Flickchart Road Trip: South 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!
Mount Rushmore is featured prominently in three of the six movies I’m discussing this week, it appears on the South Dakota quarter, and it’s the one thing people most identify with South Dakota. (Except, that is, for those people who think it’s in North Dakota.)
So what do you think I’m going to do in South Dakota?
That’s right, I’m going to Wall Drug. (I’ve already been to Mount Rushmore. I’ve already been to Wall Drug as well, but there’s more to do at Wall Drug.)
Wall Drug is the western corollary to South of the Border, the South Carolina tourist trap that’s advertised on the approaching highways hundreds of miles before you get there, which I visited back in South Carolina on this trip. Except that Wall Drug — conveniently located in the town of Wall — probably out-South of the Borders South of the Border. In fact, Wall Drug’s affinity for self-promotion so precedes it that there’s a sign posted in Antarctica that reads “Free Ice Water – Wall Drug, South Dakota, 9,333 miles.” I think that’s pretty great.
So what is Wall Drug, exactly?
It’s essentially a shopping mall where all the stores — drug store, gift shop, restaurants — have the same owner, but it’s plenty more than that. It has a cowboy theme, but that doesn’t really define it either, as there is also an 80-foot long dinosaur out front — an Apataosaurus, to be exact. Its original claim to fame was the free ice water it gave away, as per that sign in Antarctica, but now it also gives away bumper stickers and sells coffee for a pittance of five cents a cup. Wall Drug also spends $400,000 annually on billboards that appear for 650 miles between Minnesota and Montana. All these expenditures must be worth it, as it draws two million visitors and takes in $10 million annually.
Me? I contributed to that by buying a cowboy hat. I figured, what the heck? I also partook of the free ice water. My only regret was that coming from the south, from Nebraska, as I was, I didn’t get to see all those billboards along Route 90.
It does all come back to Mount Rushmore, 60 miles to the west of Wall Drug, the existence of which first prompted Wall’s free ice water promotion. My South Dakota movie comes back to Mount Rushmore, too, as I’ll be catching up with the second in the National Treasure franchise, National Treasure: Book of Secrets. Jon Turteltaub‘s 2007 sequel outgrossed the original, which he also directed, but it trails behind the original 2332 to 4443 in the global rankings. The real question, though, is do we get any classic scenes of Nicolas Cage bringing the crazy?
What it’s about
Treasure hunter Benjamin Gates (Cage) is soaking in the acclaim of his recent triumph, the discovery of a trove of a gold and artifacts that had been a legend in his family, which has made him internationally famous. The only problem is that there’s friction in his relationship with his girlfriend, Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), and he’s moved out of their house. A second problem soon arises: At a lecture where Benjamin and his father Patrick (Jon Voight) are speaking, a mysterious man (Ed Harris) comes forward with a piece of seemingly irrefutable evidence that their storied ancestor, Thomas Gates, was a key conspirator in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Examining the artifact, a page from John Wilkes Booth’s diary, they discover it contains a cipher with clues how to find the lost City of Gold, which the confederates were seeking to try to overturn the results of the Civil War. With trusty computer whiz Riley Poole (Justin Bartha) in tow, the group put aside their differences — which include Patrick’s fractious relationship with his cryptographer ex-wife (Helen Mirren) — to both clear Thomas Gates’ name, and to find the lost City of Gold before their powerful adversaries do. First, they must decipher a series of clues that will take them to London, Paris, Washington D.C., and points beyond.
How it uses the state
If you’re one of those people who like to work out the mystery of a puzzle box movie like this one (see the first National Treasure and The Da Vinci Code for previous examples), it’ll qualify as a spoiler that the movie eventually ends up at Mount Rushmore. Then again, you’re not really using evidence in the movie to piece things together, you’re just watching experts getting ridiculously lucky at first finding, then decoding, all sorts of esoteric encryptions. So what are you complaining about?
What it’s up against
Before we get to my thoughts on the film, let’s duel it against five other South 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 National Treasure: Book of Secrets will battle:
1) North by Northwest (1959, Alfred Hitchcock). My Flickchart: #112/3577. Global: #16. It may not be Alfred Hitchcock’s best film (that’s probably Rear Window) or his most famous (that’s probably Psycho), but North by Northwest may just be Hitchcock’s most iconic film (well, that could also be Psycho). You probably haven’t seen any moving image appear in more Oscar montages than Cary Grant being chased by a cropduster. Fortunately, North by Northwest is also terrific, a fabulous mistaken identity cat-and-mouse game that leads to a thrilling climax smack dab on top of the presidents’ heads on Mount Rushmore. Grant makes the ideal Hitchcockian hero, an ordinary man entangled in danger and intrigue through no fault of his own, with pronounced mother issues. He and Eva Marie Saint have perfect chemistry, making this a great showcase for glamorous movie stars in addition to its generous quantities of suspense, action and mystery. If it’s laughs you want, you can’t do much better than Grant creating a scene at a stuffy auction by shouting out one absurd bid after another.
2) Badlands (1973, Terrence Malick). My Flickchart: #298/3577. Global: #95. If you want to know when Terrence Malick shot his first hand trailing through a wheat field and his first whispered VO, look no further than Badlands. This captivating and beautiful outlaw story didn’t only affect the trajectory of Malick’s own iconoclastic career, but heavily influenced such films as Natural Born Killers and True Romance as well. Martin Sheen is charming and pugnacious as Kit, the greaser who goes on a killing spree, and Sissy Spacek is an ethereal sylph as Holly, whom Kit liberates from her dead-end South Dakota town to be his companion. Although Badlands features a more straightforward narrative than most Malick films, all the familiar Malick elements are there, including the aforementioned reliance on voiceover and an unabashed worship of the natural world. The cinematography is gorgeous and the film is graceful, even when brutal. It’s still his best film.
3) Team America: World Police (2004, Trey Parker). My Flickchart: #916/3577. Global: #1524. Of all the things that have been done to the presidential heads on Mount Rushmore at the movies — such as turning them into martian faces in Mars Attacks! and the faces of the Klingon outlaws in Superman II — using them as a secret base has got to be one of the most original. That’s the sole South Dakota contribution to Team America: World Police, Trey Parker and Matt Stone‘s joyously profane and sarcastically jingoistic cinematic follow-up to South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, starring marionettes. However, it should be noted that the famous marionette sex scene, the one that nearly got the film an NC-17 rating, begins with a romantic sunset kiss in front of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The movie is a hoot, prudes be damned.
4) Incident at Oglala (1992, Michael Apted). My Flickchart: #1393/3577. Global: #26029. Incident at Oglala is actually quite a good documentary, but it lands at #4 among my South Dakota movies because a) I appear to have seen only good movies set in South Dakota, and b) it runs into what I sometimes refer to as my “documentary ceiling,” which places it at a disadvantage relative to an equally well-made fiction film. This one examines the seemingly unjust conviction and imprisonment of Leonard Peltier (above), a Sioux who was tried on mostly circumstantial evidence in the 1975 shooting death of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in Oglala, South Dakota. It looks at both the good (two other Sioux were acquitted in an earlier trial by a Cedar Rapids jury) and the bad (the government may have planted and falsified evidence) in the way Native Americans are treated in the U.S., and it’s got pedigree to spare (Michael Apted directs, Robert Redford narrates).
5) Son in Law (1993, Steve Rash). My Flickchart: #2787/3577. Global: #6612. Son in Law is a bit of a reversal among Hollywood fish-out-of-water comedies, especially those that deal with America’s heartland. Instead of the city dweller coming to the country and learning life’s true priorities, Pauly Shore comes to South Dakota … and gets the South Dakotans to start mimicking the annoying lingo and gestures he coined in the early 1990s. According to Son in Law, we’d all be a lot happier if we just incorporated the word “buuuuddy” into our daily vocabulary. Despite this shameless attempt to promote Shore’s dubious brand, Steve Rash’s comedy actually does have some nice moments and the occasional clever line of dialogue. It’ll never be mistaken for anything more than it is, though.
First duel: National Treasure: Book of Secrets vs. Team America: World Police. It’s America — eff yeah. Team America: World Police wins.
Second duel: National Treasure: Book of Secrets vs. Incident at Oglala. The secrets behind the Oglala frame job are much more interesting. Incident at Oglala wins.
Third duel: National Treasure: Book of Secrets vs. Son in Law. Pauly Shore is not what you would describe as a “national treasure.” National Treasure: Book of Secrets wins.
National Treasure: Book of Secrets finishes fifth out of the six movies.
National Treasure: Book of Secrets is one of those big-budget Hollywood sequels that has almost no surprises. That means it’s perfectly adequate but utterly forgettable.
Actually, there is one surprise of sorts, which became an unfortunate preview of things to come. Until this point, Helen Mirren — recent Oscar winner Helen Mirren — had struck many of us as the kind of actress who could afford to choose only meaty roles in prestigious fare. National Treasure 2 was the movie that reminded us she’s a working actress, just like everyone else — a point she would drive home with emphasis by subsequently appearing in Inkheart, RED and RED 2. Even Helen Mirren has to eat, apparently. Her presence does lend the movie a wee bit of additional interest, but that’s snuffed out pretty quickly when it becomes clear her role amounts to little more than contrived bickering — also known as foreplay to an inevitable reunion — with her ex-husband (Jon Voight). The cast also gets a good dose of gravitas from Ed Harris. Pretty much everyone else was in the original.
I said it’s perfectly adequate, and that’s not really as back-handed a compliment as it sounds. It’s very watchable fluff, if you’re willing to suspend disbelief on some of its more ridiculous interludes (like, say, Nicolas Cage’s Benjamin Gates successfully “kidnapping” the president for about 15 minutes). The fun of a movie like this mostly involves seeing the inventive way the writers can set up clues and pay them off, even if a lot of them are so intricate that even the world’s best cryptographers would probably be lucky to stumble over the correct answers. One particular puzzle I enjoyed was a desk that had to have its drawers just the right amount of open to reveal a hidden chamber inside the desk. I’ll admit it, that kind of thing has a bit of a surface cleverness to it that I dig. However, I should immediately emphasize that it is all on the surface. If you’re trying to “play along,” that’s a recipe for severe disappointment.
Oh, and Cage? He actually does make a scene at Buckingham Palace in order to get taken into custody, but I don’t know if it qualifies as “classic crazy.” When the character is only pretending to be crazy, that’s just no fun.