Team America preview screening in Hollywood

Don't flip out, no spoilers. Just got back from Paramount Studios' first media screening of Team America: World Police, the new film by "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. It's a nihilistic sendup of bloated, Bruckheimer-style action epics -- cast entirely with marionettes.

The titular flag-waving force battles terrorism so ham-fistedly, they often end up destroying more of the world than the bad guys they're out to neutralize. As the film opens, five freedom fighters on strings swoop down on Paris to foil an imminent terrorist strike. One blunder after another sets off a series of impossible chain reactions a la "Keystone Cops." The evildoers get bloody justice, but the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and a fair number of Parisians become collateral damage in the process.

Shortly after another fuckup leads to tragedy within the team itself, the film's heroes discover that Kim Jong-Il (eeeven more eeeevil than Saddam and Osama combined) is doling out weapons of mass destruction to a far-flung network of terrorists. Why? Part of a complicated plot for world domination, natch.

The Team persuades a rising Broadway star to lend his unstoppable acting technique to the cause. Their plan: penetrate the terrorists' network, uncover the WMDs, let freedom ring, drink celebratory beers. But blunders ensue again, and the global cops must now race against time to defend humanity.

In an item I filed for the current issue of Wired Magazine about the production's tech underpinnings (Link), filmmakers Stone and Parker describe Team America's aesthetic as "suppercrappynation." They borrow the "supermarionation" puppet animation method from Gerry Anderson's '60s TV series "Thunderbirds," but crap it up. The feel becomes messier; kitschily self-aware.

Marionettes playing AK47-toting homeland defenders don't have to do much to be funny. There's a specific kind of physical humor here only possible with puppets: suspended on visible strings, they amble as if they're drunk in zero-g. During a poignant exchange, one tries to point tenderly to another's heart, underscoring a dramatic line about "feelings." Her clumsy, string-guided hand misses the mark, to great comic effect. And like "Mister Bill," the characters are at their funniest when they're suffering -- tortured, murdered, or spontaneously impaled like sentient little olives on toothpicks.

There are many moments of blow-soda-through-your-nose comedic brilliance. North Korea's megalomaniac dictator sings a reflective, autobiographical ballad. Housecats posing as rabid panthers maul celebrity peaceniks. Matt Damon's puppet doppelganger cameos as a "Timmy"-esque halfwit whose vocabulary consists entirely of his own name. A computer intelligence network touted as the world's most sophisticated -- and appropriately named I.N.T.E.L.L.I.G.E.N.C.E -- speaks in a stoned surfer drawl. If Oscars were awarded for moments of cinematic vomit excellence, The Exorcist would have won 30 years ago; one scene in Team America would make it a shoo-in today. And a marionette sex scene manages to cram in such a dizzying array of positions -- from reverse cowgirl to rimming -- you'll need a copy of the Puppet Sutra just to keep up.

Willfull crappiness aside, the film isn't without flaws. The poo/genital/fellatio humor drags as the story approaches its climax. But everything that works really works, and the film seems destined to appeal to broader audiences than Stone and Parker's previous feature-length efforts. In short: it may be the single best crappy movie you'll see all year.

Before tonight's preview began, co-director Stone explained that the cut we were about to see was far from final, and that this was the first screening beyond a small circle of friends and crew. Shooting only finished two weeks ago; scoring, mixing, and post-production were all continuing this weekend, with a completed version due Wednesday. Stone added that in an unexpected dose of real-world irony, the score for Team America -- which parodies every CGI behemoth that famed composer Hans Zimmer ever scored -- was in fact being mixed this very moment at Mr. Zimmer's studio facility in Santa Monica. The finished product is due for a one-day-only release in 800 US theaters on October 9, followed by wide release on October 15.



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