Friday, December 23, 2011

Stuff I Grew Up With: Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)

As a little kid, I didn't see Home Alone 2 nearly as much as I did the original, mainly because, while the original was shown a lot around Thanksgiving and Christmas on NBC and other stations, the sequel almost never got the same amount of coverage. Even though it seems that the movie has grown in popularity and now shows quite a bit around Christmas nowadays, as an adult, I can now understand why it seemed to get the shaft: while the original is a pure, sincere holiday movie, this is definitely little more than a cash-in. You can't really blame Twentieth Century Fox for wanting a sequel to what was the highest grossing comedy of all time at that point and, to that end, making sure to replicate it as much as possible. As a result, we got a movie that is a major example of, "second verse, same as the first," with the same director and writer/producer, the same basic plot, albeit in a different setting and on a bigger scale, and virtually the same cast, with a few additions and absences here and there. This movie is also everything that most sequels, for better or worse, tend to be: it takes the most popular aspects from its predecessor and cranks them up by ten. So, yes, it is indeed a cash-in, with less heart than the original, but it's still a fun cash-in nonetheless and, at the end of the day, that's all it takes to satisfy me.

A year after the events of the original Home Alone, it's Christmastime again and the McCallister family is gearing up for another holiday trip, this time to Florida. Kevin isn't happy, though, since there are no Christmas trees in Florida, and things go south pretty quickly when, during a school concert that features him singing a solo, his older brother, Buzz, humiliates him and Kevin retaliates, once again causing a huge commotion that he's blamed for. Buzz "apologizes" to Kevin and his family but he makes it clear to Kevin that he didn't mean it and admonishes his family for believing his lies. After an argument with his mother later that evening, Kevin says he wishes he had his own money so he could go on his own vacation without any of them. The next day, they rush to the airport after a mishap causes them to oversleep again and nearly miss their plane. They manage to make it to the airport with Kevin this time but, due to the commotion, the rush, and the crowds, Kevin follows a man he mistakes for his father onto the wrong plane and ends up in New York City. At first horrified at what he's done, Kevin, realizing he once again got his wish, decides to make the most of it and manages to check into the most luxurious hotel in the city, although the concierge and the staff immediately become suspicious of the legitimacy of the story he uses to check in. Even worse, Harry and Marv, who've recently broke out of prison, have arrived in New York as well, and Kevin soon finds himself battling the criminals once again.

As you can tell from that plot synopsis, John Hughes and Chris Columbus took the adage, "If it's not broke, don't fix it," to heart and virtually recycled the whole plot of the first film in a different setting. Actually, that's a conservative description, as they out and out plagiarize plot-points, scenes, moments, and gags from the original: Kevin has a fight with Buzz that causes him to get sent to the third floor to sleep by himself; a mishap causes the family's clock to be reset and they oversleep; Kate McCallister screams, "Kevin!", again when the family realizes they've lost him; there's a montage of Kevin having fun when he realizes he can do whatever he wants without his family; Kevin uses a inflatable clown pool toy to discourage the concierge from snooping around in his room, as he did with the mannequins to make Harry and Marv think there were people at the house in the original; Kevin encounters a person whom he's initially frightened of but later befriends and said person ultimately saves him from Harry and Marv; and, of course, you have the house full of booby traps that the two criminals blunder into, almost entirely in the same circumstances and with some traps being flat-out repeated. There are also some recycled lines, like when Marv said kids are "a-scared" of the dark in the original and here, he says, "kids are a-scared of the park," and they even bring back the fake gangster movie by giving it a sequel, Angels with Even Filthier Souls, which Kevin also uses to help get himself out of a jam. While I do enjoy this film, I can see people's points that such heavy borrowing from the original film does show a lack of creativity on the filmmakers' part.

This is a very rare sequel in that, with the exception of Roberts Blossom and John Candy, the entire main cast from the original returns. Realizing that Macaulay Culkin was a major part of why the original was a huge hit, the studio paid him $8 million to return for the sequel, which was an ungodly amount of money to pay a kid. With not much new material to work with, you'd think that Culkin would just repeat his original performance but, instead, he approaches Kevin a bit differently this time. At the beginning, he's not as bratty or arrogant as he kind of was in the original; in fact, he's well-behaved and seems more mature, even though he still complains about going to Florida because there are no Christmas trees there (which indicates that he has more of the Christmas spirit this time). But, once again, Buzz does something jerky that pushes him over the edge and when he, again, gets blamed for it, he admonishes his family for turning on him and wishes to go on his own vacation without them. Another major difference between this film and the original is that, this time, it's Kevin's own fault that he gets separated from his family: he's impatient and fishes around in his dad's bag for batteries for his tape recorder, which results in him getting separated in the crowd at the airport and boarding the wrong plane (although, that said, you'd think his parents would keep a more watchful eye on him after what happened before). By the way, that particular tape-recorder he uses in this film? Tiger Electronics actually made a real version of that thing to coincide with the movie's marketing. I actually remember seeing commercials for it and my cousin even had one (I don't remember it working that well, though).

Initially, Kevin is dismayed to find he's been separated from his family again but, when he realizes how much fun he can have in New York by himself with his dad's money, he goes on an exciting sightseeing tour of the city before checking into an expensive, luxurious hotel. (I'm aware that a ten-year old kid roaming around New York unsupervised and checking into a big hotel by himself is even more preposterous than the scenario in the original but, you know what? It's a family comedy. Just go with it.) Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to have learned anything about not judging people by how they look from Marley in the first film, as he's initially frightened of and screams at the kind of odd-looking pigeon lady (you know, given everything else he'd seen that night, she doesn't look all that bad) but, like Marley, he ultimately befriends her. He's also good enough in this film to give some money to a children's charity and his ultimate confrontation with Harry and Marv is try to stop them from robbing said charity rather than simply defending himself like before. Of course, he's rewarded for his good deed by being reunited with his family and having a great Christmas... that is, until his dad finds out how much money he spent on room service. In the end, even though he didn't have much new stuff to do, I think Culkin's performance here is just as good, charming and sincere as his performance in the original.

Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern are also back as the bumbling bandits, Harry and Marv. Since Pesci supposedly felt upstaged by Culkin in the original, you'd have to think that they must have given him a pretty big paycheck to come back but, in any case, he's still awesome, being as angry and loud as ever. He also much more malicious towards Kevin this time, wanting revenge on him for what he put him and Marv through in the first film, and he comes closer to actually killing him this time, almost shooting him before the pigeon lady intervenes. As for Stern's return performance as Marv, all I can say is that those hits to the head he took in the first movie must have caught up with him because, while he was a little dimwitted originally, he's an out and out idiot here. He looks and acts like he's high, with glazed over-looking eyes, erratic movements and gestures, and some of the stuff he says is just unbelievable (the way he hits on that one woman who ultimately clobbers him is a real sign that something isn't quite right upstairs). He puts sticky tape around his hand, using it to grab stuff and to give them a new M.O.: the Sticky Bandits. Also, he's the one who dooms them to being busted by Kevin again because he blabs out loud what their plans are, which inspires him to try to stop them later on. In fact, you'd have to wonder how this movie would have went if they had decided to just ignore Kevin when they came across him: they probably would have been able to rob the toy store without a hitch and Kevin may have ended up in jail due to his stolen credit card.

Unfortunately, as with the first movie, my biggest problem with this movie is Kevin's family and this time, I do have to really lump his mom and dad (Catherine O'Hara and John Heard again) into it. In the first movie, Kevin was being a little bratty and arrogant at the beginning, even if his family was kind of jerky to him; here, though, Kevin had every right to attack Buzz and yet his parents, once again, blame him for the havoc it causes, even though they could see that Buzz was humiliating Kevin. I also agree with Kevin in that I can't believe they fell for Buzz's apology, which was so obviously fake. But the final nail in the coffin is when Kate talks to Kevin afterward and when he says he's getting crapped on again, she says, "That's not what happened last year and that's not what happened this year." Lady, what is wrong with you?! Are you really that blind to everybody in the family being a jerk to Kevin, including his older brother? Okay, maybe that's kind of harsh, because she does realize she made another mistake and apologizes to Kevin when she's reunited with him again at the end, and again, she does clearly love her son, but I can't believe that she still doesn't realize that some people in their family seem to legitimately hate Kevin for no reason. She's so thick in the head! By the way, if you've read my review of the first film, you'll notice that I didn't mention much about Kevin's dad, Peter, and that's because there really isn't that much to say about him. He didn't do much in that film and he does even less here. He seems like a nice dad and all but there's nothing to him. (Like Pesci, John Heard was also supposedly unhappy about being upstaged by Culkin in the original. He must have been even madder here because his role is almost non-existent.)

Once again, I'm going to crap all over Buzz and Uncle Frank (Devin Ratray and Gerry Bamman again), because these two are just as hateful as ever, perhaps even more so. It just irritates me how, two movies in a row, Buzz does something to start a scuffle with Kevin and gets away with it. It's even worse here because Buzz does this BS apology that no smart parent would fall for and afterward, he whispers to Kevin, "Beat that, you little trout-sniffer." This guy is not sorry for what he did, knows that nobody believes Kevin, and then rubs his nose in it, like, "I can do whatever I want to you and nobody will defend you." And then, when Kevin storms out of the room, Buzz comments, "What a troubled young man." What a piece of crap. He does kind of redeem himself at the end when he announces that it's because of Kevin that they're in a luxurious hotel instead of that crappy, rundown one they were stuck in back in rain-drenched Florida and he lets his brother open the first present. Fine, I'll give him that (begrudgingly). Uncle Frank pisses me off way more here than he did before. This guy clearly hates Kevin. He laughs when Buzz humiliates Kevin, has the audacity to tell him, "You better not ruin my trip!", and when they arrive in Florida and are passing Kevin's bag along, he acts like it's disease-ridden. What an ass! And, at the end of the movie when everybody's cheering Kevin, he's only cheering because he got free stuff. I love how Kevin gets back at him early on. When he says, "You better not ruin my trip, you little sourpuss. Your dad's paying good money for it," Kevin says, "Wouldn't want to spoil your fun, Mr. Cheapskate." Yeah, fuck you, you bald-headed asshole!

This movie also has an interesting supporting cast of new characters, particularly when it comes to the hotel staff. You've got good old Tim Curry as the concierge, Hector (I don't remember them ever saying his name in the film, though). He's always great fun to watch and this is no exception, as he's sly and devilish as ever, with that great shit-eating grin. One of my favorite scenes is when he enters Kevin's room to see if his father ever showed up and Kevin tricks him with that inflatable clown toy and the recording of Uncle Frank singing in the shower. I crack up when he bashes his knee on a stool while running out of the room. You also got to love that Joker-like grin when he discovers that Kevin's credit card is stolen and a light comes on above his head right when he says, "Bingo." Another funny moment is when Kevin tricks him and the other staff members with the fake gangster movie and the character in the movie says, "Get down on your knees and tell me ya love me." The look on Hector's face when he gets down on his knees right before he says, "I love you," spells out, "I can't believe I'm about to do this." My favorite moment with him, though, is when he's being very callous towards Kate when she talks about going out to find Kevin and she smacks him right across his face. He looks like he's about to start crying! Yeah, Tim Curry's just awesome. Also among the staff is Dana Ivey as Mrs. Stone, this uptight woman who is suspicious of Kevin from the start but lets him into the hotel regardless. Like Hector and the other staff members, though, she doesn't do a very good job of catching Kevin when they realize his credit card is stolen (like Kate said, they shouldn't have frightened him by being so confrontational about it). Finally, there's Rob Schneider as Cedric, the bellhop. Normally, I can't stand him but he's tolerable here because he doesn't act like a total tool. I do chuckle at the running joke where he wants a tip but both Kevin and, later, Buzz give him chewing gum instead and the loud squeak he makes when Hector pulls him off the plaza floor after he got clobbered is also pretty funny. I also have to mention Eddie Bracken's small role as Mr. Duncan, the kindly owner of the toy store, Duncan's Toy Chest. He's just a very sweet old man who loves kids and donates money to a nearby children's hospital. He gives Kevin two turtle-dove ornaments from a Christmas tree and tells him to give one to a special person, saying that they'll be friends forever. He's such a sweetheart of a person that it just warms your heart. Maybe I'm overly sentimental but I just love characters like that.

Finally, I have to mention the replacement for Marley in this film: Brenda Fricker as the pigeon lady. She's beat for beat the same character as Marley: a social outcast who looks really weird, whom Kevin is initially frightened of but later befriends, reveals to him that she's had a troubled past and he gives her some advice about how to deal with it, saves him from Harry and Marv, and has a touching final moment with him at the end of the movie. Their hear-to-heart talk even takes place in the attic above a music hall, similar to the church where Kevin and Marley talked in the first movie. It couldn't be any more plagiarized if they tried. She tells him that she had heart broken years before when her lover left her and that she's avoided becoming close to anyone ever since. Kevin suggests to her what she can do, that she should start trusting people again and that she can trust him. The performances are fine but it would strike more of a cord with me if it wasn't such a blatant copy of a character and scenario from the original movie. I don't find the pigeon lady to be as interesting as Marley either, even though Fricker does play her well. Plus, you could feel a connection between Kevin and Marley since their situations were very similar and also because their talk was much more well-written, whereas this feels forced and contrived, mainly because Kevin only saw her once before they become friends, whereas Marley frightened him throughout the first movie, which made the scene between them in the church work all the more. I didn't mind Hughes and Columbus reusing so much material from the first movie but I think they went way too far with this and really hindered what they were trying to get across. And what's more, the pigeon lady's advice to Kevin that a good deed erases a bad deed? That's kind of a questionable morality when you really think about it.

There are also some notable celebrity cameos in the film. When Kevin first enters the Plaza Hotel, he asks none other than Donald Trump, who owned the place at the time (and who also had a cameo in another family movie, namely the Little Rascals movie, the following year) where the front desk is; Frank Oz can be seen during the brief moment where Marv robs change from a donation bucket; Ally Sheedy from The Breakfast Club pops up as an attendant on the phone who Kevin asks what city it is he can see out the window of the New York airport, although you'd probably not recognize her since she has short, blonde hair; and Chris Columbus himself appears in the scene in Duncan's Toy Chest, holding a little girl who I think may be his real-life daughter Eleanor (I know for sure that his wife, Monica Devereux, is the operator who takes Kevin's reservation when he calls in, pretending to be his father).

At $20 million, Home Alone 2's budget was only a couple of million dollars bigger than the original's but that didn't stop the filmmakers from giving it a much bigger look and feel, taking full advantage of the new setting of New York City. While the first film took place mostly at McCallister family's house, with a few other scenes set in the surrounding neighborhood, here we get to see New York in all its glory, especially when Kevin goes on a sightseeing tour upon arriving (the big pull-back of him atop one of the Twin Towers is particularly spectacular), and some really good production design for some of the sets, like Duncan's Toy Chest, which is this really big, cool-looking toy store, and the large, abandoned townhouse that serves as the setting for Harry and Marv's slapstick punishment this time around. The city's more sinister side is also made clear when, after escaping from Harry and Marv and the hotel staff, Kevin wanders the city streets at night, coming across some really creepy characters, particularly that cab-driver, and the place itself is given a very unsettling vibe in how it's shot, as we can see that he's ended up in the bad side of town. I think my favorite image from the location shots, though, is near the end when Kevin is standing near the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center and he's reunited with his mother. It's lit so beautifully and elegantly and it shows off the increased budget and scale and the film very well.

I'd really be remised if I didn't comment on the design of the Plaza Hotel. That place is so luxurious and spotless that it's just perfect and, even though you know it'd be expensive as all get-out, it's the type of hotel where you'd want to spend a vacation. Not only is the place big and incredible in how it looks, with a really nice-looking pool area (although, that was shot somewhere else as the real place doesn't have a pool), the room Kevin stays in looks particularly awesome, with a huge bed, big TV, a nice-looking bathroom, and snacks all ready for you. When you see him being served ice-cream while watching TV and riding around in a limo, eating pizza and drinking coke while watching a TV in the backseat, you just can't help but think, "That kid is living the dream." The room the whole family ends up in at the end of the film is even more impressive, with that shot of all those presents around that big Christmas tree being a sight anyone would want to see on Christmas morning.

The aspect of this movie that's very much cranked up from the first one is the slapstick. It starts long before Harry and Marv come into the picture, with Kevin punching Buzz as the school choir, which causes a domino effect of kids falling and ends with a big cardboard Christmas tree clobbering the piano player right in the head, serving as a prelude of things to come. Even before Kevin lures Harry and Marv into the booby-trapped house, he has them slip on beads when they're first chasing him and when he runs into the Plaza Hotel, he's chased by the staff who've now discovered that his credit card is stolen, causing them to trip and slam into each other, as well as use the gangster movie to distract them in his room while he slips out the back way. Of course, the hilarity really starts when he ruins Harry and Marv's attempt to rob Duncan's Toy Chest by throwing a brick through the window, setting off the alarm and prompting them to chase him. Little do they know that he put a makeshift seesaw outside the store window and so, when Harry jumps on one end, Marv ends up jumping on the other and sending Harry flying up into the air and landing on a car. When they chase Kevin back to the booby-trapped townhouse, Harry feigns making a deal with Kevin so that they won't hurt him: give them the camera he used to snap a picture of them robbing the store (never mind that his camera is an instamatic camera, so taking it wouldn't mean anything). Kevin, of course, knows they won't keep up their end of the bargain even if he gives them the camera, so he proceeds to throw bricks at them, all of which hit poor Marv right in the forehead (which probably added to the idiot effect the hits in the first movie had on him). Just like before, the two of them split up, with Harry going around back while Marv tries to go through the front door. Unbeknownst to Marv, Kevin put a staple gun on the other end of the front door that's attached to the door knob and when he tries to open the door, he gets a staple right in the butt and later gets one right in the crouch (ouch!) and the nose. Meanwhile, Harry tries to use a hanging ladder to swing into a window but Kevin greased up the rungs of the ladder and Harry slips right off and falls to the ground... with a glob of grease falling on his forehead to add insult to injury. Marv, after pulling the staples off of him, kicks down the front door, proclaims that he's reached the top... and proceeds to fall right through a huge hole in the floor down to the basement. Harry climbs up to the back door (tapping the knob to make sure he doesn't burn his hand like he did in the first movie) and open it, sending a bunch of tools contained in a bag above him right on his head. Marv, meanwhile, gets up in the basement, only to slip on a big puddle of grease and slide right into some shelves full of paint cans, with him getting covered in the stuff (I always felt bad for Marv here because he even got paint on his tongue, which had to have sucked). After getting up from that disaster, he tries to wash his face in a nearby sink, which Kevin happened to hook up to a power generator that nearly electrocutes him to death when he grabs the faucet handles. This is where the movie enters into full blown cartoon mode, as you actually see Marv's skeleton for a bit as he's being electrocuted and his high-pitched screaming makes it all the more funny.

While this is going on, Harry enters the backside of the house and he's so paranoid from what happened in the first film that every time he pulls a light switch, he backs away slightly, probably thinking of when he got a blowtorch to the head. Eventually, though, it does happen to him again. When he realizes his head is on fire, you can hear him yell, "Aah, he did it!", and he desperately sticks his head in the toilet... which Kevin filled with gasoline, causing an explosion that leaves his face covered in soot and his hat burned off. Repeating another gag from the first film, Marv tries to climb up a rope and a big bag of flour falls right onto him like the iron in the face. Also borrowing from the original, Marv growls, "I'm gonna murder that kid," after sitting up. He then uses a makeshift ladder of various objects to climb up to the second floor, warning Harry that Kevin is in the living room. Harry tries to climb up a ladder after Kevin but earlier, he sawed into the rungs and Harry's weight causes them to give way, with him taking a painful fall. Marv helps Harry to his feet and they take the stairs but Harry, knowing Kevin will bomb them with paint cans again, holds Marv back. Once again, they underestimate Kevin because, after the two paint cans, he swings this big metal post that clobbers them both right in the face (I love how Marv says, "Oops," right before it hits them), sending them back down the basement. Even worse, Kevin cuts the rope and sends the post rolling down in the basement on top of them. After getting back up to the second floor, they come to another door and when they pull on the knob, it yanks a big tool chest down the stairs that pins them between the door and the wall. After crunching their noses back into position, they follow Kevin to the roof, now determined more than ever to kill their little tormentor. They realize that Kevin climbed down from the roof with a rope and Marv, in an attempt to get revenge, throws a brick at Kevin and, of course, misses. They both proceed to try to climb down the rope, just like they tried to climb across to Kevin's treehouse before and, also just like in the first movie, Kevin gives them a painful way back down: lighting the kerosene-soaked rope on fire and causing them to fall, with a shower of paint and grease from buckets they sent flying upwards landing all over them. Kevin himself is a victim of slapstick when he later slips on a patch of ice and knocks himself senseless, leading to him being captured by Harry and Marv. They take Kevin to Central Park to finish him off but the pigeon lady comes to his rescue, throwing birdseed onto them, which sticks to their clothing and attracts every pigeon in the park to them, resulting in them being covered with the birds (Marv once again screams like Fay Wray during this commotion). The cops then arrive, having been tipped of by Kevin, and they arrest the two crooks. Marv, like before, can't keep his mouth shut and confesses their whole scheme to the cops and then tells the cops that, if this makes the papers, they're now the "Sticky Bandits" and tries to spell "sticky". Harry, like before, tries to shut him up but just gives up a few seconds in.

Now, I feel I have to address the major criticisms of the above-mentioned slapstick violence. Critics were mixed on the original film but reviews for the sequel were almost entirely negative, with most of them, in addition to the copying of elements from the original, focusing on the cranked up physical comedy. Roger Ebert especially slammed it, saying, "Cartoon violence is only funny in cartoons. Most of the live action attempts to duplicate animation have failed, because when flesh-and-blood figures hit the pavement, we can almost hear the bones crunch, and it isn't funny." So, I'm guessing Roger isn't a fan of the Three Stooges. Okay, I'll admit that the slapstick in this film is over the top and crazy, it does make what was in the first film look benign but that's the point: it's a live action cartoon. Can you honestly take this movie that seriously when Marv's skeleton is shown when he's being electrocuted? It's the same problem I had with Leonard Maltin's criticisms of Gremlins (he didn't like the Home Alone movies either): they're not taking themselves seriously, so why are you? And by the way: bones crunching? When did you hear Harry and Marv's bone crunch, Roger? I'm not trying to pick on Ebert and I'm aware that he lightened up in his later years but I still think he took some things way too seriously. All I'm saying is, "It's a family comedy. Quit being so serious!" Besides, he called Home Alone 3 the best of the series which, even though I'm not going to say that he's wrong for thinking that (which I actually did in the first version of this review), I don't get at all.

Like Hughes and Columbus, returning composer John Williams decided to basically reuse his score for the original, with few changes. In deed, there are almost no deviations in the music between the two films. All the themes and melodies from the original are back, often accompanying the scenes that mirror those they played over in the original, although the Somewhere in My Memory song isn't used nearly as much and is only heard in its full instrumental entirety at the ending and over the latter part of the ending credits. Also like the original, there are bunch of Christmas songs on the soundtrack, both classic and modern, like It's Beginning To Look a Lot Like Christmas, Jingle Bell Rock, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, Holly Jolly Christmas, and Silver Bells (I honestly don't remember hearing those last two, though), as well as stuff like Cool Jerk (the song Uncle Frank sings along with in the shower), Sleigh Ride by TLC (I think that's the song that plays over the montage of Kevin touring New York and, if so, that's a rocking song) and Christmas All Over Again by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. So, yes, the score isn't very original, except for the songs that weren't featured on the original's soundtrack, but it still fits the film and manages to put you in the Christmas mood.

Like the original Home Alone, Home Alone 2 was a big success all around the world, if not quite successful as its predecessor but, even though there were several more films afterward, this was the end of Home Alone as I and everyone else who grew up in that period knew it. Home Alone 3, released in 1997, had nothing with the first two movies, had no involvement from Chris Columbus, Macaulay Culkin (who'd dropped out of acting by that point), or any of the other cast members (John Hughes still wrote and produced it, though), and wasn't anywhere near as successful as the first two. I've only seen bits of it but it's never been a movie I've been interested in seeing, as it's just not the same. The final nails in the coffin for the series were two TV movies: Home Alone 4: Taking Back the House in 2002 and Home Alone: Holiday Heist in 2012. While the former does feature Kevin again, it's a reboot rather than another sequel, with a younger kid playing Kevin and other has-been actors, including French Stewart as Marv (Daniel Stern wisely refused to return, calling this movie an insulting piece of trash; although, I wonder what his excuse was for appearing in A Christmas Story 2?). I never watched that because it sounded so atrocious and I doubt I ever will. And I didn't even know until just recently that there was a fifth film, so there's that. To me, the original Home Alone and this film are the only ones that exist.

To wrap things up, I will say that I do agree that Home Alone 2: Lost in New York is a bit too similar to the original for its own good, with a number of gags, lines, and even plot devices lifted directly from it that make you wonder why John Hughes even bothered writing the sequel if he couldn't think of anything new. And as a result, I also understand the major criticism that it's clearly a cash-in and not as pure as its parent film. That said, though, while it may be a cash-in, I think it's a fun one: it's just as hilarious (maybe even more so) as the original, it's nice to see virtually the entire main cast return, John Williams' score may be the exact same but it still does its job, and, like the original, it'll definitely put you in the Christmas mood. All I have to say is that, if you put the similarities aside, you can enjoy the film for what it is: the original on steroids.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Stuff I Grew Up With: Home Alone (1990)

Every generation has their own special Christmas movie, that film you always see on TV at some point from late November to Christmas Day every year. For some, it's the original Miracle on 34th Street or It's a Wonderful Life; for others, it's the Rankin-Bass Christmas specials (which I did grow up with but haven't seen in years) and the original animated version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas; and, of course, the 1983 cult favorite, A Christmas Story (which I always say is the Christmas movie you can't escape if you have cable or satellite because you'll always see bits and pieces of it during the 24-hour marathon that starts on Christmas Eve). However, for my generation, born in the late 80's and growing up in the 90's, Home Alone was THE Christmas movie. Not only was it a gigantic hit when it was released in November of 1990 but, for the longest time, NBC would always show it around Thanksgiving (I'm not sure if they still do that or not) and, even though I never owned it until I got the special edition DVD when I was 21, I have great memories of this flick and always looked forward to watching it every year. When I was a kid, I enjoyed it mainly for the slapstick humor of Kevin outwitting Harry and Marv and I still do as I'm a big fan of that in general (I really love the Three Stooges in particular) but, as I got older I also began to enjoy the true heart and charm of this movie and its theme of the importance of family, especially around Christmastime.

The story, for anyone who has never seen the film, is pretty basic: the McCallister family is preparing to fly to Paris to spend Christmas with relatives who live there and have gathered at Peter and Kate's large Chicago home the night before the flight leaves. Eight-year old Kevin, one of the youngest kids in the family, is constantly picked on by his older siblings and the majority of his cousins and he's not fairing too well with his parents either, who feel he's needlessly causing trouble. After an argument with his bullying older brother, Buzz, causes a chain reaction of havoc, Kevin is sent upstairs to sleep by himself, prompting him to angrily wish that his family would disappear forever. That night, a power outage causes the family to oversleep and, in the rush to catch the soon-to-leave plane, they end up leaving Kevin behind. When he awakes to find the house empty, he thinks that he got his wish and is initially overjoyed at it. Soon, his family realizes what they've done and his mother does whatever she can to get back home to her son. At the same time, Kevin begins to miss his family and, to make matters worse, he also has to deal with two burglars who see his large house as a goldmine and will do anything to strip it clean of its valuables.

The film was written by popular filmmaker John Hughes, who directed a lot of successful teenage comedies and dramas in the 80's like The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, as well as produced a number of popular comedies like National Lampoon's Vacation, The Great Outdoors, and Mr. Mom. I didn't watch any of those movies when I was younger, as I'm not a child of the 80's and also because none of them ere really kids' films, and when I became a teenager, I wasn't interested in them either, so I can't say I'm the biggest of Hughes' work. Still, I will give him credit on this flick, as he seemed to know how to capture a child's imagination and that immature way of viewing life and family, as well as the importance of love and togetherness around Christmastime. I know that one of the criticisms made towards the film around the time of its release was that it felt like Hughes is merely pulling you around on strings and doesn't seem to know how to do anything else but I honestly don't see what's wrong with a film this well made that does that. And while I don't agree with everything that Hughes wrote into the script (which I'll get to presently), I think all the people who described the film as a "sadistic festival of adult-bashing" (Owen Gleiberman from Entertainment Weekly) and such are vastly missing the point. Director-wise, you, of course, have Chris Columbus, who was a young, up-and-coming writer/director at the time, having already had some success by writing Gremlins and The Goonies and directing Adventures in Babysitting; this, however, was the movie that truly put him on the map as a director, which he needed since his previous film, Heartbreak Hotel, had died at the box-office. Like Hughes, I've always felt that Columbus was very successful in capturing a childlike innocence with both this film and its first sequel. Some may feel that Mrs. Doubtfire is his best film but, as much as I do love that movie too, I will always see this as his best because I grew up with it, I've loved it ever since I was a kid, and, in it is, my opinion, a contemporary Christmas classic.

The main reason why this movie was such a huge hit with both kids and adults alike has to be Macaulay Culkin. He'd been in movies before this, most notably Uncle Buck (one of my favorite John Candy movies) and an uncredited role in the underrated horror film, Jacob's Ladder, but this was the movie that made him one of the biggest child superstars of all time and even got him a Golden Globe nomination. I know he sort of became a tool of the studios afterward (not to mention of his stupid father, who ruined his by being too hard to deal with as his agent), with uninspired movies like The Pagemaster and Richie Rich (I liked both of those as a kid but I doubt I'd feel the same way if I saw them now) but there's no denying how charming, pure, and sincere his performance is in this film.

Kevin is your typical eight-year old kid and, like most kids his age who are part of big families, he's either ignored or picked on by his older siblings and cousins. Granted, he is a kind of pain, like when he messes up his dad's new fishhooks and bugs his mom when she's trying to talk on the phone but he's not so hateful and annoying that you can't stand him (in fact, I think his family is made up of a lot of assholes but we'll get to that). I also think that most kids his age would be able to identify with how he feels, that you get overlooked by your parents and family and you sometimes wish they would all just go away so you could do whatever you want. Speaking of that child mindset that I feel John Hughes and Chris Columbus put into the film, there are some parts of it that I didn't even fully understand when I was a kid. For instance, I never picked up on the fact that he thinks that his family is gone because he wished them away; when he says, "I made my family disappear," I always thought he meant that they left him behind on purpose because he wished them to, that they decided to take off without him. That's also why I didn't understand why, when he wakes up on Christmas morning, he immediately thinks that his family is back; again, not grasping that he wished for Santa Claus to bring them back. I even thought that the furnace down in the basement inexplicably coming to life and growling at him was real, not understanding that it was just his imagination! In any case, I know that some people find the idea of a little kid knowing how to go shopping for groceries, wash clothes, and fool adults into thinking he's not all alone, as well as be brave enough to defend his home from burglars, difficult to swallow but I think Culkin pulled it off with enough of a sincere intelligence and wit to where you can suspend your disbelief. As an adult, I now find the scenes where he begins to miss his family and realize that it's no fun being alone at Christmastime to be very well-acted and touching, and I also find it interesting that when he and his mother meet up again at the end, he doesn't forgive her right away, as he remembers how much she hurt him. But, of course, he eventually does forgive her and everything's then all right, leading to a very heartwarming embrace between them. I'm kind of rambling on here but what I'm getting at is that I thought Culkin was very good at coming across as a believable eight-year old who's also brave enough to defend his home from burglars and smart enough to learn the importance of family.

Another big part of the appeal of Home Alone is Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern as the "Wet Bandits," Harry and Marv, mainly because, even though they're criminals and eventually become more interested in killing Kevin than robbing his house, they're actually kind of likable in their own rights. That's due to the great chemistry Pesci and Stern have and the way they play off each other, as well as their own, individual dynamics, with Harry being the short, hot-headed, loudmouth leader and Marv the slightly dimwitted lackey. Harry bullies and bosses Marv around, often irritated at how slow and child-like he is, and you also have to love how Harry wants to be low-key in their burglary but Marv insists on leaving a calling card by leaving the water running in every house they hit. Speaking of Harry, this movie, like most people my age, was my introduction to Pesci and because I knew him mainly for this film, I didn't realize that he'd played in a lot of hard-hitting, foul-mouthed gangster movies like Goodfellas and Casino until many years later. As a result, I'm sure it was surprising to many people at the time to see him doing a family film like this but he fits in rather well, even if he had to really struggle to keep from cursing during shooting. (I've also heard rumors that he supposedly didn't like being second-fiddle to a kid and if that's true, I don't know what he was expecting; if he read the script, he should've known going in that Culkin was the star.) Regardless, as a kid, I always liked Daniel Stern as Marv better than Pesci. He's so child-like and slightly dimwitted that he's really likable, even though he's a burglar, and it also made it easier for me to get into him as a child, whereas I always found Harry to be much more threatening (as an adult, though, I've grown to love them both). Plus, like Pesci, I later learned that Stern was in many more serious roles in films you wouldn't expect judging from this, like Blue Thunder, C.H.U.D. and Leviathan. He's really quite a good actor.

As for Kevin's parents, Kate and Peter (Catherine O'Hara and John Heard), I have mixed feelings about them. It's obvious that they do love their son and, like any parents, are horrified when they discover that their young child is at home all by himself, the way they act at the beginning has always kind of bothered me. While it's mainly Kate (to be honest, Peter is one of the more forgettable characters here), both of them act rather insensitive towards Kevin. I'm talking about when he's bugging them when they're trying to get things organized, as I can understand those reactions, but rather when all Kevin does is push Buzz, for good reason, and they blame him for the chain reaction of havoc it causes. Do they not realize what a jerk Buzz was being to him and that he ate his pizza? Also, when Kate drags Kevin upstairs, saying stuff like, "Maybe you should ask Santa for a new family," and when Kevin says he wishes he didn't have a family and she says, "Well, say it again. Maybe it'll happen," I can't help but go, "Whoa! That's kind of harsh." I know she was mad at him but, geez. I also can't blame Kevin for saying that he feels like everyone in the family hates him because it sure does look like it and what she said probably confirmed it in his mind. Yes, she does feel very guilty when she realizes that they left him behind and shows her love by going to great lengths to get home to him but, still, what she said was rather cringe-inducing to hear from a mother. I guess in a way, that adds to why I like the moment I mentioned earlier, where Kevin doesn't forgive her right away and their following reconciliation, so much. It feels like the point it's trying to get across is that all families fight and hurt each other but, at the end of the day, they're still a family. Although, there's one thing I have to mention about that last scene: Kate goes through all that trouble to get home to Kevin and then, literally a few minutes later, the rest of the family just shows up no problem. That kind of diminishes her long struggle to get home a little, don't you think?

As much as I criticize the parents, they're not the real problem: it's the rest of the family, who are my only major gripe with both this movie and the sequel. They're a bunch of douchebags. As I said earlier, when Kevin says that everybody in the family hates him, it's not that hard to believe because it sure looks like it and there are two characters in particular whom I really can't stand. One is Devin Ratray as Kevin's older brother, Buzz. I know older brothers can be jerks to the younger ones but, my God, this guy is absolutely loathsome! The first scene with him and Kevin has him calling Kevin a phlegm-wad and telling him that he wouldn't let him sleep in his room if he were growing out of his ass (there was even a deleted section where, after they look out the window at Old Man Marley, Buzz basically threatens to beat Kevin up if he doesn't get out of his room). Also, like I said, Buzz starts the argument between him and Kevin that leads to Kevin getting sent upstairs for the night. Does nobody else realize what a jerk Buzz is being to him? But the final nail in the coffin for me is when they're in Paris and, not only is Buzz not at all concerned about Kevin, he even says he knows nothing will happen to him because, among other reasons, "I'm not that lucky." What a horrible brother! He actually pisses me off even more in the sequel but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

The other character in the movie I hate, probably even more than Buzz, is Gerry Bamman as Uncle Frank. This guy is one of the worst uncles imaginable (he's not as horrible as a certain other Uncle Frank in the horror movie, Hellraiser, but let's not get off-topic). During the commotion that happens between Kevin and Buzz, he yells at Kevin, "Look what you did, you little jerk!" Okay, I don't care how mean a kid is being, I would kick that guy's ass up and down the house if he said that to my son! Like Buzz, that's what gets me: no one says anything to him, not even the parents. Also like Buzz, when they find out that Kevin's been left by himself, Frank doesn't care, saying, after phonily pretending to give a crap, "If it makes you feel any better, I forgot my reading glasses." The way everybody looks at him says it all: shut up, you asshole! And, again like Buzz, there was a deleted scene that made Frank look like even more like a creep, with him pantsing Kevin. Plus, on top of all that, he's just a selfish cheapskate, trying to steal some real crystal glasses from the first class in their airplane and such. I'm sorry if I sound like I'm overreacting but these two family members really get under my skin. There are others, like the kid who says that Kevin is such a disease and the girl who says, "You're what the French call, 'les incompetente'" (I'm sure I spelled that wrong: I can't speak French), who I think are Jeff and Linnie, but, Buzz and Uncle Frank... ugh!. Anyway, I hope this ranting doesn't make you think I hate this movie because, believe me, I don't. It's just those family members really disgust me.

Other than Kevin, Harry, and Marv, my favorite character in the film is the one who I find to be the most interesting: Old Man Marley, played by Roberts Blossom. At first, he's a rather terrifying figure, walking up and down the street, salting the sidewalk, wearing raggedy clothes and dark rubber boots, and with bandaged hands. Kevin is initially terrified of him and he has good reason to be: there's a rumor that he murdered his entire family and used the salt to mummify their bodies. But, he eventually learns that those rumors aren't true and that Marley is actually a very kind man. Blossom is so great at being initially creepy (although, you wonder why Marley acted so menacing towards Kevin beforehand when he could have easily calmed the kid down by speaking to him) but later coming off as kind and even heroic, saving Kevin from Harry and Marv, that it's unreal and is why I love this character. In fact, my two favorite scenes in the movie involve Marley. The first is the great one between him and Kevin in the church where they're watching his granddaughter sing in the choir. As they talk, you find out that Marley had a nasty falling out with his son years ago and they haven't spoken since. It's something a mirror image of what happened with Kevin and his family because he said he didn't want to see them ever again, which is what Marley and his son said to each other and why Marley is able to identify with what Kevin is saying about his family. Marley has regretted it for a long time now and wishes he could made amends with his son but is afraid that if he tries to call him, he won't talk to him. I like how Kevin advises Marley to try to reconcile with his son and you get the feeling that this leads Kevin to forgive his own family, even when he hesitates initially with his mom. My other favorite scene is at the end of the film, when Kevin looks out the window and sees that Marley has reconciled with his son and is hugging his granddaughter. Even as a little kid, I understood what that meant and, to this day, I always get tears in my eyes at that moment. I think that image ultimately sums up what the movie is about: family members fight and say bad things but they're still a family and, like Kevin and Marley, nobody should have to spend Christmas home alone.

One last person I have to mention, even though his role is small, is the late great John Candy as polka guy, Gus Polinski. When I was a little kid, I didn't know who John Candy was but I did really like this character (incidentally, I've since grown to be a huge fan of Mr. Candy and I still miss him to this day). Like most of Candy's characters, Gus comes off as a big, teddy bear of a guy, slightly slow and scatterbrained but with a heart of pure gold. He rambles on a bit about his less than successful polka career, (I would quote the line but I have no clue how to spell the name of the place he mentions or if it even exists) but, when Kate gets him back on track, he kind-heartedly offers to give her a ride to Chicago when she can't get a plane to take her there. You just have to love a guy who's so nice to offer her a ride when he and his buddies have their own crisis with their flight being cancelled and them having to drive to Milwaukee. Unfortunately, his attempts at cheering Kate up when she's calling herself a bad parent don't work too well, as he tells her how he accidentally left his kid at a funeral parlor once and the kid didn't start talking again for six to seven weeks! Nice guy, but doesn't know when not to speak or what not to mention, making him akin to Del Griffith in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

It's probably every kid's dream to have the entire house to his or herself for a while, especially if they're part of a big family (I've always lived in a relatively small house with just my mom and dad, so I never felt that way but I can understand how kids in big families would probably want a break from it) and Kevin is no exception. Once he realizes his family is gone, he has his way with the house: jumping on his parents' bed while eating popcorn, shooting his little toy soldiers down the laundry chute, making a mess of the kitchen, eating a bunch of junk while watching movies intended for adults, sledding down the stairs to the outside of the house, and ordering a pizza all for himself. My favorite part of it is when he's going through Buzz's stuff, finding a Playboy (which he finds disgusting) and firecrackers, before coming across a picture of his girlfriend, who's making a bizarre face, and he says, "Buzz, your girlfriend! Woof!" Another memorable part is when he's getting ready to go out and he's in front of the bathroom mirror, putting on stuff like deodorant and aftershave, the latter of which burns his face, leading to the film's most iconic image. This connects back to a part that proves that, as mature and smart as he thinks he is now, he's still a little kid. When Harry and Marv first try to break into the house and he manages to scare them away, Kevin hides under the bed in fear but, after a while, he comes out from under it and decides that he shouldn't be hiding since, as he says, "I'm the man of the house." He then walks outside, loudly proclaiming he's not afraid anymore... and then, he runs into Marley, screams his head off, runs back into the house, and hides under the bed's covers. Some man of the house. 

After a while, Kevin actually becomes quite responsible, doing the laundry, washing the dishes, and even going out for groceries. I know that it is really unbelievable to see this little eight year-old kid buying a bunch of groceries and the checkout lady, even though she quizzes him, doesn't do more to find out if this kid is telling the truth but, you have to admit that Kevin is quite smart and witty, coming up with fairly believable excuses for why he's apparently in the store by himself (but, again, you'd think they would have done more to make sure he's telling the truth).By the way: all of those groceries combined cost $19.83? Don't you miss those days? However, he's not so smart in the scene before that where he gets scared of Marley at a store and ends up running off without paying for the toothbrush he picked. He must've been so scared that he forgot he was holding it but he should have just dropped the stupid thing and ran off.

Let's face it, if you watched this movie a lot when you were a little kid, you liked it for one reason: the hilariously painful stuff Kevin puts Harry and Marv through. It starts right off the bat with a funny one, with Kevin shooting Harry right in the crotch with a pellet gun and he lets out this hilarious, high-pitched scream of pain. Marv getting pelleted in the forehead is pretty funny too but that moment before it was funny as hell. (You also got to love Pesci cursing under his breath, no doubt in his attempts not to actually say it out-loud.) I also just love watching Harry slip on the icy front steps, although apparently he's too dumb to realize that he could just climb around them, and the noise Marv makes when he slips down the steps to the basement door is really funny too, as it is when Marv is trying to get a solid step on the icy bottom and later when he leaves the basement and actually slips again. The one that's genuinely painful rather than funny to me is when Harry grabs the knob to the front door, unaware that Kevin put a hot branding iron on the other side. The way he screams sounds like he's in real agony and the image of the "M" on the knob branded onto his hand is cringe-inducing as well. Another one that's also painful but I actually laugh at is when Marv takes his shoes and socks off to get up the sticky basement stairs and he steps on a nail. The way he yells and falls backwards when he sees it kills me. (I know I didn't mention the moment when he gets an iron in the face but what else can you say about it and the literal impression it leaves on him?) However, I can't help but cringe when Harry gets a blowtorch to the head and has to go stick it in the snow (again, the aftermath looks legitimately painful).

I never thought Harry getting chicken feathers stuck all over him was that funny but I do like the dialogue exchange between him and Marv when they see each other: "Why the hell did you take your shoes off?" "Why the hell are you dressed like a chicken?" And I always break up when Marv climbs in through the window and steps right onto some ornaments with his bare feet. God, that had to suck, and you can understand why he screams, "I'm gonna kill that kid!" When they slip on Kevin's Micro-Machines in front of the stairs, the way Marv yells is what makes me laugh then, and, of course, Kevin bombs them right in the face with paint cans, causing Harry to lose his gold tooth. By this point, they don't care about robbing the house; they just want to kill Kevin (especially Harry, when he realizes he lost his gold tooth). The absolute funniest gag is when Marv grabs hold of Kevin's leg and Kevin, desperate to get away, puts Buzz's pet tarantula right on his face, after which Marv proceeds to let out the most high-pitched, girly scream I've ever heard a man make. I crack up every single time. The moment afterward where Marv accidentally throws the spider onto Harry, who fell over a trip-wire Kevin set up, and proceeds to whack him right in the stomach with a crowbar is also really funny, especially when Harry angrily beats Marv with the crowbar, yelling, "Here, how do you like it, huh?! You jerk!" One funny line from Marv is when they get to the attic and there's no sign of Kevin. When Harry asks where he went, Marv says, "Maybe he committed suicide." They proceed to climb along the rope to Kevin's treehouse but Kevin cuts it with some hedge-trimmers, leading to a painful fall for the two of them. They eventually do catch Kevin when he hides in a house they hit earlier and are about to actually kill him, when Marley, conveniently, comes in behind them and clobbers them both with his shovel. The nice final touch is when the two of them are arrested later that night and when Harry looks out the window of the police car, Kevin smiles and waves at him. Not only is it a great final note to end the subplot with the crooks but it's a nice set up for the sequel, as Harry clearly wants revenge when he looks at Kevin.

One of the most memorable aspects of the film is the fake gangster movie that Kevin watches called Angels with Filthy Souls, which, for the longest time, I was sure was a real movie and I think many people to this day still wonder if it's real. You can assume it was the movie that Kevin complained that Uncle Frank wouldn't let him watch with the other kids, even though it's not rated R, and once he does watch it, he immediately regrets it because of how violent it is when Johnny pumps Snakes' guts full of lead. The film itself is actually used by Kevin twice in the story. First, he orders a pizza and uses dialogue from the film to make the delivery boy think that there's a grown man in the house (but then, he goes overboard with it and scares the poor kid to death by playing the shooting part when he calls the person he thinks is inside the house a cheapskate). Later, when Marv is snooping around the house, Kevin uses it make him think there are armed men inside and someone just got murdered. It really has no significance in the grand scheme of things in the movie but it's just so odd and memorable that I couldn't do this review without at least mentioning it. (Like many other aspects, it would be repackaged and used again for the sequel.) What else can I say but, "Keep the change, ya filthy animal." 

Music plays a big part here, as it does in every Christmastime-related movie. First off, the actual soundtrack has a lot of classic Christmas songs that I think are placed in exactly the right places that they need. Stuff like Please Come Home for Christmas, White Christmas (the scene of him singing along with that tune in front of the bathroom mirror is just classic), and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas especially, the latter of which I think works well for the moment where Harry and Marv have been taken away by the police and Kevin sets up milk and cookies in the living room, hoping he'll see his family again by the morning, etc., isn't just randomly placed in the movie but actually serve a purpose, whether it's to be it funny, melancholy, or what have you. As for the actual music score by John Williams, I have to say that it's one of the most beautiful scores I think I have ever heard in my life. It's whimsical during the appropriate sections, funny during the comedic moments, and mischievously bad rather than overtly sinister when it comes to the leitmotif for Harry and Marv (I hope that makes sense). But the most recognizable tune is the main theme and song, Somewhere in My Memory, which is the backbone of the film's score, heard many times throughout in both its full length and in sections, as well as in different tones like heartwarming, sad, and mischievous. You first hear the actual song in a touching moment on Christmas Eve, where Kevin sees a big family getting together for the holiday and it fully hits him how much he loves and misses his family, and you hear the full-blown instrumental version of it in the ending scene where Kevin sees that Marley has been reunited with his family, making it all the more touching. I've just always found both the song and the instrumental version of it to be very beautiful and touching and I almost always tear up when I hear it. It was so beautiful that it deservedly got nominated for an Oscar (it should've won but still, at least the Academy did recognize what great music it is).

I realize I've sounded really mushy during this whole review but I can't help it; I really do love Home Alone. Other than the maybe too cruel family members, I think it's a true Christmas classic about family and love around the holidays. It's both funny, with Three Stooges-style slapstick and humor, as well as heartwarming, with its beautiful music score and use of classic Christmas songs, and the way it looks, with all of the snow, Christmas decorations, and the red and green interior design of the house, really puts you in the spirit of the time of the year. Plus, all of the actors are great, especially Macaulay Culkin, who proved that, when he wasn't being exploited as one of the biggest child stars ever, he could be very sincere and charming in his acting. Nowadays, some may see the movie as being really old-fashioned, lumping it in with the sappy, sentimental movies that were commonplace around that time, but I'll always love this movie because, like I said at the beginning, it's my generation's Miracle on 34th Street and It's a Wonderful Life: a beloved Christmas classic that deserves to live on forever like those movies.