Noe Valley Voice December-January 2004

Screen and Screen Again:
Five Flicks to Watch at New Year's

By David O'Grady

In the movies, love at Christmastime is the stuff of wish fulfillment. Love on New Year's Eve, however, is a lot more complicated. All our hopes and despairs gather at the brink of a new year and its yawning gulf of uncertain resolutions. No wonder we need to stop in at Urban Cellars and stock up on champagne.

This inaugural edition of "Screen and Screen Again," a review of films available on DVD and video at Noe Valley video stores, takes a look at a handful of New Year's movies whose lovelorn story lines are marked by the stroke of midnight.

Hugh Grant Comes of Age

New Year's Eve serves as a critical turning point for Hugh Grant's narcissistic man-child in the clever film About a Boy (2002), based on the book by Nick Hornby. When Grant begins dating single mothers, his self-styled "island" life is invaded by a 12-year-old boy, played by first-time actor Nicholas Hoult. "Once you open your door to one person, anyone can walk in," Grant observes, quickly getting into trouble when he falls for the woman of his dreams at a New Year's party.

About a Boy received an Academy Award nomination for its screenplay, but it deserves equal recognition for its playful visuals and light but soulful tone. A good man may be hard to find, but a good comedy, one with a heart and a brain to match, is even harder. About a Boy is a great catch.

An Un-Columbo Peter Falk

What would the holidays be without a little ham? If you can cut through a thick slice of hammy exposition during the opening credits, you'll enjoy Happy New Year (1987), starring an un-Columbo Peter Falk. This is a lighthearted love story masquerading as a buddy/caper movie, closer to The Thomas Crown Affair in character and style than the slick Ocean's Eleven (or Twelve).

In Happy New Year, Falk plays a world-weary con artist whose interest in a classy antiques dealer complicates the biggest jewelry heist of his career--and his double-standard views on sexual relationships. Despite his best-laid plans and convincing disguises, Falk is captured and thrown in jail while his partner escapes with the jewels. Falk's girlfriend, played by Wendy Hughes, remains faithful in heart, if not in body. When Falk is released on New Year's Eve, he has to shake the police tailing him, protect his partner, and choose between his old-fashioned ideas and his girlfriend's modern ways.

This is a great escape film in all senses of the phrase. Though Happy New Year is a hard-to-find rental, the film is stocked at Video Wave on Castro Street and comes highly recommended by store owner Alex Gardener.

Looking for Mr. Right Now

If Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? were recast as a punk rock/new wave party movie and splintered into half-a-dozen plotlines, you'd have 200 Cigarettes (1999). This MTV-produced movie follows the misadventures of several groups of people who have three things in common: getting to the same New Year's Eve party, finding Mr./Ms. Right (or at least Right Now), and verbally ripping each other to shreds. But a shaggy truth lurks in the basement of this 1980s nostalgia trip: Poignant yearning will spill out of our noisy, self-absorbed lives at the most inconvenient moments.

The scene stealer of 200 Cigarettes is the soundtrack, which saturates nearly every frame with period songs like "Bette Davis Eyes," "I Want Candy," and "Ladies Night." But the unsung heroes are the casting directors, who landed a whole talent agency's worth of stars, including Ben Affleck, Janeane Garofalo, Kate Hudson, Courtney Love (in better days), and Elvis Costello. While 200 Cigarettes is a messy affair aimed at those straddling the legal drinking age, the film deserves credit for being funny and quirky and for knowing that the hangover often starts before the party does.

MacLaine, MacMurray & Lemmon

Before When Harry Met Sally mined New Year's Eve to great effect, Billy Wilder's The Apartment (1960) used the holiday as the last scene of one of the best comedy-dramas ever made. Jack Lemmon stars as an ambitious insurance underwriter who, in the hopes of moving up the job ladder, shares the key to his bachelor pad with his philandering bosses. Soon, even the CEO, played by a surprisingly menacing Fred MacMurray, is taking advantage of the arrangement.

But Lemmon's scheme begins to unravel when he realizes that the woman he loves--an elevator operator conveyed with dimples and smarts by Shirley MacLaine--is MacMurray's apartment paramour.

While the gender stereotyping in this film can make it feel dated, the humor is timeless, as in this famous exchange between MacMurray and Lemmon. MacMurray: "You see a girl a couple times a week, just for laughs, and right away, they think you're going to divorce your wife. Now I ask you, is that fair?" Lemmon: "No sir, it's very unfair. Especially to your wife."

Dour Resolutions from C. Schulz

Of course, no holiday is complete without Charlie Brown. Happy New Year, Charlie Brown (1985) is a charming addition to the Peanuts collection. In this story, Charlie has to finish his holiday homework assignment--reading War and Peace--before school starts again, but he also wants to dance with the Little Red-Haired Girl on New Year's Eve.

Given his chances, a knowing Charlie puts forth his own inimitable resolution: "You know how I always dread the whole year?" he says to Linus. "Well, this time I'm only going to dread one day at a time."

Love's complications, on New Year's Eve or any other day, can make blockheads of us all.

David O'Grady is a communications manager, writer, and film enthusiast who lives on Noe Street. He likes to think he's been in the "The Industry" since 2001, when he ran into Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins at the Louvre Museum.