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Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

I don’t think it’s possible to overestimate the sheer nerve of Trey Parker and Matt Stone. And I don’t think it’s possible to overstate just how lucky we are to witness their particular brand of insanity.

TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE may be one of the most deranged studio pictures I’ve ever seen. The fact that they got Scott Rudin, a producer known for such esoteric fare as THE HOURS and WONDER BOYS, to sign off on a puppet movie that not only roasts every lame Hollywood action movie cliché imaginable, but which also risks pissing off the movie stars that someone like Rudin depends on, is a minor miracle. The fact that they are still working on a film that is supposed to be in theaters on October 15th is even more amazing to me, but somehow, if anyone can pull it off, I have faith that these guys can.

This morning, I saw the not-quite-finished film. I think I may be the first person outside of Paramount to do so, and as I understand it, the entire creative team is still hard at work polishing the film right now. There’s still a temp track in place for most of the film, except for the songs, and there’s a part of me that would almost urge the filmmakers to just buy the temp tracks and use them in the final film. Watching the opening titles to the TERMINATOR 2 theme was very funny, and there’s something gloriously pompous about even the best action movie score when it’s placed over this footage. Harrison Gregson-Williams (CHICKEN RUN) is finishing his score today, and it’s evidently going to stick very close to the bombastic sounds of what they have holding the space right now. Although this isn’t a full-blown musical like SOUTH PARK: THE MOVIE, there are a number of songs here, and most of them are used to devastatingly funny effect.

The first thing that any audience is going to have to deal with in watching the film is that this really is an all-marionette movie. There’s not going to be a moment where someone steps out, says, “Just kidding,” and then starts the real film. This is it.

I wonder if, on this side of the experience, Parker and Stone are still glad about their decision to do the film this way. They should definitely be proud of the final result. The puppets are surprisingly subtle in terms of performance, particularly regarding their facial mannerisms. There are plenty of shots where it looks like the puppeteers were told to go broad with the movements and body language, and it walks a fine line between skilled and silly at all times.

I think there’s an almost accidental subtext to the fact that everyone in the movie is a puppet that works for the film. Most modern Hollywood action films are little more than puppet shows, anyway. Anyone who has ever written a big-budget blockbuster type action film will most likely sit in the theater and cry as this film painfully roasts each and every lousy convention of the genre. It’s painfully accurate, and it would be really hard to take these movies seriously again after watching this, if you ever took them seriously in the first place. It’s eerie how right they get the shape of the film, especially in the first half as they’re setting everything up. The film plays fairly serious at first. There’s the opening scene in Paris that many of you have seen now, with all the cheesy one-liners like “Hey, terrorist... terrorize this.” In their efforts to stop a group of terrorists who have blinking briefcase weapons of some sort, Team America completely annihilates the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, and they seem so blissfully unaware of what they’ve done that you have to laugh. Standing there in the smoking ruins of Paris, team member Carson proposes marriage to team member Lisa, only to be cut down by a not-quite-dead terrorist who pops out of a fountain. Carson dies in Lisa’s arms (“I’m... so cold...”), leading her to bellow into a crane shot that pulls back from her. Like I said... this thing starts off pretty much exactly like a real Hollywood action film.

But rest assured... there’s plenty of the absurdist wit of Parker and Stone on display, and it starts to creep in almost immediately as we’re introduced to Gary Johnston, a Broadway actor who is starring in LEASE: THE MUSICAL. We catch up with him mid-performance as he sings the big closing number of the show, a cheerful little toe-tapper called “Everyone Has AIDS”:

”The gays and the straights/The whites and the spades/Everyone... has AIDS!”

Backstage, he’s approached by Team America’s leader and mentor, Spottswoode, about joining the team. To help convince Gary, he takes him to the secret headquarters of the group, deep inside the heads of Mount Rushmore. Gary’s introduced to Joe (“the all-star quarterback from the University of Nebraska, a natural born leader”), Sarah (“the top empathy from Berkeley’s school for the clairvoyant”), Chris (“the top martial arts expert Detroit has to offer”), and the aforementioned Lisa (“a top Princeton psychology major who specializes in how terrorists think”). He is also shown the super-computer that provides Team America with all its intelligence, aptly named, um, I.N.T.E.L.L.I.G.E.N.C.E. Some of the dialogue in the film is directly quoted from other scripts, and if you pay attention, you’ll hear howlers from TOP GUN, ARMAGEDDON, and more.

As the film progresses, though, more and more silly starts to sneak in around the edges. Gary thinks over his job offer to the tune of a Toby Keith-like country song called “Freedom Isn’t Free” that features stills of Gary in front of all sorts of national monuments, and the fact that it’s played as dead straight as it is only made me laugh harder. Something about listening to Trey Parker sing in that overly sincere voice of his puts me away every time. Then when the film cuts to the introduction of Kim Jong Il, it starts to get overt in how loony things are. He’s introduced like a Bond supervillain, and he’s written like a Korean Cartman. The little details start to add up, and there’s almost always something going on that made me giggle. The ways Spottwoode’s office chair always seems to be rolling, no matter what’s going on. Gary’s “skin graft” disguise. The STAR WARS cantina riff. The introduction of the theme song, “America! Fuck, Yeah!” The entire Cairo scene is hilarious, as is the introduction of the Film Actors Guild, or FAG for short. There’s certainly a chance that people like Tim Robbins, Sean Penn, and Alec Baldwin might be offended by their inclusion here, but I think it would be a shame. I know what it’s like to be savagely lampooned, and there’s always an initial sting, but this film isn’t worth anyone getting permanently pissed off. There’s such a genuine bad-little-boy glee to the way they roast everyone that I would hope people laugh it off as the joke it so obviously is.

Which isn’t to say that the satire is toothless. It’s not. But it is even-handed. Take the Hans Blix scene, for example. They make fun of the way the UN handles situations involving weapons inspections, with Blix warning Kim Jong Il that he must be allowed to search the entire palace, “Or else.”

”Or else what?”

”Or else... we’ll be very angry with you. And we will write you a letter to tell you just how angry we are.” Yet when Team America steps in to handle a situation, they’re hardly painted as the solution to things. They just randomly blow up anything in their way and kill anyone they see. They’re not exactly portrayed as a moral absolute. I also love how every subtitle that sets the scene in a foreign country includes how many miles it is away from America, as if this is the center of the world. It’s a great subtle jab at ethnocentrism. It’ll be interesting to see who does take political offense at the film, because anyone could probably twist the movie to represent their beliefs, and they could probably just as easily misunderstand things enough to feel like they had been attacked. In short, if you have a sense of humor, chances are you’ll make it through unscathed, and if you don’t, prepare to feel like you’ve been beaten up, no matter what you believe.

The puppet sex scene which we’ve heard much mention of already is indeed over the top, but I think the ratings board proved that they are certifiably insane by giving the film an NC-17 originally. The Gary puppet is hung like a Ken doll. These are the most sexless depictions of sex I can imagine. Yes, they run through a ton of positions, and yes, in the original cut there was scat and golden showers and a pearl necklace, but even so, this is about as far from being an explicit depiction of human sexuality as I can imagine. Cutting the scene back to its current form may have won the guys their R rating, but it’s not like the ratings board won some major victory. This movie is still just as rude and hilariously vulgar as it was intended to be, and getting hung up on a few specific shots just points up how silly it is to debate that fine line between the R and the NC-17 anyway. Consider this one another victory for the guys, and another example of how completely ridiculous the ratings system is.

The second half of the film is where the guys obviously stopped even trying to make a serious action film, and it turns into what is very identifiably a Parker/Stone picture. The jokes come faster and faster as the film progresses. I love it when Michael Moore jumps on the “Fuck Team America” bandwagon after they’ve been disgraced and discredited. I love the sad version of “America! Fuck, Yeah!” that plays. I love how the team members are all focused on all the soap opera story elements during one of the biggest action scenes in the film. I think Kim Jong Il’s “I’m Ronery” is going to bring the house down when people see it. And when Gary has a chance encounter with a drunk guy in a bar who lays out his theory that there are only three types of people in this world – dicks, pussies, and assholes – you just know that’s going to play an important part in the movie later. It’s the film’s “big idea,” and even though they take it to the absurd extreme, it’s not a bad one. After a while, you stop thinking about the puppets and just start watching them as characters, but from time to time, something happens and you can’t help but think, “Wow, someone’s got to be really proud of the fact that they got all that vomit into that puppet.”

I think my favorite musical interlude in the whole film is either the love song with the opening line, “I miss you more/Than Michael Bay missed the mark/When he made PEARL HARBOR.” Yes, they wrote an entire song using the metaphor of how big a turd PEARL HARBOR was to describe how much one character loves another. There's also a great montage that’s cut to another one of those overly-sincere Trey Parker vocals about how you use a montage to show the passage of time. Both songs are hilarious, and mark some of the second-half highlights. There’s also a trust test between Spottswoode and Gary that had me crying, and everything that takes place during the big finale at Kim Jong Il’s palace is solid gold. Wait till you see how they set up the sequel that will never happen. It may be the strangest joke in any movie this year.

Overall, TEAM AMERICA’s got a few duds during its running time, but what comedy doesn’t? There are so many jokes here that it’s sort of a law-of-averages thing, and these guys hit at a higher percentage than most. The jokes that do work connect on any number of levels, and I am a sucker for any comedy that dares me to be smart. I think fans of SOUTH PARK are going to be madly in love with this, but I also think there’s a wider audience possible for it. I don't know about Harry, but I'm being innundated with political documentaries right now, and with the chance to see them, and discussions of them... and personally, I am at the point where I just couldn't give less of a fuck. I don't care. I struggle to keep my personal political views off this site and stick to movies, and ultimately, this film is more of an attack on Hollywood action film conventions than it is any sort of specific political screed. I think people who believe this is going to influence the election in any way are going to be sorely disappointed, but I was relieved. This film's got a shelf life, thank god.

For one thing, it’s a pretty striking film visually. Bill Pope’s widescreen cinematography is lush and colorful, even in the unfinished version I saw. I can’t wait to see how it looks when it’s properly finished... a week from now. Production designer Jim Dultz did an amazing job of putting together a convincing world that doesn't remotely look real. He suggests famous locations with some amazing sets, and the level of detail he's added to every scene really will demand at least one more viewing to appreciate. Trey’s got a very sure hand as a director this time out, and there’s a real confidence to the parody. If he ever completely lost his sense of humor, he could easily make a slick Hollywood action film, and it’d probably be better than the output of the Simon Wests of this world. You’ve got to give special credit to the Chiodo Brothers, who created such a diverse and amazing cast for the film, and who stepped up to the technical challenges as if this is something they do every single day. As I understand it, TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE qualifies as an animated film under the Academy rules, so that means we may see this film face-off with THE INCREDIBLES and SHREK 2 at the Oscars this year. It’s certainly worthy of a nomination, and it will no doubt stand as some sort of technical milestone for puppeteering for quite a while. Especially once other filmmakers read the interviews where Trey Parker says things like, “I mean, you could threaten to kill my family and I would not make another puppet movie. If my mother would die if I would not make another puppet movie, she’d be dead. I’m totally serious.” I can imagine how he must be feeling after being buried in this all summer, but it pays off. There’s a hand-crafted quality to the film that no CGI spectacle can match, and it’s endearing. You look at this movie, and it’s obvious. These are sets. They built these rockets and planes and all the backgrounds, and when a puppet gets blown up or gets its head torn off, it’s funnier because of how it’s filled with red meat. This was an experiment, certainly, and I’d mark it as a success for Parker and Stone. Like I said in my I HEART HUCKABEES review, Scott Rudin is the hero of the fall of 2004. When you see this or THE LIFE AQUATIC or HUCKABEES, you can’t help but admire how he’s supported all of these individual artists in fairly unorthodox circumstances. He’s allowed Parker and Stone to make a movie that I can’t imagine any studio making, and whatever the final box-office result, this is a triumph of a personal vision making it through the studio system intact.

We’re getting into the fall screening season now, so I’ll be back this week with all sorts of reviews, hopefully, as well as my new DVD column. Until then...

"Moriarty" out.

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