Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey + Alive + Toy Soldiers + The Good Son

(G, Walt Disney Pictures, 84 mins., theatrical release date: Feb. 12, 1993)

Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey first roamed as a children's book by Sheila Burnford in 1961 before Disney commissioned a live-action adaptation two years later. Both Burnford's tome and Fletcher Markle's movie hew closer to something like The Journey of Natty Gann compared to the cutesier Homeward Bound, which shares more in common with The Adventures of Milo & Otis but with a Look Who's Talking! twist. Don Ameche, Sally Field and Michael J. Fox (reportedly recast from Donald Sutherland, Annie Potts and Jon Cryer) speak the animal characters' inner dialogue in this case, a trio of happy pets forced to traverse the Sierra Vistas to reunite with their young masters.

Bulldog Chance (Fox), in spite of being rescued by the Burnfords (the central family here named after the story's author, yes), isn't the least bit serious about loyalty and more interested in slobbering havoc. Golden retriever Shadow (Ameche) and Himalayan cat Sassy (Field) have their own solemn bonds to child companions Peter (Benji Thall) and Hope (Veronica Lauren) to uphold when they're not trying to keep rascally Chance in line. But when Peter, Hope and Jamie's (Kevin Chevalia) mother, Laura (Kim Griest), remarries to schoolteacher Bob Seaver (Robert Hays), the Burnfords have to uproot to San Francisco on business, leaving the animals behind at the ranch home of Kate (Jean Smart).

It isn't long before Shadow starts fearing the worst, and flees Kate's sanctuary with Chance and Sassy towing behind him. All of the all-natural wilderness pitfalls greet them, from grizzlies and porcupines to waterfalls and forest rangers, but the furry leads are steadfastly adorable and the name-brand voice stars taunt each other with glee, specifically the pugnacious Fox and prissy Field (Mr. Ameche, in his last hurrah, convinces us of Shadow's bountiful wisdom). Chance has been beefed up considerably from the original prototype in terms of breed (no longer the button-eyed Muffy the Bull Terrier) and presence, the screenplay from Linda (Beauty and the Beast) Woolverton and Caroline (The Addams Family) Thompson, with uncredited punch-up from Jonathan (The Sure Thing) Roberts, allowing Fox's hound to out-wisecrack Arnold Schwarzenegger, referenced in the presence of a mountain lion.

More surprising is the choice of director, Duwayne Dunham, a reliable editor for David Lynch who has momentum on his side as much as the locale and the cute animals. The movie can't help but lag whenever Dunham focuses on the humans, mostly because the writers simply trot them out for melodramatic relief. A late-inning stretch at an animal control center goes the other way just as roughly. But Dunham's knack for adversity does allow for a couple of raw heart-clenchers: Sassy is swept away by a raging salt river, and the aged Shadow suffers a crueler fate due to unstable woodworks.

By that point, Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey does leave you whimpering like Chance for the prospect of a happy ending, which is delivered on pure family-oriented terms. Having spent a year in post-production repair, Homeward Bound is undemanding, to be true (this isn't a game-changer like Babe), but with a surefire paw up on Look Who's Talking Now! or any of the Benji films (watch out for Joe Camp's credit as "animal coordinator").

(R, Touchstone/Paramount Pictures, 120 mins., theatrical release date: Jan. 15, 1993)

Whereas the strays of Disney's Homeward Bound cure their hunger pains via a stream of fresh fish, the survivors in Touchstone's (and Paramount's) Alive dine on philosophical and primitive red meat. Piers Paul Read's literary document of the 1972 Andes flight disaster lends itself less to feel-good perseverance than The Incredible Journey, unless I missed the part where the golden retriever was devoured whole by the saucer-eyed kitty and the spotted mutt. Indeed, an ordeal like the one experienced by the Uruguayan rugby players, God-fearing alumni of Montevideo's Stella Maris, and their extended family would've been slightly improved by having Homeward Bound's critters scurry through the snow. Knowing my Touchstone Pictures, chances are they would've encountered Sidney Poitier and Tom Berenger instead.

Actually, the leveling of Flight 571 on Friday the 13th, October 1972, is more unsettling than any Jason kill. An unforgiving cloud blinds the pilots to craggy disaster, with both wings and the tail end clipped off on collision. The dismembered aircraft slides violently to a halt, all of the passengers' seats thrusting forward to suggest a flesh-and-blood highway accident. The aftermath doesn't skimp on visceral images of women's legs pinned down by metal rods or the accompanying mania brought on by "altitude sickness." By the time the food and drink supply is rationed, only 27 out of the initial 45 boarders remain, the pilots and a dozen-plus others dead. The mantle of leader eventually shifts from team captain Antonio Balbi (Vincent Spano) to the revived Nando Parrado (Ethan Hawke, embodying this very film's technical advisor) as the situation grows further desperate.

Indeed, it is Nando who declares his budding stewardship with the immortal line: "Well, then I'll cut some meat off the pilots. After all, they got us into this mess."

Director Frank (Arachnophobia) Marshall and writer John Patrick (Moonstruck) Shanley downplay grisly sensationalism in favor of a rousing emphasis on perilous endurance. When one poor hiker sinks into the snow and the ground falls away right in front of him, it's got a charge above and beyond the call of Rene Cardona. Alive doesn't hack it as a group portrait, given the cast is predominantly nondescript even while their numbers are thinning, but Marshall and Shanley do convey the plight tougher than most disaster movies have been known to muster. For a while at least...

...Because what they cannot do is reconcile the tactful horror of the situation with the pronounced spirituality of the characters. Portentous wraparounds featuring John Malkovich as one of the athletes (we're never clear who) speak of enlightenment in the eeriest of tones. Even though guilt and "innocence" are queried as sacrificial, the direct connotation made between cannibalism and the Communion has the effect of making those corpse cuts take on the significance of altar bread. As the lone female survivor, Illeana Douglas takes no place at this Donner Party until she whimsically decides to be fruitful, but given that the one agnostic of the bunch pays for his refusal to pray, tragedy is inevitable, and curiously weightless. Collapsing in on itself despite the technical finesse, Alive makes like an Outward Bound expedition convinced it's a vision quest.

(R, Tri-Star Pictures, 111 mins., theatrical release date: Apr. 26, 1991)

Ethan Hawke may be nobody's image of South American machismo, but Andrew "The Djinn Genie" Divoff is a native Venezuelan with the same hot-blooded grit as Robert Davi's Sanchez from Licence to Kill. Toy Soldiers wants to position him as Hans Gruber in this particular hostage crisis, but first-time director Daniel Petrie Jr. is frustratingly adept at cannibalizing proven action flick tropes in as perfunctory a manner possible (cf: Shoot to Kill). Co-scripting this time with David Koepp, Petrie's own "triumph of the spirit" is a Red Dawn Reform School where the unruly sons of privilege outwit heavily-armed Latino and Aryan thugs under the volatile lead of Luis Cali (Divoff), whose biggest crime is loving his own cartel-kingpin daddy a bit too much.

Sean "Goonie 4 Life" Astin, Wil Wheaton (angstier here than he was in Stand by Me) and Keith Coogan (the twice-babysat misfit, inheriting Mikey's asthma) play a thrice-expelled discipline case, the bitter progeny of a Mafioso (Jerry Orbach) and the gawky offspring of a Republican figurehead. These self-described "rejects" of the Regis academy fall in line once Luis arrives; having arrived too late to single out a judge's son for vengeance in his father's imprisonment, he blockades the campus with remote-controlled plastic explosives, rooftop snipers and all manner of military-grade firepower. Cali also devotes hourly intervals to head counts where for one missing student, five are to be executed.

Billy Tepper (Astin) leads the kiddie insurgence and manages to deliver crucial information to the authorities within one recess period. But both parental attention and Special Forces tend to stifle (in this case, fatally) young minds, so Billy and his buds, as well as two preteen electronics whizzes, risk a do-or-die attempt to diffuse the bombs and defeat the terrorists. But the only real urgency resides in Michael Kahn's proficient editing, brisker than it was in the equally-lengthy Alive so as to be on the level of his Indiana Jones assignments. Despite the ventilation shafts, clandestine confrontations and adrenaline-fueled heroism, Die Hard, this movie's closest forebear, packed a meatier punch. The youthful hunks tend to spend their free time sans pants, and it apparently made no sense for Petrie & Koepp to damage the merchandise even slightly. 

Toy Soldiers, adapted from a novel by William P. Kennedy, bears no relation to the '84 film of the same name nor does it utilize Martika's hit ballad ("We all fall down...") as Eminem eventually would. Aside from Kahn and Divoff, the film's major assets include dependable supporting turns from Louis Gossett Jr. as the stern but lenient dean and Denholm Elliott's wryly funny headmaster. And I would be remiss if I didn't say that Sean Astin does the best he can with his overbearing delinquent hero, who in one moment is subjected to corporal punishment by Cali, once a private school attendee in his teens. Spare the rod, as they say, but spoil the child by seeking out Class of 1999. Lil' Petrie still needs to learn some discipline himself.

(R, 20th Century Fox, 87 mins., theatrical release date: Sep. 24, 1993)

What's trashier than Toy Soldiers, grimmer than Alive and fraught with more behind-the-scenes turmoil than Homeward Bound? The Good Son. Novelist Ian McEwan whipped up the screenplay in 1986 as commissioned by 20th Century Fox, but the studio balked until 1991, during which time it reached pre-Blacklist levels of curiosity. With Michael (Heathers) Lehmann attached to direct and a cast including Jesse Bradford and Mary Steenburgen, McEwan watched with growing disillusionment as Kit Culkin blackmailed Fox into casting his golden boy son Macaulay in the titular role and Lehmann was traded for Joseph Ruben, no stranger to iconoclastic star vehicles thanks to Sleeping with the Enemy, who unceremoniously brought in a friend to rewrite McEwan's script. McEwan fought to claim sole writing credit, keeping distance from the finished product on his own terms.

His is not the only disgrace. The same Joseph Ruben who crafted 1987's low-budget creeper sleeper The Stepfather only has formalism going for him here; thus, he's prematurely interchangeable with John (Pacific Heights) Schlesinger. Cajoled into rewiring his endearingly bratty image, the distressingly humorless Macaulay Culkin doesn't seem to be having as much fun as his wicked Henry Evans suggests we should. So numbingly interested in death Henry is that he seems to have stumbled out of River's Edge rather than The Omen. The adults are mindless pushovers devoid of any psychological investment, cheating us out of a revelatory performance on a par with Terry O'Quinn, Margaret Colin (cf: True Believer) or Kevin Anderson. And no matter how effectively it is lensed, Maine is so synonymous with Stephen King as to invite unfair if educational contrast (watch out for Daniel Hugh Kelly, of the movie version of Cujo, as another father on a poorly-timed business trip).

Only Elijah Wood, who for all intents and purposes is the focal character, assures us of McEwan's sullied integrity. Cousin Mark's guilt-addled devotion to his deceased mother, which he projects onto the similarly mournful Aunt Susan (Wendy Crewson), is a solid hook for a psychological fable that declares a tyke war. The mind reels as to how Joseph Ruben could've handled the material back when The Stepfather showed he could deconstruct the idea of a nuclear family, resonantly pitting '50s idealism against '80s cynicism. Repackaged for Macaulay, whose burglar-bashing Home Alone fame could have been subverted in surer hands, every malevolent misdeed, spot of profanity and vindictive overture is patently calculated. The antagonism Mark endures from Henry and his blind protectors is ludicrously contrived. And the cliff top showdown is the only point where the film spills over with juicy camp.

More than any post-Bad Seed celebration of adolescent sadism in the first degree (or even the excellent Nick Cave song written sympathetically about Cain), The Good Son stirred within me memories of David Keith's The Curse. In it, Wil Wheaton acted alongside his own real-life sibling Anne, who in her only film credit is remembered for being attacked by a coop of homicidal chickens. Macaulay's sister Quinn Culkin experiences a similar fate, as Henry tries to dispose of his last biological rival, 8-year-old Connie, by tossing her onto thin ice. Had Joseph Ruben enjoyed himself in this case, the latent dysfunction would've made for some sprightly (or is that spritely?) mischief. Alas, that old adage of resignation sets in early and never gets lifted: "Playtime's over."

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