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Capone's Art-House Round-Up with Naomie Harris in THE FIRST GRADER and BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK!!!

Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a couple of films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

THE FIRST GRADER
Sometimes a sweet and simple story about overcoming decades of injustice is all you need to brighten your day. The setting of THE FIRST GRADER is 1993 Kenya, when the government announced that it was offering free primary schooling to all. Hundreds of children show up at the remote school where Jane (Naomie Harris, of 28 DAYS LATER, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 2 & 3, MIAMI VICE) teaches in a one-room classroom built for maybe 40 students. Among the throng attempting to register for school is 80-something-year-old Maruge (Oliver Litondo), who takes the government at its word that "all" may attend school. He wants to learn to read, a privilege he was denied when he was younger because he belonged to a revolutionary group in the 1950s intent on driving out the then-ruling British from his nation, and he spent many years in jail being tortured.

After much resistance from the school leadership, Jane decides to allow Maruge to sit in her class. In order to read, he must first learn to write; in order to write, he was first learn to hold a pencil. It's a grueling process getting Maruge up to speed with the group of primary schoolers that surround him. The old man progresses nicely, although small post-traumatic triggers still haunt him, but he realizes he must overcome these flashes if he wants to remain around children and not be considered a threat.

As expected, eventually the world outside finds out what Maruge is up to, and soon parents, the press, and the school board insist that Maruge leave the school. Jane tries to preserve Maruge's place at the school by hiring him as a teacher's assistant, but that isn't quiet enough to ease those who are uncomfortable with Maruge's presence at the school. But as the press coverage on Maruge's plight begins to swing in his favor (and Jane agrees to teach him after hours), politicians turn Maruge into the face of improvement in Kenya, while the school board essentially pushes Jane out of her job for going behind their back in teaching the old man.

As directed by Justin Chadwick (THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL, and PBS's "Bleak House" miniseries) and scripted by Ann Peacock (THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE, NIGHTS IN RODANTHE), THE FIRST GRADER is the kind of no-frills storytelling a tale like this requires. There is no trumped-up conflict or overwritten scenes meant to heighten the drama. The actors are allowed to simply tell the story, say the words, and let the natural beauty of this redemptive tale take shape. Harris is a gifted actress and a bit of a chameleon, and she shines without having a halo placed on her head. Jane's decisions don't always make sense, and her stubbornness creates as many problems as it solves. I'm just happy to see Harris in such a stellar lead role.

Based on a true story, THE FIRST GRADER doesn't offer too many surprises, but it doesn't suffer because of that. When Jane is transferred hundreds of miles away from her school and her husband, is there ever any doubt she'll return to her tiny school room in the middle of nowhere? The reason Maruge wants to read is because he's received an official-looking letter that he wants to be able to read himself. Again, is there any doubt that in a film that props him up to be representative of a society trying to become a more just place that the letter will be anything but good news? None of this takes away from the film, but for those liking a few more surprises, you might be a little let down. THE FIRST GRADER is an uplifting story told in a classic manner, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK
It's tough to believe that one of the most influential and best-read figures on the New York fashion scene is not a designer, nor does he write for a fashion magazine. A man well into his 80s, Bill Cunningham documents with his camera what on-the-street New Yorkers are wearing day to day for a weekly photo essay in The New York Times' Style section. He's not a paparazzi, tracking down celebrities, although his secondary job for the Times is photographing society events, but only those he decides are worthy of his time and might result in the most interesting fashion statements from those in attendance.

Directed by Richard Press, BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK is a fascinating profile of a man whose entire life seems to be devoted to tracking the ever-changing world of dresses, shoes, and accessories. Cunningham pedals around on his rickety Schwinn bike to certain hot spots around Manhattan, looking for citizens of the city who are catch his eye. During the course of this film, he is forced out of one of the few remaining "artists apartments" above Carnegie Hall, where he has lived for decades, every room of which is devoted to his craft.

Although it's addressed directly, Cunningham seems uncertain as to weather he's gay or straight, or whether he's truly ever been in love, and I don't think he's being coy. Based on what little information is conveyed about Bill's childhood, it seems clear that he fell in love with fashion at a young age, and that is the only true love of his life. Somehow he comes across as a man who is both fortunate to have many friends and is desperately lonely when he isn't doing his job. On a certain level, Cunningham is clearly uncomfortable that there's even a film being made about him, but he's so agreeable, he doesn't have it in him to say no to this moderate invasion of privacy.

There's a great film slowly being released around the country now called PAGE ONE, concerning the importance and changing face of The New York Times. BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK is a great sidebar to that film about one of the paper's true fixtures, the man who holds his camera in one hand and his tethered flash in the other. Sure, such fashion icons as Anna Wintour (an old friend of Bill's) and Michael Kors make appearances throughout the film, but this film isn't about them. The film thrives because of Cunningham's homespun dignity, work ethic, and passion for fashion. That being said, you don't have to appreciate fashion to be charmed by the infectious spirit of Bill Cunningham.

-- Capone capone@aintitcool.com
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