Flickchart Road Trip: Idaho
Welcome to the latest installment of Flickchart Road Trip, in which I’m starting in Los Angeles and “driving” across country, watching one movie from each state and posting about it once a week. The new movie I watch will go up against five movies from that state I’ve already seen, chosen from five distinct spots on my own Flickchart. Although I won’t tell you where the new movie actually lands in my chart (I don’t like to add new movies until I’ve had a month to think about them), I’ll let you know how it fared among the five I’ve chosen. Thanks for riding shotgun!
You say po-TAY-to, I say po-TAH-to.
Either way, there are a lot of them in the state of Idaho.
I just knew that if I googled “Idaho Potato Museum,” I would find something, and indeed, the Idaho Potato Museum is located in the town of Blackfoot. This was no walk in the park in terms of my travel route, seeing as how my previous stop in Lake Tahoe had left me right on the edge of the Nevada-California border. (So close to the state I started in, and will finish in, that I could almost taste the California Raisins.) I backtracked a couple hundred miles to eastern Idaho because, well, who doesn’t love a potato? (Answer: my three-year-old son. We have a terrible time convincing him that French fries are something he would actually want.)
My son would have probably enjoyed this museum, which has envisioned more things to do with potatoes than George Washington Carver envisioned to do with peanuts. I’m sure he would have loved taking his photo next to the world’s largest crisp, though the video on the history of the potato industry might have been lost on him. He definitely would have dug the fact that the museum is located in an old railway station, the Oregon Short Line Railroad Depot. Other highlights included the largest display of mashers, antique potato farming equipment, a tuxedo made out of burlap potato sacks, and even a bit devoted to poor old Dan Quayle, who never could spell the word correctly.
In 45 minutes I was on my way, with a bag of potatoffee — that’s potato chips slathered in chocolate-toffee — for the road.
That road west took me through some beautiful mountainous areas that I was about to see in animated form in my Idaho movie, the 2010 animated movie Alpha and Omega. I didn’t think Anthony Bell and Ben Gluck‘s movie looked like a winner back when I first saw it advertised, but I couldn’t have guessed how far down in the doldrums of the Flickchart global rankings it would sit. Flickcharters hate this puppy (Get it? Puppy? Wolves?) with a passion, ranking it only #33438 globally. I wondered if I too could imagine more than 33,000 movies that are better.
What it’s about
All is not well in Canada’s Jasper National Park, where two rival packs of wolves are considering an uneasy alliance via the marriage of an alpha wolf from one pack, Kate (voice of Hayden Panettiere), to an alpha from the other clan, Garth (voice of Chris Carmack). Neither younger wolf is sure about the match, in part because Kate has a strong independent streak, and has to learn how to successfully run her own hunt before she can think of anything like marriage. Secretly longing after Kate is an omega wolf from the lower end of her pack’s social stratum, named Humphrey (voice of Justin Long). Humphrey spends the days tobogganing through the snowy hills with his friends, but would love just one chance to prove his worth to Kate. Humphrey gets his moment when the two are captured by trappers. As they’re packed up and shipped off to repopulate a national park in Idaho, their families assume Kate has run off, abdicating her responsibility to bring harmony to Jasper’s wolf population. Tony (voice of Dennis Hopper), the alpha male from the eastern pack, plans to make Kate’s father Winston (voice of Danny Glover) pay for this betrayal through an all-out war between the packs.
How it uses the state
This is one of the most satisfying state usages in a while. When the trappers collect the tranquilized wolves, one says “Bag ’em up, boys. We’re going to Idaho.” Then when the wolves learn from some of the local fowl where they are, they rattle off the following lines: “Idaho?!” “Ida-who?” “What are we doing in Idaho?” One character also describes it as a “a land of mountains, rivers, lakes, and a few billion potatoes.”
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other Idaho movies I’ve already seen, shall we? As you know if you’ve ever added a film to Flickchart using the “By Title” feature, the new movie goes up first against the movie in the exact middle of your rankings. The outcome of that duel determines whether it faces the film at the 75th percentile or the 25th percentile, and so on, until it reaches its exact right place. With five movies, that means at least two and as many as three duels. Here are the films Alpha and Omega will battle:
1) Twin Falls Idaho (1999, Michael Polish). My Flickchart: #428/3582. Global: #7797. I’ve given the Polish brothers a really hard time on this trip, slapping them with my #5 Texas movie (The Astronaut Farmer) and my #5 Montana movie (Northfork). Maybe that’s because I knew Idaho was waiting out there as their salvation. Twin Falls Idaho is an eerie, melancholy look into the lives of conjoined twins living in a small town in Idaho, and the prostitute one of the twins falls in love with. The considerable effectiveness of the film is due to its production design, which reminds a person of David Lynch, and its cast, who etch themselves into our memories. Writer-director Michael Polish and his identical twin Mark play the brothers, and there’s tons of discomfiting and sorrowful content related to the inescapably unusual condition of having another person biologically connected to you. However, it’s Michelle Hicks as the prostitute, hiding a tragic past under thick gobs of mascara, who steals the show with her preternatural physical presence.
2) Napoleon Dynamite (2004, Jared Hess). My Flickchart: #572/3582. Global: #1645. It’s not every day a movie launches its main character into household name status, even in households that might not ordinarily see a movie like Napoleon Dynamite. The fact that a movie this oddball can give us such a character really says something about mainstream viewers’ capacity to embrace the weird. Almost too popular to be considered a cult movie, but the very definition of one otherwise, Napoleon Dynamite is of course the story of a curly-haired outcast in a Preston, Idaho high school who speaks in bursts of eccentric praise for mythological creatures and left-field bits of defensive sarcasm. He’d be a pitiable specimen if he weren’t so aggressively deflecting taunts and teases before they even hatch, giving him a power over his environment that’s actually sort of cool. The film introduced us to the unique perspective of director Jared Hess and gave star Jon Heder a surprisingly fertile post-Dynamite career, despite the fact that the very precision of Heder’s oddness made him seem unsuited to play anyone else.
3) My Own Private Idaho (1991, Gus Van Sant). My Flickchart: #1614/3582. Global: #1236. My Own Private Idaho was a big part of the burgeoning independent film movement of the early 1990s, with Gus Van Sant sitting on the main float in the parade. Unfortunately, by the time I got to it, I couldn’t see what the fuss was about — it was a good movie, but nothing toward which I felt any special affection. (Maybe that’s because I was neither a street hustler nor a gay street hustler, and still young enough not to relate to them just for the struggles that make them human.) The film is, as alluded, a story of friendship/love between hustlers played by River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, with Phoenix’s Mike in particular need of protection from the cruelties of the world because he’s a narcoleptic. Idaho is one of their stops on the way to trying to find Mike’s long-lost mother. If I saw this film again it would probably take a couple giant leaps up my rankings.
4) Breakfast of Champions (1999, Alan Rudolph). My Flickchart: #2083/3582. Global: #8875. Kurt Vonnegut wrote a probably unfilmmable book in Breakfast of Champions, so it’s a minor miracle that writer-director Alan Rudolph managed something even this coherent. In truth, the film version of a novel I love occupies a special place in my heart, because it’s the first film I think of whenever the phrase “noble failure” is thrown around. If the plot is worth trying to explain at all, it relates to an eccentric science fiction writer (Albert Finney) who writes a book that a wealthy businessman (Bruce Willis) interprets as a personal message to him, explaining that he is the only person on the planet with free will. See, you wouldn’t have tried to film it either. Most of the film was shot in and around Twin Falls, Idaho. Willis gives a manic performance that is either incredibly daring or incredibly miscalculated.
5) Georgia Rule (2007, Garry Marshall). My Flickchart: #3112/3582. Global: #23170. Georgia Rule is just icky. It knows it has a lusted after little piece of former jailbait on its hands in Lindsay Lohan, then exploits that in the worst way. The story of three generations of women in an Idaho-bred family — a grandmother (Jane Fonda), a daughter (Felicity Huffman) and a granddaughter (Lohan) — has at its dramatic core the issue of whether the granddaughter was routinely molested by her stepfather (Cary Elwes). Garry Marshall’s film takes a step over the line of good taste by making Lohan’s character sexually aggressive, then lingering on her behavior in prurient ways. If she was molested, she should be a sexual victim, not a sexual object. The things the movie does right — including some folksy charm and moments of good humor — are drowned out by this grave misstep.
First duel: Alpha and Omega vs. My Own Private Idaho. My own private list has Idaho winning. My Own Private Idaho wins.
Second duel: Alpha and Omega vs. Breakfast of Champions. Breakfast is not the champion here. Alpha and Omega wins.
Alpha and Omega finishes fourth out of the six movies.
When I saw the first trailers for Alpha and Omega back in 2010, I blogged that it seemed like the rare animated movie that was getting a theatrical release despite making no real effort to appeal to adults. There weren’t going to be any references to pop culture or any terrible puns that only adults would get. It was just going to be an old-fashioned, terminally square children’s movie.
Having seen it, I don’t necessarily abandon that assessment. I just no longer thing it’s fatal to the movie’s usefulness.
There is a certain throwback quality to Alpha and Omega, but that doesn’t mean I want to throw it back. By its conclusion, it had worked its way into my good graces by being earnest enough, charming enough and well-written enough to earn a mildly positive review from me.
The adventure itself is probably where the movie distinguishes itself as mildly interesting. Kate and Humphrey, the displaced wolves, get involved in a handful of mildly clever (you’re going to be seeing the word “mildly” pop up a lot here) set pieces as they make their way back to their Canandian home from Idaho. I suppose I’ve also got a soft spot for road trips.
Another of the film’s strengths, which may be a byproduct of targeting the very youngest viewers, is that Kate’s “wrong romantic partner” doesn’t have to be either a villain or a stuffed shirt. It’s clear the movie is trying to stuff Garth’s shirt a little bit, but it quickly establishes this character as just as reluctant to be in an arranged marriage with Kate as she is with him — and hopeless at the essential lupine activity of howling at the moon. While Kate and Humphrey are off having their adventure, Garth falls for his own omega, voiced by Christina Ricci. Hence the movie has two parallel forbidden romances, making a useful statement about love being blind, and actually finding some adult appeal after all in its Romeo & Juliet/West Side Story homages.
One way Alpha and Omega did defy my predictions about its target audience is that it’s surprisingly frank about the vicious nature of wolves and the fact that they kill other animals for food. Some of this is unavoidable in a movie about wolves, but the writers go so far as to demonstrate a couple of the characters going into a “rage” — a condition in which they lose their tempers just a little and issue a choice bloodthirsty threat or two. It’s still pretty mild — there’s that word again — but it surprised me by being less mild than I thought it would be.
Add in some B+ animation and a couple of avian sidekicks who are more charming than annoying, and you’ve got a serviceable little kids flick here — something Dennis Hopper might not have minded being his last movie.
Idaho may be a private spot for Gus Van Sant, but he’s got interests in Oregon as well. I’ll be watching his film Drugstore Cowboy when I officially cross into the Pacific Northwest.