Tuesday, March 27, 2007

First Runs

The Illusionist
Freedom Writers

In contrast to the arty, independent fare on offer at the festivals, here are two features doing the rounds. The Illusionist flatters to deceive, promising some sleight of hand and delivering a frankly ludicrous plot twist. Still, it is lovely to look at, bathed in rich earth tones and 19th century Austrian period detail. Edward Norton is a compelling anti-hero, Rufus Sewell a vein-popping villain and Jessica Biel underwritten as the pivot of the love triangle.

Freedom Writers is typical US do-gooder inner-city drama with Hilary Swank the earnest white middle class young teacher trying to make a difference to her racially polarized class in early ‘90s LA. Footage of the 1992 Rodney King riots sets the tone and the new teacher gives the kids journals to detail their extremely violent lives. As these were published in 1998, I was a bit confused about timing.

I perked up when Anne Frank entered the story. No, really. The young diarist becomes an unlikely role model for the troubled war-torn teens, one of them exclaiming, “Anne Frank--she understands my situation.” Well, no, seeing as she died in 1945, it’s unlikely she understands you at all but rather you understand her, my friend.

Nonetheless, the film, despite its laughable emotional manipulation (you know something really dramatic is happening when the music swells or one of the tough gangsta boys sprouts a tear running down his cheek) is rather gripping and even somewhat uplifting. Plus, it’s rare to see prominent female roles in inner-city dramas, with Swank and a couple of the students carrying the story.

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