|If this is their idea of Christmas, I gotta be here for New Years.” — Limo Driver, Die HardIf you’re old enough to drink wine, you’re old enough to have had a flat-out-rotten, deck-the-halls-with-boughs-of-bitter-hatred holiday. (Unless, of course, you’re French or Italian, in which case you might be one of our precocious, tippling seven-year-old readers.) I’ve certainly had my share of grinchy year-enders. I’ve also had some stellar Hanukkahs (gefilte fish notwithstanding), some very prosperous January firsts, one near-suicidal Christmas in India (there’s an oxymoron for you) and several hellaciously horny holiday seasons.|
Chroniclers of life that they are, filmmakers realize that most red-blooded individuals suffer both emotional peaks and valleys during the soul-searching time that our market-driven economy has deemed the end of the year to be. And they’ve taken advantage of that fact to produce a variety of mimicry movies designed to make you wince, giggle, get weepy-eyed or wonder where you put that big-ass Ginzu butcher knife. So rent a slew of holiday flicks, settle back with the millennium magnum you bought last May, and wait to see if your VCR will function when Y2K comes a-knockin’.
It should: it’s been flashing 12:00 from the get.
|HOLY HOLIDAYThere are probably fewer movies about the man of the hour, Jesus Christ, than there are Santa Claus cartoons, but the former tend to produce box-office gold along with the proverbial fishes and loaves. (Granted, Santa’s more p.c. for office screen-savers). Films about JC crop up in a variety of guises — to keep your interest up, since, like the Titanic, we all know how it ends (and in this case, resurrects). There are a slew of traditional versions, most of them as ponderous and lackluster as 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told — an all-star epic I sat through only because I became mesmerized by Charlton Heston’s out-of-control John the Baptist. On the other hand, the 1977 made-for-TV series Jesus of Nazareth (recently released on DVD), is a well-done traditional treatment: the sort of thing you should rent when your mother-in-law is over for a sherry.|
There are several wonderful contemporized versions, such as Denys Arcand’s 1989 film Jesus of Montreal, about an actor who produces an inflammatory “literal” telling of the Passion Play. Compelling, acerbic and haunting, Arcand’s film scored a well-deserved Jury Prize at Cannes. Martin Scorsese’s controversial The Last Temptation of Christ — a film overshadowed by the protests and bans it generated — is a brilliant oeuvre with a (sorry) heavenly score by Peter Gabriel. Another film worth watching is A Virgin Named Mary, a 1975 satire by Sergio Nasca (director of The Profiteer), which focuses on a group of village atheists who believe in the Virgin Birth. (Wry humor, in my opinion, pairs well with religion.)
There’s even comedic relief: Try the British film The Ruling Class, an epic in which Peter O’Toole plays a young English lord who thinks he’s Jesus Christ. (What’s new?) And if you’re looking (I know a few masochists who revel in this) for a movie that shouldn’t have been made, pick up Andrew Lloyd Weber’s 1979 rock opera, Jesus Christ, Superstar, and sing along to the annoying score while following the equally pesky plot.
This year, Hollywood brings you a lone homage to the Son of the Man — but it’s a winner. Stigmata features Patricia Arquette as a twenty-something hipster who’s suddenly afflicted with the wounds of Christ (and a busload of chalky pancake makeup). The Vatican dispatches the sexiest priest alive, Gabriel Byrne, to suss out the situation. Byrne proceeds to doubt his own faith, uncover a conspiracy and resolve Larger Questions (in that order). It’s schlocky in a Scream 2 sort of way, but if you’ve got a jones for les soeurs Arquette, here’s a holiday buffet plateful.
Nothing looks more like the blood of Christ than Cabernet. (Actually, nothing looks more like blood, period.) You can go there with an inexpensive bottle of Beaulieu Vineyard Coastal, if you dare. If not, keep in the spirit of things with something red: a fruity shiraz, a merlot such as the Van Asperen (a newish label from Round Hill Winery), or a California pinot, such as Carneros Creek. Put on a Gucci shirt and mope about dramatically.
|HAPPY HOLIDAYS (SORT OF)Maybe you’re alone and feeling blue. Maybe you’ve got cancer and could use a lift. Or maybe you just want to watch movies about people who are as gosh-darned happy as you are! It’s Christmas! It’s a New Year! Skip on over to the video store, green-speckled fir tree cookies in hand for the overworked employees, and snap up a cheery flick about the season of joy and goodwill. (Be forewarned: They’re few in number. Misery, for the most part, loves miserable company.)|
Consider starting with Barry Levinson’s “Baltimore trilogy”: Diner, Tin Men and Avalon. The films actually span the holidays from Thanksgiving to the Fourth of July; the point, according to Levinson, is “to show how [these] people with an Eastern European sensibility dealt with American holidays.” Though the first two films are better than the third, they all resonate with warm and fuzzy truths — particularly if you grew up in a first-generation immigrant household. (Editorial note: This ain’t your mama’s trilogy — it’s Levinson’s mama’s trilogy, so he can release a fourth film if he feels like it. Which he apparently does: Liberty Heights is set to hit the big screen in November. Give thanks.)
Now, Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 film Strange Days may seem like an odd happy-movie choice. After all, it’s got a society-on-the-eve-of-destruction bent, and it’s an action flick to boot. But the lead characters, Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett, both emerge unscathed (small favors), and the phenomenally sexy Bassett heats up the screen, kicks major ass and saves Fiennes’ cojones on New Year’s Y2K — a cheery scenario if there ever was one! Another smile-inducing holiday action flick is Rocky IV, in which the big fight takes place on December 25th. Rocky travels to Russia to fight the Soviet champ who killed his buddy. Will Rocky KO the Evil Empire? Will Rocky get bloodied and look as though he’s going to bite it? Will Rocky, blind to the fact that the formula has stopped working, make another movie after this one? (He will, but it’s nowhere near as campy.) A patriotic gigglefest! Finally, pick up the 1997 film Jack Frost, a hysterical piece of seasonal gore featuring a killer snowman who offs people with icicles and a carrot nose. Aaa-chew! Holiday spirit and Vitamin D all around!
Woe for the Happy Brigade: Santa Hollywood has given you naught new fare this Christmas. Precocious seven-year-olds may proceed to our Classic Flick Picks section; distressed adults are directed to watch While You Were Sleeping one last time and then get a life.
Let’s all drink happy holiday drinks, so we can avoid them the rest of the year! Eggnog: Beat one egg, 2 t sugar, 1/4 t pure vanilla extract until smooth; pour in 2 oz. brandy, bourbon, rum or sherry and 6 oz. iced milk. Egg Cream: Mix 1 1/2 oz each dark chocolate syrup, brandy and chilled cream. Or try a hot drink: A Hot Toddy, Mexican/ Irish/ Jamaican coffee, a Hot Bishop or a cuppa Hot Buttered Rum. I’d give you the recipes but we don’t drink those things in sunny California.
|HORRIBLE HOLIDAYSThese are the films that call my Sicilian-Hindu-Sikh name. Holidays are no more chock-full of cheer than any other time of the year, and I don’t do happy on demand: I’m a writer, not a Gap ad. Hollywood understands that, and there’s some wonderful bleak cinema to ring in the overly hyped 2000. Older fare includes the lyrical Fanny and Alexander, Ingmar Bergman’s lengthy, semi-autobiographical drama. Beautiful film, wonderful cast – a great wintery movie. Another fantastic “holiday” flick is the 1950 release Try and Get Me, a little-known film noir classic based on the true tale of a group of California citizens who, tired of waiting for the wheels of justice to turn, decide to take the law into their own hands. Get Me forces the viewer to think about society and the notion of retribution in a way that will render holiday homilies even more inane. Mistletoe, my ass.|
It’s not a classic, but Who Slew Auntie Roo? — an updated twist on the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale — is eminently watchable. Shelley Winters plays an odd widow mistaken for the Grimm Brother’s kiddie-munching witch by one of the orphans at her annual Christmas party. It all comes to a convincingly bad end, as it should. If you’re in the mood for good, mean fun about a family almost as screwed up as your own, pick up Ted Demme’s 1994 film The Ref. The incomparable Judy Davis teams up with the multitalented Mr. Kevin Spacey to form a duo so dysfunctional the kidnapper-cum-burglar who takes them hostage (Denis Leary) regrets the moment he stuck his gun in Davis’ minivan-driving yuppie ribs.
Finally, run to rent last summer’s best so-small-it’s-not-even-an-indy release (no, not that damn witch movie) a.k.a. Don Bonus, an autobiographical film by the teenage Cambodian-American Sokly Ny. Ny, who calls himself “Don,” lives in the blighted Sunnydale projects of San Francisco, which even the police avoid. His father was kidnapped by the Khmer Rouge, his brothers are scrabbling around in poverty, his mother drops him in favor of her new husband. The low point is the scene of a Cambodian New Year’s celebration in which Ny, alone in a car, breaks down and begins to weep. During the scene, you hear his voice speaking of his loneliness, but the camera is fixed on a long shot of the Tenderloin at night: chlorine-green bursts of streetlights, a sickly blue night sky, fire-red traffic lights. It’s a huge moment.
Sake is a great depressed person’s drink. It’s hot and searing — or icy and cooling — and doesn’t give you a hangover. I’ve been downing little blue bottles of Sierra Cold Sake lately, and they hit the spot (not to mention look chi-chi). Merlot is also good for the troubled soul (well, it can’t hurt). Try a lusty bottle of 1996 Silverado, a good wine for drinking alone, ’cause that way, it’s all yours.
|CLASSIC FLICK PICKS: HANGOVER HOLIDAY, AKA KIDDIE KORNER)You say: Kids, mommy doesn’t feel very good this morning. You mean: A large invisible man from the WWF is sitting on my head and kicking me repeatedly in the stomach. If you don’t shut up right NOW, you’ll soon be playing with Susan Smith’s kids. They hear: La la la la la, Mommy needs cheering up this morning! Come yell in her ear! Holiday fare for kids is a gift from the hangover gods. The only way to save yourself from certain arrest is to be the sort of unacceptable parent people write to advice columnists about. So shove some sugary confections and bags of salty snacks at the little ones and lock ’em in a room with 12 hours’ worth of classic children’s movies. At the end of the day, you can all go out for a make-up pizza.|
There’s an awful lot of moralizing in the older generation of kids’ films, but hey — you’re rolling around with a cold compress, someone’s got to be a role model. The 1991 release The Nutcracker Prince is a harmless, feature-length animated version of the Christmas Tale — but be forewarned, one of the voices is done by the vocally challenged Phyllis Diller. How The Grinch Stole Christmas, A Charlie Brown Christmas and The Little Drummer Girl have timeless appeal, and the Home Aloneseries is good for nearly 5 1/2 hours of programming (though you might have to subsequently hide the Macaulay ‘n Rachel issues of People). 1996’s Santa With Muscles, a Hulk Hogan romp, is completely worthless but good for an hour and a half of the sight gags kids love. And if you’re feeling up to actually sharing some Cheetos with the vertically challenged ones, Spielberg’s 1984 Cory Feldman vehicle (feel old?) Gremlins is a satirical black comedy disguised as a kid’s farce. Nasty, well-fed gremlins decide to tear up the town on Christmas Eve — pure fantasy, unless you substitute “skinhead” for gremlin.
Aside from the annual Disney animation-with-a-crappy-soundtrack (Tarzan), blockbusters aimed at the wee ones should be out on tape just in time for your office-party-induced indisposition. Inspector Gadget is an insipid, loud, frantic kid’s version of RoboCop; The Iron Giant, a.k.a “Robot Gandhi From Outer Space,” is a lovely piece of animation couched with a lesson in the difficulties of choosing the path of nonviolence; Dudley Do-Rightis a gaggy recreation of the already-gaggy tale of the blundering Canadian mountie (and features what I hope is the century’s last parody of Kung Fu). They’re not holiday films per se, but it’s unwise to be picky when murder-suicide is the alternative.
Hangover remedies are a dime a dozen, and what’s good for the goose may cause the gander to retch uncontrollably. Tallulah Bankhead once said that trying to cure a hangover with a hair-of-the-dog was as logical as trying to put out a fire with kerosene. And Robert Benchley claimed the only cure for a real hangover was death. Some swear by Bloody Marys, others by Virgin Marys, still others swear on the Virgin Mary (appropriate, considering the season). My advice: Absorbent fruit, like a banana; water, ibuprofen and sleep.
|SCHLOCK FLICK PICKS: HOMICIDAL HOLIDAY)People — Santa included — are forever snapping around the end of the year. Maybe it’s a year’s worth of internalized anger. Maybe it’s the fruitcake. (I’m willing to chalk St. Nick’s psychosis up to a buggy Windows app, which caused his entire gift database to crash.) In any case, there’s an entire genre of let’s-start/end-this-year-with-a-bloody-slate film out there. Some of it’s campy in a must-see way — like the old Magic Johnson talk show — and some of it’s a waste of celluloid (witness Silent Night, Deadly Night and its four sequels). Band-Aid-orama Christmases include The Dorm That Dripped Blood (lesson: Do not volunteer to “close the dorm out for break”); Black Christmas (lesson: Sorority sluts are headed for a bad end); and Don’t Open ‘Til Christmas (lesson: Let some other schmuck volunteer to be the mall Santa). “Should have stayed home and watched Dick” violence abounds in both the abysmal Bloody New Year and the less abysmal New Year’s Evil (not to say it’s good) — both arguments for spending Y2K at home, like your mother says you should.|
There’s no really compelling reason to watch these movies. Get your happy holiday heinie out of the house, hit a terrific restaurant and drink a great big bottle of the cellar’s best — unless you’re at the Rio Suite Hotel in Las Vegas, because that means a 1924 Mouton Rothschild priced at $200,000. You couldn’t possibly have had that good a year.