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Kettle of Fish (2006)
I'm a fan of Matthew Modine, but this film--which I stumbled upon on cable--is absolutely witless. I see that the screenwriter and director were one and the same, so there was no one around to check her worst instincts. There are no surprises, no original lines, and no original characters. The goldfish was basically the most sympathetic character. What a waste of all this acting talent. Given how expensive it is to film in New York these days, I have to wonder how this got made in the first place. And if you're wondering why I watched it at all, it came on after a film that I like on cable and I left it on while I worked at the computer. It's not a very demanding picture!
The best version of "A Christmas Carol"
There are a number of good versions of this story from "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" to "Scrooged," but none captures the spirit of Dickens like the 1951 Alistair Sim classic. I'm an atheist and have no real use for Christmas, but find this a moving tale of redemption in the sense that even very bad people can reform and live life fully and joyfully. It is a story of hope for everyone.
In addition to Sim's eccentric performance as Scrooge there are memorable turns by the supporting players from his maid to Tiny Tim. When Scrooge goes to the home of his nephew at the end and begs forgiveness for being such a mean fool, there is not a dry eye in the house.
How Green Was My Valley (1941)
A subtly subversive classic
Yes, there is plenty of tear-jerking sentimentality in this film. But there is also as much social commentary as has ever come out of a major Hollywood picture. Donald Crisp's sons are labor activists in the mine--and their activism splits the family apart. Barry Fitzgerald leads the local church's persecution of a woman accused of adultery--and pastor Walter Pidgeon speaks out against intolerance. Little Roddy McDowell is the country kid ridiculed by his more sophisticated (and cruel) classmates and teacher. (The teacher is subjected to some vigilante justice when Roddy's townsmen invade his classroom.) Women in the film take leading, assertive roles--and not just in the family. So while "How Green Was My Valley" endures as a rich, family drama--enhanced by the Welsh songs and settings--it is a deeply political film as well, embodying the kinds of values of tolerance, fairness, and justice that we went to war to defend in 1941.
Hope and Glory (1987)
Unsentimental war-at-home picture from the viewpoint of an English boy.
John Boorman gave us films like "Deliverance," "Excalibur," and "The Emerald Forest," but this is his finest. He shows us what war feels like to a nine-year old kid who views his family and others around him in all their naivete, pluck, heroism, pettiness, and humanity. Just because World War II is on and the neighborhood is being bombed by the Germans doesn't mean that people aren't still people. And while their lives are deeply disrupted, kids still play and get into mischief. The period recreation is terrific as are the performances, especially Ian Bannen as the cantankerous grandfather. Parts of this movie are laugh out loud funny (favorite line: "Thank you, Adolf!"), others gently touching. One of my favorite films of all time. It merits re-watching.
Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)
One of the truly great adult films of the century
I first saw this at 17 in 1971 and was of course struck by the frankness in the portrayal of the relationship between Murray Head and Peter Finch. People in the suburban audience where I saw it SCREAMED when the two men first kissed. (Someone screamed at a director's screening of the film, much to Schlesinger's consternation. It turned out to be Finch's wife.) One of the reviewers complained about Head's acting, but he is playing a very shallow character whose youth and beauty attract Glenda Jackson and Finch. The film holds up really well today with its complex characters and lack of stereotypes and simple judgments about people. There is also enormous charm and humor in the film, especially in the supporting players. The imagery in the film stays with me--the dog killed by a car, the Mummy's milk in the fridge, the inner workings of telephone switching, driving through the rain in London, men and women making love, precocious children smoking dope, and so much more. It feels like life. It also made me a lifelong fan of Finch, who went on to win a posthumous Oscar for "Network," and Jackson, a two-time Oscar winner, who represents Hampstead in Parliament now. Probably my favorite film of all time.