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Monday, April 22

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Team America: World Police
5 of 5 stars
Directed by Trey Parker.
Starring a bunch of puppets.
Featuring the voices of Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Kristen Miller.

Secret Honor
3 of 5 stars
Directed by Robert Altman.
Starring Philip Baker Hall.

Team America: World Police is less of a political satire than it's being sold as, which is unfortunate, because at least a few people in the audience will be paying attention to the wrong things (the political content) and seeing the film come out somewhat disappointed. The thing is, watching Team America for its politics is like watching Cannibal! the Musical for its history. Trey Parker and Matt Stone's previous films (Cannibal!, Orgazmo and the South Park movie) are all masterpieces, as are the majority of the "South Park" episodes I've seen -- but only if you walk into them with the right expectations. This isn't War and Peace, folks. Team America is just an action movie parody, with tons of swearing, some hilarious songs and one or two keenly observed statements about how fucked up America is ... starring puppets.

Thanks to the brain damage, the novelty of it being puppets never got old for me, either. The puppet sex has made the most headlines, but puppet vomit, puppet cussing, puppet kung fu, puppet dancing and puppet Broadway send-ups also make appearances in Team America, and I was kept laughing hysterically for enough of its running time that the few lulls never got in the way much. While the raunchy puppet thing has been done before, such as Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson's warped "Muppet Show" riff Meet the Feebles, but it has never been done on film this well.

As a graphic designer and illustrator by trade, I tend to like movies that give you a completely unique world to look at, even if -- and it happens quite often -- the story showcasing that world don't always live up to snuff. Dark Crystal and City of Lost Children, for instance, are films whose staggering visual brilliance elevated weak stories to a completely different level. I would hesitate to recycle the phrase "staggering visual brilliance" on Team America: World Police, but the more or less the same sentiment applies here, as well. Jackson's Meet the Feebles had crap songs and was drowned in so much darkness to hide how poorly made the puppets were that it couldn't elevate the banal plot if it wanted to. In Team America, as in Dark Crystal, almost everything you see was designed, built, stitched or otherwise crafted by humans, and the results are gorgeous. While the look and feel of the film is lifted unapologetically from Gerry Anderson's original "Thunderbirds" TV shows, the addition of animatronic eyes and mouths add an extra dimension to the vocal and physical performances so that -- yes, I'm being serious -- you can better empathize with the characters.

The story is intentionally on the level of a standard Jerry Bruckheimer production such as The Rock or Pearl Harbor, which works both for and against Team America. The filmmakers are able to fast-forward through certain elements of the plot because they are so cliché that the audience doesn't need all the details to get the idea. But that's exactly the same reason that Bruckheimer does it, too. The line between parody and simply being a poor practitioner of a given genre is very thin, and Team America falls on both sides of the line.

If you loved Bad Santa or Parker and Stone's earlier films, Team America: World Police should be right up your alley. If you thought any or all of those films were foulmouthed garbage, you'd be right. Except that's why they're funny.

The world you're drawn into with film or any other form of entertainment doesn't always need to be something created in drawings, using puppets or with computer graphics in order to completely absorb you. Even with traditional film, that world doesn't necessarily need to be a window into an unfamiliar or altogether fictional culture. These often help -- or, at least, appeal to my artistic sensibilities very strongly. But any world depicted in art is, by its nature, artificial. There is no getting around that; no amount of pretense will make a film "realistic." Even documentaries are artificial, albeit usually to as minimal an extent as possible. Life, not art, is realistic. With art, an effective illusion of realism is the best you can hope for.

This is why it's particularly frustrating when some aspect of a movie demands your attention, but you're pulled out of the picture by some distraction or another. Stupid plot twists or spoon-feeder endings can be bad enough, but something that consistently and repeatedly distracts you, such as an all-around bad performance by one of the leads, can seriously drag a movie down with it. You want to believe the film, but you either can't or you can't as much as you would like. I had this experience with Keeping the Faith simply because the narrator's dialogue was perfectly clear despite the fact that, in the context of the framing story, Ed Norton's character was supposed to be shit-faced drunk.

In director Robert Altman's 1984 film of Secret Honor, Philip Baker Hall does the same thing -- literally and otherwise -- though his performance is far from "all-around bad" from any perspective. In the film, as well as the stage play the film was adapted from, an utterly bombed post-impeachment Richard Nixon is rambling at or around a video camera and microphone (recording himself, of course) and makes increasingly surprising revelations about the Nixon administration, the man himself and the American government in general. Far less fictional than your public school education will cause you to instinctively believe, a bit of grounding in the era will help to grasp the sequence of events as much as possible, though I think the relevant chapters in A People's History of the United States, a viewing of All the President's Men and the 81 minutes of archival footage included on the DVD would make for an good crash course, in a pinch.

One troublesome thing about Secret Honor is that the film is essentially a theory of the Nixon administration -- however well-founded -- transposed into a play, further transposed into a movie, and it shows. Hall's 90-minute monologue is rambling, occasionally abrupt, and leaps around between speaking as his lawyer, as himself to his lawyer and to his mother through a photo on the wall. Philip Baker Hall's performance, despite a few distracting affectations, is terrific. He doesn't attempt to imitate the former President by any means. His stuttering, almost manic rants are meant to evoke the rambling speeches the real Nixon frequently broadcast on TV, but they go too far, punctuating his lines entirely too often with "shit," "yes yes yes yes yes yes yes," "oh boy oh boy oh boy" and other vocal filler. Worse than that, Hall is theatre acting, not film acting. Theatre actors have reasons for playing dramatic scenes too loudly and too broadly, not the least of which is the need to project their voice further, but film doesn't require that. The freedom from the contrivances theatre forces upon playwrights and actors is one of the advantages of film; it's certainly one of the reasons I generally enjoy film more than plays. (It's also a reason my favorite play is The Importance of Being Earnest, which revels in these contrivances like no other.)

My own feeling runs quite the opposite of Hall's own assessment of his performance. In a video interview that is included on the DVD, Hall states, "The more over the top graphic we went with it… the more it seemed to work. By overplaying some of the odd moments -- the barking, for examples, and some of the stuff with the gun. The discovery was made through abandoned overplaying, you might say." But it's a discovery that my own tastes would have preferred to remain hidden. It's precisely this overplaying that ruins the film for me -- not outright, but enough that I don't consider it to be as much of a revelation as, say, Chicago Tribune critic Michael Wilmington, who contributes an essay to the liner of the DVD.

For his part, Altman does wonders to elevate Secret Honor from being merely a recording of a performance to that of a work of art in its own right. Using a special camera mount (like a Steadicam on wheels) in much of the film, he gets some amazing fluidity and adds enormous energy to scenes that would have died if they were shot through a stationary camera. A few appropriate cutaways to photographs or paintings and a hell of an ending that could not be effectively duplicated on the stage work to its favor, but the heavily theatrical script and staging proved too much of a distraction for my taste. If the fact that Secret Honor shows its theatrical roots as strongly as it does won't bother you, then by all means, I encourage you to see it. But, without Hall's pivotal performance to secure my interest wholeheartedly, the most interesting aspect of the film to me was how much of it was based in fact, and, at times, I wished I were reading a book on the subject rather than watching Secret Honor. Which isn't the most positive assessment of a film I can think of.

Team America: World Police is playing at Lincoln Village, Webster Place, the Davis Theatre, I.C.E. Landale Cinemas and the Evanston Century 12/CinéArts 6.

Secret Honor is newly available on DVD from the Criterion Collection, and is available for rent from Odd Obsession and Facets, among other fine video stores. The DVD features the previously mentioned 81 minutes of archival footage of Nixon and the 22-minute interview with Philip Baker Hall, as well as separate, equally fascinating commentaries by co-writer Donald Freed and director Robert Altman.

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About the Author(s)

Gordon McAlpin writes his movie reviews with a red light-up Spy Kids pen, which he thinks is the coolest thing ever, even though he didn't like the movie that much.

If you feel the need to get in touch with him directly, do so at .

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