing. (Not the pro-am division, the all-pro.) Neither does her smooth but almost slow-motion partner, Tom Malloy, although the actor’s bio claims he’s a competitive ballroom dancer. The actor, in any event, is additionally the scriptwriter, so if he says they’re in the running, well, then, they’re in the running. The director, Robert Iscove, is not sufficiently clever to cover for them.

Enlighten Up!, a breezy informal documentary by Kate Churchill, sets up a completely artificial situation to document. The filmmaker, a seven-year yoga practitioner, or in other words a bare tyro, wants to test the transformative powers of the practice, picks as a guinea pig a photogenic newbie of the opposite sex (a self-described “godless guy from New York City”), and lays out for him a round-the-globe smorgasbord of yoga disciplines: a healthier sort of Super Size Me. The gathered evidence, we can see right off the bat, is going to be not just anecdotal, but a single, extended, meaningless anecdote. Constantly checking to see whether a transformation is taking place (“I don’t expect any earth-shattering changes,” predicts the skeptical subject) scarcely seems conducive to transformation. And no seeker is likely to find out how far he can progress on a path when he keeps jumping to a new path after every few paces. What Churchill ends up documenting more than anything else is modern American restlessness, her own included. Nevertheless, we vicariously encounter a number of gurus, some of whom are surely the real deal and others of whom are surely not. To watch our complacent hardhead make the rounds is to feel a pang for the wasted opportunity and in particular for any envious spectator who would have cut off a toe to be in his shoes.

Tyson, with a nudge in the press notes toward Greek tragedy, recounts the rise and fall of Iron Mike in his own words: Brooklyn, Cus D’Amato, the heavyweight belt at twenty, Robin Givens, Buster Douglas, Desiree Washington (“that wretched swine of a woman”) and the three-year prison term for rape, the tattoos of Che and Mao, the Muslims, Don King (“a wretched slimy reptilian motherfucker”), Evander Holyfield and his bitten ear, etc. Director James Toback, who had known Tyson for over twenty years and had used him previously in Black and White, gets him to talk and talk, a virtual monologue with no audible questions, amounting to a talking-head movie tricked up with split screens and switched camera angles (a clumsy stab at multifacetedness) and of course archive footage and photos. A supplement to, rather than a replacement for, Barbara Kopple’s Fallen Champ (which went only as far as the imprisonment, already a ways into mid-fall), it has plenty of psychological if not cinematic interest, never more so than when the lisping warrior’s throat closes up and throttles his words, and it could well win some unforeseen compassion for him, even if we still wouldn’t want to remove the barrier of the movie screen.

Lemon Tree, the best film in sight, narrows down the Middle East conflict to the arena of a half-century-old lemon grove that a Palestinian widow has inherited from her father and that borders the new residence of the Israeli Defense Minister. The fruit was there first, and the minister moved in next door, and the Secret Service sees in the dense foliage “a real and imminent threat” and orders the grove to be expropriated and uprooted. Compensation will generously be provided. The Palestinian, guarded but uncowed, doesn’t want compensation; she wants her trees, and enlists a lawyer — a divorce specialist, divorced himself, immediately and imprudently smitten with his older client — to fight the order all the way to the Supreme Court. An international incident percolates. The small, and more importantly the nonviolent, scale of action allows for detachment as well as drollery. No one on either side is made ridiculous, which no doubt holds down the humor but not the absurdity. (See, for instance, the early-morning wonder of a watchtower hovering in the air above the grove and dropping into place by crane.) The women especially, quite to the contrary, are made warmly human, with the minister’s caged wife forming a distant bond with her trod-upon neighbor. While the film is Israeli in origin (writer-director Eran Riklis in specific), it bends over backwards to be fair and balanced, not in the sense of Fox News but in the sense of Webster’s. It perhaps bends so far as to lose its balance. The sympathy, seemingly by its own gyroscope, tilts a little toward the Palestinian, if for no other reason than that she’s played by Hiam Abbass, whom you might remember as the mother of the detained drummer in last year’s The Visitor. I didn’t so much recognize her face as recognize her demeanor, her aura, her dignity.

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It's getting tiresome how everything these guys write quickly turns into another installment of Daddy Issue Theatre, (Fringe, Alias, Lost). But as a franchise entry, this is nonetheless refreshingly non-canonical. The humor gets a little broad even for Trek at times, with some medical wackiness, a Krofftesque sidekick for Scotty, and a pipe sequence that looks like something from the Brothers Mario. Many of the brewery-shot scenes look similarly non-spectacular, and Bana's villain is unfortunately indistinguishable from his predecessors. But given where the franchise has gone before, this one treads the line well.

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