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So you’re stuck spending some “quality time” with the family around the holidays, when you’d rather be at the bar around the corner with your friends, or even in jail, as long as no one from your family is in jail with you. Someone wants to watch a Christmas movie. Everybody starts chirping like newborn chicks. You reach for the knitting needles, praying that they’ll hit something vital in your skull before you’ve experienced any pain.
Put the needles down, friend. There are other options that are more enjoyable and less permanent than death’s sweet, sweet kiss. Here are five movies that get us through the holidays with murderous impulses held firmly in check. Merry Christmas, everyone. Pass the bourbon.
Admit it: you secretly fantasize about a gang of white-collar criminals hijacking your holiday party and killing the fast-talking weasel in sales who won’t shut the hell up. You’ve read the praise about “Die Hard” serving as the blueprint for every action movie made since – and it’s true, as the most popular studio sales pitch between 1989 and 1997 was “Die Hard on a ____” – but it is grossly overlooked as a holiday classic, and that is just wrong. It’s funnier than “Home Alone,” more heartwarming than “The Santa Clause,” and it has what all Christmas movies lack but some real-life families have: a body count. Bruce Willis has rarely been better, and Alan Rickman completely rewrote the rules on action movie villains. If you feel like going for camp value, watch the sequel, “Die Harder,” with the TV dub track. Yippie-ki-yay, Mister Falcon.
The definitive dysfunctional family (which is really just a polite way of saying normal family these days) holiday movie. A cat burglar (Denis Leary) trying to lie low reluctantly kidnaps a couple (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) on the verge of divorce, just before the in-laws come over for Christmas dinner. Armed to the teeth with a before-they-were-stars cast (it also includes Christine Baranski, J.K. Simmons, and the great Raymond Barry) and directed by the gone-too-soon Ted Demme, “The Ref” is caustically funny, and one of the more quotable movies you’ll ever see. (The marriage counseling scene alone has a good dozen zingers.) Why did this movie fare so poorly at the box office? We’re guessing the release date may have played a part in it. Yep, they released it in March, just when the snow is thawing for good. Well played, Touchstone.
Better Off Dead
Up there with “Heathers” in the teenage suicide canon, “Better Off Dead” is one of the most diverse teen comedies of its time, combining clueless parents (love the scene where Kim Darby nearly kills John Cusack while vacuuming), animation, claymation, ski racing, exploding neighbors, the awkward first date, and a Japanese Howard Cosell impressionist. And it all takes place at Christmas, setting up the painful call when Cusack calls his ex-girlfriend Beth and learns that her new boyfriend bought her “a giant stuffed teddy bear, bigger than you.” Yes, Beth was a hottie, which explains why everyone from the mailman to Barney Rubble wanted to date her, but as longtime fans of “The Last American Virgin,” Cusack did well to bag the lovely Diane Franklin as a so-called consolation prize. Just make sure and pay that paper boy on time.
Drug deals gone wrong. Actors forced into being informants. Cops selling Amway. (“It’s Confederate Products, it’s completely different.”) Threesomes. Vegas hotel rooms on fire. Strip clubs. A hit and run. Monologues about “Family Circus.” And tantra, baby! Whatever crazy things you’ve done in your life, chances are you’ve never had a night like the characters in “Go,” and if you did, it sure as hell didn’t happen on Christmas Eve. Even funnier, the characters don’t even think about the day’s events in terms of being something out of this world. Indeed, a few of them – including the one who just pawned over-the-counter drugs as ecstasy in a club in order to pay her rent – immediately starts planning ahead, wondering what they will do for New Year’s Eve. Whatever it is, it won’t be as wild as what takes place here. Doug Liman has gone on to make some big, successful movies, but this one remains his best, as far as we’re concerned. It has a hell of a soundtrack, too.
Hookers and Christmas, together at last. Hey, what better way to come up with a little extra scratch around the holidays than to serve as the pimp for the girl down the hall? (We readily admit, though, that the idea of Shelley Long as a prostitute is even funnier now than it was then.) The movie may have served as a springboard for director Ron Howard and Michael Keaton (not to mention a comeback vehicle for Henry Winkler), but take a closer look at the supporting cast. Shannen Doherty as a Bluebell (“Mugger!”), the late Vincent Schiavelli as a surly delivery guy, and don’t blink during the party scene or you’ll miss Kevin Costner walking behind Keaton when he balances a beer bottle on his forehead. It may seem tame by today’s standards, but hey, it’s Christmas; not a bad time to show a little propriety.
When I set out to write this section of our Beer 101 series, I knew I was in for some work. There are nearly infinite styles of beer, and as the popularity of craft brewing has grown, we’ve seen a resurgence of near dead styles, the creation of new styles, and the advent of ‘imperial’ beer. That said, I want to give an overview of some of the most common styles and highlight a few of the more exotic beers so you can understand the scope of variety among beer styles.
Lager – This is the style we learned in high school, courtesy of the big American breweries and the most popular style of beer in the world. While some would call beer like Budweiser a pilsner, a pilsner is typically defined by a slight hoppy bitterness that cuts a portion of the malt character typical to lager-style beer. The distinction is very slight – after all, pilsner is a type of lager. The cold fermentation process used to create lager beer yields a nice, crisp flavor with a slight aftertaste.
Ale – This is going to be a more substantial subheading than lager because there are so many varieties of ‘ales’ in the world. Ale is widely defined as a malted barley beer, brewed with top-fermenting, fast-acting yeast that yields a sweet and fruity character, a bright, floral aroma and full-bodied mouthfeel. There are virtually endless varieties of ale, so we’ll only discuss a few.
Pale Ale – This is the beer known as a ‘bitter’ or ‘English bitter.’ It’s brewed with pale barley malt, typically a low- to mid-gravity brew with a highly complex finish. The flavor in pale ale is often heavily defined by the malt, and the best pale ales use the very best English or European malts. American malts are fine for lighter lager beers that are less about flavor and more about mouthfeel, but if you want some real character, you need better malt. Pale ales also have a bright aroma, thanks to the low-alpha hops added at the end of the brewing process. Low-alpha hops can be added in large quantities to impart some flavor on the beer without adding too much bitterness to your brew. I realize almost everything I’ve said here has been contradictory, so I’ll just say this: pale ales are all about balance.
Abbey/Trappist Ale – I group abbey ale and Trappist ale together because the brewing process and end product is nearly identical, the difference being that Trappist beers are brewed in Trappist monasteries by Trappist monks. This style of beer is top-fermented and often sweet and high in alcohol content. Some of the sweetness comes from the spices or candy sugar you can typically find in this style, and the rest comes from the alcohol. Perhaps the most prominent abbey ale is AB In-Bev’s Leffe, an amber-colored ale with a supersweet finish. Among the Trappist ales are Orval, Koningshoeven, Westvleteren, and of course, Chimay.
India Pale Ale (IPA) – The IPA has seen serious growth in popularity in America over the past decade. Brewers seem to be constantly releasing some epic IPA or another every month or two. The IPA style was invented so that beer could sustain long, oceanic voyages. The high hop content essentially safeguarded the beer against contaminants and also imparted delightful complexity with prolonged cellaring. IPAs are bitter to the max, though many also have a smooth, citrusy finish that pairs well with a wide variety of food.
Lambic – Lambics are a beer all their own. This brew is made using wild yeasts instead of cultivated ones, which can yield some interesting differences from batch to batch. Many lambics are also brewed with a portion of unmalted barley, which gives off a sour aftertaste not unlike a dry white wine. Lambics have been popularized in recent years by adding fruit sugar to cut the sour, funky taste of the beer. If you know anyone who drinks ‘Framboise,’ they’re really a Lambic drinker, though the Lindeman’s version is pretty far from the traditional style.
Wheat Beer – Wheat beer technically belongs to the ale category, but it has its own subset of special rules, and there are enough differences for it to stand alone. Wheat beers are, as you might have guessed, brewed with wheat malt, though they still contain malted barley. These beers are typically top-fermented and often appear hazy as the yeast settles during bottling and kegging. The most common styles of wheat beer are Belgian witbier (Belgian white ale) and German-style wheat. A witbier often employs unmalted wheat and spices – coriander, organe peel, and lemon zest are all popular – while a German-style white follows stricter guidelines: no spices, top fermentation only, and tightly controlled malt combinations.
That does it for our Beer 101: Beer Styles section. I could go on and on about styles I didn’t have space to mention. If you’re interested, dig around the web. There is a ton of information out there. If you’re just joining, be sure to head back through the past couple weeks for posts on the history of brewing and an overview of the brewing process. Next week we’re on to pouring and appreciation and in two weeks we’ll cover some guidelines for pairing beer with food.
Some might call it blasphemy, but there is something Zen in Eric Cartman’s obliviousness to Christmas. To most kids, Jesus doesn’t even factor into the equation – it’s just Christmas trees and pie. Cartman is at least aware of Jesus’ existence, because “Jesus is born, and so I get presents.” Now fall on your knees, and hear the angels’…something.
Gearing up for the holiday party season can be trying. Hosting guests, especially in numbers, takes a lot of time and planning. Lucky for you, Robb Report, your global luxury resouce, has teamed up with William Grant & Sons to bring you the Holiday Host Guide app for the iPad. The app is designed to give you the tools you need to create a dazzling event for your guests.
Features of the Holiday Host Guide (iTunes link) include a virtual wine cellar containing more than 100 new releases handpicked for the holidays; dozens of creative and classic cocktails recipes complete with video demonstrations from expert William Grant & Sons mixologists and ambassadors. The app also offers fresh insights on hospitality and etiquette, tips on organizing a menu, and an array of unique party gifts. The “Chef as Host” function offers party insight and recipes from some of America’s finest chefs. The easy-to-manage party-planning function generates a complete shopping list based on the items you select and enables you to purchase all of the necessary products and ingredients right through the app! Planning your holiday event has never been easier!
The Holiday Host Guide iPad application can be purchased for the introductory price of $2.99. Following the holiday season, this multipurpose and multidimensional application will be continually updated, making it ideal for party hosts throughout the year.