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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The First Grader, Margin Call and Some Oldies

The First Grader   2010  103 minutes    This is a true story about an ex Mau Mau freedom fighter, who was 84 years old when the government of Kenya announced that there would be free public education for all.  He went to enroll because he wanted to learn to read.  The main story of his interest in education and the opposition of both the bureaucracy and his neighbors to admitting an octogenarian to an overcrowded primary school is interspersed with flashbacks of the murder of his wife and children which moved him to take the Mau Mau oath.  He was captured and interned for some years and abused and tortured – he still had the whip scars on his back, a soft area on his skull which had been cracked open, and some missing toes.  In addition he was hard of hearing because sharp pencils had been driven into his ears.  Eventually he makes his case, became known internationally and addressed the UN, and finished the third grade before he died of old age at 89.  When I mulled it over afterwards, I started to wonder how much of the back-story was accurate, but whatever the case, he had the marks of torture on him and his interest in education makes an inspiring story.  Oliver Litondo is magnificent as Maruge, the former Mau Mau fighter.  If you get the DVD, check out the Bonus Features to get Director Justin Chadwick’s take on the story and his experiences in Kenya.
Chinatown   1974  130 minutes   This was at least as entertaining as it was a quarter century ago.  I’d forgotten that there was a time when Jack Nicholson wasn’t sloppy fat.  The first time around I missed the fact that Roman Polanski did a cameo as the near midget hood who cut up Nicholson’s nose.  And I probably didn’t appreciate the ending as much then as now – the bad guys win.
Eight Men Out  1988  119 minutes   I had never understood the Blacksox scandal  -- I vaguely remember some black and white movie long ago, which had Gary Cooper playing first base on a weedy field in the sticks and he gets the runner on first out with the old hidden ball trick,  “You’re out, son.”   This film explains all, including how the 8 players agreed to blow the series for $10,000 apiece, how the gamblers screwed the players and each other, and how money and the law made sure no one went to jail.  Only the players paid a price – the new commissioner banned them for life.    A big part of the players’ motivation was that Owner Charles Comiskey underpaid them, despite the agreement of everyone that this was the best baseball team ever assembled.
Margin Call  2011  107 minutes   With Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons on board, it’s pretty clear this is a film you should see.  It’s 2008, and a junior analysts discovers that his firm’s position marketing securitized mortgages is unsustainable.  Overnight the CEO and his minions make the decision to sell everything the next morning to preserve their own capital, even though they are sure it will cause the market to crash.  The firm’s traders are promised a $1.4 million bonus each if they get it all sold, which they do since their choice is to be out of a job at the end of the day with nothing or with $1.4 million.  Director J.C. Chandor’s father was a Wall Street figure for 40 years and had his son sitting on the trading floor for the first of many times when he was only 10.  This helped Chandor as he tried to communicate to us viewers the mindset of the principals.  They didn’t see that they were doing anything wrong.  In the market there are always winners and losers, and they saw it as their job to be winners.
Shadowlands   1985  132 minutes   Anthony Hopkins plays Oxford Don and writer C.S. Lewis, who agrees to meet with an American writer, Joy Gresham, played by Debra Winger.  Lewis, a confirmed bachelor, was charmed by the Jewish lady from New York, but never expected to see her again.  She gets divorced, returns to England with her son and sets about her writing career.  She meets Lewis a few times, they become friends, and then she asks him to enter into a pro forma marriage so that she can stay in England and work.  He agrees and then they go their mostly separate ways.  She gets cancer and Lewis pitches in to help.  It becomes real love and they are married again.  Soon she dies and Lewis takes responsibility for her son.  It’s a real tear jerker, but the performances of Hopkins and Winger are truly moving.
The Spitfire Grill  1996  116 minutes   Percy Talbott gets out of prison after serving 5 years for manslaughter.  The sheriff of Gilead, a very small town in Maine, agrees or is assigned to oversee Percy’s reentry into society.  He places her at the Spitfire Grill, which is run by Hannah, played by Ellen Burstyn, a cranky old woman whom everyone loves.  Percy wins Hannah’s confidence and the confidence of the mystery man in the forest, whom Hannah has been feeding for some years but never sees.  Percy helps Hannah run a lottery to sell the grill, but then gets falsely accused of stealing the money brought in by the lottery.  Law enforcement decides the mystery man is Hannah’s accomplice and starts a search.  Percy runs into the woods to try to save him.  Naturally he turns out to be Hannah’s son who was thought to have been lost in Vietnam but instead returned with PTSD.  Percy is vindicated, but….  Neflix calls the film sentimental and a tear jerker.  I don’t agree.  More like a morality tale.

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