Bizarro Masterpiece Theatre: Home Alone 4

The Kid and the Butler

Film: Home Alone 4: Taking Back the House (2002)

Director: Rod Daniel

Starring: French Stewart, Erick Avari, Michael Weinberg

Written by: Debra Frank, Steve L. Hayes

So there’s a story between me and this film that took place years before I actually watched it, and this may be my best display of customer service, ever.  It happened on Christmas Eve, appropriately enough, and I was mopping up the last minute shoppers at my retail environment.  The store phone rang, and the customer had one of the weirdest requests I’ve ever fielded.  She was looking for Home Alone 4, and she had to have it.  Her entire spiritual well-being, apparently, depended on it.  Well, it was an ordeal tacking down the cultural artifact, a time in which she grew more and more frantic, but I found it at last – and when I did, she screamed, screamed, in delight.

I never expected anyone to be that excited about Home Alone 4.

Having finally watched this rapture-inducing film years later, I still don’t quite get it.  Alongside a contrived divorce plot and a contrived royal kidnapping plot, a lot of the responsibility for this falls upon the shoulders of the child actor hired to battle the burglars.  To his credit, young Michael Weinberg steps into the Kevin McCallister role and makes it his own, but the problem is that, while he’s by no means horrible, he’s no Macauley Culkin.  What made the first two films in the Home Alone series work was Culkin’s wry and reluctant heroism.  As unfair as this may be to say – especially concerning a movie that takes place on Christmas – Weinberg rushes through almost every scene as wide-eyed as a kid on Christmas.

Still, a few factors keep this from becoming a disaster sequel.  Squinty-eyed French Stewart is a great fill-in as old Kevin Arnold Joe Pesci’s former henchman, whose latest bumbling caper involves his snarly new wife riding shotgun.  Chief among the newcomers is the fussy and potentially sinister old butler of dad’s new girlfriend.  As she descends from would-be stepmom to exasperated socialite, the butler, played by Erick Avari, becomes the film’s most realized character.  Figuring out his agenda becomes the most interesting aspect of the film.

The final thing going for Home Alone 4 is the smart house which Kevin turns against Mr. Stewart and Company.  While the core formula hasn’t much changed, the high-tech battleground plays with the template enough to give the film some inventiveness.

No, it doesn’t come close to matching the original, but Home Alone 4 is a perfectly serviceable sequel.  I probably wouldn’t call up a store and scream its magnificence, but I’d watch it again without complaint.

The big question: why has this man not starred in a B-52s biopic?

The Designer’s Drugs: Terrible Things

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Terrible Things

Anno: 2010

On Terrible Things (the album), Terrible Things (the band) spend most of their time skillfully summing up the current state of wistful, angsty rock instead of advancing it.  This is most obvious in “Terrible Things” (the song), in which the band turns “terrible things” (the lyric) into a repetitive mantra that drowns out the bright pop-punk at its side (which brings the question: how terrible could the things you’re doing be if you’re singing such an upbeat and cheerful song about them?).

Tired rock conventions do slip into the album from time to time, especially lyrically.  The most glaring evidence of this is in the aptly-titled “Revolution,” which serves as both the album’s most aggressive and least powerful track.  “This is not a revolution,” the song postures amidst the power chords, “till we say it is.”  Right.

Yet there are bright points to the album which merit listening.  The album’s zenith comes in the tinfoil jangleswagger of “Conspiracy,” a bit of vaudeville in which lyrics, music, and mood match up in the album’s best synthesis.  Another example of fine landscape is found in the album’s eerie closer, “The Arsonist’s Wife,” though the typical rock rage in the choruses distract from the building (and enduring) tension.  And no matter how typical the renditions may be here, most of Terrible Things offers prime examples of the styles.  Think of this as modern rock’s yearbook, or perhaps its time capsule.

The Designer’s Drugs: The Dance Party – Touch

The Dance Party

Medium: Album

Stimulus: The Dance Party – Touch

Anno: 2010

When godawful-to-the-point-of-surreal lyrics can be ignored in favor of adventurous, diverse songcraft, a band is truly exceptional.  As it turns out, The Dance Party may be one of pop rock’s new secret weapons.  On Touch, the band operates between two magnetic poles: hair-metal revivalists and synth-heavy disco fiends.  No song is completely one or the other, and there are greater and lesser examples of each side of the band to be found on the album (the smug and out of place commercial pop of “Snake Eyes” is strongly lesser).  Yet should one get past lyrics that try way too hard to pass as cool, the highs are scintillating.

“Sasha Don’t Sleep” is the band at its most hair metal, with wailing vocals building the song to keyboard-ridden rockouts.  “Pretty Girls” is stripper-born sleaze with more preening audacity than it has any right to possess.  On the more electronic end are the straight-up New Wave romance of “Hush” and the electro-rushing goodness of “Carpe Diem.”  Yet the most surprising highlight of Touch is a disco tune titled “Let’s Start some Trouble” that’s straight from the early career of Michael Jackson – if you discount the bad lines about sex machines and their operators.

Unapologetically shallow yet disturbingly catchy, The Dance Party works because it’s unafraid to ignore genre lines.  The resulting album works that point to its full advantage.

The Designer’s Drugs: Echo Revolution – Counterfeit Sunshine

Medium: Album

Stimulus: Echo Revolution – Counterfeit Sunshine

Anno: 2010

This throaty, powerful, and well-orchestrated pop album is the product of a band that thinks big and follows through on its thoughts.  “High Road” is the most obvious champion of the tracks, with saloon piano triumphantly leading the charge through rushing bluesy hooks. “Open Your Eyes” is cut from the same cloth, with its skittering hi-hats exploding into a full rock chorus.  Yet the show-stealer on Counterfeit Sunshine is a neat bit of bass and piano funk with the veneer of an only child.  “Mt. Washington” is the prime exhibit of the band’s softer minutes, with an acoustic guitar and faint backing vocals weaving space spanning horizons.

Even in its most guarded moments, there’s an optimism to Counterfeit Sunshine that seems neither forced nor false, and thus it’s contagious.

The Designer’s Drugs: Monday Night Jihad

America!

Medium:  Literature

Jason Elam and Steve Yohn – Monday Night Jihad

Anno: 2008

I don’t remember ever finding a book with a title this absurd and this appropriate.  In case there was any confusion as to the plot, we’re dealing with a story that combines our country’s two national pastimes – football and counterterrorism – into one awesome package!  Yee-haw!  Does this book already sound like the kind of thing I would groin-punch myself with out of weirdness?  Of course!

A special ops guy turns football star in a fictitious pro league (because apparently the NFL found this idea too “fringe” to carry their prestigious banner).  Then things in America start blowing up.  Then guy goes back to special ops to shine the Lion-O beacon of Christ and kick terrorist butt.  Didn’t they do an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger about this?

By the way, our hero’s name is Riley Covington.  I’m not going to fault the authors for this; I suppose that all the good porno names like Tom Hung and Reid Liberty were taken.

Aside from the sheer ridiculousness of the concept itself, the book suffers from the comparatively smaller drawback of having a case-breaking plot twist that a Mack Truck could drive through.  Seriously, the book is 368 pages, and if the swerve hasn’t been figured out by page fifty, well, there’s a lobotomy joke in there somewhere.

Having vented all that incredulousness, I do want to be fair about the upside of this book.  Starting off at the ground level, I will say that the authors could have made this thing a whole lot worse.  With a title like Monday Night Jihad, it’s easy to envision this as a drooling G.I. Joe fantasy, full of “U.S.A!” pro wrestling chants and square-jaws playing Mushy Cookie on the Qur’an.  And it’s really not.  There’s a great deal of sympathy for just about every character in the book, even for a few of the terrorists involved.  The authors, despite having slanted American perspectives, tried to tell this story from all angles.  The high point of this comes in a face to face confrontation between hero and villain, where both realize that, while they want to understand each other, they simply cannot.  Furthermore, the authors show thoughtfulness in containing their condemnation to violence itself; Monday Night Jihad never becomes a close-eyed rant against Islam.  Ultimately, everyone is human, frightened, and unsure, and this awareness makes a ludicrous idea more sympathetic.  And the action is pretty well done, in a sweet-ass Con Air sort of way.

Still, it’s a book about football and counterterrorism.  Either it will be laughed into obscurity, or it will join the ranks of The Great American Novels.  Myself, I’m kind of hoping for the latter.  But then again, I’m pretty strange.

Freezepop: After Keytarmageddon

Freezepop: Liz Enthusiasm, Bananas Foster, Sean Drinkwater, and Christmas Disco Marie Sagan

Freezepop was created with the purpose of being a side project.  At the time of its inception, its three members – vocalist Liz Enthusiasm and producers/instrumentalists The Duke of Pannekoeken and “The Other” Sean Drinkwater – were wrapped up in other, more pressing engagements.  The original mission statement of the band was to play a few parties and have a few laughs.

Yet for the better part of a decade, the Freezepop trio’s hyper-whimsical brand of electro-pop endured.  The band’s appearances on rhythm videogames like Amplitude, Guitar Hero, and Rock Band – owing largely to the Duke’s day job at game developer Harmonix – gave it a much higher profile that certainly helped turn it into the main attraction.  But Freezepop wouldn’t have lasted this long if that’s all it had going for it.

The past few years have proven this point.  One of the greatest turning points in Freezepop’s history came with the departure of the Duke a few years ago.  With the loss of this core member, the entire band’s future was called into question, yet the band weathered the change, regrouped, and is now in the process of releasing a new album, titled Imaginary Friends.

“I wouldn’t have wished it this way,” Sean Drinkwater said, “though it’s turned out great.”

Liz Enthusiasm explained the circumstances.  “[The Duke’s] job is insanely demanding.  He hasn’t had time to tour with us in a couple of years, so he just needed to bow out of the day to day process.  He’s still pretty involved with the band in terms of back catalogue and is still on board doing remixes and surprise guest appearances.”

Still, it wasn’t as though the Duke’s bandmates didn’t see this coming.  “Six months leading up to [his departure],” Drinkwater said, “we were trying to make a record.  Our label Ryko, which had licensed [Freezepop’s third album] Future Future Future Perfect, wanted to hear our new music and offer us a more straight-up record deal.  Even at that time, the Duke didn’t really have time to do any of that, so we were forced to write all the songs at that time.  Liz and I came up with 20 songs over the course of a couple months and sent everything to Ryko, and they loved it, so we thought it would work.  The idea was to use six or seven of ours, and he’d come in with four or five to round it out, and we’d have an album.  But it didn’t work out that way.”

Drinkwater went on to describe the impact of the Duke’s departure.  “To lose your primary songwriter, your producer, your sonic architect – there were some questions as to what the hell we were going to do.  Luckily I happen to have those skills, so it wasn’t like we were totally left out in the dark, but the transition was a lot slower than I had thought.”

Part of the rebuilding process was seeking out the Duke’s replacement, yet Enthusiasm and Drinkwater went further and expanded the band’s roster to four.  Keytarist and electropercussionist, codenamed Robert John “Bananas” Foster, was an old hand on the job, having spent years filling in for the Duke when needed.  His promotion to official member was largely a formality.  Less inevitable was the recruiting of Freezepop’s new synth player and supporting vocalist, codenamed Christmas Disco Marie Sagan.

“Once the Duke told us he was going to go, we asked Bananas within a few days so we’d have that anchored,” Drinkwater said.  “We’ve been touring for 2½ to 3 years without [the Duke] at this point, and [Bananas] had been touring with us that whole time, and he was probably going to join the band anyway.  There was definitely talk of it being a four-piece with Bananas and the Duke.”

“As for Christmas,” Enthusiasm continued, “she was a friend of ours.  We knew that we wanted another person, and we knew that we wanted a girl, somebody who could do backing vocals, and she was on our shortlist.  We found out that she was classically trained on piano.  It just seemed to fall into place.

“We were kind of amazed because she had never been in a band at all.  She made her debut on stage in front of several hundred people.  It must have been really nerve-wracking, but she handled it pretty well.  She learned her parts so quickly, so it’s really been as seamless as one could hope for.”

Freezepop 2010

Following the reassembly came the practice.  “It was months and months of rehearsing,” Drinkwater said.  “It takes a while to get a real dynamic formed with people, to make sure that it’s the right thing, getting everyone comfortable and figuring out people’s roles.  Then we had to go back and revise the record a little bit here and there.  That’s kind of been the transition.”

“We did a mini-tour this April, going out with the new lineup to get things up and running,” Enthusiasm said.  “There are a lot of technical considerations now: we’ve brought in video, new person, new gear, different arrangements of the songs.  We did that week and a half in April to get going, and it went really well.”

On that tour – which included one reportedly bizarre night featuring the band performing at a bowling alley – Freezepop toured with its optimum setup, as described by Drinkwater:  “Christmas is playing video and doing vocoder and synth stuff.  Bananas is playing an actual v-drum kit where he sits down to play, and keytar as well.  I’m doing pretty much the same stuff; I play guitar on a few songs, but mostly play keyboard.  So there are certain songs where there are three keyboard players.  It’s nice because we can use fewer preprogrammed things, which we’ve always wanted to do.  Musicially, it’s a little bit more live, and the record reflects that a little bit.”

However, he admitted that Freezepop’s current west coast tour will be much lighter in terms of equipment.  “The problem is that we can’t quite bring the whole rig when we tour certain places.  We’re not gonna be able to bring the video screens, and we’re not gonna do the drum set, because we’re gonna fly out there and have to strip the gear down.”

“Now it’s getting a little more tricky because we do have a new person and different gear,” Enthusiasm noted.  “We used to be a lot more portable.  If we got an offer to do a single show, we would be able to do it.  We used to be able to fit in a car and go places, to be able to fly in and out of shows.  Now, maybe the four of us could fit in a minivan.  We’re going to figure out how much we can pare it down without going back to the old ultraportable setup.”

Still, there are advantages.  “Touring is definitely way more fun for me now,” Enthusiasm said.  “I like not being the only girl anymore.  It’s interesting stepping back and seeing the band through the eyes of somebody who’s involved with it for the first time.  [Christmas] gets so excited about everything.  She started out as a fan of our band, so now whenever we play super old school songs she gets very excited about it.  It’s not like we’re jaded, but we’ve played “Science Genius Girl” three million times.”

“There are only so many hands that [Bananas] and I, or the Duke and I, have had on our own,” Drinkwater added.  “It’s been nice to have a little more musical flexibility.  We actually have played a couple of songs just straight-up live without using sequencers, which we’ve done pretty uncommonly in the past.  It probably seems more complicated, but if we didn’t think it was worth it we wouldn’t have done it.  I feel pretty confident that this is the right thing to do.  In terms of the record it’s definitely the right way to go.”

That record, Imaginary Friends, is set for release in November.  When asked to describe its sound, both Enthusiasm and Drinkwater emphasized its advancement of the established formula yet also noted a completely different approach to the hows and whys of its making.

“[The Duke’s] compositional style is certainly characteristic of the band,” Drinkwater said, “and you don’t want to go too far and alienate everybody.  We were certainly making a Freezepop album; we were not making a new project.  That’s the reason we didn’t change the name.  It’s not like we were fighting our own instincts, but there is sort of a template.  We stretched it a little bit, but I don’t think our fans are going to be scratching their heads over it.”

“For a long time I thought it was like the second record, Fancy Ultra-Fresh, which is a little lighter than the third record.  But at the end of it that wasn’t as true as we originally thought.  It certainly has some hallmark Freezepop stuff on it; it’s not like we reinvented the wheel too much.  It’s a little more discoey in places, maybe.

“I think there was an effort to simplify it a little bit, to strip it down somewhat.  Rather than a lot of intricate, frenetic programming, there is a lot more playing, which is one thing we set out to do so it would work better live.  Some of the old Freezepop music, as much as I love the records, there are times when you start to play a song and it’s really tough to play and have it maintain any rhythmic balance.  For example: maybe “I Am Not Your Gameboy.”  It’s become a cornerstone because of the video game references and because it’s very synthy.  People really like that song, and they request it all the time.  It just never works live.

“With this, we tried to make it a little more direct.  That’s possibly the result of having played these songs before we recorded them, which we’ve never done before.  Normal bands write their songs and go on the road before they record; we’ve always had our albums manufactured before we went into rehearsal to take it apart.  This time we got to tour and figure out what was working and what wasn’t before we recorded.”

Though the new members make appearances on the album, the songwriting process was run entirely by Enthusiasm and Drinkwater, the latter having detailed each person’s role.  “Christmas sings on it a lot, which is kind of neat.  They sound great together.  [Bananas] sings on it a bit.  I sing on it a teeny bit – I’m probably less vocally present than I’ve ever been – but I just wanted it to be [Liz] on this one.  We all play on it a little bit, but mostly it’s Liz and me.  We needed that; we didn’t want to rely on anybody too much.  Hopefully the next one will be completely different, and we’ll do it in a much more collaborative way, but it wasn’t really time.”

This slow move toward a more band-like songwriting process doesn’t so much imply a disdain of democracy as much it shows the way the band has traditionally worked best.  “The Duke was the primary songwriter in the band,” Drinkwater began.  “My contributions to Freezepop had been sprinkled around here and there.  I don’t appear on the second album much at all, which is odd because it’s probably my favorite one.  The collaborations between the three of us had been few and far between.  It’s usually been one of us producing music, but the three of us collaborating is pretty rare.

“There was a time right after the first album where we tried to do it a bunch, and it didn’t go that well.  It was one of those things where if it’s not broken, don’t fix it, so I backed off and let him do his thing on the second record.  On the third record, he wanted to do some songs that I had, so I sent in a few things and we decided what fit well and recorded them.  We’re both credited on a couple of songs, but we didn’t sit down together and write.  We’re both production minded in that sense.”

Yet following the end of that routine, Drinkwater has stepped out from the Duke’s shadow and cast off his old role as “The Other,” helping to ready Freezepop for a new, unwandered phase in its existence.

“Not by choice,” he was quick to add.   “If he called tomorrow and said he’d like to be back in the band, I think it would happen.  I have enjoyed how it has been up until now, and when he left it was a bummer, but this is pretty satisfying now that I’ve done it.  I might have a slightly harder time giving it up.”

* * *

So with the ending of this transitional phase, will Freezepop’s next work come out sooner than the last?  Drinkwater made no promises.

“After every album, we’ve always said that the next one will be out sooner, but that never happens.  I would love to do a Freezepop record next summer, if we all got to go into a farm somewhere for a month and made a record really fast.  Even if it was a weird one in the catalogue, just to do it.  Will that happen?  Not very likely.

“We’re not insane perfectionists, but in terms of this it took longer because we were trying to make sure that it was pretty right.  We didn’t want to release three good songs and a bunch of garbage.  It had to be a real album or we’d be digging our graves, especially since we had lost a key guy.  If you’re not making your best album at this point, you better do something else.

“On the next one, will we be a little easier on ourselves and be a little more experimental?  I kind of hope so.”

Imaginary Friends

Freezepop will be playing El Corazon in Seattle on Monday, September 27th with Ming & Ping and Aerodrone.  Tickets are $12 in advance, $14 at the door.

The Designer’s Drugs: Super Sad True Love Story

Super Sad True Love Story

Medium: Literature

Stimulus: Gary Shteyngart – Super Sad True Love Story

Anno: 2010

This title lies.  Though the desperate, clinging search for love is what drives this book’s protagonist, this isn’t much of a romance.  Romance isn’t even the point.  More important than the boy-meets-girl drama that keeps the characters in Super Sad True Love Story busy is the setting in which all of this happens – a self-obsessed, totalitarian America of the future that is about to die.  It’s a country and culture in all ways bankrupt: in which everybody wants to be a teenager, in which Facebooking permeates every aspect of real life, and in which the Chinese are the debtmasters of the United States.  In other words, it’s frighteningly plausible.

Anchoring this bleak vision is a pudgy old schmuck named Lenny, a spinster in his late 30s who is as pathetic a specimen as can be found in these slick ruins.  He spends his days selling the promise of immortality to “High Net Worth Individuals” while simpering toward his boss, an old man made young whom Lenny has elevated into a father figure.  He also reads, which has become a serious social taboo.  His ratings in Personality and Fuckability – both real and legitimate assessments in this world – are doomed to always be low.

Yet in the midst of an exile to Rome – a place which, he notes, has accepted its decay with dignity – his life changes.  While wading through all the resigned, mechanical hedonism of the place, he meets Eunice Park, a hot mess of baggage who nonetheless inspires Lenny to never die.  In a match of convenience, Eunice moves into Lenny’s New York pad, and they begin an awkward, bumbling relationship.

The purpose of their union is not to incite Lenny and Eunice to grow together, but rather to refine their senses of alienation while around one another.  Part of this separateness comes from the fact that almost everybody in this story is disgustingly loathsome, yet another key reinforcement is the fact that both are children of immigrants (Lenny is Russian Jewish; Eunice is Korean).  Their America has become increasingly unfriendly to new faces, and so their parents are breathing reminders that they do not belong.  It’s oddly appropriate that Eunice’s family causes more damage to her than Lenny’s does to him, yet she is the person who better fits in with the pricks and sleazes.  Nonetheless, both ultimately act on their estrangement, and while they come to different conclusions they both become better for the change.

Super Sad True Love Story certainly qualifies as a sharp satire of the current (and probable) state of American culture.  Yet there’s an urgency to its depiction of America’s last shuddering moments that gives it an unexpected weight and sympathy.  It’s this end which proves most fascinating.