Nicolas Roeg’s ‘Track 29’ is Bizarre and Compelling From Start to Finish

Track 29 movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written around the time this movie was to be released on DVD by Image Entertainment back in 2012.

Track 29” is one of the strangest movies I’ve seen in a long time, but that’s probably because I am not very familiar with the work of director Nicolas Roeg. This is only the second movie of his I have seen, the last being “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” and it helps to understand his filmmaking method before watching his work. Roeg’s movies are known for their kaleidoscope of images which are typically presented out of chronological order, and it’s left up to the viewer to make sense out of all the craziness they have just witnessed. Learning this helped me understand “Track 29” better as it is one of those WTF movies which willfully defy easy categorization.

This movie came out in 1988, and its DVD release coincides with Gary Oldman’s first ever Oscar nomination for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” Oldman stars as a British orphan named Martin who has arrived in America to look for his mother. Upon meeting bored housewife Linda Henry (Theresa Russell), Martin is convinced she is his mom and tries to form the bond he has forever longed to have with her. But as the story continues, we wonder if Martin is real or if he’s just a figment of Linda’s imagination as his arrival coincides with her remembering the child she gave up for adoption years before.

The real pleasure of watching “Track 29” today is to witness Oldman at his manic best as he is a firecracker always on the verge of going off. The actor did this movie not long after he received critical raves for “Sid & Nancy” and “Prick Up Your Ears,” and watching all three movies together makes one wonder where he gets all his crazy energy from. Putting this in comparison to the more subdued work he does today as George Smiley or Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies makes one realize how amazingly far his range as an actor goes, and it makes me appreciate his work more than ever before.

Theresa Russell, who remains one of cinema’s most underrated actresses, is equally good as Linda even as she appears to be going over the top from one scene to the next. Throughout “Track 29,” Russell gives her role a strong conviction as she comes to grips with a traumatic moment in her life and a passionless marriage which has gotten to where she knows exactly what will come out of her husband’s mouth before he says it. Actors can look utterly ridiculous when they fall into the trap of playing the clichéd drunk or just running the gamut of emotions, but Russell holds your focus from beginning to end. She has always been one to take risks with each role she takes on, and this one is no exception.

Among the other actors to be found here is Christopher Lloyd who plays a role I never thought I’d see him in: the boring husband. From his roles in “Back to The Future” and “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,” I’ve come to see Lloyd as anything but boring. But here he is amazingly bland as he takes more interest in his toy train set, which collectors of such things will be slobbering over once they see what he’s put together, than he does in his wife’s problems. Whether his character of Dr. Henry Henry (a rather unfortunate name) is having an affair with Nurse Stein (Sandra Bernhard) or making a passionate speech to the obsessive train car collectors of North Carolina, Lloyd inhabits this character fully and reminds you of what a great actor he can be.

Other excellent performances to be found in “Track 29” come from Colleen Camp as Linda’s friend Arlanda who reacts to her problems with utter bafflement, Sandra Bernhard who gets to indulge gleefully in her character’s brand of S&M, and the great Seymour Cassel as Henry’s boss Dr. Bernard Fairmont who reacts to his colleague’s bizarre behaviors with disdain and utter hilarity.

Roeg gives this movie many unforgettable images which come to illustrate the missing passion and meaning in these characters’ lives as well as the sheer violence hiding just below the surface. Watching it reminded me of “Revolutionary Road” and how Kate Winslet’s character was ever so desperate to escape the suffocating atmosphere of suburbia, but this story is given a more surrealistic quality as Oldman’s character descends into the mindset of a child who, when let loose, destroys things without a care in the world. Everything seems to act as an allusion to Linda’s unconscious desire to destroy the world she inhabits as it becomes her only way to escape it.

Image Entertainment released the DVD version of “Track 29” recently, and this is the best it has probably ever looked. As for extras and special features, this disc is frustratingly scant in those departments. It would have been nice to have a commentary track or at least some interviews with the director and cast to see how they went about making this bizarre motion picture and what their reactions were to it. The only real extras to speak of are a couple of trailers which precede the movie, and they are for the cult classic “Withnail & I,” Neil Jordan’s “Mona Lisa,” and “The Long Good Friday” starring Bob Hoskins. Coincidentally, these are three movies I still need to see.

Despite the lack of special features, “Track 29” is definitely worth a rental for fans of Oldman and to see him at his most emotionally unhinged in a motion picture. It may not reach the critical heights of Roeg’s other works like “Walkabout,” but it’s definitely for those who love films which defy conventional film narration. Lord knows we need movies like these every once in a while as things can’t stay the same forever.

* * * out of * * * *

Peter Weller and Company Revisit ‘Buckaroo Banzai’ at New Beverly Cinema

Buckaroo Banzai poster

Looking back at some of the articles I have written about screenings at New Beverly Cinema, I kept saying or implying that you could never expect any screenings showing there to sell out. But now it looks like that’s becoming less and less the case. Ever since Quentin Tarantino bought the building where the theater is located and saved it from becoming another Supercuts, more and more movie geeks have descended on this establishment, the last standing movie reparatory theater in Los Angeles. Jason Reitman did a movie program there which featured “Election,” “Boogie Nights” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and it brought out huge crowds of people. Torgan and company ended up having to do something they almost never do; turn people away!

Well, the line around New Beverly once again snaked around the corner as actor Peter Weller was scheduled to introduce a screening of the 1984 cult classic, “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension,” on March 29, 2010. Every single was taken, and the screening got delayed because the line at concessions threatened to snake around the theater as well. Weller brought along two other players from Buckaroo’s crew: Billy Vera who played the bass guitarist for Banzai’s rock band the Blue Blaze Irregulars, and Gerald Peterson who played Rug Sucker. The Q&A was moderated by Jeremy Smith, Mr. Beaks from Ain’t It Cool News, and he proclaimed this to be “the nerdiest movie ever made.” Upon saying this, he got a huge applause from the audience.

Weller did look a little ragged, and he later explained it was because he didn’t go to bed until about 2 a.m. the night before as he just got through 86 hours of PhD exams at UCLA. Furthermore, he said he has been wearing the same clothes for several days straight which reek of cigar smoke as he was smoking 10 of them in a day.

“Buckaroo Banzai” turned out to be a lot of fun, and this is despite the fact I have no idea of how to explain what it’s exactly about. However, it turns out the most ardent fans of this movie and the actors who starred in it can’t really explain what the plot is about either.

“I didn’t understand it (the script) actually, and I think no actor in it does understand it. I don’t think Billy or Gerald understood it, but it was fun,” Weller said.

“If you say you understood it, you’re a liar,” Vera said.

Weller went on to say 20th Century Fox didn’t know how to market “Buckaroo Banzai” at all. The studio executives came to the set around the time they were finishing principal photography and asked him, “Is it an action movie?” Later on, the editor of the movie, Oscar nominee Richard Marks, said, “That film is a comedy! It’s a comedy and they should have known that from the jump!”

But perhaps the best way to describe “Buckaroo Banzai” is its half comedy and half drama. Vera added many television shows later took on the half comedy and half drama formula, but he couldn’t think of any which came before this movie. To this, Weller added, “Or after.”

Weller was actually not sure if he was going to do this film because he had his eye on a romance movie around the same time. But this same romantic movie was getting bounced around from studio to studio, and his agent convinced him to take “Buckaroo Banzai” since it looked more and more like the other flick was not going to happen. With a cast which included Christopher Lloyd, Ellen Barkin and John Lithgow, this could not have been easy to turn down.

“The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” marked the directorial debut of screenwriter W. D. Richter who was best known for writing Phillip Kaufman’s version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and also “Brubaker.” Richter was also responsible for co-writing another movie 20th Century Fox had trouble promoting, John Carpenter’s “Big Trouble in Little China.” Weller described Richter as a beautiful and really laid-back guy, and that he was also an intellectual from the east coast. Richter didn’t have the get up and go Hollywood thing going on, and Weller said this made him perfect for the actors to work with. Also, Richter was a musician as was Weller and several of the cast members, and Weller said his heroes have always been musicians.

Vera said he got cast after Richter and Weller saw him perform at the Viper Room in Hollywood. After he was done, Vera said Richter got a hold of him and asked, “You know, I like the way you improvise on stage. Do you think you could do that in a movie?” “Yeah, I do it every night,” Vera said. ”Do me a favor,” Richter said, “kind of tell me where you’re gonna stand so that I can have a camera ready for you.” Weller, Vera and Peterson all agreed that this was the way Richter directed the whole movie.

Mr. Beaks then started taking questions from the audience, the first one coming from a guy who read somewhere that the producers of “Buckaroo Banzai” were not at all happy with the film. He asked if this dislike of theirs bled onto the set to which Weller replied, “Uh, yeah.“ It must really suck to make a movie while knowing those who got the ball rolling and spent so much money on it don’t believe in it after viewing the dallies. And like many cult movies, this one was a box office flop, but it eventually found a cult following on video, cable, and DVD. You have to wonder how this movie among others could inspire such fans to watch it at least 57 times. Weller summed it all up perfectly:

“The longevity of it is that it’s unique. There’s a uniqueness to it,” Weller said. “They (the producers) wanted it to fit into a mold. They thought that it would be more slapstick, overt action and humor. The humor, although I have to say I don’t understand a lot of it, was fantastic. The humor was so… Just under the radar man.”

“And that’s why they cut a half hour of it,” Vera added. “The movie was a half hour longer which gave the jokes more room to breathe, but the studio said they wanted to cut it short so that they can show it more times per day.”

Particularly fascinating was Weller’s take on Christopher Lloyd whom we all know best as Doctor Emmet Brown from “Back to the Future.” Weller talked about when Lloyd’s house in Montecito burned down during the devastating Malibu fires. Lloyd had gone on television to talk about what happened, and Weller described how he and his wife were so devastated over what happened to him. But during a conversation with one of Weller’s professors at UC Santa Barbara, who brought up how sorry he was for Lloyd losing his house, Weller quoted exactly what he said:

“You’re gonna be the first to know the truth… I was already selling the house and there was nothing in it at all. I was living in an apartment in Montecito!”

Stunned at hearing this, Weller looked right at Lloyd and said, “Chris! The world, not just LA, but the whole world! We even saw this news in Italy! You looked so sad…” Lloyd’s response to this really did turn the whole thing into a comedy:

“I know! Because when the fire was going and I walked up and they put three cameras in my face, and I didn’t know what to do except LIE!”

Weller also said he met Jeff Goldblum on the same night he lost his virginity, and then he brought up an almost insane story about Goldblum which took place when he was getting married. Weller had already been married at that point and was telling Goldblum how excited he was to see him settling down. What Goldblum told him after that made us see him in different light:

“We’re on the other side now Peter!”

Other tidbits about “Buckaroo Banzai” included how the montage of Buckaroo and his comrades coming together during the end credits was actually an addition made by Richter later on. While filming this, Weller admitted he and the actors were actually walking to the tune of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.”

Before those end credits began, there was also the promise of a sequel laid out for the audience entitled “Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League.” One audience member asked why this sequel never got made, and it turns out there was more to it than the movie dying at the box office:

“Well the one guy (producer) went to prison for bank fraud, and the other guy blew his brains out in Century City Plaza,” Weller said. “Both of those guys were really good guys and I stayed in touch with the one who went to the joint, and he’s out now.”

 Just before they finally started showing the movie, Weller thanked the crowd for coming out and said that this turnout and excitement was what he had expected when he walked in to meet his professors at UCLA today. Instead, they just gave him more stuff to work on, and that was after the 86 hours of work he had already done. Suffice to say, this crowd was far more welcoming.

It was great to finally see “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the 8th Dimension” after all these years, and it was even more fun watching it with a large audience. To see it on television is one thing, but there is nothing like experiencing it on the silver screen in a packed theater. Weller took a very unrealistic character who was a renaissance man, a top neurosurgeon, particle physicist, race car driver, rock star and comic book hero, and he made you buy into him without questioning the logic of how he found the time to take on all these disciplines.

Another memorable evening at the New Beverly Cinema!