Friday, December 25, 2009

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

I'll freely admit that I prefer the quirkier Christmas movies over the more traditional ones. I'd pick A Christmas Story before It's a Wonderful Life, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation before Miracle on 34th Street, and Scrooged before any other version of A Christmas Carol. But of all the wacky Christmas movies I've seen over the years, the wackiest is definitely Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Yes, you read that title right.

This little gem from 1964 boasts some of the goofiest acting, lamest special effects, and one of the most preposterous concepts for a story ever captured on film. It's also become some of a cult classic, especially after it was featured on a 1993 episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. And let me tell you, folks, the movie is a whole lot of dumb.

Mars isn't doing so hot. Children all across the planet are parking themselves for hours on end in front of their televisions, doing nothing but watching Earth broadcasts all day and night. This especially worries Kimar (Leonard Hicks), the king of Mars, whose own children are so addicted to Earth's TV shows that they've stopped eating and sleeping. When he consults Chochem (Carl Don), an ancient Martian sage, Kimar learns that the planet's rigid structure has effectively robbed children of their childhoods, causing them to have midlife crises during adolescence. The only solution is to bring Santa Claus into the mix and teach the kids of Mars to have a little fun.

So instead of creating a Santa of Mars's own, Kimar figures he'll come here and kidnap ours. Why have a copy when you can just go get the real thing? He and a crew of fellow Martians all pile into a spaceship and head to Earth. But believe it or not, finding fat bearded guys in red suits is pretty easy around Christmas. Not knowing just where to find the real Santa Claus, the Martians ask two siblings, Billy (Victor Stiles) and Betty Foster (Donna Conferth), for directions and are quickly pointed towards the North Pole. To show their appreciation, the Martians kidnap Billy and Betty to make sure they don't tell the cops about their nefarious plans.

The Martians successfully kidnap Santa and head back to the fourth rock from the sun. They even set him up in his own automated workshop to crank out gifts for the good boys and girls of Mars. He's all too happy to help out a planet in a bind, and things start going swimmingly. But this doesn't sit too well with Voldar (Vincent Beck), a villainous Martian who thoroughly hates the idea of Santa Claus and Christmas and all that other stuff. He hates it so much that he'll kill Santa Claus if he has to, as long as Mars stays the way it was. Will he succeed, or will Santa Claus truly conquer the Martians?

That is the actual plot of the movie. I am not kidding. If it sounds too insane to actually be real, don't worry. I've seen the thing and I can barely comprehend any of it. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is, without a doubt, one of the most insane, stupid, and downright silly movies I've ever seen. The fact that somebody actually came up with the concept, turned it into a script, and went on to produce it as an actual movie is mind-boggling. What kind of drugs do you need to take to think up a movie where Santa Claus is kidnapped by Martians? It had to be some trippy stuff, in the very least.

I'm not even sure where to begin reviewing this movie. The whole thing is such a mess that I don't think that I can actually break it down and single out just what went wrong. It's a movie made for children, which makes it harder to really knock the movie. It's almost too easy a target, you know? And for all I know, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was supposed to be intentionally inept. I mean, there's no way to take a serious approach to the movie's concept. It would have made for a heck of a sci-fi parody, but it looks like they played it straight. And playing it straight means they ended up with a movie that's "so bad it's good." The characters are awful, the production looks unbelievably cheap, the special effects are laughable, and the acting is pretty much what you'd expect (i.e. it sucks out loud).

The movie was directed by Nicholas Webster, who'd spend pretty much the rest of his career as a television director. I'm actually quite happy about that, because it means we wouldn't see him directing any more feature films. The movie is just plain dull to look at. Beyond the climactic scene where the Martian and human kids team up to defeat Voldar, which feels like what would happen if the end of Requiem for a Dream was a bad Christmas movie from the '60s, you kinda get the feeling that Webster simply didn't care.

It doesn't help anything that the movie looks like it has a budget of whatever loose change the producers could scrounge together at a given time. I'm just amazed by how awful everything looks. For one thing, it's apparent that nobody thought to hire a proofreader for the movie, since whoever did the credits apparently thinks "costume" is spelled "custume." (Though I can overlook the scene where a newspaper headline spells the word "kidnapped" with one P, since it's a less egregious error.)

And another thing, the Martians all look like really stupid rip-offs of The Great Gazoo from The Flintstones, only with hoses and wire coat hangers instead of antennae. (That's really saying something, since the movie came out a year before Gazoo's first appearance.) And a lot of the time, it appears that the lights are causing their makeup to melt off. Pay close enough attention, and you'll notice.

I also thought it was odd that the Martian technology looked like poorly-made knockoffs of what you'd find in Adam West's Batcave, but perhaps the stupidest things are the polar bear and the robot at the North Pole. The polar bear is very obviously a guy wearing a ugly bear suit, and the robot costume is basically a cardboard box for the torso and a metal wastebasket for a head. I've seen a lot of cheap-looking things in movies before, but these absolutely take the cake. They're right up there with creating flying saucers by hanging pie plates on fishing line. It's apparent that the movie had a low budget, so I can't really fault it if those lame costumes were all that could be afforded. But come on, couldn't they have found something more convincing within their financial constraints?

I feel like I should also point out the movie's horrible theme song, composed by Roy Alfred and Milton Delugg. Titled "Hooray for Santa Claus," the song is so annoying, so nerve-grating, that you'll hate yourself when it gets stuck in your head for hours after you hear it. It's bad enough that the chorus of off-key children brought in to sing it aren't even singing at all, instead shouting the lyrics. That doesn't get old quickly, not at all. But the dumbest thing about it is the lyrics. Despite the fact that the song's chorus spells out Santa's name numerous times, it's apparently supposed to be pronounced "Santy Claus." I don't know why that bugs me so much, but every time I hear the song, it annoys the hell out of me.

Let's move on, or else I'll never get this review done. Up next is the script, credited to Glenville Mareth working from a story by Paul Jacobson. How they came up with the idea for this, I have no clue. But either way, this script is awful. Even when you try to excuse it as a movie made for kids who won't care either way, it's still unbelievably stupid. The characters are all pretty terrible, the dialogue is preposterous, and the whole thing is one bizarre scene after another.

Even the names of some of the characters show just how lazy this script is. I can forgive the cardboard box robot being named "Torg" (an apparent play on Gort, the robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still), since that isn't so bad. But Kimar, his wife Momar, and their children, Bomar and Girmar? The names are short for "King Martian," "Mom Martian," "Boy Martian," and "Girl Martian." That's either incredibly lazy writing or an extreme lack of creativity, perhaps a little of both.

And to tell you the truth, nothing in the movie really makes any sort of sense from a narrative standpoint. The script is basically the movie equivalent of watching a friend who is intensely drunk ramble incoherently for an hour and a half. You have no clue what they're talking about (and they probably have no idea either), but you just can't let yourself look away.

And last on my list is the acting, which is pretty darn horrible. For example, the children, both the ones playing humans and the ones playing Martians, are awful. Their performances are wooden and contribute nothing whatsoever to the movie. The adults don't fare much better, though. As our designated villain, Vincent Beck is hammy and over the top. Watching him is like watching Snidely Whiplash audition for the Batman TV show. If he'd tied Santa Claus to some train tracks while twirling his mustache, he would have been complete.

John Call fares a little better as the titular Santa Claus, though he's still no great shakes. He actually plays Santa as if he's been sneaking a few sips of gin between takes. I don't have a problem with a happy Santa, but Call's Santa comes across as a little too happy. It's like he never quite grasps the gravity of any bad situation. Got kidnapped by aliens and essentially forced into slavery? Why, that's no problem at all. Narrowly avoid being murdered via being shot out the spaceship's airlock by Voldar? It was all a harmless misunderstanding. Most of Call's silly performance is probably due to the writing, so I can accept that. But he's at least fun, so I can't complain. Call is overshadowed, though, by the really good performance of Leonard Hicks. He plays the role rather stoically, and is actually pretty likable. Hicks is believable in the role, and his commitment is commendable.

But the quality of Hicks's performance is counterbalanced by just how awful Bill McCutcheon is. McCutcheon appears in the movie as Dropo, the movie's designated comic relief. The thing is, though, is that he's the least funny comic relief ever. Whatever the opposite of comedy is, Dropo is it. McCutcheon plays Dropo as if he were a horrific cross between Gilligan and Ed Grimley, with the stupidity cranked up to eleven. I honestly hated, hated, hated, hated, hated every second he was on the screen. Dropo is so annoying and McCutcheon's performance is so terrible that I desperately wanted to jump into the movie and beat him like he was that broken fax machine from Office Space.

So that's Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. I don't really know what else I could say that Mystery Science Theater 3000 and other online reviewers haven't. It's an awful movie, most definitely. But it's inoffensive and actually kinda charming in a weird way. I couldn't help but find myself being entertained by this thoroughly ludicrous movie. If you love crappy B-movies, you owe it to yourself to hunt down both the movie and the corresponding MST3K episode. Hit Netflix or YouTube or somewhere like that as soon as you finish reading this if you haven't seen it. And if you think you're tough enough, I dare you to go the whole movie without wanting to stab Dropo. I say it can't be done, but try to prove me wrong.

Final Rating:

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)

I'm a sucker for Christmas. I always have been. Something about it just makes my inner child go absolutely crazy. And I'm a sucker for Christmas movies, too. No, not the ones like It's a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street. I'm more into the kooky ones. My all-time favorite is A Christmas Story, with others like Gremlins, Die Hard, Scrooged, and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation coming in close behind. And though I don't know if I'd call it a personal favorite, but if you read my review earlier, you'll notice that liked Home Alone quite a bit.

A whole bunch have people must have liked it too, because it made a boatload of cash on its way to becoming the most popular movie of 1990. It made enough money that Twentieth Century Fox thought they'd capitalize on that success with a sequel. Titled Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, it was released in 1992 to mostly negative critical reaction and box office grosses that, while impressive, were less than those of its predecessor. And the truth is that Home Alone 2 is a rather underwhelming attempt to catch lightning in a bottle a second time.

Christmastime has come back to suburban Chicago, and the McCallister family has once again gathered to take another Yuletide vacation. And this time around, they're taking extra effort to make sure that young Kevin (Macauley Culkin) is not left home alone again. But thanks to a case of mistaken identity at the airport, Kevin gets separated from the group and ends up on a plane to New York City while the rest depart for Miami.

Armed with a set of credit cards accidentally left in his knapsack by his father, Kevin decides to make the most of the mistake. He checks into the ritzy Plaza Hotel, sees the sights, and pays a visit to Duncan's Toy Chest, the swankiest toy store in Manhattan. But little does Kevin know that the Wet Bandits (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) have also arrived in New York City after breaking out of prison. Their plan: to rob Duncan's Toy Chest of every dime they've got.

Kevin just so happens to overhear their scheme, and knowing that the store plans to donate all of its Christmas profits to a local children's hospital, Kevin just isn't going to stand by and let it slide. So that's when he decides to orchestrate his own plan, where he will lure the Wet Bandits away from the toy store to his uncle's house, which is in the process of being renovated. There, he's set up an all-new array of booby traps to put the crooks through the ringer.

Anyone who has seen Home Alone 2 knows that it's an utterly shameless attempt to duplicate the first movie. All the elements are there: Kevin gets in trouble for causing a ruckus while taking up for himself. The McCallisters end up sleeping in and get to the airport late. Kevin gets separated from his family during the chaos, and ends up encountering the Wet Bandits. I don't know how he managed to run into them, out of the millions of people in the sprawling metropolis that is New York City, but for the sake of convenience, let's run with it.

Anyway, along the way, he has a series of comic misadventures that includes using props and old gangster movies to make people think he's got company, and he makes friends with a friendly elderly person that he initially thought was really creepy. By the end of the movie, as Kevin's mother rushes to be reunited with him, he beats the utter crap out of the Wet Bandits with household objects before they get arrested.

Even the last few seconds of Home Alone 2 is a callback to the end of the first movie. (Then again, there's a lot of gags from the first movie that are recycled for the sequel beyond the simple formula.) The only real differences between the two movies are that we've moved from Chicago to New York, and that in the sequel, Kevin has run afoul of a hotel concierge who suspects him of using a stolen credit card. Other than that, they're practically the same movie with different settings. It's a real shame.

Returning to the director's chair is Chris Columbus, who does nowhere near the job he did on the first Home Alone. The warm Yuletide feeling from the first movie is nowhere to be found, leaving Home Alone 2 darker and more hollow. It seems like when they decided to do a lame remake and pass it off as a sequel, they forgot to add the Christmas spirit. Sure, there are all kinds of attempts to cram a bunch of saccharine holiday sentimentality down our collective throats, but it all feels artificial and unauthentic. There's some fantastic cinematography, but outside of that, Columbus's work feels like he was on autopilot for the whole thing.

It doesn't help anything that, while watching the movie, you get the impression that John Hughes didn't know what he was doing during the writing process. It's like he took the script from the first movie, put it in New York, made the traps much more dangerous, and said "okay, that'll do." It's hard to watch a frame of the movie without thinking that you've been there, done that. It's not even a good rehash, either. I mean, did we need Kevin to lure the guys to a house? Putting the traps in a toy store would have been a lot cooler. And did Hughes really need to do another subplot where Kevin makes friends with another creepy elderly person? And did he have to do it so badly? The whole thing is so abysmally done that I'd rather just go watch the first movie, because a lot of Home Alone 2's jokes were more successful there.

And I can't talk about the writing without talking about the various traps that Hughes came up with. I said in my Home Alone review that the different household objects that Kevin utilizes against the Wet Bandits would have put them in the hospital. Since the vast majority of rehashed sequels try to do things bigger than their predecessors, Home Alone 2 does the same thing. Only instead of just hurting the Wet Bandits, these traps would have killed them. Kevin would have straight-up murdered these guys if this movie took place in real life. Yes, it is possible for slapstick violence to be excessive, and Home Alone 2 proves it. Because when you think of family entertainment, you think of guys being electrocuted, attacked with fire, and smacked in the face with bricks. If it wasn't a comedy, you'd almost swear that they'd turned that frightening commercial from Scrooged into an actual movie.

And rounding us out is the cast, the majority of which, like the first Home Alone, is disposable. Even Catherine O'Hara, who I thought did a respectable job in the first movie, doesn't really seem to be trying as hard. I also thought that Eddie Bracken and Brenda Fricker, who play the proprietor of Duncan's Toy Chest and a homeless woman that Kevin befriends, are a little bit stiff in their roles. They're definitely trying, I'll give them that. But their characters are so extraneous and unnecessary that I just couldn't get into their performances.

I must also admit that I was a bit surprised to see Tim Curry, of all people, turn up as the Plaza Hotel's concierge. I know he's slummed it before (have you seen The Worst Witch?), but come on now. He is a lot of fun, though, playing the role in such an over-the-top way that I wish he'd been in more scenes. Though with Rob Schneider playing his sidekick, maybe it's a good thing his scenes were so limited.

But just like the first movie, nobody is watching Home Alone 2 for any of the ancillary actors. We're watching it for Macauley Culkin, Joe Pesci, and Daniel Stern. I noted in my review of the first movie that Culkin had a certain charm that helped him carry the movie with ease. But that same charm is missing from Home Alone 2. It feels like he's just going through the motions, hoping that people will be satisfied with a half-assed performance. I could also argue that Pesci and Stern are guilty of the same crimes, but at least they still manage to be funny. They manage to make you overlook that they're just doing more of the same, so I can't hold that against them.

In a nutshell, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York is a knockoff of its predecessor that copies everything but the heart. Sure, it's a guilty pleasure. I can't argue with that. But that doesn't change the fact that Home Alone 2 is just not as good as it could have been. It has both its good qualities and its bad qualities, but I can't justify giving it anything more than two stars. And before you ask, let's just pretend that they never made Home Alone 3 or 4, okay? The less said about them, the better.

Final Rating: **

Home Alone (1990)

It's almost impossible to go wrong with a John Hughes movie. Whether he was involved as a writer, a director, or a producer, Hughes was behind some of the best comedies of the 1980s. But while he is most often associated with his "Brat Pack" movies, he also brought us great flicks like Mr. Mom, National Lampoon's Vacation and Christmas Vacation, Uncle Buck, and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. He also wrote the movie we're here to discuss right now, Home Alone. A Christmas movie of a different sort, Home Alone hit theaters during the fall of 1990 and was the number-one movie in America for twelve weeks in a row. No kidding.

It was so popular that it remained in theaters until the end of June 1991, and I'm told that it was even recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the highest-grossing comedy of all time. Though the critical reaction was decidedly mixed, Home Alone has remained a perennial favorite for people who were kids when it was first released. So let's dig in and see what made Home Alone so popular.

It's nearly Christmas in suburban Chicago, where the entire McCallister family has gathered as they get ready to spend the holiday in Paris. Things are chaotic thanks to everyone's last-minute preparations for the trip, and it's left eight-year-old Kevin (Macauley Culkin) in the proverbial dust. But his siblings and cousins do manage to find the time to relentlessly pick on him, and even his jackass uncle gets in on the act. But the worst offender is his big brother, Buzz (Devin Ratray). Kevin eventually starts a fight with Buzz after taking all the teasing he could stand, and a huge mess results from it.

Kevin's luck is so awful that his mother, Kate (Catherine O'Hara), places all of the blame for the mess directly on him. So he's sent directly to his bunk in the house's attic without supper. The kid stands up for himself and gets punished, and his douchebag brother gets away with it all? Weak! Kevin feels the same way I do, and makes a point of announcing his wish that his family would simply disappear. Those words may come back to haunt him, I just know it.

A power outage during the night causes the McCallisters to oversleep, leaving them rushing to the airport with no time to spare. And in their hurry, they accidentally leave a sleeping Kevin behind at the house, not realizing their mistake until they're well over the Atlantic Ocean. But as his family departs for Paris, Kevin awakens to discover his house empty and is elated that his wish has apparently come true. He uses his newfound freedom to do all the things he'd ever wanted to do, like eating more junk food than any one person should consume at one time, riding his sled down the stairs and out the front door, watching R-rated gangster movies, sneaking peeks at back issues of Playboy, setting off firecrackers in the house, and shooting stuff with a BB gun.

But the problem is that pretty much everyone on the block have gone on extended Christmas vacations too. These empty houses have been targeted by the "Wet Bandits," Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern). A pair of unbelievably stupid burglars who earned their name by flooding every house they rob, the Wet Bandits see the McCallister house as the biggest present under the tree.

Though their initial attempts to rob the house are thwarted when Kevin fools them into thinking the house is full of people, each failure makes them more determined. But they soon realize that he's actually home alone, and decide to make one more big effort to clean the place out. Kevin overhears their plans and decides that they won't get through without a fight. And to make sure the Wet Bandits don't succeed, he's set up a series of booby traps throughout the house designed to make them reconsider their life of crime.

In retrospect, I'm not sure Home Alone is so much a Christmas movie as it is a simple "kid power" comedy. The movie takes place during Christmas, and there are Christmas songs on the soundtrack, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's specifically a Christmas movie. It could have taken place in August, with the McCallisters taking a summer vacation, and there wouldn't have been too huge a difference. It probably would have eliminated Christmas tree ornaments and ice as elements of Kevin's booby traps, but other than that, Home Alone could have been set during just about any time of year. It's kinda like how Die Hard and Gremlins are set during Christmas, yet aren't defined by the holiday. But even though the Christmas season might not be entirely necessary to the plot, it does put it to excellent use.

But either way, Home Alone has managed to have an enduring popularity since it hit theaters nearly twenty years ago. I can't go a month without seeing it or Home Alone 2 pop up on any random cable channel. It's a flawed yet charming movie, though it will appeal always more to kids than adults. It's almost like a live-action Tom and Jerry cartoon, only with the cat and mouse replaced by two stupid burglars and a kid.

And it's that sort of thing that makes you watch the movie as an adult a lot differently than you would as a kid. It's a lot like what I said in my review of The Wizard, since the inherent cynicism caused by adulthood makes you view things from other angles. As a kid, you'd be entertained by Kevin's wacky adventures and cheer as the Wet Bandits get their comeuppance. But watching it as an adult, you start noticing that nearly all of Kevin's booby traps would have put Harry and Marv in the hospital. And if the movie took place in real life, Kevin probably wouldn't have been so successful. Kevin would have more than likely peed himself out of fear, and the Wet Bandits would have probably shot him and ransacked the house. It's either that, or they'd have given up because the booby traps would have left them in too much pain to move. Of course, that would be if they weren't the two most incompetent thieves ever.

Then you start noticing that Kevin's family — his parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, whoever — are neglectful of him, are irritatingly obnoxious jackasses, or they generally treat him like crap until they realize they've left him back in Chicago. And even then, the only one who's really worried about Kevin is his mom. Everyone else just seems kinda upset that their trip to Paris has been ruined. I know the kid is kind of a brat at first, but he doesn't really deserve to be treated like that.

And on that note, I can't say I'm surprised that Kevin hates his family. I'd hate them too. Everyone treats him like he's subhuman, and even an adult calls him a jerk to his face right in front of his mother. Kate doesn't say anything to him or even give him so much as a dirty look, almost like she was okay with it. And then she goes and punishes Kevin for daring to stand up to somebody that was bullying him, when the only real harm was that a glass of milk got knocked over. Yeah, that's great parenting. Even if Kevin is a little on the annoying side, he didn't do anything worthy of more than a slap on the wrist. And if it were my child that the uncle was talking to like that, I'd have ripped that uncle's head off with my bare hands and stuck it on a pike in the front yard as a warning for people who'd even think about being mean to my kids.

But I guess I should get back to my usual routine, or else I'll end up be breaking down the movie's more disconcerting aspects all day. So let's begin where I usually do, with the direction. Handling those duties is Chris Columbus, who hadn't really made a name for himself as a director yet. He'd produced The Goonies and Gremlins, but at this point, all Columbus had directed was Adventures in Babysitting and Heartbreak Hotel, neither of which were really set the world on fire. Home Alone was Columbus's third movie and first substantial hit, and he makes the best of it.

Columbus could have taken the easy way out and done things simplistically, but he goes out of his way to class the movie up a bit. He does a great job of capturing that warm yuletide feeling, much of which comes thanks to Julio Macat's wonderful cinematography and John Williams's amazing Oscar-nominated music. The movie has a particular ambiance that nicely replicates the feeling of Christmas, which went a long way in establishing the proper atmosphere. However, Hughes's direction isn't perfect. Specifically, the scenes at the beginning where the family is rushing to get ready feel like a forced, almost artificial replication of the hectic nature of the holiday. But other than that, Hughes's work is well done.

The movie's biggest name behind the scenes was its writer, the late John Hughes. While Hughes was always known as a purveyor of teen-targeted humor during the '80s, his first movie of the '90s was a pretty darn good kids' movie. When you're not thinking about what terrible people Kevin's family are or the fact that the Wet Bandits would be in intense amounts of pain in real life, Hughes has written a movie that kids can really get behind. I'm sure every child has thought about having free reign of the house and effortlessly beating up would-be criminals, so as pure escapist fantasy for its target audience, I can't fault it a bit. Hughes's script does run the risk of becoming overly sappy and sentimental, especially with the storyline where Kevin convinces a misunderstood neighbor to try reconnecting with his estranged family. But he manages to rein it in once the movie hits its stride, and he turns in some rather well done work.

Last up is the cast, the majority of which don't really get the chance to shine. Pretty much every supporting actor playing the members of the McCallister family is stuck playing an annoying idiot, and some of their performances are awfully wooden. (And is it just me, or does Devin Ratray — the actor playing Kevin's brother Buzz — look an awful lot like that evil marionette from Pee-Wee's Playhouse?) I will give credit where credit is due, though, and say that Catherine O'Hara does turn in a rather likable performance that improves as the movie goes on.

But to be honest, nobody is watching Home Alone for the supporting cast. Everyone's focus is squarely on the movie's three primary actors. In the lead role is Macauley Culkin, who became one of the biggest child stars ever thanks to this movie. His career pretty much petered out by 1994, thanks to a string of really bad movies, but it was Home Alone that put him on top of the world. Culkin is actually quite charming and believable, and he's obviously having a heck of a time working on the movie. Yeah, he does come across as being a little annoying at times, but the fun he's having is contagious.

Meanwhile, Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern are pretty darn entertaining as our antagonists du jour. You can't help but laugh as these two morons keep stumbling through each of Kevin's booby traps, like they just can't put together that stepping on nails, getting burned with a blowtorch, and being smacked in the face with paint cans is not good for them. It's almost like a Wile E. Coyote cartoon; sooner or later, you want to see them overcome all that punishment and catch the kid just to see what would happen. Pesci and Stern are a hoot to watch, though, so I can't complain about their performances.

A lot of people have pointed out over the years that Home Alone was the last truly good John Hughes movie, and I'm forced to agree. You don't really hear people including Flubber or Baby's Day Out in lists of his best work, do you? But as goofy and as implausible and as downright silly as Home Alone is, it's still an entertaining ride. I know there's a lot of other critics out there who'll probably look down on the movie as just another dumb kids' flick and shine a more negative light on it. But you know what? I'm not going to do that. Is Home Alone perfect? No. But it's a heck of a lot of fun if you let it be. So I'll give it three and a half stars and a thumbs-up. Now if only they hadn't followed it up with those three lame sequels...

Final Rating: ***½

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Scrooged (1988)

I'm sure it's safe to say that A Christmas Carol is one of the most popular Christmas stories ever told. First published in 1863, the novella by Charles Dickens has become one of the most enduring pieces of holiday literature ever conceived. It has been adapted for the stage, film, television, radio, and the opera countless times, dating as far back as 1910. There have been versions of the story that starred the Muppets, Mickey Mouse, the Jetsons, and Mr. Magoo, while some people have even taken to doing their own sequels and prequels to the story.

And of course, there have been numerous parodies, retellings, and modernized versions over the years, along with attempts to transplant the story onto other holidays (with varying degrees of success). One of the more wacky retellings of the story, though, is the 1988 comedy Scrooged. With Bill Murray as the movie's answer to Ebenezer Scrooge, Scrooged received a lukewarm reception from critics and performed modestly at the box office. But I will confess that I'm a fan of the movie, and I'll tell you why.

Frank Cross (Bill Murray) is quite possibly the most ruthless businessman alive. The self-centered, cynical president of a popular television network, Frank can and will do just about anything to make sure things go his way. He overworks his secretary, Grace (Alfre Woodard), so much that she rarely gets to spend any substantial quality time with her children. He keeps his brother James (John Murray) at arm's length, and picked his career over the love of his life, Claire (Karen Allen).

With Christmas on the way, Frank has invested forty million dollars into his network's upcoming live broadcast of A Christmas Carol. He's hired an all-star cast — including Buddy Hackett as Ebenezer Scrooge, Jamie Farr as Jacob Marley, Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim, and the Solid Gold Dancers as themselves — and dumps the intended family-friendly advertising campaign in favor of a commercial full of imagery so horrifying that it literally scares an old lady to death. And just because he can, Frank fires a staff member (Bobcat Goldthwait) for daring to criticize the new commercial.

But Frank's life soon begins to oddly mirror the show his network is producing. One night, he's visited by the ghost of his old boss and mentor, Lew Hayward (John Forsythe). Of course, Frank is disbelieving. Lew's been dead for seven years, so he shouldn't be up walking around. But he's very real, and he tells Frank that he'll be visited by three ghosts that will show him the error of his ways.

Though Frank initially shrugs it off as a stress-induced hallucination, the ghosts eventually make their presence known. First is the Ghost of Christmas Past (David Johansen), a surly cab driver with a sarcastic sense of humor. Next is the Ghost of Christmas Present (Carol Kane), a maniacal pixie with a penchant for violence. And last but not least is the Ghost of Christmas Future, a seven-foot-tall Grim Reaper lookalike with a TV for a face. Anyone even remotely familiar with A Christmas Carol know how things will turn out, but all the fun is in getting there.

There are so many versions of A Christmas Carol to choose from, but Scrooged has always been one of my favorites. Though it feels a bit more mean-spirited than most, its dark humor sets it apart from the rest and actually makes it more entertaining. There are parts of Scrooged that would probably freak out more impressionable viewers, but then some of these moments are so absurd that you can't help but laugh at them. These shifts in tone may be off-putting for some, but for me, the whole thing works.

In the director's chair is Richard Donner, who was on a heck of a roll at this point in his career. He'd just come off Lethal Weapon a year prior, and he'd directed movies like The Omen, Superman, The Toy, and The Goonies in the decade that preceded it. And although Scrooged wasn't the huge box office smash hit it could have been, I thought it kept Donner's roll going.

Donner does a fantastic job in establishing just how lonely Frank's life is. Frank's office is cold and depressing, and practically all of Bill Murray's scenes are filmed in a way that replicates that. Donner films Murray's scenes in blacks, whites, and grays in order to put us in Frank's drab world, while every other character — the ones who are actually happy and willing to celebrate Christmas — are filmed with a bright, warm, cheery atmosphere. The dichotomy is both deceptive and obvious, and Donner puts it together flawlessly.

Handling the writing duties are Mitch Glazer and Michael O'Donougue, who are in the less than enviable position of adapting a story that has been told a million times in a million different ways. Everybody knows the plot of A Christmas Carol by now, so updating it for the modern day (well, updating it for 1988) could have been tough. But I felt that Glazer and O'Donougue managed to pull it off.

There's plenty of laughs and some heartwarming moments, but their spin on the classic tale is darker than one would expect. Some of the jokes are a bit racy, and the whole segment with the Ghost of Christmas Future will probably frighten little kids. So yeah, Glazer and O'Donougue really go for it with the PG-13 rating. But that's okay, because they still contribute a decent enough script.

And last up to bat is the movie's strongest element, its cast. Naturally, most of the focus will be on Bill Murray as our updated Ebenezer Scrooge. The movie basically revolves around Murray, as you'd naturally expect the story to, and he manages to hold things up on his end. Though there's times when the character is supposed to be the meanest prick you've ever seen, Murray is just so engaging that you can't completely hate him. He's playing a snake for pretty much the whole movie, but because it's Bill freaking Murray, he's a likable snake.

But the thing is, as good as Murray is, he gets the movie stolen out from under him by pretty much the entire supporting cast. I have nothing but good things to say about them. In the role of the token love interest, Karen Allen plays such a sweetheart that it actually made me a bit sad when Frank chose some kids' show over her character in the "Christmas Past" segment. Allen is flat-out adorable in pretty much every scene she's in, and I have to give a thumbs up to the casting director for hiring her. I also liked Alfre Woodard as the Scrooged version of Bob Cratchit. Though it felt like she didn't have much screen time, she was effective and got the job done.

But my favorite performances of the movie came from the final three actors I'll mention. One comes from Bobcat Goldthwait, who plays a character who's gone into an alcohol-fueled psychosis after losing his job on Christmas Eve. Towards the end of the movie, he storms into Frank's office with a double-barreled shotgun with revenge on his mind, and Goldthwait's performance is so insanely over the top that it's hilarious.

My other two favorite performances come from the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, as played by David Johansen and Carol Kane. Both of them are a heck of a lot of fun and are great in the roles, though Kane's "abusive pixie" shtick starts to get old after a while.

Scrooged is not without its faults, however. One is that I'd have liked to have seen more of the fake Christmas specials that the network was running. We get a little taste, with advertisements for "Robert Goulet's Cajun Christmas" and "The Night the Reindeer Died" running near the beginning of the movie. "The Night the Reindeer Died" is especially awesome, with Lee Majors appearing as a commando who protects Santa Claus from ninjas with machine guns. I know this isn't UHF, but I could have handled a few more scenes like that.

Okay, so that was more of a general complaint than an actual fault. The only real problem with Scrooged is that it just doesn't know when to end. Pretty much everybody knows that Scrooge has a change of heart at the end of A Christmas Carol, right? When this happens to Frank, he interrupts that much-lauded live broadcast and goes on a long, rambling monologue about how awesome Christmas is. This goes on for several minutes, and by the end, he gathers pretty much everyone he can and leads them all in a song that's way too long. It just keeps going and going, to the point that you start wondering if this will ever be wrapped up.

And even when the closing credits start rolling, it keeps going. Murray even breaks the fourth wall and encourages the viewers to sing along too. It's like Donner just left the camera rolling and didn't call "cut" until he ran out of film. The movie was doing so fine until then, but the last thirteen or so minutes of the movie could almost cause you to think less of what came before.

I will confess that Scrooged probably isn't the best adaptation of A Christmas Carol. And even as a standalone movie, one could conceivably make the argument that it's adequate at best. But I actually enjoyed it. It's not one of those Christmas movies I can sit down and watch numerous times every December, but it's still entertaining enough to get repeat viewings from yours truly.

The movie's irreverent retelling of a classic story won't appeal to everyone, as I said, but it's definitely worth a watch if it sounds up your alley. So I'm going to give Scrooged three stars and a "thumbs up." I just wonder, though, what Charles Dickens himself would think of this movie. Hmm...

Final Rating: ***

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (1987)

If you're a longtime reader of "Sutton at the Movies," then you've probably read a number of reviews where I've discussed just how popular slasher movies were during most of the 1980s. But while only a handful of them are still widely known, there are dozens more that have earned their own followings despite their lack of notoriety.

Among the more obscure is Silent Night, Deadly Night, a Christmastime slasher flick that most people have probably never heard of. But at the time of its theatrical release, its depiction of a serial killer dressed up in a Santa Claus costume made it very controversial. People actually protested screenings of it, believe it or not.

But while Silent Night, Deadly Night is more or less unknown nowadays, would you believe that it actually has four sequels? No kidding. But the truth is that the only one of these sequels that gets any kind of recognition at all is the first of the four. Named simply Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2, it is one of the silliest and most downright preposterous movies I've ever seen. It is nearly unbelievable in its stupidity. It's an unequivocally bad movie, but it's almost... endearing? That can't be right, can it?

Roughly ten years have passed since the events of the original movie. And in that time, Ricky Caldwell (Eric Freeman) — the younger brother of the first movie's killer — has been locked up in a mental institution. When we are introduced to him, Ricky is beginning a session with his new psychiatrist, Dr. Bloom (James Newman).

As the session goes along, Ricky speaks at length about the massacre perpetrated by his brother, and the effect it had on him. The whole thing ended up making Ricky just as psychotic too, and by the time he was an adult, he'd racked up a pretty impressive body count of his own. But he still has some unfinished business that needs tending to, as Ricky still has eyes on killing Mother Superior (Jean Miller), the nun whose abuse helped Ricky's brother's insanity grow.

Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 is one of those movies that is so bad that, once it's over, you're not quite sure what it is you've actually seen. You'll recognize that it's a bad movie, most definitely. But the confusing thing is that it's actually kinda charming, in a weird way. It's downright entertaining in its stupidity, entertaining in such a way that it's easy to just sit back and laugh at how silly it is. It's too goofy a movie to hate.

Pretty much everyone who has ever critiqued the movie has pointed out its main flaw: the unbelievably excessive amount of flashbacks it contains. Roughly forty minutes of the movie is comprised of stock footage from the original Silent Night, Deadly Night, if you can believe that. That's nearly half of the movie's total running time! So much footage is used that they actually list practically the entire cast of the original in the sequel's credits. And once that's out of the way, there's still another half an hour of flashbacks that detail Ricky's life between the end of the first movie and the beginning of the sequel. But at least that's all original material, right? Remove all the flashbacks, and you're left with somewhere in the neighborhood of fifteen minutes for the movie to actually go anywhere.

What gets me is that only half of the movie is original, yet four people share the "story by" credit. The script is credited to Lee Harry and Joseph H. Earle, from a concept by Harry, Earle, Dennis Patterson, and Lawrence Appelbaum. There's two things that I see wrong with that. One, the movie has no story, so I don't see how someone can be given credit for coming up with one. Secondly, did we really need four guys to come up with half a movie? Did each of them come up with ten minutes of original material, and had it slapped together by Harry and Earle?

And I honestly can't say that I understand why so much of the movie had to be flashbacks to begin with. The flashbacks to Ricky's killing spree could have been handled differently, done in a way that made it feel like a straightforward narrative. But on the other hand, the flashbacks to the first movie make no sense. The Ricky character should be unable to have many of them, as either he'd be too young to remember them or he simply was not there when the events happened.

Some of the flashbacks could be reasonably excused with the explanation that his brother told him about it. I mean, he was a baby when his parents died, so there'd be no way he'd know about the details unless he was told. But in regards to Billy's massacre, he couldn't possibly know everything that happened that night. I doubt the more intimate details would be reported on the evening news, and I sincerely doubt that Billy would have been able to tell him about all that. So how did he know how it all went down?

The most mind-boggling thing about the writing, however, is that there is literally no plot whatsoever. I'm not even joking. A lot of movies have stories that are paper-thin, but Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 has no story at all. There's the recap of the first movie, then Ricky's account of why and how he went crazy, and then the bit where he tries to go kill Mother Superior. That's really all there is to it. There's no real sense of storytelling or narrative or anything like that. There's no beginning, middle, or end. It's just a jumbled-up mess from start to finish. And it's so full of absolutely ludicrous scenes and dialogue that if you're watching the movie and not laughing your head off at just how absurd it all is, you're one messed up person.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that the movie boasts some of the cheesiest moments I've seen in any movie from any genre. For example, one victim actually gulps and says "uh oh!" aloud as Ricky moves in for the kill, which is laugh-worthy in and of itself. But it keeps on going beyond that. Ricky impales a victim on an umbrella at one point, a weapon that is both unique and amusing in its implementation. And then there's Mother Superior, who is said to have suffered a stroke between the first movie and its sequel. This must have been one hell of a stroke, because for some reason, it left her looking like that Batman villain "Two-Face." And I'm pretty sure that strokes don't work that way. Is that even remotely possible?

But at the top of the heap of insanity comes from what is the movie's most famous scene. Ricky has gone completely off the deep end, casually strolling down a suburban street and shooting anyone unlucky enough to cross his path. When he encounters a guy taking out his trash, Ricky proclaims that it is "garbage day!" and shoots the man in the chest for no good reason. The moment is so random, so over the top, so out of nowhere, that I actually had to watch it two or three times just to make sure it actually existed and was part of the movie.

But the writing isn't the only thing the movie fails at. The movie looks pretty substandard, too. In the director's seat is co-writer Lee Harry, whose work is serviceable, but could have used a lot of improvement. My main problem with Harry's direction is that you never once get the feeling that it's a Christmas movie. A graphic pops up that tells us that Ricky is meeting with his psychiatrist on December 24th, and he steals a Santa Claus costume from a Salvation Army bell-ringer during the movie's last fifteen minutes. But outside of that, the movie could have been set on Easter for all we know. I understand that the movie had a budget so small that they could barely afford to do anything at all. But couldn't they have cobbled together Christmas decorations from everyone in the cast and crew? Maybe get some locals from the neighborhood to make a few donations? Perhaps it was more the fault of the set designers than of the director, but it just feels lazy.

I guess the last thing left to talk about is the acting, which is pretty forgettable all around. I don't think you'll ever hear anyone talking about how great James Newman and Elizabeth Cayton were in this movie. The only person whose performance really stands out is Eric Freeman. Freeman's performance is so unbelievably over the top that there's no way I can believe he was taking this whole thing seriously. He's obviously having a good time during the movie, delivering each line of his corny dialogue with his best overacted snarl. While you may try tracking down the movie to see where that "garbage day" meme came from, you'll want to stick around for Freeman.

If the original Silent Night, Deadly Night is obscure, then the second one is even more so. Its sole DVD release has been out of print for years, and the only way that most people have even remotely heard of it is through clips of the "garbage day" scene popping up on YouTube. But I would definitely label it as a classic "so bad, it's good" movie. It's entertaining enough, and at the very least, it isn't as mean-spirited as the first movie. It's only half a movie and a pointless one at that, with no legitimate scares and no real reason for existing. But it's just so dumb that I can't bring myself to hate it. I can't justify giving Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 anything higher than one star, but if you enjoy bad movies, track it down any way you can.

Final Rating: *