Hidden Netflix Gems: Raising Arizona

It’s Saturday night and you need something to watch. Never fear, Hidden Netflix Gems is a weekly feature designed to help you decide just what it should be, and all without having to scroll through endless pages of crap or even leave the house. Each choice will be available for streaming on Netflix Instant, and the link below will take you to its page on the site. Look for a new suggestion here every Saturday. 

This week’s Hidden Netflix Gem: Raising Arizona (1987)

Even if you haven’t heard of Joel and Ethan Coen, you’ve sure as hell heard of some of their films. The brothers have jointly written, directed, and produced such modern classics as Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country for Old Men, and True Grit. Their work bounces around in time, space, and genre—the Coens never make the same movie twice—and they’ve been renowned for it over the past three decades, with 13 Academy Award nominations and four wins.

Before all those accolades, the Coen brothers made their debut with 1984′s Blood Simple, a neo-noir thriller. Not wanting to make a reputation as one-trick ponies, they avowed to make to their next project as different from their first as possible. Out of that desire, the one-of-a-kind screwball comedy Raising Arizona was born.

Our protagonist is Herbert I. “Hi” McDonnough, played by the polarizing Nicolas Cage, who can make or break a movie depending on whether or not he fits his character. Hi is the type of lovable nitwit that often fills Coen fare: an erudite idiot reminiscent of Lebowski’s Dude, if he’d been born in an Arizona trailer park and had a penchant (though not necessarily a skill) for robbing 24-hour convenience stores. Luckily, Cage slips into Hi’s skin masterfully, right down to the wacky hairdo and funny accent (“Temp-ee, Arizona”). The performance remains one of his best to date, although ultimately Adaptation takes the cake.

Opposite Cage is Holly Hunter as the tight-lipped policewoman, Edwina or “Ed,” who’s always taking the recidivist Hi’s mugshot photos. After one particularly fateful arrest, Hi finds Ed in tears and learns that her fiance has left her. He proposes after his latest release from prison, and the two get married and move into a tiny trailer in the Arizona desert, which Hi lovingly calls a “suburban starter home.” One of the film’s many sources of comedy is the contrast between the upbeat world of Hi’s narration and that of the more objective reality we see on screen.

Hi does his best to “stand up and fly straight” after settling into married life, getting a job in a machine shop, but finds it difficult “with that darned Reagan in the White House.” Nonetheless, as time passes, the couple want to take the logical next step and start a family. Unfortunately, “biology is against them,” as they receive the unhappy news that Edwina is “barren,” and they’re denied the chance to adopt because of Hi’s criminal record.

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Consistently Inconsistent: The highs and lows of Nicolas Cage

Depending on the movie in question, Nicolas Cage is either one of the best actors of his generation or a no-talent nutjob who was lucky enough to have a famous director for an uncle. While most actors experience their share of highs and lows throughout the course of their careers, Cage’s filmography is like a game of Russian roulette – you never know what to expect. Granted, he’s never been known for his subtlety, but even at his most outrageous, there’s always a chance that he can make a movie better.

More often than not, however, it just winds up as part of some hilarious video montage for our enjoyment. Even stranger is the way that it seems to happen in cycles. These last two years have seen the actor at the top of his game with memorable roles in “Kick-Ass” and “Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans,” while 2011 promises to deliver some surefire duds with “Season of the Witch” and “Drive Angry.” It seemed like the perfect opportunity for the Bullz-Eye staff to put together a list of his best and worst performances, but with so many to choose from, it was a lot harder than we thought.

The HIGHS

“Adaptation” (2002)

Charlie Kaufman has written some of the most original movies of the last decade, but “Adaptation” is probably his best thanks to an incredible (and surprisingly reserved) performance from Nicolas Cage, who plays a fictionalized version of the screenwriter as he struggles to finish the script for the very film that the audience is watching. It’s all very meta like Kaufman’s other movies, but what separates it from the rest is seeing Cage tackle a character that’s so far off from anything he’s done before. Donning a balding wig and carrying a few extra pounds, Cage is just oozing desperation as the sweaty, neurotic loner. What makes the performance even more impressive is that he does it twice – also playing Charlie’s fabricated twin brother, Donald, who represents the real-life Kaufman’s problems with the Hollywood system. Though they’re physically identical, Donald is the complete opposite of his brother – a happy-go-lucky ladies man who’s able to knock out a million-dollar script on his first try. It’s a remarkable feat for an actor who tends to get a little out of control at times, and whether or not director Spike Jonze had anything to do with keeping him on a short leash, it’s what ultimately makes the role one of his absolute best. – Jason Zingale

“Leaving Las Vegas” (1995)

Preparing to make the film version of the late John O’Brien’s novel of boozy suicide, Nicolas Cage told Roger Ebert that he watched all the great Hollywood portrayals of alcoholics. The actor made sure that Ben Sanderson was different from all of them because he is different. To Ben, death is not an inconvenient outcome of gargantuan liquor consumption, it’s a key ingredient in the cocktail. As he calmly tells Sera, his slightly less damaged prostitute love (Elisabeth Shue), his plan is to drink himself to death in a city where last call never arrives. Neither Ben, nor Mike Figgis’s movie, has any interest in 12 Steps, rehab, or anything else that might extend his life. The film is an unapologetically romantic love story but not a redemption story in the usual sense, nor does Cage sell alcoholism short. From Ben romping through a supermarket liquor section in the brilliant first shot to his hyper-dramatic, gross overtures to random women, assorted humiliations, and the brutal, bluntly sexual and heartbreaking final scene with Shue, Cage shows us both the temporary fun of drunkenness and that his grief-destroyed ex-family man is suffering from a gruesome illness. We are also aware of the enormous sweetness and pain that would attract Sera, despite the obvious drawbacks of loving a suicidal drunk, and that Ben, like Cage, is a born manic entertainer. – Bob Westal

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