Thursday, August 25, 2011

I Vitelloni

Federico Fellini, Italy, 1953, bw (8.4*)
Enjoyable early Fellini comedy film about a group of slackers, ne’er do wells who are content to merely chase women, drink, and dream rather than apply themselves to constructive endeavors.

One of a small group of friends, Fausto Moretti, seduces Sandra, a sister of his friend and companion Moraldo Rubini, then against his intuition, he does the right thing and marries her. After their honeymoon, he takes a boring job as a salesman of religious objects in a small shop that barely has any customers. He still looks at (and goes for) other women, along with his friends. He even mistakes some messages from his bosses wife and tries to seduce her, and is fired.

Still, not much changes in the lives of any of the group. This film is not about going anywhere in particular, but just as much about not making much effort to get anywhere either, and have some pleasures along the road to nowhere if possible. Fellini is merely giving us a snapshot here of a lazy lifestyle, or rather a beautifully photographed cinematic portrait, in the era of the growing beatnik movement, when work was considered the opposite of freedom.

Vitellone is literal for fatted veal calf, but on the dvd, Fellini defines it as aimless, do-nothing guys, or slackers. It is said that this film is autobiographical, at least partially so. It is also given credit for defining the modern term, or usage of slackers as well.


Monday, August 15, 2011


Christian Carion, France, 2009 (8.5*)

This intriguing spy film is more like a John le Carre novel (Smiley's People; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Spy Who Came in From the Cold), meaning realistic (and relatively slow moving), than a modern action-packed pseudo spy story (a la James Bond). The film actually recounts the true story of a Russian agent in the waning days of the Soviet Union who was dubbed Farewell in the west, a man inside Soviet intelligence who smuggled out important information. This is the thinly disguised fictional filming of the story of the Russian KGB colonel Vladimir Vetrov, who apparently was a lot stranger and impulsive than this film portrays.

His contact was a minor diplomatic liaison at the French embassy, Pierre Froment (Guillame Canet), involuntarily swept into the espionage game without any training, and who also lacked the common sense that most in that profession need to survive. Willem Dafoe has a minor role as a U.S. intelligence officer who fills in Froment on all the info the former is missing due to his low rank. (..and just see if you can spot David Soul in this film!)

In order to prove his veracity, the Russian, Gregoriev, played by Serbian director Emir Kusturica, leaks information to the west that proves that Soviet agents have penetrated the U.S. defense system – they know the locations of major radar installations, the nuclear codes, and even the delivery times of vendors to the White House. His intelligence treasure is the identities of these agents within the U.S., which the Russians call the X Line.

This is an intriguing and riveting story, in spite of some caricatures within the players, such as Fred Ward’s portrayal of Ronald Reagan, who has a few intelligence meetings in this story. Some who know the real story of Vetrov say it’s truly stranger than this fiction – perhaps the filmmakers toned it down to make it more realistic. At any rate, it belongs on the short list of realistic espionage films worth recommending.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Captain Abu Raed

Amin Matalqa, Jordan, 2007 (8.8*)
A lonely widower who works as a janitor at a metropolitan airport finds a discarded pilot’s cap in a trashcan at the terminal. He’s often dreamed of being a pilot himself, fantasizing about travelling around the globe, yet, like many, he’s been basically trapped in his own hometown for most of his life.

He spends a lot of time reading, and is quite literate, so stories come naturally to him. When some local kids see him in the captain’s hat, they start calling him Captain, and begs him for stories of his travels. Rather than disappoint the children, Abu starts telling them wondrous tales of countries he’s never visited.

At the same time, he is befriended by a beautiful young stewardess, played by Rana Sultan, and the two start a platonic friendship that allows each to share personal confidences. Abu is becomes particularly attached to one young boy, whose home life is marred by domestic violence, as his dad gets drunk then beats his mother.

This is a story that is beautifully gentle at times, and brutally honest at others, as the life that we envision for ourselves is not always concident with reality, which can be quite harsh for some. Nadim Sawalha turns in a subtle and moving peformance in the title role, photo below, whose face seems to reflect hopes lost during a lengthy life of toil. I’ll have to admit, this is my favorite film from Jordan (the only one I've seen).


Friday, August 5, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

George Nolfi, 2011 (8.0*)

This is another thoughtful and eccentric science fiction excursion from the sometimes brilliant, sometimes dark mind of author Philip K. Dick (Blade Runner, Minority Report), this based on his story “The Adjustment Team”. Director George Nolfi is a screenwriter turned director, who co-wrote the films Bourne Ultimatum (conclusion of Bourne Trilogy (2007)), The Sentinel, and Ocean’s Twelve.

This story deals with fate vs. human endeavor and choice. Matt Damon plays a man whose seemingly unimportant everyday routine is being manipulated by a clandestine team of men, who appear to be some type of secret agents who answer to an unknown master. They watch a futuristic time line of his life in a special book, and if it starts to deviate then they intervene.

This puts into reality the metaphor of fate, which is generally considered a pre-determined sequence of life events over which we have no control, in this case actual people employed to ensure that fate. Damon’s character has a chance meeting with dancer Emily Blunt, and the two have a mutual attraction, which is counter to the plan the agents are using as a guide, and is a potential romance that would cause great deviations from the plan.

The master of this plan is only referred to as The Chairman, and perhaps the story’s major failing is to give no real explanation of the importance of all this. Obvious comparisons will be made to Inception, since each is about altering reality, but this action occurs in the waking state of corporal reality and is not in any fantasy or imaginitive realm.

A common theme of Dick’s novels are reality vs. fantasy, with characters often struggling to distinguish the difference in the two – characters who are usually unbalanced either through insanity or mind-altering drugs. In this story, neither is the case, as a common man is attempting to overcome real people who are controlling his life events, but for an unknown reason.

There is nothing special about the acting here, in spite of a good cast, which features John Slattery of Mad Men who works for the adjustment team. The story could have packed more punch, but is a pleasant excursion for a science fiction film, one that doesn’t have wild west style shootouts. or space wars, or lovably fuzzy aliens, or human-devouring monsters. In that regard, it belongs in a sub-genre with Inception, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gattica, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it’s just not at the same artistic level as these others.


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These are the individual film reviews of what I'm considering the best 1000 dvds available, whether they are films, miniseries, or live concerts. Rather than rush out all 1000 at once, I'm doing them over time to allow inclusion of new releases - in fact, 2008 has the most of any year so far, 30 titles in all; that was a very good year for films, one of the best ever.

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