Flickchart Road Trip: North Dakota
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!
It’s early October in North Dakota and I’m feeling about as isolated as I have at any point on this trip. So I figured, let’s make the isolation seem all the more acute by going to Scandinavia. Or, the closest facsimile you can find in North Dakota.
The city of Minot has a park devoted to Scandinavian heritage … which is not as surprising as the fact that the city of Minot has a neighborhood called “Upper Brooklyn.” Scandinavian Heritage Park is indeed in the Upper Brooklyn section of Minot, a city you can reach (and I did reach) by taking route 83 north from South Dakota. Other unlikely names of neighborhoods in Minot include Boston Heights and Bel Air. As it so happens, this is the 25th anniversary of said park, though the first building was not actually dedicated until two years later in 1990. However, I can still use that as a good excuse for coming.
The park features a number of buildings you wouldn’t expect to stumble over in North Dakota, namely, this:
It’s a replica of Gol Stave Church, a house of worship built in Gol, Hallingdal, Norway. The park includes an authentic free-standing Finnish sauna, a replica of brightly colored Swedish horses, and a granite map of the five Scandinavian countries, among other curiosities. There are also a number of statues of famous Scandinavians, though the word “famous” may be getting used loosely here. For every Hans Christian Andersen, there’s also a Casper Oimoen. Casper Oimoen not a name in your household? Why, he’s the Norwegian-born captain of the U.S. Olympic ski team at the 1936 Olympics, of course.
I gave the park a good stroll, nodded my head enthusiastically and beat feet for Montana.
The North Atlantic makes an appearance in my North Dakota movie as well, but this time, it’s Ireland. It’s from Ireland that the title character of my 1993 cult horror movie, Leprechaun, hails. I suppose I’ve been curious about Mark Jones‘ film ever since Wayne and Garth’s surprisingly memorable bit about it in Wayne’s World 2. Learning, years later, that Jennifer Aniston was in Leprechaun sealed the deal … except I still didn’t actually see it until this past week. It’s globally ranked #5833, which puts it more than 24,000 spots ahead of Leprechaun 5: Leprechaun in the Hood, and more than 25,000 spots ahead of Leprechaun 6: Back 2 Tha Hood. For what it’s worth, Leprechaun 7 has yet to transpire.
What it’s about
Dan O’Grady (Shay Duffin) returns to his North Dakota homestead from a trip to Ireland with a surprise for his wife: He’s captured a leprechaun (Warwick Davis), and has consequently acquired the leprechaun’s gold. The surprise is on O’Grady, though — the leprechaun has hitched a ride to the U.S. in his luggage, and by the time O’Grady can use a four-leaf clover to trap the leprechaun inside a wooden crate in his basement, the diminutive miscreant has killed his wife and used his magic to give O’Grady a stroke. Ten years later, O’Grady has sold his house with the leprechaun still locked in the box. The buyer (John Sanderford) and his daughter (Aniston) arrive to spruce the place up, but they and the members of the paint crew soon begin to notice strange things happening. The discovery of an unexplained bag of gold — and the disturbance of the four-leaf clover from atop the box — may be unleashing an evil that’s bode its time for a decade, and won’t rest until it has reclaimed its prize.
How it uses the state
North Dakota gets a single mention in the dialogue, and that’s about it. Aniston is whining to her father about being in “New Mexico” instead of back at home in Los Angeles, but he corrects her: “Except it’s not New Mexico, it’s North Dakota.” One wonders how it would be possible to mistake North Dakota for New Mexico — one is as far north as you can go in the U.S., the other as far south. Sure, the character is being intentionally dismissive of wherever it is they are, because it doesn’t matter where it is if it’s not L.A. You’d think Mark Jones (who wrote as well as directed) could come up with a more realistic-sounding incorrect answer, though.
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other North Dakota 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 Leprechaun will battle:
1) Fargo (1996, Ethan & Joel Coen). My Flickchart: #9/3580. Global: #90. Fargo is my second Coen brothers #1 of the trip after Raising Arizona … and second Coen brothers in my Flickchart top 10. To say I love this wintry noir — whose title and opening scene tie it to North Dakota — is an understatement. This thing is cinematic poetry, pure and simple. The Coens’ knack for great characters is never on better display than here. It starts with Frances McDormand‘s Marge Gunderson, the pregnant cop whose advantage is people’s tendency to underestimate her. It continues with William H. Macy‘s Jerry Lundegaard, the car dealer with the wavering smile, in over his head. It’s hard to imagine Fargo, however, without Steve Buscemi‘s Carl Showalter, who may be even better remembered for what … becomes of him, than for his loquacious comic performance. That’s the beauty of Fargo; it’s whimsical, but it’s ultimately a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, demonstrating just how wrong things can go for people doing the wrong thing.
2) Jesus Camp (2006, Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady). My Flickchart: #802/3580. Global: #3433. If you haven’t seen what it looks like when young children — children young enough not only to play with dollies, but to call them dollies — sway with the overwhelming power of Jesus, you haven’t yet seen Jesus Camp. That was the shocking takeaway for me from this eye-opening documentary, which takes a look inside a Christian camp for young children, oh so ironically located just outside of Devils Lake, North Dakota. It’s the kind of place where large pictures of a smiling George W. Bush adorn the rooms, and the camp counselors decry Harry Potter as a scion of the devil — but not, apparently, the kind of place where they’re smart enough to keep enterprising and skeptical documentarians on the other side of the fence. It’s a chilling examination of how much religion can be like mind control in the wrong hands.
3) The Purchase Price (1932, Willilam A. Wellman). My Flickchart: #1733/3580. Global: #8704. The Purchase Price was the fourth of six films William Wellman directed in 1932, but those were different days in Hollywood, and it is no less strong despite having so much competition for Wellman’s attention. Barbara Stanwyck stars as a lounge singer who becomes a mail order bride to a North Dakota farmer (George Brent) as a means of escaping her checkered past. (She changes places with a maid at her hotel, who used her picture when corresponding with the farmer.) The high-concept story takes on some interesting twists and turns as Joan Gordon tries to adapt to life on a remote farm, different in every way imaginable from the glitz and glamor of the footlights. As 1932 was only five years into the talkie era, I expected The Purchase Price to be simplistic, but I really enjoyed its subtlety, warmth and humor.
4) Wooly Boys (2001, Leszek Burzynski). My Flickchart: #2871/3580. Global: #33550. They could call this one Grumpiest Old Men. Peter Fonda and Kris Kristofferson play sheep ranchers — known as “wooly boys” — in Medora, North Dakota, guys so grizzled and old-fashioned that they scoff at such exotic modern conveniences as the telephone. The story involves Fonda’s “Stoney” Stoneman traveling to Minnesota when he doesn’t get his annual birthday card from his daughter, to see what might be wrong, and eventually “kidnapping” his nancy boy grandson (Jurassic Park‘s Joseph Mazzello) for a trip into the deep heart of sheep country to make him a man. There’s some nice stuff here, but the overwhelming impression of Wooly Boys is that it’s a square family drama that makes its two main characters more curmudgeonly than necessary for dramatic purposes only, with some broad comedy shoehorned in. The sheep, on the other hand, are quite understated.
5) The Messengers (2007, Oxide Pang Chun & Danny Pang). My Flickchart: #3397/3580. Global: #9847. If you’re looking for the poster child for hot foreign directors coming to the U.S. and making forgettable, derivative schlock, Hong Kong’s Pang brothers may be it. The twins who were responsible for the original Bangkok Dangerous (in Thailand) and the original The Eye (in Hong Kong) have come to Hollywood to make a generic ripoff of any number of Japanese horror movies. A pre-Twilight Kristen Stewart submits a lot of horrified facial reactions as she wanders around the North Dakota farmhouse where her family has relocated from Chicago as the result of a recent scandal. Perhaps the only thing even remotely original about this movie is the fact that it’s a sunflower farm. I had never heard of such a thing, but I guess you have to get sunflowers from somewhere, right?
First duel: Leprechaun vs. The Purchase Price. That price is not measured in leprechaun’s gold. The Purchase Price wins.
Second duel: Leprechaun vs. Wooly Boys. Peter Fonda and Kris Kristofferson wouldn’t take no guff from no leprechaun. Wooly Boys wins.
Third duel: Leprechaun vs. The Messengers. In a battle between old North Dakota houses being menaced by supernatural forces, the original take beats the decidedly unoriginal take. Leprechaun wins.
Leprechaun finishes fifth out of the six movies.
The worst thing about Leprechaun is that it’s not worse. Maybe it was the height the villains of these two films share in common, but I was expecting — nay, hoping — that Leprechaun would be something like Troll 2, a misfire so bizarre that I would erupt in laughter on multiple occasions. Perhaps the producers of this film hoped for something similar, even though the cult surrounding Troll 2 would have been only in its infancy three years after Troll 2 was released. After all, how could a horror movie in which the thing that’s supposed to horrify us is a wrinkled old sprite from Irish lore be anything but absurd?
Answer: It is absurd, but not absurd enough to be “so bad it’s good.” Leprechaun is a very mediocre kind of bad. I sat there, wanting to laugh, and just not finding anything outrageously horrible enough to inspire those guffaws. Perhaps the filmmakers’ awareness of its inherent absurdity made it necessarily less absurd, since absurdity that happens by accident is always funnier. Clearly, not everything surrounding the leprechaun is played for menace, but the silly parts — such as the leprechaun speeding down the road in a child’s car — aren’t really silly enough to be obviously silly. The leprechaun is too much in the Freddy Kreuger, taunting-you-with-puns tradition to seem like something other than a standard horror movie villain.
Leprechaun is also undone, as it were, by its good acting. One of the chief pleasures of Troll 2 is how god-awful the actors are; only an absolutely earnest commitment to good acting that goes horribly wrong can give the audience that kind of pleasure. The actors here are not only not terrible, but some of them are pretty much good. Jennifer Aniston is working from the same template that would produce Friends‘ Rachel Green in a few years, and it’s downright charming to watch these pre-Rachel Rachelisms come to the surface. Perhaps the most absurd thing about her is her wonderfully early 1990s array of goofy shorts, which makes you wonder how the character can call herself a snooty fashionista from Beverly Hills.
I suppose I shouldn’t feel bad for Warwick Davis, who has made bank on his dwarfism by appearing in the Star Wars saga, the Harry Potter saga, Willow, and all five Leprechaun sequels. If you’re playing a murderous villain, that’s inherently empowering. However, of all his career’s work, only Leprechaun seems to make him something of a figure of ridicule. We’re invited to laugh at his tiny physique when various shotgun blasts drop him like a very small sack of potatoes. Then again, as a little person in Hollywood, I suppose Davis was just thankful to get the work at all.