Raising Arizona

March 4, 2020

raisingarizonaA few months ago singer­-songwriter David Byrne of Talking Heads made a movie all about the loopiest American customs and people. It was True Stories, and while Byrne flashed an interesting visual style, the movie was so slow and smug that it really didn’t score its points.

Byrne might learn something from Raising Arizona. This mad new film shares some of the same subjects as True Stories, including the caricatured characters, rural setting, and an arch camera sense. But from the first few seconds of Raising Arizona – even from the title – you know this film sprints to its own demented drummer.

But how could it not? This is the second film from the incorrigibly clever Coen brothers, Joel (the director) and Ethan (the producer – they collaborate on the scripts). Their maiden film, Blood Simple, was merely one of the most outrageous movies of the decade. It wrung insane gallows humor out of a convoluted film noir story.

Raising Arizona is a flat-out comedy. And it moves at a flat-out pace; in the first 10 minutes or so, we’re swept through an eccentric narration about a lowlife armed robber (Nicolas Cage), his repeated jail terms, and his whirlwind romance with the police officer (Holly Hunter) who snaps his picture during booking procedures. They are married and move to a shack “in the Tempe suburbs” – a cactus-strewn wasteland – and enjoy their salad days while contemplating an expanded family unit.

But one day the wife returns from a doctor’s appointment and announces, sadly, “Ah’m barren.” They can’t adopt because of the husband’s prison record. They’re disconsolate, until they read about a local couple who have just had quintuplets. Perhaps one of the toddlers might be spared….

That’s the first 10 minutes. After they kidnap one of the babies, are paid a visit by two of Cage’s imbecilic prison buddies (John Goodman, the bachelor from True Stories, and William Forsyth), and encounter a monolithic bounty hunter (Randall “Tex” Cobb) who must be on the loose from a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western, things start to heat up.

It’s all basically silly and satiric, but the Coen brothers know how to have fun. The whole opening sequence has the comic self-assurance of a Preston Sturges movie, which also means it counts on the intelligence of the audience to keep up with it. And in the middle of the movie they let fly with one of the funniest car chases ever put on film, as a routine stop for diapers becomes a crazy confusion of cars, guard dogs, and Cage running through the streets with a pair of nylons over his head.

The Coens also find time for the daft aside. After the two escaped cons kidnap the baby themselves, they stop for supplies. One picks up a bag of balloons, and asks the cashier, “Hey, do these balloons blow up in funny shapes?” The old coot behind the counter says, “Nope.” Beat. “Not unless you think round is funny.” There’s certainly nothing round about this movie.

First published in the Herald, April 1987

Hey, how’d it take so long for me to post my review of Raising Arizona? I would hope that even the great David Byrne would give the Coens the advantage on my comparison. Watching this movie for the first time a week before it opened – I recall it was at the tiny, uninspiring Northwest Preview Room – I remember wondering, during the opening extended sequence, about why more movies couldn’t be like this. Repeated viewings have not dimmed the pleasure, even if the late-reels departure into surrealism signaled a direction that the Coens would mine with much better success later in their careers.

Vampire’s Kiss

August 1, 2012

The other day I was reading an interview with the quirky young actor Nicolas Cage, who played Cher’s beau in Moonstruck and Kathleen Turner’s high school sweetheart in Peggy Sue Got Married. Cage revealed he had his first glimmerings of wanting to be an actor while watching a Jerry Lewis movie.

Ah hah. I read this after I saw Cage’s new film, Vampire’s Kiss, and it suddenly explained a great deal about Cage’s performance. In Vampire’s Kiss, this odd actor does his most demented work yet.

Cage plays a Manhattan power yuppie, a rising executive at a publishing house who terrorizes his office by day and scours the nightclubs for feminine company, always temporary, by night. And he wonders to his psychiatrist (Elizabeth Ashley) about his sense of unhappiness.

One night he picks up the wrong girl, one who makes Alex in Fatal Attraction seem tame. She (Jennifer Beals, of Flashdance fame) is a hot, dark number, but she sprouts fangs and bits Cage on the neck during the night. She keeps turning up at regular intervals to repeat the treatment.

It isn’t long before Cage is leaping around his office in a peculiar manner, and chasing down pigeons in the park for their blood supply. He’s particularly threatening to his sweet secretary (Maria Conchita Alonso), who fears for her safety.

Writer Joseph Minion, who also did the script for the inventive After Hours, is an original talent. The idea that depravity and vampirism are the result of unbridled ambition and life without love is a provocative one, and Minion concocts some clever scenes to play it out. In After Hours Minion had Martin Scorsese to translate his script into film. Vampire’s Kiss is directed by Robert Bierman, who does serviceable but unremarkable work. They also haven’t come up with an ending that feels satisfying.

It’s fun to watch Cage. As he falls further under the bloodsucking spell, he becomes increasingly batty. Shoulders hunched, limbs flying, face contorting, voice jerking into the upper register, he’s a bundle of neurotic mannerisms. When his character goes to a novelty store and picks up a pair of plastic Halloween fangs, Cage begins to resemble the Jerry Lewis of The Nutty Professor.

Whether a subtler actor might have done more intriguing things with the role is open to debate. But Cage is certainly convincing as a menace to society, after and before his affliction.

First published in the Herald, June 1, 1989

The movie probably doesn’t quite work, but it’s so much fun watching Cage in his playpen that the film takes on a layer of fizz; I remain enchanted by the way he pronounces his own name when he introduces himself: “I’m Peter Loeuoweuh.” That kind of heroic leap makes up for some strange choices later in his career.

Valley Girl

November 30, 2010

Cage, Foreman, not at all grody

(Sorry, I have to do a prelude with this reprint: the whole joke of the opening paragraphs is that this review was written in mid-1983. Okay, proceed.)

Remember 1982? Those were the days: E.T., the Go-Go’s, Smurfs. And remember those crazy Valley Girls, who rose up from the shopping centers and hair salons in California, with their wacky sayings—”Gag me with a spoon,” and “Fer sure,” and “Tubular”? Valley Girl mania must have lasted a good four, maybe five months.

Back then, it probably sounded like a great idea to cash in on the trend with a movie—just slap the title Valley Girl on it, throw a bit of plot around the edges, and make a quick little killing.

But life was simpler, more clear-cut, back in ’82. For instance, the big crisis in Valley Girl springs from its Romeo and Juliet situation: our Valley Girl heroine, Julie (Deborah Foreman), falls for punk rocker Randy (Nicolas Cage), and runs the risk of being ostracized by her preppy friends.

Now, as the movie finally opens in the Northwest (six months or so after its initial release), the differences between the preppies and the punks have pretty much disappeared. Lifestyles, fashion, and music have melted into a single mushy mixture of preppy-punkdom.

This might suggest that Valley Girl is already dated, or less believable than it might have been. Maybe so. But if those battle lines between fashion factions have become blurred lately, it doesn’t mean Valley Girl can’t be enjoyed on its own merits.

And, believe it or not, it does have merits. Modest merits, to be sure; but there’s a good-natured feeling about the whole low-budget enterprise that makes it endearing.

Not that the film doesn’t engage in the usual shenanigans of this genre; there are plenty of teen-age girls in bikinis, and a few sophomoric sex jokes. That’s to be expected. But Valley Girl is a world away from the likes of Porky’s.

This film presents its two main characters—winningly played by dimpled Foreman and sleepy-eyed Cage—with a fair portion of sensitivity. Their friendship doesn’t just exist to provide a springboard for a string of gags; it actually seems to matter.

The care with which Valley Girl is made is probably courtesy of the director, Martha Coolidge. Coolidge is not particularly gifted with the camera—although she’s clearly made the film under shoestring conditions—but she has a talent with the young actors, and the film moves along nicely.

There’s a scene in which Julie and Randy go on a walking date through the streets of Los Angeles, and Coolidge frames the couple against the garish neon signs of fast-food places and shopping malls. The sequence manages to be as romantic as if they were walking down a Parisian boulevard, and it’s funny, too—but in a friendly way, not a sarcastic way.

To over-praise Valley Girl is to kill it, so I’ll stop. After all, the Big Decision of the movie involves Julie’s choice for the senior prom. But if that kind of thing can still seem crucial to you, think about giving this little movie a look.

First published in the Herald, 1983.

Oh, go ahead: over-praise! I love this movie. I guess that “mushy mixture of preppy-punkdom” was called New Wave, a patch of music history I remain un-fond of. (However, good soundtrack here, leaning heavily on the Plimsouls’ glorious “A Million Miles Away” and Modern English’s “I Melt with You,” songs that remind you that great music emerges even in the down times.) The opening paragraphs were intended as a joke on the quickness of fads, because the review was written barely a year after that stuff happened. I was wrong about Coolidge’s gifts with the camera (she’s very aware and precise as a visual filmmaker). I interviewed Coolidge for a Film Comment piece when Rambling Rose came out (FC issue Nov.-Dec. 1991) and she talked about how Valley Girl came out of all the research she’d done on a punk love story that was going to be produced by Francis Coppola; when that project went kerflooey, she put all her feeling for music and the milieu into Valley Girl. I’m so glad I pointed out the neon-lit date scene; that’s a magical moment in movie romance, especially given the incongruous setting—but the incongruous setting makes the moment all the more precious.

“A Million Miles Away,” on YouTube.