Wisconsin films have a genuine sense of place. "Uncle John," featured at this year's Milwaukee Film Festival, is set to join this list of regionally specific Wisconsin-themed films that have stood the test of time.
Many films are about or were made in Wisconsin.
But you can count the signature films among them on one hand.
Major League is not one of them. But the thriller Uncle John is a contender.
Uncle John was filmed in Lodi and Prairie du Sac, the hometown of producer and co-screenwriter and UW-Madison alum Erik Crary. It stars veteran character actor John Ashton of the Beverly Hills Cop films, as the title character whose secrets are hidden behind haunted eyes in a haggard face.
When we first meet him he covering up a crime whose details are revealed in connect the dots fashion. A subplot about a young man in Chicago becomes another piece of the puzzle.
Uncle John screens Oct. 1. and Oct. 8 during the Milwaukee Film Festival at the Oriental Theater.
And it comes with advance praise from David Lynch, who wrote:
— David Lynch (@DAVID_LYNCH) September 18, 2015
Lynch has an affinity for the film’s regional realism. He once had a summer place in Madison and filmed The Straight Story, written by state native Mary Sweeney, in Prairie du Chien along the Iowa border.
That film, about a man traveling on a rider mower, has a visually seductive small town, back roads aesthetic. To which Uncle John brings the suggestion of an ordinary guy capable of anything.
It puts you in the mid of Ed Gein, from nearby Plainfield, fictionalized by Milwaukee writer Robert Bloch in Psycho. Like the story it tells Uncle John itself arrives here wrapped inside a mystery.
How did Lynch discover it? Turns out its a case of who you know. In this blog post Crary talks about working in Hollywood and becoming Lynch’s personal assistant at about the time he was making Mulholland Drive. Which probably explains Lynch’s association with the film.
Films like Uncle John with a genuine sense of place are few and far between. Regional films can capture and portray something elusive and essential that deepens our understanding of the characters and story, no matter where they are set. Regionally specific Wisconsin-themed films that have stood the test of time include:
–Red Betsy” (2003, Chris Boebel) The story of a young man who goes away to World War II, leaving behind his independent minded wife and misanthropic father. Sadly this regionally evocative film, shot in Delafield and set in World War II era Boscobel, is unavailable on DVD or streaming services. It stars the late Leo Burmester and Allison Elliott and is based on a story by Boebel’s poet and English professor father. Cinematographer David Tumblety also shot the Minnesota German immigrant story Sweetland.
–A Simple Plan (1998, Sam Raimi) Horror film slash morality tale about two brothers who find a suitcase full of money that slowly corrupts their lives. Winter scenes were shot in the Ashland area and capture a suffocatingly snowbound rural landscape beneath slate colored skies.
–Song Sung Blue (2008, Greg Kohs) Unsettling documentary about the Milwaukee area Neil Diamond and Patsy Cline impersonators Mike and Claire Sardina, known as Thunder and Lightning, portrays their tragic love story. DVD copies can be found on line and on Amazon. Kohs new film The Great Alone, about the Iditarod, screens Saturday and Sunday at the Oriental during the Milwaukee Film Festival.
—American Movie (2000, Chris Smith) Essential work of urban Midwest Americana about a struggling working class Northwest side Milwaukee man and outsider artist trying to improve his life one horror film at a time. Available for purchase and streaming at Amazon and iTunes.
—Uncle John (2015, Steven Piet) Also available for streaming on iTunes.