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Stupid puppet satire

'Team America' and 'Grudge'


First of all, you have to know that "Team America: World Police" is about puppets. Well, not puppets, I guess, but "marionettes." And not about marionettes — starring marionettes (I’m still going to refer to them as puppets anyway, because I don’t want to have to type out "marionettes"). Because it’s all about puppets, "TAWP" might just be the stupidest thing you’ve ever seen in your life: Puppets firing machine guns. Puppets kung fu fighting. Puppets getting drunk and throwing up in alleys. Puppets getting impaled, gutted, eaten by housecats and swallowed by sharks. Puppets having explicit sex (well, as explicit as two partners with smooth, Barbie-and-Ken-style groins can have). All this Industrial Grade Stupid is contained in the most thrown-together of frameworks (though not, come to think of it, any more thrown together than your average James Bond movie): A band of star-spangled super agents (that’d be "Team America") go around the globe fighting terrorism and blowing everyone and their stuff to kingdom come wherever they go. After one of the team members is killed, they recruit an actor named Gary to replace him, hoping he can use his acting skills to infiltrate a terrorist cell in Cairo. From there, Kim Jong Il gets involved, as does Alec Baldwin, Michael Moore, two housecats posing as deadly panthers, WMDs, Susan Sarandon, Hans Blix and a lot of other things I’d rather not get into. There is some funny stuff here, sure. Puppet sex is funny, in an eighth-grade sort of way. But for the most part, "TAWP" is proud of being as crude, shocking, sophomoric and pornographic as possible under current law. It was enough that about halfway through, I started trying to figure out what all the fuss was about. This is, after all, a film that has been lauded by critics all over as gut-bustingly funny. I’ve even seen it called "wise." And not as in "wise-ass." Then, around the montage scene near the end, where Actor Gary is morphed into Super Agent Gary by a couple of scenes on the treadmill and the firing range (while the song "Montage" plays in the background — as in: "Mon-TAGE! Show the hero getting better, a little at a time! Mon-TAGE!") it sort of hit me: In addition to trafficking in Stupid, "TAWP" is also a film critic’s wet dream. It’s not a movie, exactly, but a movie about movies — specifically about skewering those horrible, formulaic summer blockbusters that Hollywood churns out, the public eats up, and which make your average movie critic feel like flinging himself off a parking garage come Labor Day. Here, you can just see movie critics giggling with glee during the prerequisite "a hero gets lonely" scene, with Gary driving moodily along the coast on his Harley while "I Love You Just A Little Bit More Than ‘Pearl Harbor’ Sucked" plays in the background. Giggling harder when a team member — trying to grease a terrorist with a missile launcher — manages to blow up the Eiffel Tower and the Arch de Triomphe, and his only exclamation is: "Damn! I missed him!" Finally doubling over with laughter when, attempting to summon up his bravery, puppet Gary visits all the real-life monuments in Washington, D.C., while a really, really bad Garth Brooks impersonator sings: "H’wat would’jou dew, if yew had ta fight fer freedum?" Oh yeah, I get what all the fuss was about now. The question is, if you don’t hate the movies "TAWP" is mocking as part of your job description, will you? Unless you’re somewhere around 14 years old, probably not. — By David Koon It’s a common idea: When something terrible happens in a place — particularly a house — it becomes something like a paranormal record player, with the bad feelings deposited there coming back to wreak vengeance on the living. Have a good old bloody murder in town, for instance, and see how long the "for sale" sign stays on the lawn. Usually a long time. That’s the idea behind director Takashi Shimizu’s "The Grudge," though Shimizu pushes the idea to the limit. Based on his Japanese original "Ju-on: The Grudge," in this movie Shimizu amps up the classic haunted house vibe into a kind of paranormal radiation, a place that contaminates — and then comes after — everyone who enters, no matter how far they run to try and get away. Here, Sarah Michelle Gellar (a.k.a. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") plays Karen, an American student in Japan. Working toward a humanities credit for school, she ends up volunteering at a hospice center for the disabled. After another worker disappears, Karen is dispatched to a vast and beautiful house in a secluded part of the city, where she meets Emma (Grace Zabriskie), a near-catatonic old woman who talks to the walls and spends all day in bed. It’s not until Karen finds a mysterious little boy locked (and taped) in an upstairs closet that the fit hits the shan, however. Soon, Karen finds herself confronted by the spirits of the house (who, as throughout the film, aren’t American-horror timid about showing themselves), things that are almost tragic symbols of the way they shuffled off the mortal coil. Spared but haunted at every turn by terrifying visions, Karen goes on a search for the secret behind the house’s evil. Meanwhile, nearly everyone she comes in contact with becomes contaminated by the curse and marked for death. While Gellar might not be the first person that comes to mind when you think of gut-wrenching terror, she does workmanlike duty here — which for her means looking through most of the film like a startled Pekinese. Shimizu’s dazzling camera work and Hitchcockian sense of claustrophobia, however, more than make up for anything his leading lady lacks. In short, he has made what will surely be one of the most talked-about horror movies of the year and a future minor classic of the genre. The kind of movie that never lets up and never hints at what kind of new and terrible direction it’s headed, "The Grudge" ends up being a dip into the worst kind of scary: the demons that stick, the ghosts we can’t leave behind. — By David Koon

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