Monday, January 23, 2012

The First Grader & Room Service

My wife and I went to see The First Grader today - we were the only people in the cinema.  Admittedly it's a small cinema, seating no more than perhaps thirty.  Still, it was a shame that no one else had the pleasure of watching this great little movie.

Most people will know that it's the story of the 84-year-old Kimani N'gan'ga Maruge, who took up the Kenyan Government's offer of 'free education for all' only to discover that it wasn't really intended for older people.  Maruge has never had the opportunity to learn to read - and significantly, he has an important letter he wants to be able to read for himself - and so he goes along to school to find that he's joining the children in the primary school, much to the annoyance of the male teacher, who wants to throw him out.  The headmistress, Jane Obinchu, lets herself be persuaded that Maruge can learn, and then finds herself facing criticism from all quarters.   She's not the sort of person who gives in easily, and nor is Maruge, and between them they make a difference to the future of Kenyan education. 

We learn, in a series of violent flashbacks, that Maruge had joined the Mau Mau as a young man in order to free his country, and spent nearly a decade in various jails.  I'd forgotten about the Mau Mau, and my memory of them was that they were a villainous and murderous group who went round slaughtering white people in Kenya.  Of course that was what we heard because we were getting the white people's picture; this was in the days when colonialism was still strong.  The film gives us the chance to change our view of the Mau Mau. 

Oliver Litondo is a wonderful Maruge, and English actress, Naomie Harris (better known for her role as the very strange Tia Dalma in two of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies) is excellent as the headmistress.   This is a great movie - and empowering for old people too!

I watched another of the Marx Brothers movies yesterday: Room Service.  The first half was familiar from some earlier viewing, but I'd never seen the rest.   To be honest seeing the rest was no great joy; this is a piece of nonsense that could have starred anyone.   The Marx Brothers contribution is very straight, with none of the usual setpieces, no musical interludes, and only some of the wisecracks that Groucho is known for.   Most of it takes place in a single hotel room - it began life as a stage play - and it wastes the talents of a bunch of people: Lucille Ball and Ann Miller both appear, but any two Hollywood starlets could have done the roles; the women have very little to do that's outstanding.   Frank Albertson is the young playwright from the hicks, and treated as a piece of furniture or a prop most of the time. 

There are a couple of delightful bit players in it, neither of whom I can quite identify from the cast list.  One, a tall, thin and gaunt-faced man plays the agent with the big cheque that will rescue Groucho and his cast from being thrown out on the street.  He's a quiet centre in the midst of the chaos - for a time.  And there's the man who's from the We Never Sleep collection agency: he's always a moment behind the eight ball, but hard to get rid of nevertheless.  

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