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By Noah Gittell

In the 1960s and 1970s, Americans flocked to spaghetti westerns like “The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly” and “The Outlaw Josey Wales.” Compared to their predecessors in the genre, they were far more violent, with an amorality reflected in the the darkness of their times. Their audience was a generation that grew up cynical following the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal, and the spaghetti western reflected their disillusionment. It was hard to see any hope for the future in their dark and dusty onscreen worlds, which made every tiny scrap of humanity displayed on screen stand out.

“Logan”, the new and perhaps final Wolverine movie starring Hugh Jackman, is a superhero flick that thinks it’s a western. The obvious reference point here is “Shane.” There is a violent sequence at a family farm that recalls the great 1953 western, and, for those who don’t get subtlety, there’s one scene in which the characters literally watch “Shane” on a hotel room television. But I thought more about spaghetti westerns when I was watching “Logan,” a film whose superhero is more of an anti-hero, and whose setting reflects our own troubled times.

Wolverine has always been a reluctant superhero, but he’s never had a less grandiose job than he does at the start of “Logan.” When we catch up to him, he’s working as a chauffeur, toting around drunken groups of young men and women for a few bucks. He uses that cash to take care of his old mentor Professor X (an affecting Patrick Stewart), who is suffering from dementia. Caring for an older loved one is always difficult, but tending to the world’s most powerful brain as it starts to deteriorate presents some unique challenges. The professor is prone to seizures, which have a literally paralyzing effect on those around him. Logan spends his free time retrieving the old man’s medication, and making sure that X’s albino nurse (Stephen Merchant), a former mutant tracker for the government, keeps him alive.

This isn’t “Tuesdays with Morrie,” however, and it wouldn’t be much of a western if trouble didn’t come a-calling. A young, silent girl from Mexico shows up on Logan’s doorstep, and when a cadre of bad guys dressed in black and sporting enormous guns come to retrieve her, we learn that she has more in common with Logan than her bad attitude. From there, “Logan” morphs into a road movie, as Logan and Xavier try to get this dangerous young girl to a sanctuary in Canada.

Now, we’ve seen gritty superhero movies before (“The Dark Knight”) and we’ve seen violent ones (“Deadpool”), but rarely have we seen one this violent and this gritty, while simultaneously feeling like the most authentic depiction yet of a well-tread superhero character. In previous films, Wolverine’s animalistic nature only shows up for a few fleeting moments. Here, finally, is a film that embodies and embraces his brutal, tortured spirit, and it will surely be the stuff of dreams for longtime fans of the character.

That’s not to say it’s an easy watch, or always an engaging one. Seeing so many people die onscreen – and in such gruesome ways – has a desensitizing effect, which might be okay if the film didn’t also want us to care deeply about its characters. This is a trend in recent films. Movies like “John Wick” and its recent sequel rack up huge body counts but have a sentimental core. Some people seem to be okay with it. Watching “Logan,” I found myself shutting down fairly early on after seeing so much blood spilt.

Then again, maybe that’s appropriate. The character of Wolverine was originally conceived in the late 1970s, and was widely seen as part of a trend of anti-heroes that followed the Vietnam Era. In troubling times, anti-heroes speak to our political disillusionment, and “Logan” doesn’t shy away from political subtext. The notion of a Mexican girl crossing America to find sanctuary in Canada feels politically pointed, as does a weird subplot about genetically-modified food (related to the farm scene). With such threats polarizing the nation and partisan tension at seemingly all-time highs, many Americans may in fact feel torn between a violent rampage against their enemies and staying home to hang out with their family. Maybe the problem wasn’t that filmmakers kept getting Wolverine wrong. Maybe his time just had not yet come.

My Rating: See it in the Theater

This Month at the Neuberger Museum

A film by Marcie Begletter, will be screened March 15, 6-8. As the wild ride of the 1960s came to a close, Hesse, a 34-year-old German-born American artist was cresting the wave of a swiftly rising career. One of the few women recognized as central to the New York art scene, she had over 20 group shows scheduled for 1970, in addition to being chosen for a cover article in Artforum. Her work was finally receiving both the critical and commercial attention it deserved. When she died in 1970 from a brain tumor, the life of one of that decade’s most passionate and brilliant artists was tragically cut short. 

Artists such as Dan Graham, Richard Serra, Nancy Holt, Carl Andre, Robert and Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Eva’s husband Tom Doyle, and her friend, writer Lucy Lippard speak candidly and with great passion about the 60s, and Hesse’s work and life.


On March 22 from 6:30-8, Purchase College graduate Fred Willson ’76 will talk about his site-specific installations, which encourage viewers to reconsider social and historical narratives, raising critical questions about the politics of erasure and exclusion. 
 

Tickets to public programs are free to Purchase College students, staff, and faculty, and Neuberger Museum of Art members. General Admission: $10.

For more information, call 251-6100 or visit www.neuberger.org.

By Noah Gittell

On the surface, “The Great Wall” feels like a significant cultural event. It’s a big-budget Chinese film with a legitimate Hollywood star in the lead role. It would be easy, in fact, to get lost in the symbolism. What does the existence of “The Great Wall” say about the future of the movie business? Will it lead to future collaborations between the U.S. and China? Will it have an impact on relations between the two nations off-screen? And what lessons can be gleaned about that relationship from the film itself? In other words, maybe the movie industry could actually break down a wall or two.

That’s a lot of pressure on a movie – and a moviegoer. Put your mind at ease. “The Great Wall” is such an exceedingly moronic film that it puts such questions to rest. Helmed by successful Chinese director Yimou Zhang and written by a trio of American screenwriters, the film is a paint-by-numbers blockbuster that only seems more interesting because of its Chinese flair.

It’s your typical East-meets-Western, with Damon playing William, a mercenary who has traveled to the Far East in search of gunpowder during the Song Dynasty. After he and a colleague (Pedro Pascal) are captured by the Chinese army and brought to a station inside the Great Wall, they learn the true purpose of the mighty structure: to keep out a species of dragon-like creatures that the Chinese have fought for generations. The film is centered around a series of inventive battle sequences, in which female soldiers bungee off the wall, expert archers sling whistling arrows at the beasts, and giant catapults hurl flaming orbs across hundreds of yards. The Chinese army’s creative approach to warfare is a contrast to William’s more straightforward acumen with both the sword and the bow. In the end, both are needed.

Of course, William’s story will feel familiar to viewers of American blockbusters. As the film begins, he only cares about himself, which gets him into trouble with the lady general (Tian Jing) he is intent on romancing. After hearing that he has spent his life working for whomever pays him the most, she asserts, “We are nothing like each other.” His original plan is to escape with the gunpowder, but after being challenged by his ladylove, he learns to contribute to a cause greater than himself.

This redemption arc has been used in American westerns for decades (John Wayne and Clint Eastwood specialized in it), but “The Great Wall” pitches it as an Eastern idea, arguing that it is the combination of China’s sense of community and William’s – or America’s – bravery and individuality that saves the day. It’s a clever bit of cultural appropriation that is sure to leave fans on both sides of the Pacific cheering.

That’s really the best “The Great Wall” has to offer. It’s a crowd-pleaser. The battle scenes are well staged, but the dialogue is painfully terrible, even for an American blockbuster. Certain lines – “They are pretty nervous for a wall that big” – make little grammatical sense, but perhaps they are designed for translation, which may play well in China but comes off as nearly illiterate here. Further, the characters are, by design, sketched in broad strokes only. Appealing to a broad, multicultural audience forces you to rely on archetypes, but here in precludes much emotional involvement.

But that’s nothing new either. This is the way the industry has been heading for decades. Capturing the foreign market has become vital for studio films, which has led to an increase in spectacle and decrease in the kind of thoughtful adult dramas that Hollywood used to pride itself on. “The Great Wall” may not be particularly artful, but it’s no less engaging than “The Lego Batman Movie,” “Star Trek Beyond” or, another Matt Damon flick, “Jason Bourne.” At least it gives us some different actors to look at. That’s an admittedly low bar – or wall – to surpass, but in the dregs of February, I’ll take what I can get.

My Rating: Put it on your queue

By Noah Gittell

Leave it to Hollywood to mess up a good thing. 2014’s “The Lego Movie” was one of the smartest and riskiest commercial movies in years, much to everyone’s surprise.  Where we were expecting a two-hour toy advertisement, instead we got a self-aware and hilarious comic masterpiece with a third-act twice for the ages. A sequel was inevitable, and, in keeping with the first film’s subversive ethos, the producers of “The Lego Batman Movie” took things in a different direction. Instead of a straight sequel, they made a spin-off, building a whole movie around the first film’s breakout character – the brooding, immature Batman voiced by Will Arnett. How could it go wrong?

Lots of ways, in fact, and one fundamental one. Batman was essentially a cameo in the original movie and wasn’t required to have any depth. It was a one-note performance and a pretty good one, subverting the super-serious “Dark Knight” trilogy and other DC superhero films by depicting Batman as a sullen jock teenager who never grew up. For the first third of “Lego Batman,” the filmmakers follow that formula. After Batman saves the day in an opening face-off against The Joker (Zach Galifianakis), he returns to Wayne Manor to engage in what we assume is a typical evening for the billionaire bachelor. He cooks dinner for one in his microwave, watches “Jerry Maguire” alone in his private movie theater, jams on the electric guitar (without a back-up band, of course), and does lots of push-ups. 

To depict Batman’s existence as comically lonely is a neat, refreshing twist after seeing his dysfunctional genius revered so much in previous superhero films. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to build an entire film around, and as “Lego Batman” goes on, it has to become the very thing that it intends to satirize. The plot concerns an evil plan hatched by The Joker to unleash an army of super-villains onto Gotham City, the transformation of orphan Dick Grayson (Michael Cera) into legendary sidekick Robin, attempts from fatherly butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) to help Bruce Wayne heal from his childhood trauma, and a will-they-or-won’t-they affair with the new Commissioner Gordon, Jim’s daughter, Barbara (Rosario Dawson).

In other words, this is a typical superhero movie. Even if its irreverence is a welcome change-of-pace from “Batman v. Superman” and other self-serious DC Comics fare, it’s no more subversive than anything in the “Iron Man” films. The notion that Batman is a spoiled, immature loner is a decent joke, but the film ultimately decides to take that joke seriously when it devotes the second half of the film to his efforts to overcoming childhood trauma and finding a proper family. 

That’s not to say “Lego Batman” isn’t occasionally funny. It subscribes to the quantity strategy of comedy by offering up so many jokes, and in such rapid-fire succession, that some of them are sure to land. The voice performances are strong throughout, with Cera nailing the film’s loopy frequency as Robin and Galifianakis capturing the pathos of The Joker, a character no other actor ever bothered to play as anything but a monster. Arnett does his usual insecure macho thing (he’s been doing it since “Arrested Development”), and it’s fine, but he fails to provide any new layers to the character. There’s a reason he has never anchored a live-action feature film, or even had a successful TV show in which he was the star. Depth is not his strong suit.

Despite some creative performances and a high joke-per-minute average, “Lego Batman” provokes more knowing chuckles than outright laughs. The script (accredited to five writers, never a good sign) never gets any laughs through the characters, instead relying on self-referential jokes about past iterations of Batman. “We’re going to punch those guys so hard,” he growls, “words describing their impact are going to spontaneously materialize.” In another scene, Alfred worries that Bruce Wayne is going through one of “those phases” again, “the kind you experienced in 2016, 2012, 2008, 2005, 1997,” etc. 

In tone, “Lego Batman” is probably most similar to the original Batman TV series starring Adam West, but the irreverence that once came off as camp now reads as corporate shilling. That’s what happens when you aim to subvert one of the most beloved myths of our time but don’t have the focus to follow through. It’s not a good look in any era.

 

My Rating: Put it on Your Queue