Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Christmas 2015: December 17

Home Alone (1990)

To the oft-mentioned nineties kids, “Home Alone” is regarded as a Christmas classic. Released with few expectations, the film would become a monstrous hit. Outliving its holiday release date, the film stayed atop the box office for twelve weeks and ultimately grossed over 400 million. Frequent TV showings have kept it in the pop culture consciousness. In Poland, of all places, it’s considered an essential Christmas tradition. I was part of the “Home Alone” cult as a kid. I frequently watched the VHS tape. I vividly remember a poster, showing a map of the McCallister house with all of Kevin’s traps illustrated, that hung in our movie room for years. Upon revisiting the film a few years ago, I was underwhelmed, my childhood memories betraying me. Re-watching it again this year, my impression was much better. Funny how that works…

For those of you who somehow missed “Home Alone” back in 1990, let me elaborate. Kevin McCallister’s entire goddamn family is gathered in his upscale home, in the days leading up to Christmas. The family is preparing for a trip to Paris. Kevin’s older brother and uncle treat him like crap, his mom and dad belittle him, and the rest of his family ignores him. That night, Kevin solemnly wishes his family would disappear. A freak power outage leaves the family rushing to the airport. In the confusion, Kevin is left home alone. It’s great at first until the Wet Bandits, a pair of thieves responsible for the home break-ins in the neighborhood, target the McCallister house. Kevin has to fend for himself while his mom desperately tries to make it back.

Back in my teenage years, I once chose to stay home during a holiday vacation. When you’re used to living with family, having an entire house to yourself for a while can be kind of awesome. Kevin experiences this in “Home Alone.” His absolute euphoria upon realizing his asshole family has vanished is infectious. Since large portion of the film obviously have Kevin as the only character on-screen, he frequently voices his thoughts. While watching a gangster movie and eating a huge bowl of ice cream, he shouts about how he’s watching trash and eating junk. Using the same tape, he plays a pretty funny prank on the pizza boy. He joyously rides his sled down the home’s main staircase. He plays target practice with a B.B. gun and his older brother’s sport figurines. When he goes grocery shopping by himself, it allows the boy a fun chance to pretend to be an adult. The first act plays up how obnoxious Kevin’s family is. The audience is obviously meant to share the boy’s joy at their sudden disappearance.

Of course, Kevin quickly realizes that he’s eight years old in a big house, all by himself. The notorious moment when he slaps his face and screams is a comical sign that the kid may be in over his head. A moment that I could definitely relate to as a kid has Kevin being frightened of the furnace in the basement, imagining its grate opening like a mouth. (We had a spooky basement too.) One poignant moment has the boy in his parents’ bed, wishing his family was near him. Later, during a funny scene, he asks a department store Santa for his family back. Supporting this theme is the subplot of the creepy old guy next door. Played by Roberts Blossom, whose creepiness was well-earned in “Deranged,” Kevin starts out afraid of the old man. After meeting him in a church on Christmas Eve, they have a heart to heart. He reveals his own family problems, an estranged son he hopes to patch things up with. It could’ve been a sappy moment but proves surprisingly touching, mostly thanks to how Blossom levels with Culkin.

Of course, none of this stuff is what people really remembering about “Home Alone.” What truly sticks in people’s brains is the cartoonish obstacle course Kevin builds for the thieves in the last act. After a few brief encounters with the Wet Bandits, which includes a decently tense boy-vs.-van chase, they attempt to invade his home. “Home Alone” quickly escalates into a live-action “Tom and Jerry” cartoon from there. Daniel Stern and Joe Pesci both take likely fatal spills down icy steps. Pesci burns his hands on a red hot door knob before having his head severely burned with a blow torch. Stern gets a B.B. to the face, an iron to the face, a spider to the face, tar on the feet, a big ass nail in the feet, and shattered Christmas ornaments to the feet. None of that manages to kill them, leaving both to be smashed in the face with swinging paint cans. Of course, both guys would be way dead before Kevin does his climatic trip across a home-made zip line. As a “kid vs. grown-ups” revenge fantasy, “Home Alone” is surprisingly brutal. No wonder fans like to compare Kevin to the Jigsaw Killer.

“Home Alone” would make Macaulay Culkin the biggest child star of the decade. It would both make and end his career. A hit as massive as “Home Alone” insured that Culkin’s screaming face would become iconic. Yet it also made it difficult for the public to identify him in any other role. Yet let’s remember why Kevin McCallister is so beloved. Culkin gives a genuinely good performance, showing a charisma and likability few mature stars have. I also think Catherine O’Hara is rather sweet as the mom, making it clear that she really does love Kevin, even if he annoys her. Joe Pesci somehow resists screaming profanity in every scene, though he comes close. He’s actually quietly cunning, contrasting with the lovably buffoonish Stern.

Look, I’m not going to call “Home Alone” a classic. It’s fun, surprisingly sweet at times, with a good cast and a great John Williams’ score. It’s also pretty silly and Chris Columbus’ direction is definitely overdone at all. Still, if you can look at it through the eyes of a kid that has always resented his extended family, odds are good “Home Alone” will speak to you. [7/10]

Community: Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas

Season two was when “Community” really cut loose, producing crazy themed episodes. For Halloween, they produced a brilliant half-hour riff on zombie movies. For Christmas, the series took a shot at a stop-motion holiday musical. In “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” Abed is imaging his college and friends as claymation armatures. Concerned about his break from reality, the group gathers in the study room and humors his delusion, in the hopes that he’ll reveal what upset him. Instead, Abed takes them on a holiday special-themed journey through his Christmasized subconscious.

“Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” is done entirely in stop-motion animation. The episode does a decent job of replicating the Rankin-Bass specials. Mostly, the switch in format allows the show to explore all sorts of wacky images. Abed envisions all of his friends as Christmas-appropriate objects. Jeff becomes a jack-in-the-box, Britta becomes a robot, Annie becomes a wind-up ballerina, and so on. The Christmas-themed alternate universe features a train chase and – my favorite – the self-destructing Christmas pterodactyl. Abed compares the journey to “Willy Wonka” and his friends are accordingly picked off during the journey, via flesh-devouring Hum Bugs and a collapsing ice cavern. The episode also features a few songs. Disappointingly, none are that memorable. Save the closing number, “That’s What Christmas is For,” which is catchy and nicely encapsulates the episode’s theme.

As always, “Community’s” greatest strength is its cast of characters. Watching them bounce off each other in this exaggerated setting produces some great laughs. Jeff’s perpetual sarcasm getting him attacked is great. Annie’s realization over why Abed imagines her as a ballerina is funny. Troy’s disappointment at getting a drum, or Pierce’s reason for sticking around, are good reoccurring gags. Later, the titular character drives off Professor Duncan by making him have his own Christmas breakdown. Ultimately, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” is a sad story, once the real reason behind Abed’s break from reality is revealed. The episode tries to spin this ending into a festive message about making friends into a family. It doesn’t entirely work.

So the sadness overwhelms “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas.” Yet it’s still a really fun episode. It’s probably the most Christmas-centric of “Community’s” Christmas episodes. It finds plenty of novel things to do with the set-up. Moreover, the cast is always worth watching. This is another half-hour of television I don’t mind spending a bit of December with. [7/10]

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