Monday, January 16, 2012

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984) ****

What are the things that we value in a good movie? The list includes good cinematography, good acting, a riveting, believable story, and special effects good enough to seem real and allow us to forget that we are watching a movie. How then to explain the phenomenon of Cult Classics, movies that are beloved by a vocal minority despite lacking most of those qualities?

“The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension“ (usually shortened to “Buckaroo Banzai“) is a Cult Classic in every sense of the term, sporting laughable special effects, a disjointed narrative, and over-the-top performances by unknown actors and stars alike. While loved by its adherents (myself included), the film is totally unfit for a mass audience. Show this to a normal girl on a first date, and there will not be a second date! The sad thing is that this isn’t even necessarily a “low-budget” film. To put this in perspective, the first Star Wars movie was made in 1977 for $11 million, and “Return of the Jedi” in 1982 cost roughly $33 million. Modern-day sci-fi classic “District 9” cost $30 million in 2009. These are all slick-looking, well-produced sci-fi films. “Buckaroo Banzai,” with a budget of 12 million 1983 dollars, is a complete mess. And yet, like an abused lover, I can’t help loving it.

The titular hero, Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller), is a mild-mannered polymath, a leading neurosurgeon, physicist, racecar driver, and rock star. World-famous due to a series of comic books based on his exploits, Banzai has a loose, worldwide network of friends and short-wave radio operators who help him in his battles with evil. He surrounds himself, Doc Savage-style, with a small team of gun-toting Renaissance-men who also make up his rock band.

What can I say about the plot? There is one, but it is so bizarre, and the film is edited so poorly, that it takes a long time to figure out what is going on. Basically, the Earth gets caught in the middle of a fight between two alien species. The more warlike species, the Red Lectroids, are secretly exiled on earth. When Buckaroo Banzai makes news by crossing into the 8th dimension and back, the Red Lectroids decide to steal his invention and use it to get back to their home planet, where they plan to destroy the Black Lectroids. When the Black Lectroids get wind of all this, they give Buckaroo Banzai an ultimatum: Stop the Red Lectroids, or the earth will be destroyed in order to prevent their escape.

As I said, it takes a long time for that plot to come together, and meanwhile the audience is treated to a series of slapped-together scenes that don’t make much sense. They are, however, hilarious if you just relax and enjoy the ride. Peter Weller plays a great straight-man as Buckaroo Banzai, while a bunch of bizarre characters and events revolve around him. John Lithgow is delightfully manic as a scientist whose brain has been possessed by one of the Red Lectroids. Jeff Goldblum struts around in a ridiculous cowboy outfit. Christopher Lloyd plays a Red Lectroid named John Bigboote (emphasis on the last letter). Ellen Barkin sports a dreadful haircut but still manages to be sexy as hell.

Eventually, the whole thing turns into a slap-happy space-Western. Everyone in the film appears to be having a fabulous time. If you can put aside your usual expectations of a comprehensible narrative, then you’ll have a good time, too!

1 or 4 stars out of 5, depending on how you look at it.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Roman Holiday (1953) ****

Anyone who wants to understand the allure of Audrey Hepburn need only watch “Roman Holiday,” the movie that made her a star. With her refined, elfin features and devastating smile, there isn’t a man alive who wouldn’t want her for his girlfriend. Hepburn is so charming in this film that as a Hollywood newcomer she won the Best Actress Oscar for the role.

Hepburn plays Princess Ann, a bored royal who accidentally escapes from her handlers while on a diplomatic mission in Rome. She is befriended by a handsome American, Joe (Gregory Peck), who recognizes her, but pretends to believe her story of being a student who slipped out of school. Joe convinces her to enjoy her freedom by spending the day in Rome with him and his friend Irving (Eddie Albert). Little does Ann know that Joe and Irving are actually a reporter/photographer team, secretly documenting Ann’s adventures around Rome for what they hope will be a scandalous, exclusive story.

Gregory Peck, Eddie Albert, and Albert’s smooth-looking beard are all excellent, although Peck has to stretch a bit to play a money-hungry reporter. (Somehow I doubt that Peck ever played a real villain.) It is Audrey Hepburn who makes the film, however. She just lights up the screen. This is not the deepest character, but Hepburn lends real humanity and dignity to Ann while displaying some decent physical comedy chops.

Ultimately, “Roman Holiday” is a fun little comedy about Duty, about people paying the price to do what they know is right. It’s an odd mixture, but it works.

4 stars

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Withnail and I (1987) ****

“Withnail and I” is sort of a British “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” It’s the story of a couple of absolute reprobates drinking and drugging away their youths in a filthy London flat. Having dirtied every single dish in the house, and faced with the possible and unsurprising presence of vermin in the kitchen, the two decide that a vacation is in order. They secure the use of a country house from Withnail’s uncle Monty and embark on a hilarious weekend in which they display their complete unsuitability to exist anywhere outside of the city. Dealing with a wood stove, cooking for themselves, and negotiating muddy trails is entirely outside of their skill set, and the pair are saved only by the appearance of Withnail’s uncle.

It is never clear whether Withnail and Marwood are gay, but Monty certainly is, and the dirty old man takes an aggressive shine to Marwood. His advances border on the criminal, and the boys are ultimately forced to retreat back to the city.

I’ve been seeing a lot of British stuff lately, and “Withnail and I” may be the Britishest. It definitely isn’t for everyone, but I found it hilarious. Withnail (Richard E. Grant) is the most incorrigible character, completely oblivious to consequences, and always full of good/bad ideas. Owing to the English accents, the dialogue can be hard to follow, but even if you only catch half of what is said, it’s still twice as funny as most of what is out there. I highly recommend checking it out.

4 stars out of 5