Monrovia, Indiana (Frederick Wiseman, 2018)

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Alienation from the Land: The Movie.

The new Frederick Wiseman film is always one of the film events of the year, and this week his new one opens exclusively at the Northwest Film Forum. Wiseman, despite his advanced years, has been one of the most productive American directors of the last decade, with a string of documentary masterpieces (La danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, National Gallery and In Jackson Heights are my personal favorites from among his post-2008 work) that would be enough to mark him as one of the finest ever to work in that form even if he hadn’t been making films just as often and just as high-quality since the late 1960s.

Monrovia, Indiana starts with and continually returns to the rich farmland and livestock of the Midwest, worked almost completely by machines. Every turn in the editing shows a population disconnected from their past, from their environment. The landscapes, gorgeous skies and verdant croplands alike, are almost completely devoid of human life. The fascinating and weird diversity of Wiseman’s 1999 look at a small American town, Belfast, Maine, is almost nowhere to be seen, as is the vibrant chaos and struggle of Jackson Heights.

Instead bored students listen to a history lecture about the high school basketball stars of the 1930s. City council meetings vainly negotiate against the totalizing onslaught of cookie-cutter development, development literally severed from the land in that it cannot get proper water service to protect its residents from fire. People eat cheap pizza and drink Budweiser and get tattoos and guns and dock their dog’s tails for no apparent reason (in one of the most disturbing film scenes of the year). President Obama’s assertion about clinging to guns and religion is never far from one’s mind as the film continually circles back to the church, but the solace found there, however real (and that shaft of light shining in the penultimate funeral scene has a beauty the minister’s sermon can’t touch) seems hollow. The young are just as bored with God as they are old white guy basketball. The final shot is as perfect a capper as we’ll see this year.

Looking forward to the sequel, Monrovia, Liberia.

A Better Tomorrow (John Woo, 1986)

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After an up and down decade as a director for hire in the last days of the Shaw Brothers, working alternately in the wuxia and wacky comedy genres, John Woo finally hit it big in 1986 when he teamed up with Tsui Hark and the Cinema City studio to remake Patrick Lung Kong’s 1967 drama The Story of a Discharged Prisoner. One of the most influential films of the past 30 years, A Better Tomorrow established the formal and thematic template for a new era of crime movie: everything that has followed, from Woo’s follow-up masterpieces The Killer and Hard-Boiled to the triad films of Johnnie To, to myriad international imitators, has in some way been a response to it. Its impact on the Hollywood film has been less specific but no less real: raising the stakes of athleticism and complexity in action sequences, the bullet ballet being much more adaptable to the limited physical skills of American actors than Jackie Chan’s kung fu.

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