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Monday, September 26, 2011

Roundup of New Films Released 23 September 2011

As is more and more becoming the case, I haven't seen a couple of notable releases from this week that weren't screened to the press but hopefully I will get to Trust and One Day at some point. In the meantime, here are three other films released over the weekend. And, yes, they are all better than Abduction...  

 First up is The First Grader, a Kenyan/ UK co-production, tells the true story of an 84 year-old former freedom fighter who, wanting to finally learn to read and write, fights for his right to join a class of first graders and get the education of which he was deprived for so many years. It's the sort of film that could easily have been unbearably mawkish but thanks to a balanced script, well-measured direction and some mighty impressive performances from a largely unknown African cast, ends up being far, far better than one could ever reasonably expect. Though it never quite makes the jump to being something truly remarkable,  it is a genuinely uplifting and engrossing feel-good drama whose sentiment is well-earned as the title character's triumphs and tragedies never feel forced or manipulative but are instead simply affecting. Naomie Harris, the one easily recognizable - and British - face does a perfectly solid job anchoring the film but it is Kenyan actor Oliver Litondo as the film's central hero who most impresses.

I don't care what anyone says, reviews are not, by nature, objective. My job is not to pass an irreretractable, uncontestable verdict on a film as if from on high, thereby annihilating any need for further discussion on the subject, but to offer up my own opinion about the film, based on my honest reaction to it and try and put into words exactly why I reacted to it that way. The only truly objective form of film (or any other) criticism would be to write out - preferably without any adjectives, adverbs or any other sort of describing word - the plot of the film and leave it at that. Unfortunately, not only is that incredibly boring to both read and write, it's also not a review, it's a synopsis.

Now, I realize that what I have just written will be of interest to only a very select group of people (if not only to myself) but there's a point to all this. That point is The Art of Getting By.

Here we have a fairly generic "indie-spirited" love story about a smart but troubled teenager whose obsession with doom-ridden nihilism is suddenly interrupted by his falling for a beautiful, smart and sassy girl who, with her wise-beyond-her-years outlook, changes his life forever. See, I know I said there's little room for objectivity in film criticism but doesn't just reading that make you want to throw up or, better yet, go out and kick a hipster in the balls? Never mind the fact that we've seen this dog and pony show before, doesn't that short synopsis sound factually and objectively terrible?

Honestly, if I went at the film from a purely intellectual stance, trying my damnedest to appear at least somewhat objective, I would agree that it is every bit as awful as it sounds. The characters are walking cliches; the plot is as derivative, predictable and noodling as you would expect, it has a pat ending and the chief protagonist's miserabilism proves once and for all that so piss-poor an ideology as nihilism only really works when tackled by comedic masters like Woody Allen or the Coen Brothers.              

Here's the catch, though: however little patience my brain might have had for the film, emotionally, my reaction was a rather different matter all together. I was, quite simply (and fairly literally), entranced by the film. I deeply and inexplicably cared about every single thing that happened to these characters to the point that my surroundings faded into nothing as my entire reality was usurped by what was going on on-screen. This sort of thing doesn't happen to me very often - and when it does its usually reserved to untouchable masterpieces like Pan's Labyrinth or Casablanca, not to something so seemingly slight and unremarkable as The Freakin' Art of Getting By!

There are a number of obviously good things about the film, of course, so it's not like my feelings about it come entirely out of nowhere. But however much I thought Freddie Highmore did a good job with what is, unless I'm very much mistaken, his first "grownup" role and however much I was totally won over by Emma Roberts' charms, even they seem like insufficient reason to be so taken by the film. The matters it deals with - meaning in life, falling in love, crushing disappointment and complex family dynamics - are fairly universal, sure, but it's not like they haven't been dealt with better elsewhere.

What I can say is this: this is one of those films that though it totally worked for me, others might have considerable less patience with it. Or they might not. Proceed with caution either way.

Lastly we have Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, about which I have a lot less to say. A Chinese/ US drama about the unbreakable friendship between two women in 19th century China as it parallels what happens with their descendants in the present day, the film deals with the bonds between women, as well as a rather interesting look at the different-but-not-that-different roles women have in different periods in China's history. It's an interesting look at a culture quite different from our own and it is handsomely put together and, though the central actresses are let down by having to act in what is obviously not their own language, the performances are perfectly solid. For all that, though, it is decidedly unremarkable and is certainly not helped by going on far, far too long,

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