“Raising Arizona” (1987) dir./ scr. The Coen Brothers

I first became aware of the Coen Brothers when their debut film “Blood Simple” was making the rounds and creating a buzz.  I was 15 at the time and saw it at the Circle 6 in Norfolk, VA during the (then) theatrical no-man’s land between February and May of 1985.  These were the days when if you looked vaguely 17 years old, they would sell you a ticket … or not.  To be fair, even from the age of 13, I was never refused a ticket for an R-rated film.  At the time, I thought it was because I looked super-old.  In reality, I don’t think the theaters gave a s–t.  Seriously, I was able to buy a ticket for “9 1/2 Weeks” at the same theater during the same period and no one even remotely asked me if I was of age.   But I digress …

Anyway, I didn’t think much of “Blood Simple” back then.  It was interesting and weird for sure, but I left the theater thinking “Eh …”  In subsequent years, I’ve rewatched “Bood Simple” and think it’s amazing, but as a 15-year old, it didn’t do much for me.  Neither did “9 1/2 Weeks” for that matter.  But by that point, I had already seen “Deep Throat” uncut, along with several porn classics on the Playboy Channel, which … while heavily edited … were still much more explicit than the antics in the allegedly “saucy” “9 1/2 Weeks.”  But again, I digress …

Cut to the Spring of 1987.  I’m listening to NPR (the station my Mom listened to back in the day before she discovered Rush Limbaugh … another sad digression … ARRGH!) and the NPR commentators are discussing this amazingly weird film “Raising Arizona.”  I’m intrigued, but not making the connection it’s by the same people who made “Blood Simple.”  When I visited my Dad in the Washington D.C. area for Spring Break, “Raising Arizona” was the film I chose to see.  That was a great visit, because I also discovered Tower Records near George Washington University and picked up the following albums: “The Velvet Underground and Nico,” “For Your Pleasure” by Roxy Music, “London Calling” by the Clash, and “The Best of Elvis Costello” during the same visit, which all changed my life in significant ways.

Anyway, back to “Raising Arizona.”  My thoughts at the time?  It was a fantastically weird aberration / revelation along the lines of Alex Cox’s “Repo Man,” David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” and Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild.”  It was a film that … on the surface … seemed to follow traditional movie conventions, but went off the rails in several key areas.  On one level, it was one of many Yuppie “we’re having a baby” films that were popular at the time (“Baby Boom,” “She’s Having a Baby”). But it also injected some really dark 1940s-era film noir elements (kidnapping, escaped convicts) that the filmmakers kept just dark enough to keep it interesting, but always pulled back at crucial moments before the film became truly disturbing. It many ways, it was simultaneously the perfect and most perverse major studio debut for resoundingly indie filmmakers.

Watching it now, “Raising Arizona” seems simultaneously like the most perverse and perfect major studio debut for decidedly indie filmmakers.  It rides the line between conventional comedy and truly twisted cinema better than most allegedly “edgy” studio films.  And the fact that it does all of this within the confines of a then PG-13 rating seems even more bizarre. In many ways, you can see elements of the Coen Brothers’ future masterpieces, from “Fargo” to “No Country for Old Men” here.  And oddly, unlike most Coen Brothers films, “Raising Arizona” manages to eke out a happy ending, though not in the ways you would normally expect.  The happy ending is a dream.  And while it may be a dream, unlike the endings of “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” where the happy endings may actually be the delusions of the twisted anti-heroes, the dream ending in “Raising Arizona” seems plausible.  And that’s one of the reasons this is arguably the most beloved of the Coen Brothers’ films.

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“Repo Man” – Iggy Pop

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This theme song for Alex Cox’s demented 1984 punk rock science-fiction comedy was the first Iggy song I ever heard (aside from David Bowie’s cover of Iggy’s “China Girl”). I can only imagine what went through Iggy’s head when he wrote this, but I like it because it has very little to do with the movie it’s written for. The cool guitar work is courtesy of the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones. Favorite line: “I’ll turn you into a toadstool!”

Harry Dean Stanton in “Repo Man” (1984) dir. Alex Cox

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Veteran character actor Harry Dean Stanton delivered what was perhaps the best performance of his career as the burned-out, but principled automobile repo man Bud in Alex Cox’s nihilistic punk comedy masterpiece “Repo Man.”

Key line: “Ordinary f–king people … I hate ’em.”

Other key line (not in this clip): “What are you, a f–kin’ Commie? Huh? … I don’t want no Commies in my car. No Christians either.”

“My Way” – Sid Vicious

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Sid Vicious’s biggest musical moment … this is Sid’s infamous punk cover of the Frank Sinatra warhorse, with new filthy lyrics. The video, originally at the end of Julien Temple’s Sex Pistols documentary “The Great Rock n Roll Swindle,” is equally as infamous, with a graphically violent climax that must be seen to be believed. Not safe for work.

Perhaps the best use of this song was over the end credits of Martin Scorsese’s gangster classic “Goodfellas,” a perfect choice that sums up the entire picture.

And … as a bonus … here’s the version of the scene from the 1986 Alex Cox-directed biopic “Sid and Nancy” with Gary Oldman dynamically taking the mic as Sid. While this is not Oldman’s first big performance, it was the one that made him famous.

“Sid and Nancy” (1986) dir. Alex Cox

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I saw “Sid and Nancy” in 1986, during the week between Christmas and New Years Day when school is not in session and I was visiting my Dad in Washington D.C. I saw it at the (now defunct) Key Theater, a Georgetown multiplex that showed nothing but art films. I remember this was the first time I had been in Georgetown by myself and was particularly excited because I also managed to find a (then-rare) CD copy of the Dead Kennedy’s “Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables” at Olsson’s Books and Music (sadly out of business).

Anyway, I was really excited to see this not only because this was a major film about punk history, but was also because it was directed by Alex Cox, who directed one of my all-time favorite films, “Repo Man.” The theater was thoughtful enough to include a very killer punk mix of music before the film started. My verdict of “Sid and Nancy” at the time? I thought it was good, even though I knew a lot of it was bullshit. This film gets a lot of stuff wrong, but it was still damn exciting to watch. This was the first time I had seen Gary Oldman (who plays Sid Vicious) and thought he did a magnificent job. The start of a brilliant career… Chloe Webb as Nancy Spungen was also damn good. I’m sorry to see that after an appearance in the Arnold Schwarzenegger / Danny DeVito film “Twins” and a role on the TV show “China Beach” she didn’t do much after that aside from the occasional TV appearance and supporting role. She’s always been memorable in everything she’s been in.

My verdict now? I still think it’s quite remarkable. Yes, it includes a bit too much of Cox quirkiness and while I realize it has even more wrong about the facts than I knew at the time, it still packs quite a wallop. At times, funny and extremely depressing, “Sid and Nancy” is a great rock and roll film, one of the best films ever made about a mutually destructive relationship, and a genuinely thrilling attempt to document the highs and lows of the punk scene in Great Britain and New York City during the late 1970s.

9. “Repo Man” (1984) dir. Alex Cox

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Continuing the punk theme from “Jesus of Suburbia,” Number 9 on Dave’s Strange World all-time favorite movies is Alex Cox’s funny, nasty tale of punks, UFOs, repo men, and the CIA. This movie came out around the time me and my friends started getting into punk. In 1984, punk as a late-1970s fad had faded and whatever was left just got harder and more aggressive, hence the adjective “hardcore.” By this point, there wasn’t much mainstream media exposure to punk, other than “Blackboard Jungle”-style exposes of wayward youth on the evening news.

So when a major studio (in this case, Universal) film featured hardcore punk as a prominent part of the film and soundtrack, it was something we all paid attention to. Granted, “Repo Man” portrayed punks as stupid, violent, and amoral for the most part, but nearly all of the characters in “Repo Man” were stupid, violent, and amoral, so no one cared and laughed their asses off.

This is a really funny, subversive film that’s still hilarious to this day. It’s nihilistic sense of humor predated Quentin Tarantino’s films by about 8 years and when I first saw “Reservoir Dogs” in 1992, I described to friends as “Repo Man” meets “Goodfellas.” I realize that may strike most people as odd, but when you consider the characters in “Repo” and “Reservoir”‘s mutual misanthropy, it makes perfect sense in my book.

Of the many great scenes in “Repo Man,” I love this one where Emilio Estevez’s character is talking to his punk friend who is dying after being shot during an attempted hold-up.   Estevez casually comforts his friend during his death rattle by saying “You’re going to be all right, man … Maybe not.”