Flickchart Road Trip: Kentucky
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!
I’m three weeks early to Kentucky for the thing I’d really like to see: the Kentucky Derby. Of course, I don’t think you can just walk off the street and attend the Kentucky Derby (though with the Monopoly money I’m using on this trip, maybe you can), and I’m still smarting from spending money on an act I’d never heard of last week at the Grand Ole Opry. (That one hurt even with Monopoly money.) So I guess I’ll have to get my mint juleps elsewhere.
However, the timing did work out for me to be in Kentucky to watch Monday night’s national championship game in men’s college basketball. No, this isn’t just marking another sports milestone on the calendar as it passes. Rather, the Louisville Cardinals were contending for the title against the Michigan Wolverines. The game actually took place in Atlanta, but I figured it would be fun to get to the University of Louisville campus in order to watch the mayhem at ground zero. (Louisville also happened to be my pick to win it all, but I was already statistically eliminated from my pool at that point.) I took I-75 up to Lexington and then went west on I-64 nearly to the Indiana border, arriving 15 minutes before game time. I quickly found a bar near campus that was packed with Louisville students who seemed like they’d been drinking since their chemistry class ended at 2:30, and miraculously enough, I actually found a seat. When their team won, the room was of course electric. Having selected Louisville, I felt a contagious charge of excitement and allowed myself a beer or three.
The movie I’ve selected for Kentucky wouldn’t naturally strike a person as a logical fit for the state. In fact, it wouldn’t even necessarily strike a person as a logical fit for the U.S. That’s because its hero is one of the most iconic Brits (or Scots, in Sean Connery‘s case) of all time: James Bond. However, Bond’s third cinematic adventure, Goldfinger, does indeed spend its entire last hour in great state of Kentucky. Guy Hamilton‘s 1964 film (global ranking #309) would have been only my second Connery Bond movie, since I don’t count Never Say Never Again. Yes, it’s a little shocking and embarrassing that I’d seen only Dr. No. However, it ended up being my third Connery Bond movie. Upon realizing there was only one other film between Dr. No and Goldfinger, 1963‘s From Russia With Love, I watched that earlier the same day, just to keep myself in proper chronological order.
What it’s about
James Bond’s adventure du jour involves the investigation of a powerful international gold magnate with the fortuitous name Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe). Bond (Connery) learns from his superiors that he’s intended to determine how Goldfinger smuggles his gold internationally, but he’s got a personal vendetta as well, as Goldfinger’s manservant Oddjob (Harold Sakata) killed his lady friend (Shirley Eaton) by suffocating her skin with gold paint. Meeting several other femme fatales along the way — including the dead girl’s sister (Tania Mallet) and the conniving pilot Pussy Galore (Honor Blackmon) — Bond follows Goldfinger to Switzerland, where he discovers the man’s smuggling methods, and also his plans for a big score code-named Grand Slam. Captured, Bond narrowly convinces Goldfinger not to castrate him with a laser, arguing that his agency’s knowledge of Grand Slam could sink Goldfinger. Goldfinger escorts Bond as a prisoner to his stud farm in Kentucky, where Bond learns of Goldfinger’s true purpose: an assault on the United States’ gold supply at Fort Knox.
How it uses the state
When I saw that the movie’s first images — the first images after the cold open, I mean — were a helicopter shot of a posh Miami Beach hotel, I wondered if I should have watched Goldfinger in Florida instead. At the hour mark, though, it lands in Kentucky and stays there. Bond even name-checks the state itself by making a comment about its fine bourbon. The action then moves to Goldfinger’s stud farm, where he reveals his plan to breach Fort Knox security so he can get at its gold. Bourbon, horses, Fort Knox — the only way this movie could get more Kentucky were if Daniel Boone’s zombified corpse were Bond’s adversary. A couple CIA agents even track Goldfinger’s movements while sitting in a car outside a Kentucky Fried Chicken.
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other Kentucky 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 Goldfinger will battle:
1) Harlan County U.S.A. (1976, Barbara Kopple). My Flickchart: #301/3497. Global: #2667. This was back when documentary filmmaking was a full-contact sport. Director Barbara Kopple and her crew put themselves in harm’s way and then some in order to dig in to the Brookside Strike, a 1973 work stoppage by 180 coal miners and their wives in southeastern Kentucky. Their nemesis, the Duke Power Company-owned Eastover Coal Company, brought to bear such force and threats of violence, a famous shot in the movie actually includes a company thug waving a gun at the camera — with the intent to shoot. The fierce and unwavering journalistic tenacity of the filmmakers is something to behold. Documentaries don’t get more visceral than this.
2) The Insider (1999, Michael Mann). My Flickchart: #794/3497. Global: #961. I don’t suppose I could leave the south without getting a little taste of Big Tobacco. Michael Mann’s taut and vigorous drama gives us a good idea of the risks and pressures facing a would-be whistleblower (Russell Crowe) as he struggles with whether to cooperate with a 60 Minutes investigation into his former employers, Brown & Williamson. Crowe’s performance is so astonishing, it seems like his Oscar for Gladiator the following year was a “makeup call” (to use another sports metaphor) for failing to give him the statue here. In the waning years of his own effectiveness as an actor, Al Pacino also gives a strong performance as the 60 Minutes producer trying to coerce the testimony out of Crowe’s Jeffrey Wigand. Wigand’s family and his former employers both reside in Louisville.
3) Simpatico (1999, Matthew Warchus). My Flickchart: #2469/3497. Global: #23620. Since I didn’t get to include probably my favorite horse racing movie, Seabiscuit (giving the #2 slot to The Insider instead), I’m going to compensate with two mediocre horse racing movies. The first is Simpatico, an okay but largely forgettable adaptation of Sam Shepard’s play about a trio of scam artists (Sharon Stone, Jeff Bridges, Nick Nolte) dealing with the consequences of their criminal behavior two decades after they fixed races. To say I don’t remember much about this movie is an understatement; I don’t remember almost anything. This is where Flickchart comes to the rescue, telling me that 2469/3497 makes it (generously) my #3 Kentucky movie. Much of the action takes place in and around Kentucky race tracks.
4) Racing Stripes (2005, Frederik Du Chau). My Flickchart: #2808/3497. Global: #28680. The more mediocre of the two horse-racing movies doesn’t involve a horse at all — it involves a zebra. Just as the titular pig in Babe had ambitions to be a sheepdog, this zebra wants to race. The comparisons to Babe don’t end there, as the animals on the farm where the zebra meets his future jockey, Channing (Hayden Panettierre), also have the gift of speech — but far less charmingly than that Australian animal menagerie. There are numerous silly and predictable things about this family movie, though there are also some moments of contemplative depth involving Channing’s father (Bruce Greenwood), a retired trainer who lost his wife in a racing accident. Channing and her zebra Stripes are training for the so-called “Kentucky Open.”
5) Elizabethtown (2005, Cameron Crowe). My Flickchart: #2885/3497. Global: #4193. Cameron Crowe’s opus has gotten severely beaten by critics in the eight years since its release — and you can add me to that list. The usual Crowe ingredients are there: nostalgia, young love, some absurd comedy, and most of all, Crowe’s personal record collection. Yet this time out it feels false. That impression is personified by Kirsten Dunst‘s chirpy flight attendant, a should-be-cute pixie who instead begins grating on us from her first moments on screen. Her attempt to guide Orlando Bloom‘s disgraced wunderkind through an elaborate scavenger hunt of personal musical self-discovery (or whatever) is a perfect metaphor for what Crowe is trying (and failing) to do for his viewers. Elizabethtown, Kentucky is where Drew (Bloom) goes to pick up his father’s body — a corpse that later figures into one of those scenes of absurd comedy.
First duel: Goldfinger vs. Simpatico. Goldfinger has the Midas touch in this one. Goldfinger wins.
Second duel: Goldfinger vs. The Insider. Which is more impregnable, Fort Knox or Big Tobacco? Goldfinger wins.
Third duel: Goldfinger vs. Harlan County U.S.A. Gold may be more valuable than coal, but the fight for the coal is far more dramatic. Harlan County U.S.A. wins.
Goldfinger finishes second out of the six movies.
If Dr. No introduced us to a super spy named James Bond, and From Russia With Love realized this guy could have some cinematic mileage, then Goldfinger firmly established all the ingredients we’ve come to associate with a Bond movie. Not only that, it’s got three of the series’ most iconic characters in Pussy Galore, Oddjob and the title character himself.
Consider me, a guy who grew up with Roger Moore as my James Bond, sufficiently impressed. The chief strength of Goldfinger as a narrative, especially when contrasted with its immediate predecessor, is just how easy it is to follow. Spy movies are not necessarily my genre, relying as they do on intricate plotting more than character development and emotional catharsis. I usually consider the intricate plotting as less of an interesting puzzle for me to resolve, and more of an obstacle for me to endure in order to get to the other things I like about spy movies. Even though I liked it a lot, From Russia With Love kept me at arm’s length in this way. Goldfinger, on the other hand, embraced me with its lean, streamlined story, while incorporating more of a sense of humor than I’d previously seen from Connery’s Bond. Any movie where the hero, an unapologetic ladies man, must prevent his vital equipment from being cut off by a giant laser can’t take itself too seriously. Adding to the sense of Goldfinger as a quintessential Bond movie, it’s got the Aston Martin with all the gadgets and even a ticking time bomb, to go along with the mustache-twirling villain and the lethal sidekick.
In fact, the only thing that really disappointed me about this movie was the character I may have been anticipating most: Pussy Galore. Honor Blackman is fine in the role, but I won’t go any further than that. With that name, I was expecting someone a lot more wild and audacious, or at the very least, a character with a daring sense of fashion. Instead, I found Blackman to be downright terrestrial, utterly unworthy of such a cheeky moniker.
When you’re on a movie-themed road trip, it seems appropriate to have a movie about a screwed-up driving maneuver. This is what I assume my West Virginia movie, Rob Schmidt‘s 2003 thriller Wrong Turn, will be. If you want to know if it’s also a screwed-up movie, you’ll have to tune in next week… but the fact that it has four straight-to-video sequels should tell you something.