Note: Continuing with the new “film log” format for this column. Films marked “Masterwork Selection” should be considered special recommendations, and are subject to more in-depth, spoiler-laden examinations at any time in the future. More tweaks and alterations on the way as I iron this thing out.
** 1/2 (out of four)
2008, Jon Cassar, U.S. (TV)
In response to the Writers Guild of America strike, the producers of Fox’s counter-terrorism thriller “24” elected to hold off their Season 7 debut for a year. They attempted to make up for it (and placate impatient fans like myself) by releasing this two-hour “bridge” between seasons. Unfortunately, I don’t think this is exactly what fans were waiting for. This surprisingly dull, action-deprived film (which takes place in “real time”) finds former U.S. agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) holed up in Africa while he dodges subpoenas to appear before Congress to give testimony on illegal torture practices. He’s cut off from the world, and now lives a relatively peaceful life helping a former colleague (Robert Carlyle) care for orphaned African children. That peace is disrupted when a deposed general (an underused Tony Todd) begins rounding up child soldiers for a military coup, and Bauer must come out of hiding to fight for torture, justice and the American way.
“The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”
1989, Terry Gilliam, U.K., PG
Monty Python alumnus Terry Gilliam is one of our most visually arresting filmmakers, and one of the only living directors who can still be counted on to create striking new worlds for us to explore as moviegoers. This movie, the final of Gilliam’s “phases of life trilogy” after “Time Bandits” and “Brazil,” follows the fantastical adventures of real-life figure Baron Munchauesen from Europe and the Orient all the way to the underworld and even outer space. The film is pure fantasy and not at all concerned with the actual historical figure; rather, Gilliam is interested in how the power of imagination can set you free, both mentally and spiritually, from the prison of an aging body. It sounds sappy, but the film is at least earnest in its childlike wonderment. Pity the narrative is too jerky to properly support the film’s many amazing set pieces.
**** (Masterwork Selection)
1979, Francis Ford Coppola, U.S., R
I have seen Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam totem several times over the years, and always recognized its status as one of the great films. However, it wasn’t until this most recent viewing that I was finally overwhelmed by its power, and I now consider it a strong candidate for the title of the best movie I’ve ever seen. There’s so much going on in this deceptively simple story that it’s enough to make your head spin right off your neck and land on a spike. On the surface, the film concerns Capt. Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), a black ops specialist who is sent into the jungles of Vietnam to locate and “terminate with extreme prejudice” the renegade command of the insane Col. Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando, who doesn’t show up until the film’s final 30 minutes). Yet just beneath the surface, the film is a bubbling cauldron of ideas both fascinating and terrifying, and Coppola, working from the Jospeh Conrad novella “Heart of Darkness,” dissects issues ranging from military strategy to the very nature of insanity. Combine this fierce intellectualism with some awe-inspiring set pieces, and you’ve got what is unquestionably one of the indispensable classics of American cinema.
“Meet the Feebles”
**** (Masterwork Selection)
1995, Peter Jackson, New Zealand, R
Peter Jackson should be remembered and revered for more than just the “Lord of the Rings” movies. Before he took the world by storm with those hugely successful, Oscar-winning epics, P.J., as I affectionately call him, was making smaller passion projects like this 94-minute puppet movie (completed in 1989 but not released in the U.S. for another six years) that plays out like a mix between Jim Henson’s Muppets and Stephen King’s “Carrie,” with a little of William S. Burrough’s “Naked Lunch” thrown in. Our heroine is Heidi the Hippo, a morbidly obese Miss Piggy type who headlines the Fabulous Feebles Variety Hour. It’s produced by her man Bletch, a crude walrus who has gotten what he needs out of Heidi and is planning to dump her once his show gets syndicated. Naturally, Heidi eventually flips out in a gloriously bloody montage set to the tune of a song called “Sodomy,” sung by a gay puppet fox. I don’t think I’ve seen too many movies that even come close to touching the sheer audacity of this wildly imaginative celebration of all things dirty. Ain’t no-rules, underground filmmaking grand?
2005, Angelina Maccarone, Germany (subtitled), Unrated
What a surprising film. I watched this one for school, and was immediately blown away by the movie’s realism and charm, which can only be described as organic. Even in the less-than-ideal viewing circumstances created by a classroom setting, I was still completely sucked into this story of an Iranian lesbian (Jasmin Tabatabai) who must flee from Tehran to Germany to escape persecution and, eventually, execution. She leaves behind a lover, but finds a new love interest after she is forced to adopt a dead friend’s identity and disguise herself as a man to evade immigration authorities. The film sustains a strong feeling of dread through its hour-and-a-half running length, and we’re always left with the feeling that something terrible (discovery, rape, murder) could happen at literally any moment. Maccarone puts the viewer under her spell with some fine, naturalistic camerawork, but it’s Tabatabai (with a weathered beauty that suggests a working-class Bjork) who will pull at your heart strings without ever stooping to cheap manipulation.
Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor.