Midwest Film Journal: 2018 Year in Review – Part 2
The Marvel Decade and No Sleep October were among our highlights on Midwest Film Journal this year. We had the pleasure of being joined by so many excellent writers, so I wanted to ask some of them back one more time this year to contribute thoughts on their favorite 2018 releases. Their contributions are alphabetized by film title.
The 15:17 to Paris
When any cinephile hears the phrase “experimental cinema,” the name Clint Eastwood doesn’t usually come to mind. And yet Eastwood’s movies are just that, if you are politically or socially conservative in any measure. I think of my older brother’s reaction to Unforgiven when it first premiered in the 1990s: While my friends and I considered it a step forward not only for the Western genre but Eastwood’s directorial talents, my alpha-male Army-vet sports-addict brother complained that “Clint didn’t really go off” until the end.
Sure, Eastwood is no Lars von Trier or Werner Herzog, but to the flyover states and a lot of Middle Americans who are just red-state enough to embrace gun ownership and traditional gender roles without being completely pro-Trump (or perhaps pro-Pence is a better definition) he is practically John Cassavetes. I see The 15:17 to Paris in that light. Moviemakers as renowned as Hitchcock and Kubrick contemplated using real actors and real lighting at some point in their careers (usually near the end) and movie legends like Woody Allen specialize in a stylized, personal cinema vérité while less famous or established directors have just gone out and done it. When it’s done well … therein lies the dilemma. Is it ever done well? And if it isn’t, then has the experiment failed? And if Eastwood does it, do we even consider it an experiment?
The apparent takeaway from 15:17 is that the real-life incident that happened on a Paris train in 2015 is the movie’s climax. It is the very reason the movie was ever made at all. But instead of doing the obvious thing and making a documentary about the story, Eastwood enlisted the actual participants to portray themselves. This isn’t so crazy a notion at first until you watch the actual film and witness the stunt casting of actors and actresses like Jaleel White, Judy Greer, and Jenna Fischer. Their presence causes the suspension of disbelief to fail, and yet seeing Tony Hale as a stereotypically impotent P.E. teacher seems to jibe with reality. It’s almost as if Eastwood is having fun mashing up postmodern notions of casting: he’s got professional actors who are almost recognizable on the spot mixing with heroic amateurs that would normally elicit no interest cinematically if not for their courageous tale, one that Eastwood felt compelled to portray in a reverent (if slightly unorthodox) manner.
I get the feeling that, if the story were a more personal affair, Eastwood would not gamble with using non-actors to portray themselves. And maybe that’s the point: It’s their story, and he may feel he owes it to them to give them the spotlight. Certainly their chemistry as real-life friends is not accurately captured on film, which makes the movie a bit disappointing. But that’s also what makes it experimental — Eastwood just wanted to see how it would turn out if he had the heroes play themselves. For a filmmaker like Eastwood, that’s kind of radical.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
By Andrew Kimmel (No Sleep October: The Vanishing)
When the singing cowboy Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) pats himself clean and the dust hangs in the air like a cartoon outline of his body, I knew I was going to like this movie. I grew up on westerns and Looney Tunes, and this wink to both brought back steadfastly positive memories of watching Clint Eastwood and Bugs Bunny with my father on the weekends.
But perhaps it’s better to say I only thought I grew up on westerns based on the heaps of rewatching we did of Sergio Leone’s films any time they were on TV. Or Rawhide or Bonanza or The Rifleman or Gunsmoke. I couldn’t tell you what happens in The Magnificent Seven or any number of canonical westerns, but I can tell you why I love Ennio Morricone and Festus. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs brought back, through its six vignettes, that nostalgic comfort of channel-surfing and landing in the middle of a familiar movie or watching marathons until suddenly dinner was ready.
What has struck me after watching Buster Scruggs is that the same sort of nostalgic recollection tinges everyone’s discussion of it. They speak of it like they’ve always known its parts while simultaneously showing their enamoration with a brand-new whole. As much as it sparks conversations on finding common threads or appreciating its callbacks or parsing out its themes, it also reignites the viewer who can’t help but lasso another movie into the fray. Have you seen (this other western)? If you liked “Near Algodones” in Buster Scruggs, you might just like (this one too). I remember the first time I watched it. You know who Kurosawa is?
I’ve read a handful of reviews of Buster Scruggs that lament its predictability, but I find no grievances in familiarity. In an era that seems to sway to two extremes — either seeking out novelty for novelty’s sake or remanufacturing our nostalgia in remakes and reduxes — there’s some special warmth in hearing old stories told in a new way.
By Austin Lugar (No Sleep October: Unfriended)
Burning is over two hours long and it seems that Lee Jong-su has his mouth open the entire time. He usually isn’t spending that time speaking, yawning or kissing. His natural facial position appears to be slightly agape with confused eyes. I’m worried about how dry his mouth is going to get, but I’m even more worried about everything in his life that he is missing.
The film opens with him a long shot from behind him as he’s running an errand. The camera isn’t far from his back so we trust that he knows where he’s going. That trust is shortly gone when, by the end of the walk, we later learn he walked right past an important person from his childhood.
Because Lee Jong-su is not the most confident person and he’s the audience’s guide, Burning always feels like a mystery. At one point he is asked to feed his friend’s cat while she’s away and the movie makes you question if there even is a cat.
When an enigmatic figure like Ben enters the picture, Jong-su is out of his depths. It’s not like Ben is constantly hiding things, but he presents himself as a Gatsby-esque figure of mystery. He is generous, charming and clearly rich. He is played by The Walking Dead’s Steven Yeun, in his first Korean-language role. Watching a familiar face speak with a new language adds to the world of feeling something is a bit off, but it’s unclear what that is exactly.
Director Lee Chang-dong was so good about using patience in films like Secret Sunshine and Poetry to evoke elements of sweetness and sadness. With Burning, he uses his craft to place you in a captivating haze. Even when the mystery is solved, the feeling remains. Answers don’t always create knowledge. A woman can tell you that this is a tangerine, peel it … and yet you still can’t see it.
Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings
By Alex Holmes (No Sleep October: Eastern Horrors)
This year had some truly excellent blockbusters — Black Panther, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Mission: Impossible — Fallout, to name a few major American releases.
But the best blockbuster you didn’t see was Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings, the third in the blockbuster Detective Dee series from China. Directed by Tsui Hark, one of Hong Kong’s best directors, Heavenly Kings has all the manic energy of Hong Kong cinema (borrowed by Hollywood for Aquaman) mixed with mystery, kung-fu, and a charismatic cast. The excellence of Heavenly Kings is that it builds everything around a simple plot: Following the events of the previous film, Detective Dee (a returning and more mature Mark Chao) now heads up the Tang Dynasty Investigations Bureau. As a symbol of his stature, he is given the famed Dragon Taming Mace that, aside from looking really awesome, is imbued with magic properties. The scheming Empress (Carinna Lau, having a good ham) wants the mace back to exert more influence over the Emperor. But as long as Dee has the mace she’ll be unable to enact her plan. To this end, she hires outside forces to steal the mace — but as always in Detective Dee, conspiracies abound.
The mysteries are always interesting but never convoluted or irrelevant (or too absurd). The good news is for audiences is that despite this being the third in a series, you can jump straight into Heavenly Kings. The previous Dee films always had trouble balancing plot and action, but here Hark finds the perfect proportion. The final setpiece features, among other things, a Buddhist monk riding a giant white ape facing off against a giant with a million eyeballs.
Hark combines his CGI magic (the quality of which has finally caught up to his vision) and martial-arts spectacle with musings on the nature of justice. Dee himself utters the line “Hell is full of suffering. Enlightenment will have to wait” on more than one occasion, and it is stirring to see a movie such as this declare that enlightenment means nothing if others are still suffering, and that justice must be delivered. In this film, Dee transforms into a comforting and inspiring hero — there for the good of the world and able to find a way through no matter the obstacle thrown at him.
But to reduce it down to the simplest equation: Fights + motivation = hell, yes. It’s out now on Blu-ray, so if you’re missing blockbuster season, why not view one of the world’s biggest in the comfort of your own home? Embrace some world cinema in the New Year.
John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons
By Alys Caviness-Gober (No Sleep October: Freaks)
I’ll watch anything that has John Leguizamo in it. That’s a fact. I’ve seen pretty much every film he’s ever been in, and I think he’s always good even when the material isn’t. So, just because I like him, I decided to watch this … standup routine? Film? Play? Documentary? I honestly do not know the category to which it belongs. The one-line blurb promoting it says, “In this one-man Broadway show, John Leguizamo finds humor and heartbreak as he traces 3,000 years of Latin history in an effort to help his bullied son.” It is so much more than that, though.
As I watched it, I ended up thinking that everyone should watch it. I mean, like, EVERYONE EVERYWHERE. It should be REQUIRED viewing in schools throughout our nation, if not the world (although I suspect “the world” probably already tells American history a little more accurately than does America).
I started watching it thinking it would just be entertaining and hilarious — hello, it’s John freaking Leguizamo! So of course it’s hilarious! — because I already knew quite a bit about Latin history in America. After all, I’m pretty well-educated and I used to teach world culture courses in the anthropology department of a state university. Man, was I wrong. Turns out I didn’t know quite a bit (aka jack-shit) about Latin history in America! Well, we all know that “history is written by the conquerors,” and I think we all know our American history textbooks in all schools all the way into universities do NOT reflect reality in terms of the contributions of women, people of color and any other minority population.
This film — which I really don’t want to reduce by calling it a stand-up routine — takes on “our” American history and is so entertaining you forget you’re literally being schooled in your lifelong ignorance of your own country’s history. It’s truly eye-opening. It’s funny, thought-provoking, stereotype-challenging, heartbreaking (I teared up several times) and ultimately (as a few tears fell down my face at the end) gives you a glimmer of hope. Watch it!
Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdomaka Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is Fantastic Come @ Me Bro
By Sy Stiner (The Marvel Decade: Captain America: The First Avenger)
Would you look at that? This site actually asked me back for a second article. I figured after my Captain America: The First Avenger article, I’d never hear from the editor again. If that is still on the site, you should totally check that out. (Editor’s note: It is.)
Anyway, let’s jump into this.
Jurassic Park is one of those movies that will always be considered among the classics. It brought out the imagination of those who were children at the time and children for generations to come. I still remember sitting in the theater like it was yesterday, experiencing my introduction to the park as Dr. Grant and Dr. Sattler looked upon their first dinosaur. Like the characters in the movie, I was in awe when I first laid eyes on that Brachiosaurus. Luckily we have only had three movies before Fallen Kingdom and they have all been solid.
(Editor’s note: Three? Sy, are you trying to forget Jurassic Park Thr…)
THERE WAS NO JURASSIC PARK III, EDITOR PERSON!
In Jurassic World we finally got to see the park up and running in all its wonderful glory … and inevitable downfall. So the park fails. What now? What happens when the park fails? Fallen Kingdom took a surprising turn into the moral debate of whether we should allow creatures created by science to live. That topic can be a whole other article.
I just want to focus on what really resonated with me. The first part of Fallen Kingdom gave us a fitting goodbye to the park. In the same way we were introduced to the park by seeing a Brachiosaurus rise up, we are given a farewell to the park by watching one slowly fall to its death in volcanic ash. Sorry. I’m a few pitchers of beer into this article and I need a moment after picturing this scene. (Editor’s note: Go ahead, Sy. We’ll still be here.)
So … what now? We just said goodbye to the park in a beautifully symbolic fashion! What could they do with the rest of the story?! Well fear not, reader that for some reason is still with me, because I’m about to show how balls-to-the-wall-crazy-good this gets.
At the time of this article, I am a 31-year-old gamer. I fall under that elder millennial bracket. (Iliza Shlesinger, respect!) If you’re in this bracket with me, there is a good chance you grew up watching Jurassic Park and played the first Resident Evil and Dino Crisis. I know what you’re thinking: Why is he bringing this up? Because that’s what the back half of the movie is! That’s why! We go from a sorrowful goodbye to the beloved park to balls-to-the-wall Dino Crisis in the mansion from Resident Evil! Come on! This movie is a love letter to elder millennial gamers who love Jurassic Park.
Now I get it. This movie wasn’t for everyone and you are entitled to your personal preference. But man, does this movie rock for those who happen to be millennials who played (and enjoyed) those two games specifically and also love Jurassic Park. That certainly can’t be a very narrow parameter. (Editor’s Note: Um, Sy … that’s actually a pretty small demograph …)
DON’T YOU TAKE THIS FROM ME!
The Long Dumb Road
By Greg Lindberg (No Sleep October: Poltergeist III)
The Long Dumb Road is the vehicle (apologies for the pun) for long-revered comedian Jason Mantzoukas to show he is more than the typecast lovable maniac / dirtbag most known for his work as Rafi on The League and Dennis Feinstein on Parks and Recreation. Cut to Tony Revolori (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Spider-Man: Homecoming) on a road trip from the east to west coast giving a ride to a man-child (re: dirtbag), and, through a series of Planes, Trains & Automobiles-esque misadventures, learning to come out of his pretentious, sheltered shell. If the plot sounds redundant, well, that’s because it is.
Road trip movies are tricky, and memorable comedies seem to dwindle every year. However, what makes The Long Dumb Road special is Mantzoukas and the way he builds the relationship as Revolori’s surrogate drunk uncle. Mantzoukas appears to have enough room to riff using his improvisation skills, but he also makes his character, Richard, a real person and not a caricature. When it comes down to it, you simply don’t experience road trip comedies like this anymore. What you absolutely don’t see is two prominent leads of color in this type of road-trip film. And race is not a plotline — the two main character are representative of America, divided by age and class.
You won’t see The Long Dumb Road on many year-end lists, and won’t finish the film with some greater understanding of cultural barriers or coming-of-age meandering. You won’t get a Oscar-bait sympathetic tale of an mentally unstable blue-collar worker in the Trump era. This is the film that is the litmus test of Mantzoukas’ star power (look out for him as the “Tick Tock Man” in the upcoming John Wick 3: Parabellum) and he passes with flying colors. What you get is the feeling of reading a short story of modern Americana that sits with you, and more often than not you will chuckle. You will chuckle long … and dumb
By Joshua Hull (No Sleep October: The Devil’s Candy)
“You’re a special one, Mandy.”
Everyone has a favorite shirt. That piece of cloth that means so much to you. That shirt that if anything was to happen to it, you’d rage. You know the one. Now imagine a demonic, drugged-out biker ripping that shirt. That special shirt you shared with your now-deceased girlfriend. The same girlfriend who was abducted by this demonic, drugged-out biker gang.
Yeah, you would rage well into the night. Homemade battle axes and all.
Mandy is essentially Terrence Malick’s Hellraiser through a folksy lens. Director / co-writer Panos Cosmatos delivers a stunning, atmospheric take on the revenge film. He also delivers one of the best Nicolas Cage performances in years (as well as the perfect imagery to sum up 2018: Cage in his underwear, chugging liquor and letting out ungodly screams alone in the bathroom).
Mandy’s Horn of Abraxas truly rings out for Andrea Riseborough, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s posthumous score and the Cheddar Goblin. Trust me, Mandy really is a special one.
A Simple Favor
Does anyone ever really know anyone? That feels like the underlying warning in Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor, filled as it is with murder, intrigue and dirty family secrets. From the opening scene, I was hooked by single mom vlogger Stephanie agonizing over her missing friend Emily, a working mom as chic as she is secretive. An unlikely friendship is sparked over gin martinis while their sons are having a playdate, and when Emily asks her to pick up her son from school one day before disappearing, a police investigation slowly reveals that Stephanie may not know Emily as well as she thought. The movie is not as sophisticated as the French pop and high fashion suggests but it doesn’t need to be. Is the mystery twin a soap-opera cliche? Yes. Is the murder itself predictable? Maybe, but every decision the film made felt satisfying in a way where it was still fun as hell. I’m as spellbound by it as Anna Kendrick is first watching Blake Lively saunter toward her in the pouring rain like a beautiful, golden-haired goddess in a suit.
The film strategically positions Emily as the unattainable, someone other people seek out to make themselves better; but instead of profiting off the inspiration their object provides, it’s Emily who thrives. Her husband, Sean, describes her as a beautiful ghost he spends his life chasing, an ex-girlfriend who used Emily as her muse can’t paint anything but knives now. Emily is like an inverted Manic Pixie Dream Girl, claiming her life is littered with almost-somebodies. The MPDG is an uncomplicated fantasy, and Emily is anything but. She won’t allow anyone to use her. It’s only Stephanie who seems to benefit from Emily’s influence, using her advice to stop apologizing (“it’s a fucked-up female habit”) and go for the balls to help uncover the truth about her friend’s disappearance.
My favorite thing about this movie is that everyone is sort of terrible. It makes you as captivated by Emily as the people in her life; you don’t root for her but you can’t help but watch her intently. The darkness in Stephanie’s past colors the choices she makes in the present, fatefully drawn to the sordid lives of a glamorous con artist and her morally ambiguous husband. This movie belongs alongside other female-driven dark comedies with cult followings like Jennifer’s Body, Heathers and Jawbreaker, all of which share some variation on the theme that your best friend is evil and you have to destroy her. A Simple Favor is also about the complex uncertainties and insecurities of female friendship, comically illustrated with Kendrick pausing to clarify that Emily’s feelings of friendship had been genuine even while Lively points a gun at her. It’s a sexy suburban thriller about monstrous women with a horror movie-ready tagline like “All you need is a good friend” and easily one of my favorite movies this year.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
By John Derrick (The Marvel Decade: Captain America: Civil War)
This is what Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse knows about growing up: Doing the right thing is not about making good choices but recognizing when we have no choice at all. This fundamental lesson at the heart of Spider-Man is distilled into the popular tagline: “With great power comes great responsibility.” But when Stan Lee created Spidey in 1962, the moral he wrote was, “With great power there must also come great responsibility.” In Spider-Verse, that missing phrase “must also” is the vital distinction between heroes and villains.
SPOILERS FOR INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE FOLLOW
Spoilers: Teenager Miles Morales is bitten by a radioactive spider just before he stumbles across a reality-warping supercollider built by Wilson Fisk (aka Kingpin). Fisk is looking for alternate versions of his wife and son, who died while fleeing Fisk after discovering his murderous tendencies. Miles sees Fisk kill his world’s Spider-Man and flees, only later learning the supercollider has already pulled a number of Spideys from other worlds into his own. The other Spideys soon realize they need to use the collider to return to their realities before destroying it for the good of the multiverse.
As the Spider-Team heads into the final battle, Miles has had only days to practice powers the others have been using for anywhere from two years to two decades. The responsible thing for them to do is to leave him behind, out of danger. But for Miles, the only responsible action is to join them — not because several entire worlds are at risk but because without Miles’ help, at least one of the non-native Spider-people will be stuck in Miles’ world when the machine shuts down and die painfully in the wrong reality. Miles doesn’t hesitate to risk his own life because the alternative — letting someone else die — is unthinkable.
Here in our reality, some parents are forced to choose between putting food on the table and taking their kid to the doctor. Sometimes I think our fundamental political divide is between people who see this happen and say, “No family should ever be put in such a position” and those who say, “I will never allow my family to be put in such a position.” Whether the latter group genuinely doesn’t believe there are enough resources to go around or whether they just don’t care about anyone but themselves, they consciously make choices that leave a lot of people behind.
Fisk loses his family and tries to warp reality to save them. Spider-Man — or really any of the many Spider-people (or pigs) — loses their family and realizes that being Spider-Man, being a hero, being a real grown-up human being, means refusing to knowingly allow anyone else to suffer for our own benefit. It’s almost 2019, and our world needs Spider-Man more than ever. Spider-Verse reminds us that we can all be Spider-Man when we realize that taking responsibility means choosing to help everyone we can, every chance we get.