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It Pays to Be Picky

Bringing up baby can sure cut into the hours at the multiplex. Here are a few rules for parents to live by.

November 08, 1998|MARGO KAUFMAN | Writer Margo Kaufman's new book is "Clara: The Early Years."

I was lying in bed, lazily watching television, when I was hit by a wave of insecurity. It wasn't Ally McBeal's shrinking miniskirts that troubled me or even concern that they're going to kill off Jimmy Smits on "NYPD Blue." It was the ads for the holiday films, the ones in which a booming announcer quotes a critic as saying, "Sure to be an Oscar contender."

So many must-see movies, so little time.

Once--was it only two years ago?--I was rolling in cinematic social currency. My husband Duke, a film buff and sometime reviewer, was on the screening lists, and we saw three or four features a week. To be a power viewer meant never having to come up with a conversational gambit that didn't revolve around directors' cuts or continuity gaps. Family members would call to ask what videos to rent, and I'd smugly offer titles that had been in the theater for 15 seconds.

Then we adopted our son, Nicholas, and fell out of the movie loop faster than the Titanic sank. Either we felt guilty cutting into our son's quality time by attending screenings after work or we couldn't line up a baby-sitter. I tried to finesse it. Occasionally, I'd send my husband to a movie, just so I could co-opt his opinion, or I'd aggressively talk up the only film we'd seen for months. But the other day, when I was tempted to pass off my son's favorite video, "There Goes a Garbage Truck," as an art-house classic, I realized that I had lost my edge. It was either stop work for a couple weeks and catch up (an impossible task because the new releases just keep on coming) or figure out a way to fake it. I opted for Plan B.

Rule No. 1: Cull the pack. Just because studios dump a million movies in the octoplex at the end of the year to qualify for Oscars and cash in on the second-highest-grossing period of the year doesn't mean they're all worth seeing. Everyone makes judgment calls, and here are mine.

Skip any film that is hawked as an uplifting new holiday tradition. Though Yule-themed films provide a valuable service offering dysfunctional families the choice of substituting a giant tub of popcorn and a vat of Diet Coke for an angst-ridden turkey dinner, it pains me to watch actors perform while dressed in elf suits or, worse, angel wings.

I'm patient. I can wait the hour or two it will take for the video release of "I'll Be Home for Christmas," in which Jonathan Taylor Thomas hitchhikes across the country in Santa regalia, or for "Jack Frost," featuring Michael Keaton as a snowman. (He gave up being Batman for that?)

Rule No. 2: Why pay to make yourself miserable? The holidays are depressing enough without dread disease films like "The Theory of Flight" (does anyone want to see the gorgeous Helena Bonham Carter suffering from a neuromuscular ailment?) and war flicks, even star-studded ones such as "The Thin Red Line." Also forgo films with either Roman numerals in the title (as in "The Decline of Western Civilization, Part III") or the words "Returned" or "Again." I've had it up to here with boldly going to "Star Trek X" or anything else in which makeup artists put globs of Plasticine on odd spots on actors' heads to represent future galactic inhabitants.

Off my list too are movies in which small groups of people, usually including an older actor and younger actress of the moment, are terrorized by either a shadowy, slime-skinned thing with many big teeth or a colossus that stalks through a familiar cityscape tossing limousines like salads and has a promotional tie-in at McDonald's. "Mighty Joe Young" will have to eat up L.A. without me.

I was tempted to eliminate movies with large explosions in the coming attractions, but that would leave almost nothing in my viewing schedule.

After reducing temptation to a manageable level, the next trick is to divine what will become the hot new film and either see it right away or avoid it on lofty intellectual grounds. (My husband refuses to see "Antz" because, he said, "It would annoy me that most of the ants were male, which is biologically incorrect.")

Having seldom seen a remake I felt needed remaking, I'm boycotting "Psycho" but am willing to bet the baby-sitter's fee on "You've Got Mail," Nora Ephron's cyber-rehash of "The Shop Around the Corner."

I'm eager to check out "Meet Joe Black" for no loftier reason than that Brad Pitt looks adorable in the previews and "Celebrity" because I suspect Kenneth Branagh will find playing Woody Allen to be a lot more challenging than "Henry V."

As for the zillion-dollar Moses cartoon, "Prince of Egypt," I can't comprehend why it's being released at Christmas and not Passover.

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