With so many movies hitting VOD, streaming services, Blu-ray, and DVD, it’s hard to know what to watch next. New On Home Video offers a bi-weekly guide to what’s worth seeking out, with an emphasis on what’s really worth watching, from recent theatrical releases to classics and long-lost gems.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (Shout! Factory)
Imagine the insanity that would have to overtake a Hollywood studio to greenlight a film like The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension today. Here’s a film with no name stars — in 1984 John Lithgow and Christopher Lloyd had more name recognition than star Peter Weller, a few years away from Robocop, Jeff Goldblum, or Ellen Barkin — and a loony premise. Weller plays Buckaroo Banzai, a neurosurgeon and daredevil scientist who leads a group of adventurers known as the Hong Kong Cavaliers. Also: They’re rock stars. And they appear in a comic book. And fight evil in all its forms, including evil aliens from a parallel dimension played by Lloyd, Dan Hedaya, and Vincent Schiavelli and led by Lithgow’s Mussolini-channeling Emilio Lizardo. Who would take a chance on such a movie today?
Practically speaking, it might not have been that great of an idea in 1984. Buckaroo Banzai came and went without grabbing much cash along the way. But it picked up an appreciative following thanks to video stores and cable, which helped create a cult happy to adopt bits of cryptic wisdom like, “No matter where you go, there you are” as personal mottoes. The film died a quick death, but it’s enjoyed a rich afterlife.
Directed by W.D. Richter (who wrote the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and who’d later rewrite Big Trouble in Little China for John Carpenter) and written by Earl Mac Rauch, Buckaroo Banzai was pitched as a film in the style of Raiders of the Lost Ark at a time when Indiana Jones knockoffs had started to flood theaters. And it sort of is in the same vein as Raiders, drawing on old movie serial and pulp heroes like Doc Savage for inspiration. But where Spielberg and Lucas’ films were content to pay homage to one type of hero and a particular style of story, Buckaroo Banzai just keeps piling on the references, winks, and unrelenting oddness. So we get aliens, Jeff Goldblum in a cowboy costume, a sub-plot about lost love and separated twins, a concert sequence, and even the President of the United States (and his national security advisor, Yakov Smirnoff). And, hey, why is there a watermelon there?
It plays like a movie in which everyone involved knew they were getting away with something they probably wouldn’t be able to pull off again (never mind the credits promising a sequel). It’s also tremendous fun, balancing over-the-top moments (like every second Lithgow’s on screen) with a deadpan wit exemplified by Weller’s performance. In the feature-length making-of doc accompanying this fine new version of the film, Weller points to Elia Kazan, Jacques Cousteau, and Adam Ant as the inspirations behind his acting. But what he does here is closest to Adam West’s Batman: He never winks, and he never suggests there’s anything silly going on. To do that would ruin the joke, and it’s too elaborate and too funny a joke to ruin.
Wild in the Streets (Olive Films)
Speaking of one-of-the-kind films, there’s really nothing else like Wild in the Streets, a half-satirical, half-paranoid dystopian sci-fi exploitation film from 1968. Christopher Jones plays Max Frost, a rock star elected president after he rallies his supporters to lower the voting age to 14, then sets about instituting a regime of hippie fascism (with a cabinet that includes Richard Pryor). It’s the world of 1968, complete with a generation gap and civil unrest, remade as a B-movie nightmare. It’s at once ridiculous and true, and now it’s an invaluable document of what troubled the world at the time. And it kind of rocks.
The Nice Guys (Warner Bros.)
Midnight Run (Shout! Factory)
A lot of moviegoers slept on Shane Black’s ’70s-set mismatched buddy mystery starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe when it came out earlier this summer. But, like most of the movies written and/or directed by Black, its natural home might be the small screen anyway. That’s not because it’s not a stylish, cinematic movie — it is. But its endlessly quotable dialogue makes it the sort of movie that can be watched, then watched again and again. It’s only a shame that it’s not the first of many movies with these characters.
Still, even if Black is the poet of snippy buddy comedies, the gold standard remains the 1988 film Midnight Run, in which Robert De Niro plays a bounty hunter charged with retrieving Charles Grodin, an accountant who’s run afoul of the mob. Directed by Martin Brest as his follow-up to Beverly Hills Cop, it’s an even better mix of comedy and action, powered by characters who believably can’t stand each other, and just as believably come to rely on each other.
The Jungle Book (Disney)
It’s been a good year for Disney remakes thanks to Pete’s Dragon (which is still in theaters and should be seen if you missed it) and this Jon Favreau-helmed remake of The Jungle Book. Favreau’s most visually impressive film by a good measure, it uses remarkable CGI effects to recreate Rudyard Kipling’s perilous jungle world — a place of great wonder and great dread.
The Angry Birds Movie (Sony)
You have to admire the no-nonsense title of this movie. You like Angry Birds? Here’s your movie. Aimed pretty squarely at kids, the film, written by Simpsons vet Jon Vitti, at least has a couple of clever gags for grown-ups, not to mention virtually everyone of note is in the cast, from Charli XCX to Sean Penn.
American Ninja (Olive Films)
Of all the dopey, cheap martial arts films made in the ’80s, Cannon’s 1985 film, American Ninja, might be the dopiest. It’s pretty fun, though, and if you need it on Blu-ray, it’s out now alongside its three (!?!) sequels.
W.D. Richter wasn’t the only filmmaker who used Raiders of the Lost Ark as an excuse to shoot a movie in the ’80s. Raiders! tells the story of some Mississippi kids who decided to make a shot-for-shot remake of the movie, a task that took up the rest of their childhoods and most of their teen years. Raiders! recounts what drove them to it, what drove them apart, and watches as they reunite and try to shoot the one scene they left unfinished. The portions of the film that focus on this last element feel a bit gimmicky, but the film’s worth watching for the bittersweet reflections around it, and the amazing, how-did-they-not-get-killed making-of footage from the 1980s.
A Taste of Honey (Criterion)
One of the films that helped redefine British filmmaking in the early ’60s by turning its focus toward the everyday lives of working class Brits gets the Criterion treatment.
Maggie’s Plan (Sony)
Wiener Dog (Amazon)
It’s a good week to be a fan of Greta Gerwig and independent movies and especially of independent movies starring Greta Gerwig, since you can now watch her in both Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan (which we called “a smart corrective to the smarmy New York rom-com“) and Todd Solondz’s Wiener Dog, in which she plays the grown-up version of Solondz’ Welcome to the Dollhouse protagonist.
Elvis (Shout! Factory)
Made for TV in 1979, this Elvis biopic isn’t what most people think of when they think of John Carpenter. But it’s really worth checking out. Carpenter fills the film with his trademark stylistic touches and draws on a lifelong appreciation of rock and roll to tell the story of a man who’d died just two years before. It also teamed him up with Kurt Russell, who’d go on to star in Escape From New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China. (It all comes back to that movie, doesn’t it?)
In two weeks: Road House