Monday, May 21, 2012

“The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” 1984- Dir. W.D. Richter

What I Remember:

Yes, many of us recall this movie with fondness. It was a staple of '80's hip, if there was ever such a thing.

A kind of live action comic book, "Buckaroo Banzai" was brilliantly creative while also being absurdly silly. One gets the sense that the filmmakers were trying to put every possible thing that would appeal to a teenage boy in one place. "Ok, so he's a race car driver who holds the land-speed record, he's a secret agent, he'll be fighting aliens, he'll have a hot girlfriend that he has no time for, he'll have a posse that uses all kinds of high tech toys..."
You gotta wonder where they drew the line, if at all. They stopped short of making him a rock star. Or did they? I vaguely recall him performing in some club, but it was more like a cocktail deal, or maybe a singer-songwriter showcase. There is also a dim memory of Perfect Tommy playing keyboards.

Certain lines from "Buckaroo Banzai" became commonplace for me and my buds;
"No matter where you go, there you are."
"Laugh-a while you can, monkey-boy."
This last line was uttered by Dr. Lizardo, portrayed hilariously by John Lithgow. Using a kind of Chico Marx Italian accent, Lithgow is probably the funniest bad guy ever. He, and all the other aliens, both the Black Lectroids and the Red Lectroids are all named John Something, but he also has the alias of Emilio Lizardo. The Black Lectroids, when shape shifting into human form, look like Rastafarians, and the Red Lectroids look like uptight businessmen. With alien heads.
Besides Lithgow, there were a lot of well-cast actors in the film, including Christopher Lloyd, Jeff Goldblum and Ellen Barkin. Banzai was played with perfect aplomb by Peter Weller.

"Buckaroo Banzai" was obviously designed to be a cult/midnight movie favorite: something best to be enjoyed while under the influence of your favorite mind altering substance. For some reason, in my mind, it was much more than that-- a truly creative, hysterically funny satire that throws the kitchen sink at you. I do recall thinking that a lot of the ideas were not thoroughly thought out, but that they were put in the movie just the same. That would NEVER happen now. Goddam, uptight now. Loosen up, present era!

After re- watching

"May I pass along my congratulations for your great interdimensional breakthrough. I am sure, in the miserable annals of the Earth, you will be duly enshrined."-Lord John Whorfin

Plot Summary

Brain surgeon, Speed demon, rock star (yes, rock star) Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller) is an international celebrity, and also in pursuit of the land speed record. In actuality, Banzai is attempting to cross into another dimension with the use of his "Oscillation Overthruster".  It turns out that in venturing to this other dimension, Banzai has awakened an alien planet, Planet 10 from the 8th Dimension, that has long been feuding in some kind of bizarre race war. If one group of aliens is able to obtain the “Oscillation Overthruster", allowing them to return to their planet, the other group of aliens will start a nuclear holocaust and obliterate Earth to stop this homecoming.


The biggest surprise to me was just how era specific this film was. Watching "Buckaroo Banzai" is akin to time travel. Suddenly it's 30 years ago, and the hair, music, clothes, jokes etc. are as '80's as they can be. It's much more effective than "Hot Tub Time Machine". That being said, there is a level of innovation and pure satire that has much more to do with '60's cinema than '80's. "Buckaroo Banzai" resembles crazed free-for-alls like "Head" and "Putney Swope" as much as it does its contemporaries ("Breakfast Club", "Terminator"). The idea of making a kind of superhero/super spy satire is a tired one to be sure, but when it is done to such ridiculous lengths, it can almost take on an unexpected freshness.

No question the movie is designed to have a cultish, midnight movie appeal. The fact that this other planet is having a race war is not dwelled upon. If anything it is encouraged that we take sides immediately. There's no talk of reconciliation, or that there are good and bad in both groups. Nope. The Red Lectroids are pure evil, and the Blacks are pure good. Well maybe not so good, if their only solution to preventing the escape of their enemies is to blow someone else's planet into oblivion.

Exactly how seriously does "Buckaroo Banzai" take itself? When the bad guys have names like John Bigboote ("Big bootAY" he keeps insisting), obviously not very. The movie makes the stakes as high as possible--destruction of the Earth, and yet you are never really concerned about that. The MacGuffin, that Overthruster thingy, is of no consequence to us. We care pretty much about where our next laugh is coming from, and just how weird things with the aliens will get. Maybe if the characters took the threat of annihilation with a bit more gravitas, then we would. Nobody seems too worried, except maybe one of the black Lectroids, John Parker. Banzai's posse/band, The Hong Kong Cavaliers, seem to take the whole thing lightly, even when some of them get killed.

So yes, it's a comic book of a film, and obviously a fantasy for the teenage geek in all of us.


Much of the high tech in "Buckaroo Banzai", which was so modernistic in 1984, looks hilariously dated now. The giant rocket-powered minivan with which Banzai enters the 8th Dimension looks like an '80's Ford Pickup that has been retrofitted by Nomad from Star Trek. Obviously, the use of a pickup for speed is meant to be funny--I get that. But the stuff inside that's supposed to look so techie, looks like the nightmare cables and switches from "Brazil". All the computer readouts seem as primitive as cave drawings when compared to today’s touch screens. The actual trip that Banzai takes into the 8th dimension resembles a broken screen version of that old video game Galaga.

The Galaga tribute may not have been very effective, but the gags are. There are some absolutely huge laughs in this movie, and some of the best are throwaways. One of my favorite moments comes right after the climax of the film, when BB returns to his lair from Yoyodyne (where the Reds were staging their escape), and a guy who we’ve only seen in passing at a console, asks Banzai something like, “Should we suspend operations, or tell the President to attack Russia”? Buckaroo says quickly “Yes on 1, no on 2”. Then the guy can’t remember what he asked, and goes “Wait—is that blow up Russia?” It’s beautifully well timed and delivered.

Any scene with Christoper Lloyd (Bigboote) and/or Lithgow is uproarious. There’s a famous moment when Bigboote gives Whorfin the finger, and it reminded me of a line uttered by the great actor James Hong in “Big Trouble in Little China”, when his character, David Lo Pan, a powerful and mystical Chinese villain, sees that the good guys have penetrated his hideout. He looks up from his crystal ball or whatever and petulantly yells,  “This really pisses me off!” Comparisons between these two films make a lot of sense it turns out, since “Big Trouble” was written by the director of “Buckaroo Banzai”, W.D. Richter.

Richter and screenwriter Earl Mac Rauch were the creative team behind this incredibly original work. Rauch is apparently an MIT engineer from East Texas, and if that’s not strange enough, he also wrote the script for “New York, New York”. One gets the sense that he was this mad scientist, concocting a world that we only have seen in part. You can imagine the trouble these two got into with their Hollywood execs and producers. In fact, it’s documented that Executive Producer Sidney Beckerman removed the original D.P., Jordan Cronenwith (of “Blade Runner” fame) and replaced him with Fred Koenekamp, a much more standard cinematographer. The only scene that remains of Cronewith’s is the great nightclub scene where Banzai meets Penny (Ellen Barkin). The rest of the film has a very flat look, and that’s not totally a bad thing. This makes it lean more towards comedy, and less towards being an actual sci-fi actioner.

The score by synth wiz Michael Boddicker (not the Orioles pitcher) is so very ‘80’s. Electronic drums, heavy square wave patches and thumping bass quarter notes put us right in the pop frontier of that period. The weird and well known credit sequence, with all the good guys marching around the dried up LA River in semi-formation is a cute story. Boddicker hadn’t yet written that final track, so he told the cast to march to Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl”, since it had the same tempo and feel.


This is Lithgow’s movie, no question about it. He is so over the top and inspired as Lizardo/Whorfin, that he dominates every scene he is in. He was probably at the height of his film career, coming off superb turns in “Terms of Endearment” and “The World According to Garp”. He apparently learned his Italian accent by giving his lines to an immigrant tailor in the costume department, and having the tailor record them. Acting! When he gives his big inspirational speech before the Red Lectroids attempt inter-dimensional travel, he channels Benito Mussolini perfectly. It is at once terrifying and uproariously funny. The climax of the speech is a favorite moment:
Whorfin: Where are we going?
Red Lectroids: Planet 10!
Whorfin: When are we going?
Red Lectroids: Real soon!

Lithgow’s expressions when he is giving himself electric shocks (the tongue clamp alone is worth the price of admission), are pure genius.

Weller, who, like Lithgow is a product of the theater, is handsomely calm throughout. He plays the part of the modern Renaissance man straight and without a snicker or camera acknowledgement. It reminds me of Michael Jai White in “Black Dynamite”. While all this absurdity is going on around him, he is absolutely in character and dead serious about his heroic persona. In a nice coincidence, both Lithgow and Weller have played large supporting roles in the Showtime series, "Dexter", albeit in different seasons.

Penny, the almost love interest, is portrayed by Ellen Barkin doing her best Shirley MacLaine, crinkly smile through tears. She doesn’t have a lot to work with, admittedly, but she is always sexy in everything, and she is very funny in the nightclub scene.

As for the supporting cast, Banzai’s posse headed by Jeff Goldblum (New Jersey, the Jewish doctor who dresses like a fancy cowboy), Lewis Smith (Perfect Tommy, the ultimate cool cat) and Pepe Serna (Reno, the Italian tough guy) are all fine, but totally overshadowed by the Red Lectroids, headed by Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli and Dan Hedaya. They are great in every scene.


“Buckaroo Banzai”, was expected by most of the people working on it, to be a huge hit, but it was a huge flop. Apparently it was caught between regimes at Fox, and never received the studio support it deserved. It’s not a great movie by any means, it is way too cluttered, and there are some scenes that just slow things down and don’t really capture the frenetic pace of the rest of the film. Roger  Ebert predicted cult status for it, and that is exactly where it belongs. The movie tries to be too many things, Comic Book, sci-fi, satirical comedy, heroic tale. However, It should be seen just for it’s remarkable level of originality, and for the insanely good performance of John Lithgow.

On 1st Look:  1/2            On 2nd Look:

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

"TAMPOPO" 1985 Dir- Jûzô Itami

What I Remember:

I have been a fan of Japanese Cinema since my first exposure to it, in the form of Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai”. It seemed the more I saw, the more I liked Japanese made movies. I saw Mizoguchi’s ghost story “Ugetsu” and loved it. Next was the amazing MacBeth version by Kurosawa entitled “Throne of Blood”. Brilliant! Soon after, I saw “Ikiru”, “Rashomon”, “Sansho the Bailiff”, “Tokyo Story”, “Rashomon”. I was in love.

I am one of the few people in the United States who saw the Japanese versions of Spaghetti Westerns before ever seeing the Italian knock-offs. My disdain for the Leone catalogue is due to this order of viewings. It is probably unfounded, since many people adore his better efforts. “Once Upon a Time in America” is one that I found very appealing, maybe because there is no Japanese antecedent. I can tell you that if you see “A Fistful of Dollars” after seeing “Yojimbo”, it’s just not going to withstand the comparison.

When I heard that there was a new Japanese film out by a lesser known director, one that turned the Spaghetti Western back on it’s head, I knew I had to see it. It was a comedy, that basically took the plot of “Shane’, and transposed it to a modern day noodle shop. A stranger rides into town, and helps a poor lady restaurateur by supplying her with the greatest recipe for noodles in the known universe. It was like the Japanese were saying…you want Spaghetti? We’ll give you a Noodle Western!

My memory is that the film was original, funny, sexy and all about food. Comedy, Gluttony and Lust. What more could anyone want from a night at the movies?

After Re-watching:

“I'll kill you if you make that noise once the movie starts! Understand? And... I also don't like watch alarms going off. “ Man in the White Suit


A trucker named Goro (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and his sidekick, Gun (Ken Watanabe), stop late on a rainy night for noodles at a noodle shop. The proprietor is a nice-looking middle-aged widow named Tampopo (Nobuko Miyamoto), who is struggling to keep her dead husband’s business afloat. Her food is sub-standard, and the trucker endeavors to help her learn how to make the best possible noodles. Throughout the film, there are short vignettes that all center around food in various ways; comic, tragic and ironic.


This is the 2nd of three movies directed by Jûzô Itami which stars Yamazaki and Miyamoto. The first, called “Ososhiki” (Funeral) I haven’t seen. The 3rd is called “A Taxing Woman”, which was another very funny and engaging film. “Tampopo”, is considered by most critics to be the best of the three.

The opening alone is worth the price of admission. A very handsome couple are sitting in a theater waiting for a movie to begin. The man, dressed in a white linen suit and panama hat, stands up and looks at the camera, observing that WE have come to see a movie too. He begins to complain about people who make a lot of noise eating during the movies, and threatens a guy right behind him. Then he complains about watch alarms, which puts you right back into the ‘80’s.

The noise of eating food is a major theme throughout “Tampopo”, particularly the slurping of noodles. In one very funny vignette, a very proper Miss Manners type is instructing her young female students about the proper way to eat pasta. She performs a soundless wrapping around her fork and ingestion, all the while there is a man across the dining room slurping his Linguine with gusto. The young women are overcome by the obviously amped up sounds, and respond in kind. Soon the soundtrack is a cacophony of eating noises accompanied by close-ups of young, proper women slurping their noodles with abandon.

This scene is in direct contrast to the opening of the main plot, wherein our truckers are driving through a deluge, the sidekick reading from a book that describes the proper way to eat noodles, Zen style. It’s ridiculously over the top; “Apologize to the pork so you can say, See you soon”. It reminded me of the “Honeymooner’s” golf episode where Ralph tells Norton to address the ball, and Norton looks down and exclaims, “Hello, ball!”

If “Tampopo” hails from any single film, it is of course “Shane”. Simply the idea of a Western influencing a Japanese film about noodles….well you get the joke on Spaghetti Westerns. In “Shane” the hero rides in and saves a widow and her young son from bad guys, then leaves, presumably to go help someone else. “Tampopo” riffs on this with the idea that helping the widow make a great bowl of noodles equates to rescuing a widow from bad men trying to steal her ranch. In true Western fashion, he drives off into the sunset, or rather the Tokyo freeway afternoon. It’s parody in its finest form. Goro is such a cowboy that his truck is festooned with longhorns, and he wears a Stetson even into his bath. When he first enters the noodle shop, he sits at the counter and orders in the misdst of some pretty nefarious looking guys. It is an exact reference to all those “stranger enters a saloon” scenes. Later there is a fight between Goro and the ruffian who fancies Tampopo. It starts stylistically in silhouette, then emerges into an all out donnybrook. At the end, the two men become friends, and team up to help the widow’s transformation. The whole sequence is straight out of a John Ford classic; the Japanese version of John Wayne and Victor McLaglen. When they say their goodbyes at the end of the movie, Goro says “So long, partner.”

The vignettes are all about food and some of them are laugh out loud funny. One of the first is at a fancy French restaurant, where there is a group of businessmen dining in a small private room. Most are older well-dressed men, and the youngest one comes in oafishly bumbling his books. When it’s time to order, they all order consommé and Sole meuniere. The young man then proceeds to order like a 4 star chef, asking about the Boudin and a particular wine vintage. Later on, a skit with a group of homeless guys who are all gourmands also points out that you don’t have to be wealthy or well-heeled to appreciate the glory of food. The disconnect makes for good comedy, but it also makes a point.

Food and its relationship to sex and death are also investigated, thanks to the Man in the White Suit and his quite attractive woman. They are involved in three separate vignettes besides the opening; the first is like a scene from “9 ½ Weeks”, where food is eaten off body parts, and it gets more and more absurd as the scene goes on. The second vignette has them transferring a raw egg yolk from mouth to mouth like an erotic camp game. The third has the man doing a death scene wherein he remembers hunting Wild Boar in winter, when all the Boars eat is yams. You cook their intestines to have yam sausage. It’s the strangest death scene in film history.


Itami’s camera has some very interesting tricks up its sleeve. Many scenes take place in a downpour, which is never the kind of atmosphere that you like for comedy. The silhouetted fistfight under an elevated highway is a real treat. However the interweaving of main plot and skits is where the film really shines. The transitions are subtle, but obviously thought out. One noodle shop seamlessly turns into a fine dining establishment for our Miss Manners moment. A man runs past our heroes as they return from a night out and we follow him into his house where his wife lays dying, and a new, quite tragic food vignette begins.
The score also plays a great role in the film’s comic delivery. When one of the “Haute Hobos” cooks a rice omelet for Tampopo’s son by sneaking into a restaurant’s kitchen, the score sounds like a silent film soundtrack. It’s fitting, because the cooking must get done before the night-watchman catches them.


Tsutomu Yamazaki embodies the tough guy with a heart of gold, and plays his role straight as can be, which is perfect for what the film needs. No winking at the camera, no over-the-top tough guy stuff. He is the quintessential strong, not so silent type. As for Nobuko Miyamoto, her Tampopo is fetching, pliant but resilient, and shows some real cleverness when she gets a chef to spill his recipe for his noodles. Watanabe is there just to be a foil for Yamazaki's character. He was quite young when “Tampopo” was made, and has become an international star with turns in “Inception” and “Memoirs of a Geisha” amongst others. Kôji Yakusho plays the Man in the White Suit, and is one of the main sources for laughs. His role is somewhat of the narrator/Greek chorus. Again, like Yamazaki, he plays it seriously, which makes the absurdities of his actions that much funnier. The supporting cast are all letter perfect.


If you love food, you need to see this film. It’s a very fun way to spend two hours, and I think a very original work. If you watch it when hungry, be forewarned; your appetite will be raging by the end. “Tampopo” is just as delicious and filling as I remembered it to be.

1st Look-★★★1/2 2nd Look-★★★1/2