Straight to Hell/Law of Desire

January 17, 2020

straighttohellThere’s the kind of moviemaker who makes a film every couple-three years; he or she waits around for the perfect script, the perfect actor, the perfect moment. Then there’s the moviemaker who churns out flicks on a fairly continuous basis, just to have something to be working on. Such a busy bee is Alex Cox, the wonderfully demented director of Repo Man and Sid and Nancy.

Cox’s newest film, released less than a year after S&N, was cranked out on a measly million-dollar budget (and, reportedly, a three-day writing schedule). Straight to Hell is no masterwork, and it’s obviously something Cox made with his left hand while his right hand was working on the next big movie.

As such, it sure is fun. Stylistically and otherwise, Straight to Hell flagrantly lives up to its title. This is a scuzzy, gadabout movie, barely existing except to spoof the filmic conventions of the spaghetti Westerns (A Fistful of Dollars The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) of Sergio Leone.

If you’re not familiar with Leone’s movies, some of the gags here won’t work. The credits and the music, for instance, which parody Leone’s flamboyant style – plus a lot of overwrought wide-screen compositions in the manner of that directors’s breath­less shoot-outs, which Leone would compose with the scope of a Wagnerian opera.

The plot here, such as it is, takes three greasy outlaws (Cy Richardson, Clash lead singer Joe Strummer, and co-writer Dick Rude) and their moll (Courtney Love) into a dusty Western town. The townsfolk, a deranged bunch of coffee underachievers who are weirdly fixated on caffeine, look as though they’ve dropped directly out of British society and into a Road Warrior post-apocalyptic world.

The movie gets out of control quickly, which may be its saving grace. A bunch of quirky people – Elvis Costello, Dennis Hopper, Grace Jones, The Pogues – breeze in to fill up the background. It’s a larky film, very uneven, and everyone involved with it seems to have had a very good time.

lawofdesireLaw of Desire is a new movie from another idiosyncratic filmmaker, Spain’s Pedro Almodovar. He’s an acquired taste, but Law of Desire strikes a kind of giddy balance of hipness, camp, and melodrama.

Almodovar’s story seems to jump out of some sub-par 1950s American soap opera. A homosexual film director (Eusebio Poncela) is dogged by a worshiping fan (Antonio Banderas). Eventually Banderas takes out his madness on the director’s lover, and throws the lover off a cliff.

Almodovar takes this situation and puts a nutty spin on it. He sets the film in Madrid, then throws in the director’s transsexual sister (Carmen Maura), a crazy color scheme, and a subterranean sense of humor. It sounds like as wild a mix as Straight to Hell, but the elements in Law of Desire come together in a way that they never do in Straight to Hell, and Almodovar’s is much the better movie. Both movies, in their exotic trashiness, lend a much-welcome aura of untidiness to the current cinema.

First published in the Herald, June 1987

Pretty interesting twofer. I guess I thought Cox was going on to a career of big films, which, unfortunately, he did not. Nothing against his output, mind you, but one expected more spectacular things. And Courtney Love? Yes, it happened. Things turned out rather well for Pedro Almodovar, as you may have heard; this week his star Banderas got an Oscar nomination for the director’s Pain and Glory, a very good career-looking-back movie. Obviously Law of Desire deserved more space than I could give it here, but hey, you do what you can. And I refer to American soaps as the movie’s source of parody; I wasn’t hip enough to know about telenovelas in 1987.

Sid and Nancy

April 27, 2012

Sid and Nancy, a harrowing version of a doomed punk love story, is often unpleasant, but that it works at all is rather remarkable.

Near the beginning of Sid and Nancy, a barker stands on a seedy London street corner encouraging passers-by to enter a sleazy club. After giving his litany of degraded attractions, he shouts, “It is worth it?”—then, lowering his voice and looking into the camera, he says, “Yes it is.”

That seems to be writer-director Alex Cox’s nod to the inevitable criticism of his film—that its subject matter is too horrible to watch. It’s about the pathetic love story between Sid Vicious, the bassist for the standard-bearing punk band the Sex Pistols, and his American girlfriend, Nancy Spungeon. She died at his hands; a few months later he was dead of an overdose.

The film documents this with surprising wit, but never glosses over the violence and squalor of the scene. Sid (played by Gary Oldman) and Nancy (Chloe Webb) are sad creatures, but Cox does not condescend to or romanticize them (and they are superbly acted). Cox also infuses his movie with black humor, but of a kind that captures the horror of his characters’ lives (rather than the smart-alecky humor of his first film, Repo Man).

And his ending, in which Sid finds a pizza place located somewhere on the edge of eternity, is beautiful. This film is sad and distasteful, but in many ways extraordinary. It is worth it? For the strong of stomach, yes, it is.

First published in the Herald, November 1986

This is a short review; it must have been a busy week for openings, as this number ran with similarly brief takes on 52 Pick-Up and Modern Girls. I haven’t seen it since it came out, so I don’t know whether I would still call Chloe Webb’s performance superb—maybe just an excellent case of casting. A rather special film in 1986, I have to say–it came out at just the right moment. I wrote Oldman’s name back then as “Gary Oldham,” but who knew?

Repo Man

December 1, 2010

Stanton, Estevez, the code

You know Repo Man is going to be good when you figure out that its most demented character—an auto-repossession worker (Tracey Walter) who gives every indication of missing a frontal lobe or two—is the only person who really knows what’s going on. Not in a specific way, mind you. But this whacked-out creature has a theory of the way the universe works.

He wonders why, for instance, when you think about a plate of shrimp, that somebody always mentions shrimp, or a plate, or a plate of shrimp, within the next few days—that suddenly all you hear about is shrimp?

Well, maybe that doesn’t happen to you. But this man knows that everything is connected, and he’s right. About a half an hour later, a character walks into a deli, and a hand-painted sign catches your eye: “Special: Plate O’ Shrimp.”

It’s proof that there really is order in the scattered, fragmented world of Repo Man. It would be silly—and beside the point—to summarize the plot, which isn’t particularly important to the movie. But, for the record: It begins with a scientist (I think), on the lam from the nuclear tests at Los Alamos, who drives his radioactive car (carrying the corpses of some extraterrestrials in the trunk) into Los Angeles—where else?

And there’s this kid named Otto Maddux (say it out loud), played by Emilio Estevez, Martin Sheen’s son. He needs a job and gets hooked up with some repo men, retrieving cars when the payments go overdue. The leader of these repo men is played by Harry Dean Stanton, the pock-marked, rat-faced supporting actor who has become a central figure in the history of low-life cinema.

The movie includes their repossession adventures, Otto’s punk friends performing random crimes, and a new romance for Otto with a girl who has an odd interest in aliens. But it’s really a mad crazy-quilt for the punk age, a cornucopia of absurd events that start to make sense after a while. Repo Man has bits and pieces flying all over the place; it can’t quite hold up under the strain of trying to tie them all together, and it falls apart near the end. But it’s fun getting there.

The film is the brainchild of a British-born, California-educated man named Alex Cox, whose first feature this is. Cox clearly has a lively visual imagination (he’s helped by the great German cinematographer, Robby Muller), and a good sense of pace. His dialogue ranges from the loopily brilliant (like Tracey Walter’s ruminations) to the relentlessly profane.

And he knows whereof he speaks. After he went to film school, Cox worked for a while as an auto-repossessor in Los Angeles. Coming from that strange business, it must have seemed normal to jump into the surreal world of Repo Man.

That doesn’t quite explain the plate of shrimp. But I know this much: They’re out there, these shrimp, plates, and plates of shrimp. Don’t be surprised when you start noticing them.

First published in the Herald, 1984.

This was awfully fun when it first arrived – and still is, sure, but really was then. Stanton was having his apotheosis (Paris, Texas was happening, too) and he turned away from the sleazy roles he’d been perfecting for so long. Which was kind of a shame, although you get why he’d do that.