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When it's cold outside, stay in and enjoy these frosty treats

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Posted: Friday, February 2, 2007 10:00 pm

If the primary purpose of cinema is to show us things we're unable to see in our dull real lives, and to allow the viewer to experience an unfamiliar situation vicariously, then nobody has more use for "snow movies" than Lodians. So you don't feel like trekking up to the mountains on a day trip in order to get your fix of that elusive white wonder, take a trip to the video store instead and check out these frosty treats, which for my money offer more thrills than any old ski slope.

STONE COLD KILLERS: Whenever I think of snow, one vision immediately leaps into my mind: that iconic image from the Coen Brothers' jet-black crime comedy "Fargo," depicting down-on-his-luck cars salesman Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) approaching his car parked in a desolate lot blanketed by a sheet of white. Finding frost on his windshield, he attempts to scrape it off and in the process launches into a temporary temper tantrum/panic attack.

Apparently, after having to juggle the dual responsibilities of orchestrating the kidnapping of his own wife and defrauding his father-in-law's business out of tens of thousands of dollars, the windshield frost was the last straw for this broken shell of a man. Although the film is usually noted for its comedic use of strange Northeastern accents, it's small, effective moments like this that earn the movie its status as a modern classic.

"A Simple Plan" is another exceptional snow-themed crime yarn from the late '90s, but it's a bit more serious-minded than "Fargo" - in fact, it's on my short list of the most harrowing, suspenseful movies I've ever seen. Based on the best-selling (and over-rated) novel by Scott Smith, the film concerns three men who stumble across the wreckage of a plane crash and subsequently discover several duffle bags filled with $4 million in cash. As they try to determine the source of the money and formulate a way to keep it for themselves, the men begin to turn against one another, with lethal results.

The screenplay (adapted by Smith, vastly improving upon his own novel) crackles with a rare intensity, and Sam Raimi (recently of "Spider-Man" fame) oversees the production masterfully. But in the end it's the performances by Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton as brothers torn apart by greed that make "A Simple Plan" so memorable.

WINTER WALLOPS: Yes, the original "Die Hard" is quite possibly the greatest American action movie ever made, and it is doubtful that anything will ever top it. But its untouchable status shouldn't preclude us from also appreciating its neglected sequel, "Die Hard 2: Die Harder," which for some inexplicable reason has long endured unfair criticisms simply because it doesn't live up to its predecessor. But taken on its own merits, it's a corker of an action flick that doesn't simply retread an old plot, and instead finds new, interesting obstacles for our hero to overcome.

That hero is of course the peerless John McClane (Bruce Willis), who on this particular Christmas finds himself pitted against a band of thugs who gain control of an airport's communications system and effectively hijack all the planes in the air - including one transporting McClane's wife (Bonnie Bedelia). As directed by Renny Harlin, "Die Hard 2" keeps the action moving and maintains genuine suspense throughout its two-hour running time, which is far more than you can say for most contemporary action flicks, let alone their sequels.

Another action movie that cements Harlin's place as one of our most under-rated popcorn filmmakers is "Cliffhanger," which also holds distinction as one of the only decent movies made by its star, Sylvester Stallone. Here he stars as Gabe Walker, a rescue worker who is haunted by memories of a botched rescue that resulted in the death of his buddy's girlfriend. He reluctantly heads out on one last mission when he receives a call for help from a party stranded in the Rocky Mountains. It turns out that the distress call is a fake sent out by a group of hardened criminals in the midst of a major robbery, and Gabe must team up with his old friend (Michael Rooker) to stop the thieves from getting away with $100 million.

An action film is only as good as its villain, and as the criminals' psychotic ringleader, John Lithgow proves more menacing than one would have thought possible. He's not necessarily intimidating in any physical way, but with his cool, calculating demeanor, he easily sells himself as a smart, ruthless bad guy who's willing to take drastic measures to ensure that he gets exactly what he wants. Even though Stallone is unable to believably match wits against his enemy and in effect fails to hold up his end of the delicate hero-villain rivalry necessary in any good action flick, Lithgow carries the film on his own and makes up for any lapses on the part of his co-stars.

FRIGHTFUL FLURRIES: Snow is usually thought of a symbol of innocence and fun, but it can also be used to conjure up feelings of peril and dread, as evidenced by two horror films that will make you glad to be safe in your warm, cozy home. The first is "The Thing," John Carpenter's remake/sequel to Howard Hawks' 1951 film about a group of scientists forced to battle a violent alien who invades their remote arctic outpost. Carpenter's version ups the ante by giving the alien the ability to take on the form of anyone it encounters, a talent which inspires intense paranoia in the denizens of the camp the creature has invaded.

"The Thing" was made in 1982, back when Carpenter was still operating in top form and releasing quality productions with the help of his man-muse, Kurt Russell (also of "Escape from New York" and "Big Trouble in Little China"). Yet despite its relative freshness, the film is apparently being remade by creatively bankrupt studio heads who have nothing better to do than mess with the definitive efforts of still-working filmmakers. Instead of forking over $10 to see the second remake, spend that money on a DVD of Carpenter's film and see a remake done right.

Killer aliens are scary, but they're nothing compared to real-life horrors like those seen in "Touching the Void," a docu-drama that re-creates the ordeal faced by Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, two young men who set out to climb the face of Siula Grande in 1985. This task had never been accomplished, yet in spite of their inexperience, the duo set out to scale this intimidating mountain - with disastrous results.

As directed by Kevin Macdonald ("The Last King of Scotland"), the film relates this tale with remarkable intensity. Though its obvious that both climbers do in fact survive the nearly hopeless situation they find themselves in, the movie nonetheless delivers more than its share of genuine suspense as we're left to wonder exactly how anyone could possibly make it through such dire circumstances, let alone two arrogant newbies. Bringing to mind recent news stories involving some thrill-seekers who weren't so lucky, "Touching the Void" is a reminder of why it's sometimes best to avoid the elements in favor of a quiet evening at home with a good movie.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jwallis@runbox.com.

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