John Hughes’s best-loved films about families were hardly family films.
They were funny, often dark and yet sometimes beautifully heartwarming films about some seriously screwed-up people.
From the Griswolds to Uncle Buck, from the Buellers to the McCallisters, from the Bakers to the (mostly unseen) parents in “The Breakfast Club,” various members of these Chicago suburban families were often so neglectful or callous or oblivious to one another, they put the “diss” in dysfunctional.
In “Sixteen Candles,” Samantha Baker’s entire family — mom, dad, siblings, grandparents — forgets it’s her 16th birthday.
In “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” Clark Griswold risks his family’s safety on a cross-country trip, accidentally kills Aunt Edna’s dog, skinny-dips with a temptress, robs a hotel and ties Aunt Edna’s body to the roof of the car and dumps her at her son’s back door.
Ferris Bueller had loving parents, but they were utter dupes. (And don’t even get me started on Cameron’s situation.) Uncle Buck didn’t even know his brother’s kids until he was pressed into temporary guardian duties. Judging by the monologues delivered by the high schoolers serving Saturday detention in “The Breakfast Club,” their parents ranged from high-pressure to criminally abusive.
And then there are the McCallisters, the boisterous and cheerfully obnoxious family living in that Christmas-card perfect mansion in Winnetka. The McCallisters, who are in such a rush to get to the airport for a family trip, they somehow manage to forget one important item: youngest son Kevin.
(And they lose him AGAIN in “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.” Somebody call the Department of Children and Family Services!)
Written and produced by Hughes and directed by Chris Columbus, released in mid-November of 1990, “Home Alone” was a monster hit back in the days when a movie could enjoy an eight-week run at No. 1 and this year marks its 25th anniversary as a perennial Thanksgiving and early December home-viewing favorite.
Does it “hold up,” as we like to say about touchstone movies from generations past?
Well, the technology of today would have made it infinitely easier for Kevin and his family to reconnect, thus putting an end to the story before it really got started — but what with the logic-defying plot and the dark and sometimes cheerfully violent turns the plot takes, “Home Alone” wasn’t much grounded in reality in the first place. It’s a live-action Fractured Fairy Tale about a precocious, borderline bratty kid who realizes his entire family is gone, is frightened for about five seconds, and then looks straight into the camera, grins devilishly and says, “I made my family disappear!”
Next thing we know Kevin is running around the empty house, arms flailing in exuberance, like a kid overdosing on 10 bowls of Frosted Flakes.
Macaulay Culkin steals the movie as Kevin. He’s a little ham and there’s not a whole lot of nuance in the performance — but there’s no denying the infectious charm in iconic moments, i.e., when Kevin slaps on some aftershave and mimics Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” or when he lets loose an even louder scream when confronted on the streets by Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern), a.k.a. “The Wet Bandits.”
Much of the second half of the film is about Kevin rigging ingenious booby traps to fend off the Wet Bandits in violent slapstick style that’s a little bit Three Stooges, a little bit Looney Tunes and a little bit — well, I’m certainly not the first to acknowledge the similarities to Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs.” (See Alan Siegel’s excellent piece on Slate, which features an interview with production designer John Muto, who reveals, “I kept telling people we were doing a kids’ version of ‘Straw Dogs.’ ”)
To be sure, the gags involving paint cans to the head, a foot stepping on an impossibly long nail, a blowtorch, etc., etc., are cringe-inducing — but Pesci and Stern are as resilient as Wile E. Coyote, and their comic reactions are so over the top they might as well be winking at the camera to reassure us no character actors were harmed in the making of this movie.
Mitigating the violent set pieces are two legitimately touching subplots: the tireless effort by Kevin’s mother Kate (the wonderful Catherine O’Hara) to get back home to her youngest child, and Kevin learning the surprising truth about next-door neighbor Marley (nice Dickensian reference!), the ghostly and scary old man who turns out to be something very different.
The score by John Williams is holiday-perfect. The supporting cast is excellent — notably Roberts Blossom as Old Man Marley and of course the great John Candy as Gus Polinski, the Polka King of the Midwest (maybe he’s related to Abe Froman, the Sausage King of Chicago).
Whether you were an only child, the oldest, a middle kid or the put-upon, tagalong, youngest child, you probably had some moments when you felt like the Kevin of the family, AND some moments when you felt Home Alone, even if you weren’t literally home alone.
John Hughes knew how to tap into those universal feelings.
Shortly after “Home Alone” was released in 1990, I paid a visit to the suburban Chicago home that was quickly becoming a tourist attraction. The then-owners were gracious enough to allow me inside for a tour of the “Home Alone” home.
On a still winter Monday in the beautiful North Shore town of Winnetka, the Abendshien family is enjoying a night home alone. John fiddles with his new VCR, while his wife, Cynthia, makes postdinner coffee and their 7-year-old daughter Lauren plinks “Heart & Soul” on the piano.
They seem oblivious to the cars pulling in and out of their circular driveway, the excited chatter of strangers standing on their porch and the sporadic light bursts caused by popping flashbulbs piercing their windows.
Of course, this has been going on every night for two months now. It’s the way life goes when you live in the “Home Alone” home.
I’m invited inside, and the first thing I notice is the staircase used as a sledding hill in the movie by Macaulay Culkin. We take the stairs up to the third floor, and glance out the window that led to the tree house in the great escape scene. I half expect to see the mysterious and scary Marley next door, shoveling his sidewalk and casting ominous glances in my direction.
“They really built a tree house out there,” says John, “but I decided to have it taken down because it was so high up. Didn’t want anyone to get hurt.”
We go back downstairs to the kitchen, which was completely redone for the movie. In “Home Alone,” the wallpaper was done in shades of red and green, as a background reminder of the Christmas theme. In reality, Cynthia prefers more subtle shades.
“They made quite a few other changes,” John notes. “The back stairwell in the movie doesn’t really exist. They just dug a hole and built some steps. On the other side of the `basement door’ is the foundation for the house. And they expanded the kitchen to include our screened-in back porch.”
Outside, another car pulls up. Daryl Smithers, a young woman from Chicago, steps out and gazes up at the famous white twinkling holiday lights, which are nearly identical to what is seen in the movie.
“Awesome!” she says as she dashes up to the front steps so her boyfriend can take a picture.
“We’re still getting about 35 cars an hour,” says Cynthia. “On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, there were more than 400 cars each day. I think a lot of people brought their out-of-town relatives by.”
Over the past decade, the North Shore has become “Hughesland” – the setting for many of John Hughes’ wildly popular films. The “Uncle Buck” house is in Evanston. “Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” Kenilworth. “The Breakfast Club,” Northfield. “Sixteen Candles,” Highland Park.
But in “Home Alone,” the Abendshien house isn’t just featured, it’s a co-star in the story of a 10-year-old boy (Macaulay) who is left behind by his vacationing family over the Christmas holiday. The majority of it was filmed right here last February.
“I was hesitant to turn my house over to 120 strangers,” says Cynthia, “but I read the script and I did like the idea of it being a holiday movie.”
“She thought of it as an adventure. I thought of it as a business transaction,” says John, who’d rather not say how much they were paid for the use of their home. “Anyway, she was right, I was wrong.”
The Abendshiens knew their home would gain some notoriety; as far back as last summer, after a sneak preview, some sleuthing North Shore youths stopped by to take a look at the “Home Alone” home.
But what no one could have predicted is the monster success of the film, which has grossed $168 million and has been No. 1 in each of its eight weeks in release.
The “Home Alone” home is destined to go down in movie history, but unlike famous dwellings from movies such as “Animal House,” “Psycho” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” it doesn’t sit on a Hollywood lot; it rests at the end of a quiet street in Winnetka. And the visitors just keep on coming.
“They’re nice; they don’t cause any trouble,” says Cynthia. “I think sometimes they’re surprised when they see real people moving around inside.”
“Home Alone” has an outside chance to overtake “E.T.” as the highest-grossing film in history. At the very least, it will be a popular family Christmas movie for years to come.
“I’m thrilled that our house will be a part of so many holidays,” says Cynthia.
On my way out, I carefully navigate the front steps, mindful of how slippery they were in the movie. A group of teenagers pile out of a car, their faces shining in the bright white lights.
“This is it,” says one of them. “The `Home Alone’ home.”
|Charlie Sheen plays it loose with “SEALS“|
|LOS ANGELES Charlie Sheen is smoking a cigarette and drinking from a tall smoked glass containing something refreshing and orange. He is wearing a screaming blue pinstripe suit with wide lapels, and a yellow “Dick Tracy” style fedora. Gold bracelets jangle on his wrists and diamond rings twinkle on his fingers. It’s not a subtle look.”I look like a gangster? Well, I feel like a gangster,” he says.His latest part is not that of a gangster, but a soldier, in “Navy SEALS,” a military thriller about an elite commando unit – sort of the Green Berets of the Navy. (SEALS is an acronym for SEa, Air, Land; the teams have the capability to operate anywhere within 50 miles of a body of water). Sheen plays Hawkins, a reckless free spirit whose love for the “buzz” of fighting jeopardizes the entire unit.
We sit down to discuss his character in “SEALS” (now playing in Chicago). At least that’s the idea.
“I just sat down, I just sat down, give me a minute,” Sheen says, leaning back in his chair and jingling the cubes in his glass.
“You want me to describe the character. The character, the character, the character, describe the character . . . well, you saw the movie, so why should I describe the character?”
Because the great moviegoing public has not yet seen the movie, and perhaps it would be of some help if they knew something about the fellow you play.
“Oh, then we’d all be in sync, right? OK. He’s the kind of guy that is hooked on adrenaline. He’s hooked from the moment of his first taste of combat, on that rush.”
For some reason, Sheen is talking in a deliberate, clipped tone, like a Damon Runyon character. He’s so laid back, it looks like he could fall asleep on a moment’s notice. He finishes his drink, then lights up another smoke.
“Hawkins is a free spirit who needs to learn a few things from his commander, Cmdr. Curran (played by Michael Biehn),” Sheen says. “Curran is an `L-7.’ Do you know what an L-7 is? That’s a square, man.”
“Navy SEALS” is painted in broad strokes, like one of those ’40s military movies where everybody is a type – a free-spirited maverick, an uptight commander, a lovable lunky hunk, a beautiful woman who exists only because they need to spice in a little romance between daring commando adventures. The SEAL teams do exist and reportedly have conducted secret rescue and espionage missions in places such as the Middle East and Central America, but this is not a gritty, realistic look at covert military operations or the elite soldiers who comprise such units. The wacky, bullets-on-the-brain Hawkins would be weeded out of a real SEALS training camp in about five minutes.
“Yeah, this guy is a few sandwiches shy of a picnic,” Sheen acknowledges. “Obviously he would have been kicked out of a commando unit like this early on. But we took some artistic license with the character so that we would have a story about the differences between Hawkins and his commander.”
Sheen played a soldier before, in “Platoon,” but wiped the slate clean when approaching this character.
“Somebody earlier asked me about the similarities between the soldier in `Platoon’ and this character,” Sheen says, “and I figured this guy must have seen the European version of `Platoon’ or something. In that movie, I was a very naive soldier with an idealistic approach to war. In `SEALS,’ I’m coming into every situation looking for that first hit, looking for the violence. The two characters couldn’t be more different.”
As masters of counterterrorism, the SEALS outwit and outfight a group of Middle East thugs, and liberate hostages from a Beirut-type setting. But their biggest challenge comes when they learn that a group of terrorists has gained possession of a cache of American-made Stinger missiles. Each time, talk is not a consideration. It’s simply a case of when you’re in trouble, who you gonna call? The SEALS team.
Was Sheen, who has volunteered for liberal causes, disturbed by the film’s jingoistic nature?
“I don’t support war in general, but I support something being done about some of the s- – – going on in the Middle East,” Sheen says. “The American public is entirely fed up with Middle Eastern terrorism, and given that we have these Navy SEALS guys on standby, I don’t know why we don’t send them in and let them surgically remove the perpetrators.”
Sheen has a brief flirtation with a journalist (Joanne Whalley-Kilmer) in “Navy SEALS,” but no love scenes, which came as a relief. After filming a series of silhouetted bedroom gymnastics with Daryl Hannah in “Wall Street,” he went on record as saying he felt more comfortable onscreen killing than making love. Still true?
“Well, how about that, look at that for one hell of a question,” he says with a chuckle. “It’s true – I have a hard time with those scenes. It’s very bizarre to have people in your bedroom when you’re in bed with a woman. It’s something I’ll conquer eventually, but I’d still rather kill than make love, true.”
There was a time when Sheen was engaged to actress Kelly Ann Preston. Then there was a time when we were reading that Preston was refusing to give back the engagement ring even though the wedding was off. Any chance for a reconciliation?
“No with a capital `N,’ ” Sheen says. “I was engaged for one year, two months and one hour, and then the whole thing just fell apart. I went Elvis on the whole deal. When I say I went Elvis, you know what I’m saying, I kind of just, well, I don’t want to say any more than that. You know what I’m saying. I just went Elvis!”
We don’t know if this means he grew sideburns, gained weight, or took to wearing white, bejeweled suits. We don’t want to know. We’ll just ask what’s next for Charlie Sheen.
“I’m shooting `The Rookie’ with Clint Eastwood,” he says. “It’s a good cop/bad cop story. I play the rookie. Clint also directs. It’s a b- – – – out movie. See it this Christmas. Then there’s `Men at Work’ with Emilio (Estevez, Sheen’s brother). We play two garbagemen from Redondo Beach who discover a body in the trash one day.
“I’m working too much; I’ve got to take some time off and do some fishing. I don’t want people to get sick of me.”
|Copyright (c) 2009 Chicago Sun-Times, Inc.|
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