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6 reviews in total 
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50 out of 55 people found the following review useful:
A great work of art, 12 March 2010

It has been quite some time since a film genuinely moved me. This past week or so, I have sat through and enjoyed, to varying degrees, Scorsese's Shutter Island and Polanski's The Ghost Writer. Both were polished, well-made, clever films (the latter perhaps slightly more than the former), but I will soon forget them. I don't think I'm going to forget Eastern Plays anytime soon. This Bulgarian film by Kamen Kalev is, well - why beat around the bush ? - a great work of art. Superbly shot in a Sofia filled with graffiti-covered buildings and vacant lots, Eastern Plays tells the story of Itso, an addict on methadone who has to drink beer more or less constantly to dull his pain. Quite by chance, he intervenes when a family of Turkish tourists gets attacked and beaten by a gang of Neo-Fascist thugs (led by a terrifying Alexander "The Indian" Radanov). This gradually leads to a relationship between Itso and the breathtakingly beautiful Isil (Saadet Isil Askoy), whose innocent, optimistic spirituality gradually begins to lift Itso out of the painful doldrums of his beery existence. I don't know what to praise most about this film : its portrayal of a modern Bulgaria adrift between racist youth gangs and football hooligans, the parents completely out of touch with the world of their children ; the incredibly true-to-life performance by Christo Christov, who died of an overdose before the film was finished shooting ? I think finally it is the luminous presence of Saadet Isil Askoy, who brings a sincerity and optimism to the film's grim context, as she tells Itso that we are all living in a time where people are sick inside, but that she feels a change is coming. This is not just a film about contemporary Bulgaria, although it is that as well. It is a film that captures a certain Zeitgeist of the early 21st century, in which, especially in post-Communist Eastern Europe, a restless youth with nothing more to believe in attempts to fill the gap inside them as best they can : with drugs, alcohol, headbanger rock, neo-fascist thuggery, or, in a few precious, fragile cases, with art and music. I have not recently seen a more deeply moving scene in a film than the one is which a desperate Itso consults his psychiatrist : all he wants to do, he says, is find the goodness within himself. He wishes he could radiate light like a crystal, and love all human beings, but he does not know how.

32 out of 35 people found the following review useful:
A rare feminine/humanist take on Sephardic Judaism, 18 December 2005

This is a terrific film, centered on the life of a family of Tunisian Jewish immigrants in the desolate Paris banlieue of Sarcelle (aka la Petite Jérusalem). We follow two stories : Laura (played by the ravishing Fanny Valette) is a 19 year-old philosophy student, committed to Kant and to rationalism in the midst of a pietistic household which, to put it mildly, does not share her enthusiasm for philosophy (as his pious sister remarks, philosophers take aim at their target and hit the bullseye : problem is, they're aiming at the wrong target). So taken is Laura by Kant that she imitates his daily promenade, every day at the same time...unlike Kant, however, Laura's stroll happens to lead her past the door of the darkly handsome Algerian clandestine immigrant alongside whom she works as a janitor in the evenings. The rest is not hard to predict, but Abdou's direction is always restrained, subtle, understated. There is never a moment in which here characters' words or actions ring false. This is, by the way, one of the best portrayals of philosophy I have ever seen in a film : we often see Laura in her philosophy class, where a Derrida-lookalike prof discourses - rather eloquently - on freedom versus the law in Kant. This stuff actually *matters* to Laura, but the Law she is concerned with is, of course, the law of the Torah. Can freedom be reconciled with obeying the Law? That's Laura's dilemma, and Albou treats it with dignity yet without sententiousness.

The other main focus of the film is Laura's older sister Mathilde, played in an award- deserving performance by Elsa Zylberstein. Married with four children, she is deeply pious and sure of herself until she discovers her husband's been fooling around. Her only solace then is the ritual bath, and she seeks sexual advice from its wise attendant in order not to lose her husband. It would have been easy to treat this scene as slapstick, but instead it's done with the greatest respect for the characters involved : Mathilde, who is afraid of losing her modesty and giving way to the dark tendencies of her soul, is astonished to learn that yes, according to the Torah, she is in fact allowed to touch her husband's genitals. Watch also for the lovely scene where Mathilde asks for sexual advice from her mother (the excellent Sonia Tahar). Every dialog rings true, and the superstitious mother, who initially comes across as a domineering harpy, is revealed as a woman of depth and dignity : not because she evolves or "sees the light", but just because we get to know her better.

This is a deeply humanist film, set against a background of the utmost contemporary relevance (a synagogue is burned and a group of soccer-playing Jews is attacked by a group of masked thugs ). It's impossible to come away from this film without a deeper understanding of, and therefore respect for, an entire aspect of Sephardic Jewish culture from a feminine point of view

12 out of 15 people found the following review useful:
Laid-back and beautiful, 17 January 2003

This is a quiet, unpretentious little film that should not be seen by those whose cinematic preferences run towards car-chases and Rambo-shoot'emups. It portrays life in a Mauretanian (Northwest African) small coastal town called Nouhadhibou. We meet an elderly electrician named Maata and his pre-teen apprentice Khadra (the star of the show); another subplot, less interesting in my view, tells the story of a son returning from overseas; he speaks only French and not the local Hassanya language, so he is condemned to remain an outsider.

You can predict whether you will like this film or not by whether or not you like recent Iranian films. As in such films, nothing particularly newsworthy ever happens in _En attendant le bonheur_ : people just go about the everyday business of living their lives, lives which are punctuated by the tranquil dailuy rituals of Islam. For me the charm of this film resides, as it does in much Iranian cinema, largely in the beauty of the images (bright blues and reds of the local fabrics against the white of the omnipresent sand dunes); and the sheer luxurious leisureliness of the pace (watch the scene where two interlocutors argue about whether X is in Tangiers or is Spain : Interlocutor 1 ; He's in Spain. (25 second pause). Interlocutor 2: He's in Tangier. Interlocutor 1 (40 second pause) : He's in Spain. Interlocutor 2 (60 second pause): he's in Tangier, etc., etc....)

Above all, what will stay in my mind is the beautiful relation between the young apprentice Khadra and the wizened old electrician Maata. Maata is, in fact, extremely crabby, and he's not much of an electrician. In one scene he attempts to string up a lightbulb in a woman's house ; it doesn't work, no matter what he tries. Later we see Matta and Khatra sitting outside the house ; Matta is smoking, and his dignified, weatherbeaten face shows no sign of emotion. Yet Khadra can tell his master is feeling bad ; he puts his arm around the old man's shoulders and tells him over and over again, with a repetitiousness Western customs would find intolerable, that everything's going to be all right. The other memorable aspect of the film : an old *griotte* or traditional singer, brilliantly gifted, teaches her craft to a girl of about twelve. Their singing, alternatively spine-tinglingly virtuoso and hoarsely off-key, punctuates the film to tremendous effect.

One is left with an impression of dignity, melancholy, fragility and imminent loss, marked by images and moments of striking beauty and tremendous gentleness, as when, around a nighttime fire, Matta tells the story of a long-lost friend who gave in to the temptations of sailing away to the mysterious lands of Spain and France, never to be heard from again ; as Khatra falls asleep, resting his head against the old man's chest.

Sounds corny ? Perhaps it is ; or perhaps the fact that we find it so tells us more about our own jaded cynicism than about the way of living of such resolutely non-Western countries. Recent Iranian films, which also like to use the viewpoint of children to show an innocent way of looking at life of which we cynical Westerners have long since ceased to be capable, are regularly lambasted by the oh-so-hip Parisian press : such films have no political consciousness, it is claimed ; no avant-garde cinematographic techniques, no pretentious imagery. Yet Sissako's film provides us with precious insight into the day-to-day life of the people of Mauretania, whom we might otherwise known only as statistics in some obscure war or famine. They show us a world wholly different from ours, which initially strikes us as appallingly boring and primitive, but soon has us wondering which of us - the Mauretanians or us inhabitants of Western late-capitalist "democracies" - are really living the more authentic, dignifed, and satisfying existence.

A depressing experience, 16 January 2003

I can't get over the fact that Martin Scorsese, whom I regard as one of this generation's most talented directors, could have made such a lousy film. But it's not just lousy ; this savage, brutal, incoherent piece of crap is also profoundly disturbing.

The story revolves around two characters in 1840's New York. On the one hand there's Leonardo De Caprio as the young Irishman who sees his improbably gallant father slain in a street fight and spends the next 16 years - and believe me, it *feels* like sixteen years - plotting revenge. Leonardo, pretty as ever, is thoroughly unconvincing as a tough guy ; he spends most of the film either getting beaten, slashed, burned and otherwise thoroughly trounced, or else whining and blubbering about it. When he attempts to look menacing, all he manages to do is curl his upper lip in a kind of sneer with which, one imagines, he is wont to insult waiters in overpriced Beverly Hills restaurants.

The real star of the film is Daniel Day Lewis, as The Butcher, leader of the "Natives", a gang of "native-born Americans" whose main characteristic is that they hate the Irish, the "Niggers" and the "Chinks". Day Lewis swaggers his way through sets designed to represent mid-19th century New York, brutalizing the helpless, terrorizing abject and caricatural politicians, eliminating his opponents by hurling meat-cleavers at them when their backs are turned, and torturing Di Caprio in a brutal central scene which is clearly revelatory of a very sick mind indeed.

On the historical level the film might be almost amusing. One never for an instant believes any of this, nor believes one is anywhere but a very expensive, computer-enhanced Hollywood set. The supposed Irishmen prance about like monstrously overgrown leprechauns, and the "historical" portrayals of warfare between gangs, police, troops and foreman are about as credible as a Keystone Kops routine, only a lot less funny. It's hard to tell which is more depressing, Di Caprio's phoney Irish brogue or Day Lewis' bargain-basement Archie-Bunker accent ("youse guys"). The film, as I said, belongs to Day-Lewis, who gives a skillful albeit way-over-the-top performance. But the problem is that we are clearly supposed to like and admire this psychotic, sadistic, xenophobic, racist bully, as even the Di Caprio character does ; indeed the film is full of the rival gang-leaders' pathologically intense homoerotic attraction towards one another. Presumably this macho touchy-feeliness is what makes the characters admirable in Scorsese's eyes. There is precisely one female speaking role amid the cast of hundreds ; the few other women in the film are whores or - another indication of the film's historical plausibility - axe-swinging street fighters.

Yet at the end of it all, when we have witnessed buckets of blood and brutality, when we've watched mobs lynch black men and set them on fire, when we've seen anti-draft rioters, who clearly have Scorsese's sympathy, lay waste to "Nigger" boarding-houses, because, in words of Di Caprio's sententious voice-over, the poor don't give a damn about the fight against slavery ; we begin to get a glimpse of what Scorsese is really on about here. As this tedious and brutal film lumbers on towards its predictable conclusion, we realize that for Scorsese these savage, sadistic, racist thugs are admirable ; they are, in a sense I'm unable to understand, the ones who "built America", although by the time Di Caprio as narrator tells us this, they have already spent three hours tearing down everything in sight. We are supposed, I guess, to weep, when the cowardly Union troops mow these "heroes" down, thereby preventing them from lynching more "Niggers". I personally found myself wanting to see the entire team responsible for this atrocity of a film, with Scorsese first and foremost among them, placed squarely in their sights.

Is there any sociological or world-historical significance to this paean to stupidity, cruelty and violence? Together with similarly brutal recent films like Gaspar Noe's _Irreversible_, will it be used by future cultural historians to study just how sick contemporary Western society was at the beginning of the third millennium ? I leave these questions to future pundits. One thing seems certain about this film, and this makes me sad : it marks the definitive fall from grace of a very good director, whom I, for one, can never again respect.

'R Xmas (2001)
3 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Ferrara's best, 30 December 2001

This is without doubt Ferrara's finest film ; mature, restrained, utterly believable. Perhaps that's what the simple-minded don't like about it: it contains no simplified stereotypes - the drug-dealers in it are not necessarily reprehensible louts and thugs - no cliches, no spectacular car chases, no blood and brains spattering the walls... but, you no what? neither does real life. And real life, or an awfully damned good facsimile thereof, is what we get in R-Xmas. Above all, we get award-quality performances from two hitherto actors of tremendous ability, Drea de Matteo and Lillo Brancato, and a warm, empathetic portrayal of New York's Dominican community. Ice-T is superb as a brutal and menacing kidnapper. This film poses all kinds of difficult questions : are wealthy drug-dealers really that different from other successful businessmen? How *do* they bring up their children in an environment of relative normalcy? how does a man react when he is brutalized by a gang of thugs and - since this is not a facile Hollywood fantasy - the possibility of going back and blowing them all away with a magnum simpy does not exist ? Ferrara's latest film is a more-believable _Godfather_ for the 21st century. In the end the film belongs to the astonishing Drea de Matteo. Reminding one in turn of Sharon Stone and Robin Penn, she gives a terrific performance as a complex, tough woman whose main concerns are the well-being of her husband and daughter. In short, just a terrific film. What can one say about reviewers who complain the film is "frustratingly incomplete", when the film itself states explicitly that it is only the first part of a series? There are plenty of empty-headed shoot-em-ups out there if what they want are quick, cheap thrills that don't make them think. Or perhaps they took a wrong turn at the Cineplex, and thought they were watching "Lord of the Ring"? A final word: the French translation of this film, especially the Spanish dialogue, is lamentably poor, and that's a shame, since it's so rich and colorful.

13 out of 13 people found the following review useful:
a sensitive, intelligent film, 1 October 2001

Francesca Comencini has directed a sensitive, intelligent film.

Based on two chapters from novel by Italo Svevo, it tells the story of young Zeno, protected scion of a wealthy father. When the father dies, without ever exchanging words of tenderness with his son, Zeno has to get a job; on his father's advice he goes to businessman Giovanni Malfenti (the superb Mimmo Calopresti).

Malfenti takes Zeno, a highly cultured but ineffective dreamer, under his wing; and more importantly he introduces him to his three lovely daughters. Zeno falls for the oldest one (a luminous Chiara Mastroianni), but the others are interested, too... This is a thoughtful, reserved, adult film. Emotions are intense, but kept below the surface; the photography is shadowy; the acting understated and restrained. Above all, I was struck by the film's profound humanity. It makes fun of no one and spares us all pretentious pseudo-philosophical pratter, but shows us civilized men and women who, although often confused, take pleasure in one another's company, and treat each other - usually at any rate - with respect and dignity. A final pleasure: the film is bathed is the unobtrusive but beautiful music of Ludovico Einaudi