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Column: ‘Home Alone’ A Holiday Classic? Don’t Make Me Laugh

By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Pardon me, but Home Alone has made enough hundreds of millions of dollars by now and solidified enough of a multigenerational fan base to survive the following review: to hell with it.

This is not a popular or festive sentiment. People are crazy for Home Alone. Macaulay Culkin’s blase comic authority killed, and helped make it one of the most popular comedies ever made. For millions of preteen children (and plenty of others), its final 30 minutes is the definition of rousing slapstick comedy.

This breaks my heart.

Seriously. It breaks my heart. The movie’s slapstick sensibility is harsh enough to invite comparisons to slasher movies. You think I’m kidding? I’m not kidding. I’m heartbroken, and I’m not kidding.

This month an intriguing array of articles have appeared online and in print, exploring this notion of “Home Alone” as an insidious gateway drug, acclimating children the world over to the next level of related thrills and methodical kills found in the slasher genre. Rhett Jones, writing for Hopes&Fears, lays out the argument: “The best reason to watch slasher films is for the well-designed kill, always. The same goes for Home Alone, which is actually a pretty (messed) up movie.”

Let’s back up a moment. Verifiably, screenwriter John Hughes’ massively successful mashup of sadism and sentiment made Home Alone the biggest hit of 1990. This was thanks largely to the wily deadpan elan of the key performance: Macaulay Culkin as young, privileged but put-upon 8-year-old Kevin, left behind in a five-bedroom mansion (in Winnetka) while his busy, distracted family jets off to France for the holidays.

The coolly accomplished boy defends his turf against a pair of invading burglars played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern. Kevin does so by going commando, rigging a series of booby traps inflicting grievous, skull-crushing bodily harm using hot tar, hot wires, nails to the foot, paint cans to the skull and a blowtorch. Everything but cluster bombs.

Director Chris Columbus went for broke, and for bizarrely realistic levels of brutality. Gruesome sight gags were filmed, and many people working on the movie assumed they’d never make the final cut. They did. All of them.

In 1990, reviewing it for the San Diego Union (now the Union-Tribune), I felt like a fringe dweller. “None of the hyper-violent gags in the climax — with Pesci and Stern getting irons in the face and blowtorches in the hair — are staged or performed with any wit; none of them are tailored to the individual actors’ styles … this is just second-shelf Three Stooges wrapped in treacle.” Grumble, grumble. Twenty-five years later, “Home Alone” remains one of the most profitable comedies ever made in America, and its silver anniversary is being celebrated with a return to theaters Dec. 9, for a limited theatrical rerelease.

Who could possibly work up a line of hate against such a familiar, entrenched, officially sanctioned Cute Picture?

A lot of people, it turns out. On Thrillist recently, Dan Jackson wrote of Home Alone and the even more violent Home Alone 2 as more disturbing, in their deceptive all-ages way, than Straw Dogs.

Jackson: “There’s surely a defense to be made of the series’ absurd violence by saying that it’s merely a live-action cartoon, a Wile E. Coyote-style explosion of kinetic action. As a child, it’s easy to be sucked in by the violent fantasies peddled by these movies … but at a certain point, the film’s constant violence starts to wear you down and you leave these movies behind. And when that happens, Straw Dogs will be waiting for you.” The writer refers to an instructive, blow-by-blow Slate piece by Alan Siegel, in which Home Alone is compared to Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 revenge thriller, very rough for the time and seething with bloodthirsty comeuppances meted out to the home invaders.

“To my 7-year-old self,” Siegel writes of Home Alone, “the mayhem (in Home Alones) final 30 minutes was almost pornographic.” Sure enough, Siegel’s interview with Home Alone production designer John Muto has Muto admitting that, 25 years earlier, during filming, he “kept telling people we were doing a kids version of Straw Dogs.”

Interestingly (and this was true of another widely loved Hughes screenplay, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), the hometown reviews of Home Alone were tougher than many on the coasts. Dave Kehr, Chicago Tribune: “The pleasures here are entirely cruel, with an unhealthy concentration on the suffering of the victims, on the thudding impact of various objects against their heads, on their howls of agony.” Regarding Home Alone 2, Kehr shrewdly notes that “the slapstick violence — already astonishingly intense in the first film — (grew) even more graphic and sadistic” in the second. Roger Ebert, who gave Home Alone a nonclassic 2.5 stars, compared its climax to that of Last House on the Left. Elsewhere, Time Out London: “It mistakes the pain threshold for hilarity.” TV Guide? “Full of unanticipated sadism … a close-up of Stern’s bare foot slipping slowly down on a six-inch nail is the film’s most ghastly image.”

That’s my problem with Home Alone. Its appeal is closer to bear-baiting than prime visual comedy. It jerks you around, from an improbable (but effective) child’s nightmare of abandonment to a liberating vision of a child’s premature adulthood, capping it off with a coldblooded vanquishing of the enemy. It’s the biggest bait-and-switch holiday movie of all time.

Maybe that’s why people love it; after one too many rounds with A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life, maybe the skull-cracking came as a relief.

©2015 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Macaulay Culkin and Joe Pesci in “Home Alone.” (Photo courtesy 20th Century Fox/TNS)

Column: Is James Bond Having An Identity Crisis?

By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

James Bond, Sir Ian Fleming’s suavely ruthless assassin and persnickety orderer of drinks, came to light in the Cold War. Mission: to channel the lady-killing and killing-killing fantasies of his overwhelmingly male readers, who became his movie fans with Dr. No in 1962, and to assert the imperialist righteousness of the United Kingdom in an uncertain world.

With the fourth Daniel Craig Bond film, Spectre, 007’s live-and-let-die relationship with the women in his life has begun to hollow him out from the inside. He is not the Bond he used to be. Can it be that it was all so simple then? Or has time rewritten every line? We’re a long way from Pussy Galore. When that brazenly smutty character name was uttered aloud in 1964 by Honor Blackman, who played her in Goldfinger, it was like the bomb going off at the end of Dr. Strangelove that same year.

In Spectre there’s a scene in which Bond needs information about the Italian mobster he has killed in the Mexico City prologue. Monica Bellucci plays the imperious widow. She cannot resist Bond’s advances because the script says so, and he gets what he needs by way of a stone-faced bout of contempt-copulation. No double entendres. No smirks. No blow-up dolls disguised as pin-ups, masquerading as human females. On the other hand, there’s not much of anything going on in this scene. It’s nasty, brutish and short.

Bond’s primary romantic interest is the grieving daughter of a Spectre villain. Dr. Swann, as she’s called, is a doctor who looks swell in a pants suit and sunglasses; Bond’s her equal in implacable, sphinxlike cool, in shades. But who has this man become? Does his trauma make him human? As Chicago film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky tweeted the other day: “Bond: resigns in CASINO, rogue in QUANTUM, SKYFALL, & SPECTRE. Technically not a spy, just a paranoid unemployed alcoholic serial murderer.”

On Wednesday’s Late Show, host Stephen Colbert and guest Craig presented a clever taped sketch imagining Bond, having lately trashed several vehicles in the line of duty, encountering a particularly fussy employee (Colbert, in an ill-behaving fake mustache) behind the rental counter. “Gritty realism” is how Craig introduced the sketch. In Spectre, of course, there’s nothing like it — except for the seething glare in the actor’s eyes, which actually works for the movie.

Bond is everywhere this month. There’s news of a new collection of author Fleming’s correspondence, “The Man with the Golden Typewriter.” The book contains one letter to be sold at auction later this month. Dating from 1959, it deals with the character of Galore, more explicitly spelled out as a lesbian in Fleming’s Goldfinger novel than the 1964 movie. Clearly, Fleming wrote, such a woman “only needed the right man to come along and perform the laying on of hands in order to cure her psycho-pathological malady.” Fleming was responding to a Dr. Gibson, who told Fleming that it was “slightly naughty of you to change a criminal Lesbian into a clinging honey-bun (to be bottled by Bond) in the last chapter.”

Indeed, Fleming’s Bond novels are full of descriptions such as these in Goldfinger, which have Bond staring into Galore’s “deep violet eyes that were no longer hard.” Then she regards his “passionate, rather cruel mouth” which comes “ruthlessly down on hers.” Cured! And one more sexual myth of the omnipotent heterosexual male, sold to an eager public.

By the time we got to Skyfall, the film, Honor Blackman’s convertible-lesbian had become a quaintly galling memory. Tortured by Javier Bardem’s sniveling adversary, in Skyfall Craig’s Bond alludes (honestly? kiddingly?) to a possibly bisexual resume. But Bond’s private life in the late-Craig era isn’t really about any sort of sexual impulse. It’s more about getting through the day, healing old psychic wounds, and finding someone who won’t try to change you in the slightest, as Lea Seydoux’s character promises.

That part, at least, sounds like 1964 all over again.

And so the movies’ most durable franchise finds itself at a crossroads. A character designed to be a dull fellow (Fleming’s own description) to whom ridiculously amazing things happen, regularly, has become a pretty interesting blank slate. Is love possible for such a man? Do we care?

(c)2015 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

‘Jurassic World’ Is Solid If Disappointing Reboot Of The Dino Franchise

By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Bailed out by a few good jolts, Jurassic World gets by, barely, as a marauding-dinosaurs narrative designed for a more jaded audience than the one Jurassic Park conquered back in 1993.

Why was director Steven Spielberg’s film version of the Michael Crichton novel a hit? In an industry built on high-concept pitches, the first film pitched the highest. Dinos brought back to life; trouble ensues. Digital effects, smoothly integrated with animatronics, made a quantum leap forward in that picture. Twenty-two years later the rattled, happily freaked-out crowd reaction to the shot of the sniveling lawyer getting chomped by the T. rex in an apparent unbroken take remains a vivid memory. For just a second I thought: Wow, they got that dinosaur to do that in one take! A new level of dino-realism, if not memorable characterization, had come to the screen, and Spielberg — the master populist-sadist — was happy to deliver Crichton’s cinematically preordained goods.

Then came a couple of sequels of so-so reputation, though I do love that overhead shot of the creatures winding their way through the tall grass in the second picture. Now, it’s do-over time. The carnage and rampant customer dissatisfaction experienced by so many in Jurassic Park are but a memory. In Jurassic World, directed and co-written by Colin Trevorrow (who did the low-budget charmer Safety Not Guaranteed), business at the retooled dinosaur theme park off the coast of Costa Rica has hit a plateau. Scientists led by B.D. Wong and his cryptic smile have responded to requests for a new star attraction, something “bigger, louder … more teeth.”

Behold the genetically engineered hybrid known as Indominus rex. He’s like the T. rex, only bigger, rexier and, soon enough for story purposes, ready to bust out of his walled confines to see what’s up on the rest of the island, snackwise.

Regarding the humans: Chris Pratt is the hunky yet sensitive raptor trainer and man of action, on or off his motorcycle. Though the Guardians of the Galaxy star seems to be playing an actor playing an action hero, as opposed to simply being one, he’s solid company. Bryce Dallas Howard is more like liquid company, slipping around in a dumb, retrograde, watery role of the uptight operations manager whose nephews (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins) travel from Madison, Wisconsin, to visit. And to get lost, and then chased, and re-chased.

I mean, of course. Of course you know what you’re getting in Jurassic World. The second Vincent D’Onofrio appears on screen as the InGen security honcho, out to weaponize the park’s dinosaurs for military purposes, you know he’ll make some predator a nice lunch. Still, the romantic banter between Pratt and Howard needn’t have been quite this lame. It was probably too much to ask for more wit, or a serious mean streak, even though the script (credited to four writers) makes a tentative stab or two at rampant product placement early on, before getting down to the business of delivering rampant product placement.

On a more basic level Jurassic World futzes a couple of key attacks. When the flying residents of the aviary bust out, the threat level is initially unclear. Then, in a chaotically staged sequence, park visitors run screaming and the bodies start falling and the whole thing is a bit of a blur. The movie recovers with a satisfying series of comeuppances in the climax, involving the park’s largest (and presumably angriest) attractions. These will likely be enough for those who aren’t going into Jurassic World expecting the world.

I wasn’t expecting the world, but I wouldn’t have minded sharper jokes and grander action scenes. I would’ve liked a less patronized female lead. I wonder why they couldn’t have developed a stronger supporting role for Omar Sy, the most sympathetic character (he’s the colleague of the Pratt character). At one point we learn that Indominus rex has camouflage capabilities. Universal Pictures clearly is hoping that its intermittently exciting summer tentpole has the same, and that because it looks, feels and acts like a big deal, it’ll become one.
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JURASSIC WORLD
2.5 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of science-fiction violence and peril)
Running time: 2:10

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(c)2015 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Cannes 2015 Preview: Pixar Tales To Murderous ‘Macbeth’

By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Jewel thieves lurking along the French Riviera: what a glamorous, movie-friendly cliche.

It’s a bit of a shock when millions of dollars in diamonds are swiped, at gunpoint, for real. Earlier this month, armed thieves made off with $19 million in jewels from the Cartier boutique located in Cannes. On the other hand, for this French resort city, jewel thefts are nothing new.

So let’s consider it this way. With this latest example of a movie-friendly, true-crime scenario out of the way, the world’s most glittering film festival can officially begin.

Whatever the local crime report, each year the Cannes Film Festival sets the stage for the next year’s worth of international cinema. Here, the right movie at the right moment in history can be launched into the stratosphere and become a reference point of the future. It happened with Pulp Fiction, to name one U.S. prizewinner; a generation earlier, it happened with Taxi Driver.

Often it takes a year or more for a Cannes festival competition title, such as last year’s Clouds of Sils Maria starring Juliette Binoche and Kirsten Stewart, to play theaters or become video-on-demandable in America. Winter Sleep, the winner of last year’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, arrived at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre seven months after Cannes, and like each previous film by the Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, it made a few tens of thousands of dollars at the box office and promptly vanished, except in the memories of those who loved it.

That’s one Cannes, the champion of the auteur. Another side of the festival involves grand populism and rivers of red carpet, yards and yards of it. The most recognizable movie stars on the planet and most of the greatest directors have climbed the photogenic stairs outside the Grand Lumiere Theatre.

This year? In connection with hundreds of competition and out-of-competition titles to be shown in Cannes through May 24, the carpet will host the likes of Amy Poehler (a voice in Pixar’s Inside Out), Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard representing a new Macbeth, Cate Blanchett (Carol) and Catherine Denueve (star of the 2015 festival opener, the French drama Standing Tall).

The choicest news in advance of the festival was longtime festival director Thierry Fremaux getting huffy about stars and their various cohorts clogging up the red carpet by taking pictures of themselves because, well, you know: Cannes. Red carpet. World premiere. South of France.

Nonetheless — enough! “You never look as ugly as you do in a selfie,” reprimanded Fremaux last month at a pre-festival press conference. He called the practice “ridiculous and grotesque.”

Two guys not known to take selfies in public, ever, are Joel and Ethan Coen, frequent Cannes award winners and this year’s jury presidents overseeing the prizes to be awarded May 24 in the 19-film main competition slate.

Some years that slate comprises a healthy percentage of exclusively American and British projects. Not this year. Two U.S. directors are in the running for the Palme this year. Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy, Good Will Hunting, Elephant), arriving in Cannes later this week with The Sea of Trees starring Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe. Carol, based on the Patricia Highsmith novel The Price of Salt, features Blanchett in what promises to be a swank, icy period picture co-starring Rooney Mara, directed by Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven).

There is, however, a larger category of English-language film getting significant play at this year’s festival. A notable number of directors from different countries have shot their latest feature in English, with starry casts that make the business of selling the film to a large number of foreign territories an easier prospect.

This is why John C. Reilly may well end up being the genial unofficial emblem of the 68th festival. In Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster, Reilly appears with Colin Farrell and Lea Seydoux for a futuristic black comedy (I think … I don’t know … I haven’t seen it yet) with a fantastic premise. In the future, according to the director of the rivetingly weird Dogtooth, single people must find a mate within a specific amount of time or else they’re transformed into animals and let loose in the wild.

In another fantasy competing for the Palme, Reilly costars with Salma Hayek and Vincent Cassell. The lavish, lurid Tale of Tales comes from the Italian director Matteo Garrone, whose earlier films Gomorrah (terrific organized crime drama) and Reality (plaintive celebrity-obsession fable) won prizes at Cannes. Garrone and Yorgos Lanthimos are making their English-language debuts with these latest pictures. So is the superb naturalist from Norway, Joachim Trier, whose Louder Than Bombs stars Jesse Eisenberg, Isabelle Huppert, Gabriel Byrne and David Strathairn. The phrase “foreign territories” is essentially dead now, for the record. So many films debuting over the next 12 days at Cannes represent a crazy-quilt arrangement of investment money and distribution interests from so many different nations. “Foreign” has become a word used by fiscal isolationists who don’t get out much, and don’t like to let people in.

All the same, this Cannes promises to be very much in line with the nine previous festival editions I’ve covered, full of fiercely personal and distinctive work that, at best, serves as an antidote to the latest Age of Ultron. Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien, recently the subject of a retrospective at Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center, presents his first new narrative feature in eight years (The Assassin). China’s Jia Zhangke, another top-flight poet of the medium, has a new one as well, Mountains May Depart.

And speaking of departing: The midnight screening series this year includes the reportedly hardcore sex film Love from French-based Gaspar Noe, whose explicit Enter the Void proved a controversial sensation at Cannes in 2009. The new one’s in 3D, and word is the process will bring festivalgoers within extremely close proximity to the body parts on screen. We’ll see.

And just to balance the scales while asserting the festival’s democratic, egalitarian parameters, the new Pixar movie “Inside Out,” opening commercially in June, will make its world premiere at Cannes May 18.

(c)2015 Chicago Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Pierre le Bigot via Flickr