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Holiday Sneaks

Adults only (almost)

Sure there'll be fare for the family, but this is primarily the season for grown-ups.

November 03, 2002|Lauren Sandler | Special to The Times

If summer movies come on like a Dramamine-popping day at Six Flags, holiday films are often more of a year-end cocktail party, where familiar figures in little black dresses and sharp suits chitchat about the book review over glasses of mulled wine. At the end of the year, brows lift themselves higher, metaphor replaces pyrotechnics, and the film world's annual progression from adolescence to adulthood finds us more sophisticated.

Maybe it's the introspection that comes with longer nights and darker days. Or, more likely, it could be the proximity to Oscar time. But all this is to your advantage if the testosterone-fueled explosions of "XXX" and its brethren left you feeling like the derivative Holden Caulfield characters of this fall's small films (those movies don't understand who you really are). You might easily see your reflection in the golden eye of this season's offerings, snuggling up under your boarding-school-issue tartan blanket to read Woolf or Dickens, and losing yourself in 19th century history, or fantasies of a Bond girl (but not just any Bond girl -- it would have to be Halle Berry, the only one who can tuck her Oscar next to the gun in her garter holster).

This season, you've got a library-meets-the-Cineplex roundup in the forms of "Harry Potter," "The Emperor's Club," "The Hours," "Nicholas Nickleby," "Gangs of New York" and, of course, Ian Fleming's dashing immortal spy to look forward to, just to name a few. In winter, the higher the brow, the higher the potential gross among people who in summer won't indulge exploding planes and bullet-dodging kung fu.

Many studios also consider the holidays the zenith of the family-uplift market. Just consider the number of child-friendly franchises hitting theaters by New Year's, from the return of Tim Allen in his second "Santa Clause" flick to the rich, mystical moods of "The Lord of the Rings."

But just ask a market sample of adult children how they feel about spending the holidays stuck inside the homes they fled at age 18.For many, the holiday season represents each year's heyday of familial dysfunction -- that unavoidable dash of cyanide swirled into the eggnog. It's easy to see that our winter moviegoer might be entertained by a reminder that someone is even nuttier than they are.

Want relief from the family madness? Get into the heads of not one but two schizophrenics (played by Ralph Fiennes in David Cronenberg's "Spider" and Spalding Gray in "Revolution No. 9"). Think now might be a good time to taper off the Zoloft? You'll think again when you see the brutal reality Christian Bale discovers in the futuristic thriller "Equilibrium."

Welcome to the extremities

There's a simple financial explanation to why the long, dark films tend to accompany long, dark days. Huge-budget films have three months to make their money back in the summer -- months when, as Lions Gate President Tom Ortenberg explains, "for every college and high school student, every night is a Saturday night, and this is a group that spends their Saturday nights at the movies."

In contrast, the holidays deliver only a couple of seven-day weekends to rake in ticket sales, so smaller, less teen-dependent films are produced for those times. "Summer movies have come to be the bullies that have pushed everyone else to the extremities," says Village Voice film critic Michael Atkinson.

So here we are at the extremities. And those of you who have been waiting for the offbeat or Oscar-contending movies you'd like to be seeing all year, those whose fantasies diverge from the typical summer fare of rippling abs and pyrotechnics, will find the holidays offering new gifts each week.

This season allows grown-ups to daydream of using their wits to outsmart the FBI, like Leonardo DiCaprio in Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me if You Can," or to survive the Holocaust, like Adrien Brody in Roman Polanski's Cannes-winning "The Pianist."

Maybe the fantasy is of writing your own screenplay -- an easy bet in this city -- perhaps one based on a book, as in "Adaptation," the dizzyingly postmodern film about Charlie Kaufman's ("Being John Malkovich") attempt to bring a New Yorker author's book to the screen, with Nicolas Cage playing the script scribe paralyzed with writer's-blocking neurosis.

If you think it's hard to find a good movie to see, just try writing one.

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