Seattle Film Fest 2011: “The First Grader,” Reviewed

Seattle Film Fest 2011: “The First Grader,” Reviewed (photo)

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The media is a double-edged sword in “The First Grader,” a feel-good film that’s surprisingly self-reflexive if one strays to think beyond the narrative director Justin Chadwick and writer Ann Peacock unfurl. Based on a true story, the film’s main character Maruge (Oliver Musila Litondo) simply wants an education after spending many of his 84 years in captivity under British colonial rule and when the Kenyan government announces they’ll offer free education to anyone who wants it, he naturally wants to start from scratch – in kindergarten, amongst the six and seven-year-olds who like him cannot read or write.

It’s a great story, one that attracts attention from around the world when word leaks from this small bush community that Maruge is learning how to draw sixes properly and helping his younger classmates who can’t. But all those human interest pieces add up and instead of the lionized image of Maruge that soon is plastered on billboards across the country, he and the courageous teacher/principal who helps him (Naomie Harris) are vilified within their village, suspected as having profited from his TV interviews and taking resources away from the children. In other words, things get complicated, as they do for “The First Grader” when its filmmakers, like all the reporters it depicts clamoring at the gates of the humble schoolhouse, try so hard to craft a heartwarming story that they risk missing the true one that’s taking shape at its own pace.

Full of triumphant music cues and brutal flashbacks to Maruge’s torture, “The First Grader” sees subtlety as a foreign concept, offering cinematic comfort food that’s not nearly heavy-handed enough to derail it from accomplishing its tearjerking end game, but a bit too on the nose at times to be taken completely seriously. Why it should be is mostly due to the fine performances from Litondo and Harris, in particular, who forge a relaxed chemistry in the central relationship between a student and teacher. In the world Chadwick’s created where nearly every other adult character might as well be twirling the end of a mustache as opponents of Maruge’s education, they take advantage of having the two most fully fleshed out roles and give the film the grace notes it lacks in other areas.

Still, there’s no denying that “The First Grader” has the capacity to be moving. Maruge’s valiant quest to read so he can finally read an important letter he’s kept long enough for the edges to be frayed screams of a concession being made for an uplifting narrative, but his ongoing struggle to stay out of the nation’s neglected adult education system rings unfortunately true. When the film’s climax arrives, it’s not only Maruge’s fate that’s at stake, but also the film’s as a fit secretary presumably in her thirties can’t catch up with an 80-year-old man hobbling down a long hallway with a cane. Nevermind where he’s going, but whether you believe the situation as it unfolds will hold a great deal of sway in if you believe “The First Grader” goes anywhere.

“The First Grader” is now open in limited release.

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Bro and Tell

BFFs And Night Court For Sports

Bromance and Comeuppance On Two New Comedy Crib Series

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“Silicon Valley meets Girls meets black male educators with lots of unrealized potential.”

That’s how Carl Foreman Jr. and Anthony Gaskins categorize their new series Frank and Lamar which joins Joe Schiappa’s Sport Court in the latest wave of new series available now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. To better acquaint you with the newbies, we went right to the creators for their candid POVs. And they did not disappoint. Here are snippets of their interviews:

Frank and Lamar


IFC: How would you describe Frank and Lamar to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Carl: Best bros from college live and work together teaching at a fancy Manhattan private school, valiantly trying to transition into a more mature phase of personal and professional life while clinging to their boyish ways.

IFC: And to a friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Carl: The same way, slightly less coherent.

Anthony: I’d probably speak about it with much louder volume, due to the bar which would probably be playing the new Kendrick Lamar album. I might also include additional jokes about Carl, or unrelated political tangents.

Carl: He really delights in randomly slandering me for no reason. I get him back though. Our rapport on the page, screen, and in real life, comes out of a lot of that back and forth.

IFC: In what way is Frank and Lamar a poignant series for this moment in time?
Carl: It tells a story I feel most people aren’t familiar with, having young black males teach in a very affluent white world, while never making it expressly about that either. Then in tackling their personal lives, we see these three-dimensional guys navigate a pivotal moment in time from a perspective I feel mainstream audiences tend not to see portrayed.

Anthony: I feel like Frank and Lamar continues to push the envelope within the genre by presenting interesting and non stereotypical content about people of color. The fact that this show brought together so many talented creative people, from the cast and crew to the producers, who believe in the project, makes the work that much more intentional and truthful. I also think it’s pretty incredible that we got to employ many of our friends!

Sport Court

Sport Court gavel

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?
Joe: SPORT COURT follows Judge David Linda, a circuit court judge assigned to handle an ad hoc courtroom put together to prosecute rowdy fan behavior in the basement of the Hartford Ultradome. Think an updated Night Court.

IFC: How would you describe Sport Court to drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?
Joe: Remember when you put those firecrackers down that guy’s pants at the baseball game? It’s about a judge who works in a court in the stadium that puts you in jail right then and there. I know, you actually did spend the night in jail, but imagine you went to court right that second and didn’t have to get your brother to take off work from GameStop to take you to your hearing.

IFC: Is there a method to your madness when coming up with sports fan faux pas?
Joe: I just think of the worst things that would ruin a sporting event for everyone. Peeing in the slushy machine in open view of a crowd seemed like a good one.

IFC: Honestly now, how many of the fan transgressions are things you’ve done or thought about doing?
Joe: I’ve thought about ripping out a whole row of chairs at a theater or stadium, so I would have my own private space. I like to think of that really whenever I have to sit crammed next to lots of people. Imagine the leg room!

Check out the full seasons of Frank and Lamar and Sport Court now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Millennial Wisdom

Charles Speaks For Us All

Get to know Charles, the social media whiz of Brockmire.

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He may be an unlikely radio producer Brockmire, but Charles is #1 when it comes to delivering quips that tie a nice little bow on the absurdity of any given situation.

Charles also perfectly captures the jaded outlook of Millennials. Or at least Millennials as mythologized by marketers and news idiots. You know who you are.

Played superbly by Tyrel Jackson Williams, Charles’s quippy nuggets target just about any subject matter, from entry-level jobs in social media (“I plan on getting some experience here, then moving to New York to finally start my life.”) to the ramifications of fictional celebrity hookups (“Drake and Taylor Swift are dating! Albums y’all!”). But where he really nails the whole Millennial POV thing is when he comments on America’s second favorite past-time after type II diabetes: baseball.

Here are a few pearls.

On Baseball’s Lasting Cultural Relevance

“Baseball’s one of those old-timey things you don’t need anymore. Like cursive. Or email.”

On The Dramatic Value Of Double-Headers

“The only thing dumber than playing two boring-ass baseball games in one day is putting a two-hour delay between the boring-ass games.”

On Sartorial Tradition

“Is dressing badly just a thing for baseball, because that would explain his jacket.”

On Baseball, In A Nutshell

“Baseball is a f-cked up sport, and I want you to know it.”

Learn more about Charles in the behind-the-scenes video below.

And if you were born before the late ’80s and want to know what the kids think about Baseball, watch Brockmire Wednesdays at 10P on IFC.

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Crown Jules

Amanda Peet FTW on Brockmire

Amanda Peet brings it on Brockmire Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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GIFS via Giphy

On Brockmire, Jules is the unexpected yin to Jim Brockmire’s yang. Which is saying a lot, because Brockmire’s yang is way out there. Played by Amanda Peet, Jules is hard-drinking, truth-spewing, baseball-loving…everything Brockmire is, and perhaps what he never expected to encounter in another human.

“We’re the same level of functional alcoholic.”

But Jules takes that commonality and transforms it into something special: a new beginning. A new beginning for failing minor league baseball team “The Frackers”, who suddenly about-face into a winning streak; and a new beginning for Brockmire, whose life gets a jumpstart when Jules lures him back to baseball. As for herself, her unexpected connection with Brockmire gives her own life a surprising and much needed goose.

“You’re a Goddamn Disaster and you’re starting To look good to me.”

This palpable dynamic adds depth and complexity to the narrative and pushes the series far beyond expected comedy. See for yourself in this behind-the-scenes video (and brace yourself for a unforgettable description of Brockmire’s genitals)…

Want more about Amanda Peet? She’s all over the place, and has even penned a recent self-reflective piece in the New York Times.

And of course you can watch the Jim-Jules relationship hysterically unfold in new episodes of Brockmire, every Wednesday at 10PM on IFC.

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