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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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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….


IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.


IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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