Holing Up for the Holidays

A critic's guide to getting away from the multiplexes.

I'm tired; tired of watching vulgar action movies, misogynistic suspense thrillers, witless Tarantino rip-offs, tastefully boring "art films," and bourgeois, conformist romantic comedies that celebrate fashion and beauty and wealth and privilege. If I could take a week off from reviewing the latest studio dreck, I'd pack a bag full of videocassettes (and a few laserdiscs), grab my playback machines, and head up to some cabin on the North Shore, where I'd make a movie paradise.

The films I'd bring for this holiday hibernation wouldn't necessarily be winter-themed or the "greatest ever made." The following is merely an annotated list of some movies that have kept me warm over the years, and might do the same for you.

Ball of Fire (1941, Samuel Goldwyn Home Video) Here's a romantic comedy--lacking both sappiness and sexism--the likes of which aren't made anymore. Presumably named after its heroine, a nightclub singer and gangster's moll played by Barbara Stanwyck, Ball of Fire is the gentlest and least-known of Howard Hawks's screwball trilogy, which also includes the great Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. Again, a timid, by-the-book guy (a linguistics professor played by Gary Cooper) gets swept along on a wave of l'amour fou, with initially harrowing but ultimately sweet results. She helps him to lighten up, he helps her onto the straight and narrow; they were made for each other. It's hard to say which is Ball of Fire's greatest achievement: restoring one's belief in academia or in true love.

Ashes of Time (1994, World Video & Supply, Inc.) Transcendent Hong Kong action fare can be found on any given weekend at the Riverview Theater. But if it's Hong Kong cinema that you want, you'd do well to hunt down a copy of this eye- and ear-opening sword-fight melodrama, which Asian Media Access screened but twice last summer at Oak Street Cinema. The movie's slo-mo combat scenes are thrillingly accessible, although its plot is so convoluted as to nearly defy synopsis. Suffice to say that director Wong Kar-Wai stir-fries Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, adds a pinch each of Kurosawa and Peckinpah for extra spice, and retains a flavor all his own. Ashes of Time is prerequisite viewing for Wong's equally chaotic Chungking Express, which Miramax is scheduled to release (finally!) sometime next year.

The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977, HBO Video) This isn't just the funniest and most irreverent bio-pic ever made; it stylistically scoops Oliver Stone by a good decade and change. Mixing reenactments and archival footage, director Larry Cohen uses an aging, fat, ridiculously stern Broderick Crawford to riff on our perception of the FBI chief as a monster. More than that, he characterizes his subject in strokes so broad they're practically tabloid headlines: Hoover calls MLK a "degenerate bastard"; Hoover interrupts a high-level meeting in order to call in a professional fly-swatter; Hoover gets off on a wire-tapped tape of a rival's phone-sex encounter. Nevertheless, the real enemy here is Nixon, who's eventually forced to bear the weight of what Cohen claims was Hoover's ultimate triumph: the Watergate tapes. Private Files may seem like a callous mix of comedy and melodrama, fact and fiction, but its wit always carries a measure of historical truth; the film's final joke is that only Nixon could make a prick like J. Edgar Hoover resemble a hero.

Modern Romance (1981, RCA/Columbia Home Video) Writer-director-star Albert Brooks makes deeply paranoid comedies that embarrass the viewer with how accurately they depict fear and self-loathing. This is the auteur's magnum opus. Brooks plays Robert, a hypersensitive film editor who, dating the love of his life (Kathryn Harrold) but afraid to commit, finds cosmic meaning in answering machine messages and cheesy love songs. Among other things, the movie hilariously skewers the notion that rampant gift-buying can work to boost self-esteem and win back your sweetheart: Robert clings to a steady supply of consumer products (vitamins, Valium, stuffed animals, sportswear) in order to heal his lonely heart, but he can't buy out of his own no-account psyche. Don't watch this one before going holiday shopping for your partner. Or do.

The Seven Samurai (1954, Embassy Home Entertainment) If you've got four hours to spend during some arctic evening, this epic will reward your time and then some. Director Akira Kurosawa follows six aging warriors, and a loyal follower played by Toshiro Mifune, who do battle against some vicious bandits terrorizing a 16th-century Japanese village. Making the town's struggle their own, the samurai agree to fight without pay; the movie itself is equally gracious and noble. Kurosawa's monumental scope is earned by his strong commitment to character and theme, so that when The Seven Samurai concludes with its heroes gallantly swinging their swords amid a torrent of rain and mud, the director's brilliant editing cuts even deeper.

The Loveless (1983, Media Home Entertainment) Kathryn Bigelow's character-driven debut (co-directed with Monty Montgomery) visits the strange days of the 1950s, when resisting the shiny-happy zeitgeist might get you labeled as a "commie." Eroticizing both man and machine, The Loveless pulls up next to a gang of outlaw bikers and pumps new fuel into The Wild One and Easy Rider: Willem Dafoe (looking smooth and dangerous in the Brando/Fonda role) leads his leather-clad gearheads into a small Southern town where, over beers, classic rockabilly tunes, and some existential conversation, the group is targeted for execution by the local tough guys. As in her criminally underrated Point Break, Bigelow here conducts a nearly anthropological study of the rituals men adopt to keep themselves hard and competitive. The director is clearly entranced by the boys' club, although she'd rather document their doomed machismo than become a member.

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