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

I’ve always said that there are two likely reactions when you get to the end of Buckaroo Banzai: you either thank God it’s over, or you curse the heavens that they never made Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League. Unsurprisingly, but maddeningly, Marie is in the first camp, and I am definitely in the second. That’s despite this movie being so remarkably prickly that it probably shouldn’t appeal to me, but I love its moxie. This plays like the fourth or fifth Buckaroo Banzai film; it did all its character work several stories before.

In the wake of Avengers: Endgame, there were a raft of whiny complaints from “critics” who acted like they hadn’t noticed every previous Marvel movie and thought they were clever asking why Endgame didn’t try harder to appeal to newbies, but that’s exactly what Buckaroo Banzai does, and very successfully. Perhaps it’s a shame we were never introduced to Rawhide, Perfect Tommy, Casper, and Scooter, but we didn’t need to be, did we?

But maybe we needed to learn just a little more about Buckaroo himself: neurosurgeon, physicist, rock star, widower. He’s such a blank slate that even by the end of the movie we know so little about him that if somebody ever did make Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League and wrote the hero totally differently, who could complain? Talking of moxie, I love how he’s introduced. Some guy growls “Where is he,” and since he’s waiting for a man to drive an experimental car, we shouldn’t conclude that the fellow in surgeon scrubs of all things is that man. Peter Weller was never a big enough star for most viewers to recognize his voice or eyes, and first we see him in an operating theater. Jeff Goldblum many people did come to know, very well, later, so we can guess that maybe he’s talking to the hero, and then in his very next scene, the hero is still masked and climbing into a jet car. This is a movie that makes a lot more sense the second time around.

But trust our kid to find a third reaction. “I don’t know what to think of that,” he said. I gave him a little introduction last night that this would be our second example of an eighties cult film that failed in its first run but found a larger audience later on, and that John Lithgow would be overacting unbelievably, and that he would never really learn who the characters were. He liked some of it but was utterly baffled by most of it.

It’s a bizarre film, yet it’s still pretty conventional. The bad guys need a couple of henchmen, and they’re played by perennial Hollywood henchmen Vincent Schiavelli and Dan Hedaya. Christopher Lloyd, who is hilariously concerned about the pronunciation of his Earthling name, is their boss, and the Griffith Park Tunnel is here as well, making two obvious connections to Roger Rabbit. And no, of course the kid didn’t recognize Lloyd despite seeing him just seven days ago in Clue. It follows a pretty straightforward action-adventure plotline, although the climax is really low-key and simple. It’s downright refreshing after watching how much bigger and bloated the finales of movies like this have become.

It’s a movie that leaves me wanting more. I want to read the Buckaroo Banzai comics in that universe, not ours, I want to know the Hong Kong Cavaliers’ discography, and I want to see them in a small club like the one they play here. I want to know how to subscribe to the Blue Blaze newsletter and become an Irregular. Maybe the kid will want to know more one day as well; he just needs to see it a second time and think about it. Give him a few years and he’ll also curse the heavens that they never made Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League.

Clue (1985)

I told our son that this weekend and next, we’re going to look at a pair of cult films from the eighties, movies that did not do well at the box office but found a much bigger audience on cable and on home video. I genuinely believe that in the case of 1985’s breathtakingly silly Clue, it’s because two-thirds of the people who saw it did not see its greatest moment, and so didn’t didn’t tell their friends.

Our son was amused by the old newspaper ad that I showed him for the film. You could see ending A at these theaters, ending B at these, and ending C at these others. Or you could just see something else entirely. I still don’t know what Paramount’s marketing department was thinking. If you give an audience any reason to expect they have to do any work at all to watch a movie, they won’t bother, which is why the film flopped the first time out.

Clue assembled Eileen Brennan, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, and Lesley Ann Warren as the six immortal characters from the board game, with Tim Curry as the butler with about half the film’s lines (poor fellow), and Colleen Camp as the maid. That is certainly among the finest casts of any film of its era. Mr. Boddy ends up dead, which he had coming as he was blackmailing them all, but then so does the cook. And a traveling motorist. And the maid, and a cop, and a singing telegram girl. And so before you can dash down a secret passage, they’re all trying to guess whodunnit.

Good grief, it’s so silly. Between pratfalls, long pauses, collapsing furniture, ridiculous delivery, and Mull just gift-wrapping lines for Curry to destroy, it’s just not possible to watch this movie without smiling. I’m sure this felt like work for everybody involved while they were on set – especially Curry, who I swear must be speaking for forty of the film’s ninety minutes – but the payoff is giggles and smiles all the way through it. It takes tropes and cliches and embraces them like they were best friends. It’s a movie that is having an absolute ball and wants to entertain you.

But of course anybody can make a silly movie. It took Madeline Kahn to make this one a classic. She’s so understated and subtle in this film, as her character chooses to let Miss Scarlet attract all of the attention. Mrs. White fades into the background deliberately, until “that scene” in ending C. If you have heard of it, I implore you, don’t try to watch it out of context on YouTube. It’s made into perfection by the hour and a half of silliness and good humor that precedes it, and the stream of chuckles and giggles and smiles turn a little moment of improv into something so much more.

I’m reminded of Bob Woffinden’s book The Beatles Apart, when he describes the Concert for Bangla Desh. Now, if you’ve ever heard Bob Dylan’s numbers on the LP, you’ve probably thought they were pretty good, apart from George Harrison and Leon Russell’s attempts at harmony on “Just Like a Woman,” but it’s the context: “Half-way through some already memorable proceedings, [Harrison] calmly played his masterstroke, by bringing onto the stage Bob Dylan.” He hadn’t played live in about three years at that point, an absolute eternity in the terms of the era. Madison Square Garden lost its mind during that show.

And that’s what Clue was like. Two-thirds of its audience went home thinking that was a silly movie. One-third drove their cars off the road laughing.

Back to the Future (1985)

About a week before we took our blog break, I was with our son at the local Barnes & Noble to pick up Paul McCartney’s new album. There, he spotted one of those expensive little things in the media department for nostalgists with a few more dollars than sense: a picture disc LP of the Back to the Future soundtrack. He asked what that was, and I thought he was asking what a picture disc was. Somehow it just didn’t occur to me that Future would be a perfect film for this blog, where the whole idea is that I’m introducing him to movies of the past – particularly the age-appropriate ones – that he might enjoy.

Although, having said that, I think the MPAA standards have definitely changed since 1985. This film’s downright full of cussing, some of it hilarious, and there’s an attempted rape. It was a PG then, but I really doubt it would get one today.

Amusingly, introducing a kid to this film in the far-flung future of 2021 means that the popular culture of two different time periods will be unfamiliar. I did pause the movie at a couple of points, not to burden him too much with the trivia of yesteryear, but otherwise he might have missed some really good gags, like B-movie star Ronald Reagan, a man about whom no studio executive in 1955 ever offered greater enthusiasm than “he’ll do,” ending up president, and what Pepsi Free was, and how Hill Valley was just on the precipice of being ready for Chuck Berry, but not Eddie Van Halen.

While I admit Back to the Future‘s never been a film that I’ve really loved, I wouldn’t argue against it. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale really have a lot they can be proud of with this one. It was a movie beset with production problems – go read the story of Eric Stoltz’s involvement and how Michael J. Fox functioned on about three hours of sleep a night while they made it, it’s all amazing – but they set out to make a crowd-pleaser and really nailed it. It’s simple and easy to follow – call it the anti-Primer – and it’s full of great gags and extremely likable performances from Fox, Christopher Lloyd, and Lea Thompson. Actually, Thompson gets one of the movie’s best and most understated gags: it’s always horrifying to learn that your parents were so much naughtier before you were born.

So how’d that discovery of the overpriced picture disc – $36!! – work out for the kid? He chuckled and laughed all the way through it, loving the chase around Hill Valley’s town square and cringing during the embarrassing bits, and said during the credits that he wants a Lego set of the DeLorean. Sadly, he’ll need a time machine himself to get one for a reasonable price. Lego put one out in 2014 and it can only be bought these days by other people with more dollars than sense – $282!! – but for our boy, wanting a Lego set of what he just watched is the highest accolade that a movie can receive.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

In one way, this blog’s always been a race against time, showing our son classic movies before he stumbles upon them somewhere else, at a friend’s place or after school. I offered to show him Toy Story a couple of times and he always declined. Turned out he’d seen the movies a dozen times each in afterschool care already. Preserving surprises of any kind will get tougher and tougher as kids get older. Once upon a time, I was planning to one day show my older son the classic monster movie Them! and not tell him what it was about, only for him to come home from the library with a book about creature features. Eyes wide, he told me “This movie about giant ants sounds amazing!”

Roger Rabbit and Baby Herman have been forgotten and ignored by Disney for the last several years. Director Robert Zemeckis has speculated that Disney don’t like Roger’s shapely wife Jessica at all and are unlikely to approve a sequel or draw very much attention to the original. This worked in our favor; our son had never heard of the character or seen him anywhere.

So I drew him in last night by reminding him of Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and the days of tough guy detectives in coats and fedoras, and then this morning, the movie cued and no hints from the menus or the DVD packaging, re-explained that how, once upon a time, before you saw the main feature at the movie, you’d see a cartoon first. Who Framed Roger Rabbit begins with a short called “Somethin’s Cookin’,” which had our son guffawing, and then at a critical point in the cartoon, Roger blows a special effect, a director yells “Cut!” and the camera pulls back to blow our son’s mind.

I love surprising my son this way. If you’ve got kids of your own, try your darndest to introduce them to the movie this way.

Roger Rabbit is celebrated for its mix of live-action and animation, but it wouldn’t work if it didn’t have a clever and entertaining story underneath it. It’s a delightful throwback to hard-boiled detective fiction, starring Bob Hoskins as a down-on-his-luck PI who’s descended into alcoholism since the death of his partner five years previously. Stubby Kaye plays the industrialist who gets murdered, and poor Roger, a big hearted dimwit of a cartoon character who only has great things to say about his fellows in the business, is set up for the fall. And of course Christopher Lloyd gets to steal the show as the menacing Judge Doom, who, thanks to some odd quirk of the California municipal code, has the power of life and death over all cartoon characters.

The result is a completely delightful movie, full of sight gags, very good acting, and how-the-heck-did-they-DO-that camera tricks. I’ve always enjoyed this film and really had a ball watching it with our kid. It’s a shame there probably won’t ever be a sequel, but fifteen years later, Warner released another live-action/animation hybrid, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, which owes an astonishing amount to this film. It’s certainly not as unique or as original as Roger Rabbit, but it’s still a very fun ride and we’ll look at it one Sunday in 2020.