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.