(On DVD, November 2016) The most interesting thing about Home Alone 2 is probably the elaborate fashion through which it seeks to integrate the distinctive elements of the first film into a new framework that doesn’t necessarily call for it. Rather than being left home alone during Christmas, our young protagonist ends up alone in New York while his family is in Florida. So far so good, except that the sequel then goes through shameless hoops in order to copy is own prequel. Bring back the villains as escaped convict; check. Befriend an elderly woman as mirror to the elderly man of the first film; check. Set the third act in a townhouse under renovation so that elaborate traps can be deployed; check. Once again, the script also goes through entertaining contortions to justify its own premise (that Kevin would once again be left alone, despite the family trying to avoid such a thing happening again). Setting the action in New York isn’t such a bad idea—it allows for some interesting scenery, a distinctive first-half feel, hotel hijinks and a cameo by future president Donald Trump (wait, did I really write this? Oh my … it’s sinking in.) But the slapstick third act feels far less interesting this time around—not only has it been already done before, but the traps seem far more needlessly violent than in the previous film, and there’s a fair case to be made about attempted murder on some of them. Macaulay Culkin once again holds much of the film together, with Chris Columbus delivering more or less the same film for the second time. The result is of a pair with the first film—what you think of the first will be what you think of the second, so closely do they align.
(On DVD, November 2016) I had watched bits and pieces of Home Alone over the years, but never the whole film until now. What’s most interesting about its first few minutes is the relentlessness through which John Hughes’ script justifies its hair-raising premise: What if a kid was, indeed, left home alone over the holidays? What would it take (a large family, strife, imperfect communications, accidents) for it to happen, and for the family to be unable to come back? Home Alone virtually backflips in an attempt to make its premise seem plausible. Then it’s on to the fun and games of a kid outwitting burglars with subterfuge and too-clever traps—like a clock, the film winds up over most of its second act, then lets loose over the third one. Macaulay Culkin may not have had much of a career after the first two Home Alone movies, but he is a pivotal part of this one, with his character’s good-hearted innocence fuelling most of the first and second acts. The traps do get to be excessive toward the end, but that’s the kind of thing to be forgiven if the entire film can stand a chance. Otherwise, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern make for capable antagonists, and Catherine O’Hara brings a bit of honest motherly sentiment to the slapstick. While I’m not entirely convinced that Home Alone is a Christmas movie rather than a movie set during Christmas, it’s a decent comedy despite a few first-half lulls, and director Chris Columbus makes an impressive debut choreographing the mayhem. Call it a semi-classic for a reason.
(On DVD, September 2016) Before telling you what I really think about Bicentennial Man, I’ll just take a moment to appreciate what I do like about the film, even if it boils down to intentions. I like the idea of a classic Isaac Asimov story being adapted on the big screen. I certainly appreciate how the film tries to cover a two-century period in two short hours, and I can recognize the attempt at conveying some of that future history through background details. It’s the kind of thing that makes written science fiction so interesting, and it’s rare to see it even attempted on the big screen. This being said, none of those good intentions are enough to rescue Bicentennial Man from some condemnation. The ham-fisted script never misses an occasion to be dumb, sappy, obvious or nonsensical. The vision of the future is all about changing surface and simplistic attitudes, never taking an opportunity to tackle social change in a meaningful way, or escaping funny-clothes laziness. Robin Williams is here in full-blown nice-guy persona, wasting comic energy in a role seemingly built to be as dull as possible. While the film has aged badly in seventeen years (now that we have direct experience with the introduction of technology, the way Bicentennial Man deals with its robots feels worse than off), let’s not kid ourselves: it was pretty bad even in 1999. Laced with cheap sentimentality, flatly directed by Chris Columbus and hobbled by dumb story choices manifested by even dumber character decisions, this (in many ways) showcases how badly Hollywood mishandles Science-Fiction as a genre.
(On Cable TV, January 2016) Prepare your hankies, because Stepmom is determined to make you cry as hard as you can. The narrative threads are set up early, as the younger second wife of a sympathetic but featureless man (Ed Harris) can’t quite get the respect she wants from her stepchildren. Real mom is best mom, and so Susan Sarandon puts Julia Roberts in her place a few times to establish the narrative tension right before her cancer diagnosis is revealed. The rest is by-the-number sentimental filmmaking by director Chris Columbus, made fitfully interesting by a few hilariously unrealistic looks at fashion photography and adequate performances. Harris, Sarandon and Roberts can’t disguise that this is a very specific kind of movie. Everything plays exactly like we expect, and the result defies any attempts at deeper analysis or even sustained interest. Stepmom will appeal to its target audience and leave large groups indifferent. It is well made, but it is not worth more than a moment’s attention.
(On DVD, June 2011) Never having seen The Goonies (I know, I know…), I can’t say for sure if the film holds up for those with fond memories of the original. But seen fresh, the film still has a lot of fun and narrative energy. Sure, the kid actors often overact: Corey Feldman, in particular, seems to be mugging for the camera over and above what a motor-mouth should. The acting is broad and unsubtle: there’s little naturalism in how the characters are portrayed. But up to a certain point, that’s part of the charm: The Goonies is recognizably an early-teen fantasy of adventure and action: in-between wacky inventions, ingenious traps, first kisses, sibling tension, silly criminals and treasure maps, the film aims square at boys and girls and succeeds in portraying the kind of adventure many wished for in late grade school. As a collaboration between producer Steven Spielberg, writer Chris Columbus and director Richard Donner, The Goonies is also a powerhouse of talents who were at their mid-eighties peak: all would go on to make other things, but their reputation would hinge heavily on this film. Even from the first snappy minutes, it’s easy to see how everything clicks in this film. Not every sequence and plot elements works as well (I’m not so fond of Sloth, nor the various plot tricks), but even a quarter of a century later, the pacing is fairly good, the atmosphere between the kids is credible and the spirit of adventure rarely flags. There’s an added bonus in seeing familiar actors in younger roles, from Sean Astin to Josh Brolin to Joe Pantoliano. The DVD does justice to the film, with great picture quality and extensive supplements ranging from a superlative audio/video commentary to a few featurettes about the making of The Goonies. I’m probably one of the last kids of the eighties to see this film, but the wait has been worth it.
(In theatres, February 2010) The trailer for this film was unremarkable, so it’s a small surprise that the film itself proves just fine. No in terms of plotting, which blends “kid with a fantastic origin” with “quest!” and explicitly takes on the good old plot-coupon approach to second-act plotting. Not in terms of verisimilitude, when some of the dumbest material actually makes it on-screen in what looks like a summer camp that no one would enjoy. No, the chief saving grace of this adaptation of the first Percy Jackson & The Olympians book is in the way it adapts Greek mythology to a modern-day context. Part of this package are seeing a bunch of known actors in small roles: While Pierce Brosnan is OK as centaur Chiron and Sean Bean is credible as Zeus, it’s Uma Thurman as a leathery Medusa and Rosario Dawson as luscious Persephone that get all the attention. They are barely enough to make us ignore more fundamental details about the film’s world-building, and how it doesn’t exactly hang together gracefully. It’s a good thing that it’s Chris Columbus who directs the film, because it makes the clunky first-act plot similarities with Harry Potter easier to dismiss. But then again, the fun of the film is in the details, not the overall plot. A few good action sequences, complete with top-of-the-line special effects, finish off a package that is, all things considered, a bit better and more fun than anyone would have thought.
(In theaters, November 2005) Movie musicals may engender a lot of sarcastic comments about their fey nature, but a good one will successfully use the tools of cinematographic grammar to create an experience quite unlike anything else in other mediums. This makes adapting a stage musical a tricky proposition at best: a bland director will simply copy the original staging and let the camera roll. Now let’s face it; there are fewer blander directors than Chris Columbus, and his Rent may have a few good moments here and there, but it seldom coheres into a top-notch movie musical. For every “La Vie Boheme” or “Tango Maureen”, the film muddles through syrupy ballads and what looks suspiciously like mid-1980s music videos. Part of the film approach self-parody: Not only was it difficult to see the film without thinking about Team America‘s “Everybody’s got AIDS!” number, but I was never convinced that Maureen’s performance wasn’t meant to be a satire of truly awful performance art. This, and other missteps such as having artists agonize over selling out, make it remarkably easy to be cynical about the Gap-branded lip service paid to vie bohème counterculture. Not that the film is a complete disaster, mind you: Rosario Dawson is scorching hot and the whole experience is superficially pleasant. But it’s nowhere near the height of what we’ve seen movie musicals achieve since Moulin Rouge! singlehandedly revived the genre.