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Team America: World Police – Unrated

Paramount Pictures (October 15 2004), Paramount Home Entertainment (May 17 2005), single disc, 98 mins plus supplements, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, Not Rated (original theatrically rated R), Retail: $14.98

[WARNING: THIS REVIEW IS OF THE UNRATED DVD EDITION OF TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE. IT CONTAINS MATERIAL FOR MATURE READERS ONLY]

Storyboard:

Korean dictator Kim Jong Il (re-imagined here as a twisted Bond-esque villain) is planning a mega-attack on the entire world, and the World Police’s only hope of stopping him is to sign up an actor, Gary Johnston, and send him undercover (after all, that’s what spying is…“acting”). When things go wrong and Gary jeopardises the mission, the TA:WP headquarters is infiltrated (by a detonating Michael Moore) and blown to bits. Gary returns and must “pass through the eye of the needle” with TA:WP head honcho Spottswoode in order to prove his trust and go after his team mates, now captured by Kim Jong Il. Meanwhile, the terrorists have recruited Alec Baldwin (who, as usual, is on the receiving end of much of the barbed wit, including a special end credit-only song worth sticking around for) and the members of the Film Actors Guild (the joke is in that acronym’s initials), who provide an unwitting diversion while they carry out the mother of all atrocities. Will Gary make it on time? Will he be able to act his way out of this one? We’re gonna need a montage…

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The Sweatbox Review:

I’m sure glad we don’t have strict genre labels on this site, or else I’d have to go ahead and call Team America: World Police an “action comedy adventure special effects drama musical extravaganza social issue piece animated with puppets”. It’s Thunderbirds-meets-Armageddon, by way of blending Jerry Bruckheimer explosion-fests with Broadway showtunes. If you take yourself too seriously, you probably won’t – or can’t, or won’t want to – “get” Team America. Luckily, I don’t take myself seriously at all. And I loved it.

Let me re-phrase that: I adored it, and for a while Team America was an obsession for me: working to an insanely tight deadline on one of my own film projects, the lines from the movie kept creeping out of my mouth. On speaking to others involved on my show, and asking for sound effects to be moved slightly in sync, it would be “a little more”, or “f*** yeah!” – nothing remained untouched by the Team America mentality, and it certainly helped break the mood when things got sticky!

Team America: World Police is, quite simply, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s new masterpiece. In a way, the boys of South Park have “grown up” and delivered a bold piece of filmmaking that certainly will provoke conversations as well as tears of laughter. The project came about when Parker and Stone wanted to spoof Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow, whose script had fallen into their hands. They thought it was ludicrous and hysterical, and wanted to create a shot-for-shot replica that would show (as if it needed to be) how silly the film really was. Their weapon of choice? Puppets – the same “Supermarionation” kind that graced Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds – and that would present The Day After Tomorrow in this different light.

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But they hit a snag: South Park Studios is tied to a deal with Paramount, while The Day After Tomorrow script was signed to 20th Century Fox, who said it was “no deal” when they found out what Matt and Trey wanted to do with it. With a puppet extravaganza in their minds (the two hate working with “real actors”) Parker and Stone were also denied their own chance to resurrect Thunderbirds itself when Universal made the equally-as-bad-as The Day After Tomorrow live-action movie of last year. And so a new challenge was set: hit the topics of the day head on, in puppet form, with an explosive take on the war on terror. The film is even more remarkable when one considers it was announced in March of 2004 and released just over six months later, made during the pair’s break between South Park seasons.

Attacking just about everyone and everything, it’s not just the terrorists that get the predictable jab in the arm from Matt and Trey, co-writing again here with secret weapon Pam Brady. Seemingly aware that the US is as derided in some circles as those who finish their lives to take others, the two put as much of the blame for current situations on their own country as well, with the Team of the title being a rambunctious lot who end up causing more mayhem and destruction as those deliberately planning it!

Though it came out last fall in the States, we had to wait until earlier this year to catch Team America in the UK. I saw it twice in one week, cracking up at the smallest of details and picking out the tiniest of references. It’s not just the visual and comically written script of the film that had me in hysterics, but the way that some shots literally look as if they have been “stolen” on the sly – there are several takes where one can just imagine the puppet being lined up, the handler moving away and the camera whipped out, set up and shooting before any authorities knew the guys were even in the vicinity! It’s this type of thing that had me laughing in tears, and the intentional humor (Kim Jong Il’s “panthers” being possibly the most genius aspect in an otherwise genius film) was just icing on the cake.

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True, Team America is certainly not for everyone – some of the group I saw it with felt the second half was much slower, and I have to agree, not that it makes it any less funnier. A weak point is the Michael Bay/Bruckheimer/Pearl Harbor-bashing song, which, though its sentiments are in the right place, isn’t the cleverest of targets (the rest of the film does that so much better). On my visit to New York in February, we caught it two and a half times on the hotel’s pay-per-view channel (don’t ask about the “half” time, that was more down to copious amounts of alcohol and my colleague accidentally turning the thing off!) as well as several screenings of the Academy screener sent out for the film’s consideration for the Oscars. But I have to say that I just find the film inexcusably funny, and it cracks me every time, from the obnoxious nature of the characters, to their line readings, which often strike the funny bone in their own right.

Those who don’t like the scatter-shot humor of Parker and Stone’s previous work (South Park, of course being their signature) won’t get much out of this film, though those who couldn’t compare it to the South Park: Bigger, Longer And Uncut feature in terms of quality may change their mind when they catch it again on disc. True, the songs aren’t quite “up there” with BLU’s hysterically spot-on parodies, and the script isn’t as tight, but the sheer puppetry nature of the visuals is enough to get me going every time. And just check out those visuals (tagged “supercrappymation” by the boys)! Most remarkable of all is director of photography Bill Pope’s attachment. As the cinematographer of the Matrix and Spider-Man sequels, he was itching to get away from the special effects blue-screens of those films and go for something a little more “real”. I’m not sure he got his wish as regards to the script, but there’s no denying the awesome set ups and attention to detail (puppets using puppets, the astonishing replication of Times Square, Lisa’s Indiana Jones-styled dress, the Star Wars cantina, the incredible depiction – and destruction – of Paris, Spottswoode and his glass of whisky, always intact even when the base is blown to bits).

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The film is being offered in two flavors: original theatrical (pass) and this Uncensored And Unrated edition. That’s a bit of marketing speak actually, since this version is the original cut that Matt and Trey handed in to the MPAA for certification – only to have an NC-17 slapped on the film for its graphic sex scene. Team America: World Police was withdrawn and re-cut a number of times before an R rating could be secured, with the promise that the missing shots would be reinstated for DVD. And reinstated they have been – an extra minute of hysterically graphic puppetry in which the words “shower” and “golden”, and “steamer” and “Cleveland” come to mind! It’s not as if the shots have been added in – they were always intended to be there, and as such, I recommend this (original) cut of the film, and not the R-rated theatrical version.

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Team America: World Police is going to be a massive hit on DVD, and is destined to become a big cult favorite over time, if not already by those who have seen it. The jokes come thick and fast and the film deserves multiple viewings to pick everything up, as well as the nuances and clever subtleties (yes, they are there!) in the dialogue and scenes. That Matt and Trey don’t really end up taking any political side is not really the point: their commentary is on the world at hand and it’s fairly easy to see where they sit if one wants to read between the lines. This film is NOT FOR KIDS, and only then should suitable mature adults view it, with minds as broad and open as anyone could ever expect. There’s so much more I could ramble on about this movie, but in the end, and like all good films, it is beyond description and speaks for itself.

TA:WP is, simply, a hell of a fun ride, which sets out to offend as many as possible and wears that heart on its sleeve. Whether you are offended or not (and quite a few more obvious targets go un-checked) will be down to how outwardly serious you take yourselves. Yes, the issues are real (a premeditated flooding is a rare sombre moment, where the lack of humanity in real terrorist acts is taken seriously and provides a haunting sequence that struck chords even pre-tsunami disaster) and it could be argued that the humor is in poor taste. But isn’t it just great that we live in a world where films that push the boat out like this can be made, whatever their personal views and worldwide acceptance? And isn’t there some delicious irony to the fact that I was able to pick up the soundtrack CD to the movie on my trip to New York? Maybe, maybe not…but I do know that Team America: World Police is a very, very funny piece of satirical work from perhaps the best satirists working today.

Is This Thing Loaded?

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Those who complained that Matt and Trey’s South Park movie didn’t come with a whole second disc full of features (a special edition is still rumored) will be pleased to hear that TA:WP is a disc packed with bonus goodies. I’ll get the disappointment out of the way early – there’s no commentary – since, as anyone who follows the South Park duo knows, the boys don’t really like to comment on their work (and it’s all pretty much covered by the materials here anyway). I should also point out, before continuing, that the extras themselves are pretty near the mark and contain plenty of clips from the movie, including its strong language.

The disc spins for the first time with an MPAA anti-piracy commercial (for all those who end up copying the disc and removing it anyway) as well as four skippable previews for nothing relating to the main feature other than a push for South Park Season Five (old news – when’s the next one out?) and a trailer for a new movie starring the fool Sandler. The main menu plays the signature tune, America, F**k Yeah! loud and clear, so make sure that the sound is low, or that little ones are absent from the screening. The design reminded me of the James Bond 007 special editions, with revolving electronic gadgetry bringing to mind typical spy and espionage imagery, all carried out with the over the top brio and explosive action from the film – good fun!

In lieu of a commentary, we get one of the boys’ usual mini-commentaries in the form of Team America: An Introduction, which lasts five minutes, and is recommended viewing after the main feature, as it gives away many of the best moments. Trey Parker and Matt Stone run you through the movie, sharing their ideas on the team, the film, the characters and their attitude toward actors. Seemingly made to promote the film back last October, it covers the reasons they wanted to make the film and cuts in a fair amount of action from the movie, though doesn’t reflect how they feel post-release about the finished piece or the reaction it got.

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A series of featurettes are next, going fairly in-depth on the behind-the-scenes production of the film. Building The World looks at what went into constructing the intricately elaborate environments (including a croissant-paved Paris!) that the characters walk through (and blow up). The twelve-minute forty-second clip centers on production designer Jim Dultz, who proclaims quite correctly that Team America “without question will be the biggest puppet movie ever made”. Yep, he said “will be” and as such confirms that all of this material comes from during the rapid-fire shoot itself, which as mentioned above was squeezed in between South Park seasons for Matt and Trey. That the footage doesn’t have the retrospective angle doesn’t bother so much here, since it feels like we’re placed right in the action with the crew, and it all feels rather exciting! Along with plentiful still photographs documenting the shoot, we get snippets of on-set shooting, which really show the scale, challenge and tricks used in putting it all together – thank goodness Paramount has seen fit to allow rewind and pause functions to work, since I stopped and re-watched several of these shots repeatedly to catch various things.

The eight-minute Crafting The Puppets takes a similar approach to the work put into creating the Thunderbirds-styled marionettes and the advances in technology that allowed the characters’ faces to achieve much more believability than the Gerry Andersons of old could ever do. Going through the various stages, we hear from the puppet crew on how they approached the Design, Construction and Costumes of the characters. One part that had me rolling over laughing was where the sculpting of the celebrities was talked about, and where the real-life photos of those in question were pixellated out, though not without giving a fair idea of who they were targeting!

Pulling The Strings, running ten minutes, sees things through the eyes of the puppeteers, and the rehearsal and re-working required as Trey and Matt came up with new things everyday on set. There’s tons of production footage mixed in with the talking heads, and this one really portrays the nuts ‘n’ bolts mechanics of actually making the thing. Best of all is the term used for the puppet servo controls that is nothing to do with, but may be very familiar to Disney fans: CAPS, here an acronym representing the Computer Aided Puppeteering System. But that’s how far the computer goes in assisting the show – everyone here takes great pride in the fact that everything on film is “real” and not the result of CG tinkering.

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The extraordinary participation of cinematographer Bill Pope is explored next, in Capturing The Action, which runs just over six-and-a-half minutes. Parker and Stone explain their surprise that Pope would want to “sully his career” by shooting their puppet movie, and their reasons for wanting such an established action film oriented director of photography on board. Pope reciprocates by describing how fed up he was shooting green screen elements in his recent films and the attraction of filming real practicals appealed to him very much. The three speak about how Matt and Trey lent on Pope for the technicalities and how Pope was pushed to rethink how he himself works, a fact exemplified by the way the miniature shoot was taken into account and allowed for shots that could never be achieved on a full-scale live-action set. Pope also goes into how some of the more elaborate set ups were shot, and how he saw the boys’ take on the action genre manifest itself in the project.

Miniature Pyrotechnics looks at the amount of stuff blown up in Team America (“because if not, it’ll just go collect dust some place”). All the techniques that go into exploding something and making it look “real” are gone into, including how to “control” fire so it looks like a huge fireball coming at you from down the street. Lots of on-set footage and run-downs from SFX supervisor Joseph Viskocil, who here used the same team as performed the same operations in movies such as Independence Day, Godzilla and Volcano, illustrating again that the trick to why the film looks so good is down to hiring the right guys. This clip runs just shy of five minutes.

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The feature’s villain gets the once over in the five minute Up Close With Kim Jong Il, showing the progression from concept to fully realized puppet lampoon of this real-life figure, whom everyone seems to be genuinely fascinated with. The trick of getting the puppet’s glasses to look right on camera is touched on, demonstrating again the level of work that goes into seemingly simple aspects of production, as well as Trey Parker’s wish that film fan Kim’s signature song, Ronery, gets nominated for an Oscar so that he might be personally persuaded to come and sing at the Academy Awards. Sadly, of course, that wasn’t to be, though the thought is intriguing!

With the 45-minutes or so of featurettes over with, we move on to a number of Puppet Tests. None of them here are placed in any form of context, though it is clear that they were created early on, possibly as proof of concept and to get everyone in the right frame of mind for filming the movie. First up is a Dressing Room Test that is a dry run for the scene in the movie when team head honcho Spottswoode approaches Gary to join up. It plays roughly in the same way and with the same script as ended up in the film, although there are several obvious changes, and I just wish that they’d left Spottswoode’s line in after Gary asks if he’s from Hollywood, since it’s totally in keeping with his character and would have been yet another classic line. It’s also nicely directed, offering a way cool drink pouring gag and suitably filmic entrance shot for Spottswoode.

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As is mentioned in one of the featurettes previously, Spottswoode was the first puppet created and so he carries the prototype character work seen in the next collection of tests. An early mock-up set is the environment for some frankly bizarre moments where the puppeteers get to grips with the control of the character, attempting to sync their actions to a temporary voice track (likely Parker). The written material here directly references the attack on the World Trade Center and is a little more in the way of plot exposition than anything and it’s clear why this didn’t end up in the movie in finished form. The movement here is rudimentary, though it progresses as the clips play out and there are even some “real world” tests that are peculiarly amusing in themselves. All told, the tests run just over six minutes, and are presented in their original 1.33:1 full-frame ratio.

Proving that the unrated version of the movie isn’t just a marketing gimmick where all the extra footage has been inserted back in, we’re offered some Deleted/Extended Scenes and Outtakes, all presented in 2.35:1 letterbox. These moments, some of which popped up on the internet during the film’s theatrical rollout, are all keepers, being a mixture of completed sequences and on-set flubs by the puppeteers and voice artists. Best of all are a Winnie The Pooh gag, Gary’s Matrix-inspired fight inside Kim Jong Il’s palace (“Ping pong, ping pong!”), which still feels like its “missing” in the film due to an abrupt cut, a silent shot of Parker directing the puppeteers on the set of the spoof Lease show, and a surprising spin on the UK’s BBC News 24, complete with the graphical style used on that channel. Ten scenes are offered, with a handy Play All option running all the clips together for a total of six minutes playing time.

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Coming near to the end now, and we’re presented with six scenes in Animated Storyboards form. Taken from a video source, the clips run a combined twelve minutes and only the Paris opening reflects anything that ended up in the finished movie. The rest play more like deleted, or at least completely alternate scenes, including a flashback for Gary, and one set in Kim Jong Il’s bedroom and featuring the “wubbly, wubbly” and scantily clad Lisa! As usual with initial storyboards, most of what plays left to right was eventually flipped in the final movie, and there are numerous script changes and different line readings, which make these very revised sequences even more hilarious and interesting to check out.

Finally, two Theatrical Trailers and the skippable previews from the front of the disc end the package. Both trailers work very well as comic pieces in their own right, especially the teaser, which announces the names of those who will be really, really annoyed when they see the movie! The second, fuller trail features more scenes from the movie, cut with typical panache in the style of those empty-headed action flicks the film so mercilessly apes. Both are presented in 1.85:1 letterboxed format, which reveals the film was shot, as with Pope’s Spider-Man 2, to a negative with a slightly taller aperture than the 2.35:1 theatrical ratio, possibly for a fullscreen transfer, though it still clips the sides and there’s no doubt from watching the supplementary footage that 2.35 is the correct, intended framing.

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Sadly, this disc has no I.N.T.E.L.L.I.G.E.N.C.E. – there isn’t anything added in the way of DVD-ROM material here, but all in all this is a pretty packed and nifty little collection of bonuses. Something on the post-production, especially the original music score and the songs, would have really added to the package, though this is more down to the materials being put together while the film was still in production more than anything else. However, there’s an abundance of background material and information on the film here that really reveals, apart from the fun they had making it (and we have watching it!), what a real challenge it was and how the real-life team were able to pull off this amazingly intricate and detailed feat. If this were any other movie, it would be hailed as a technical masterpiece. Shame that some people couldn’t get behind what was being presented to them to see that… oh wait – that’s one of the themes of the movie!

Case Study:

A standard black keepcase, with those danged Paramount clippers on the sides. I never know whether to snap ’em off (thus making the case look broken) or keep ’em on, making the disc that much more fiddly to get to. Ahh, that this is the least of my problems, but it’s a shame that other studios are picking up on this trend. No insert is provided, and interestingly the back of the sleeve doesn’t spoil with any synopsis, allowing those who haven’t seen the film yet to come to it completely afresh.

Ink And Paint:

The film’s action-epic look of 2.35:1 has been preserved with a strong showing on disc, with 16×9 anamorphic enhancement that keeps the image clean and rock steady. The squeezing of the added material onto a single disc may not have been the best idea, but since we’re talking about a created world as opposed to something with all the detail our real one has, there’s a lot that can be gotten away with, and the false-perspective sets mean that nothing ever gets out of focus and therefore tricky for the compression to handle. Surprisingly, for such a new release, there are quite a few nicks and scratches here and there (if you’re really looking for them, and I was) since this was shot on good old-fashioned film, but overall this is a pleasingly sharp image, with good black levels and bright contrast – I have to say it looked very crisp and cinematic on my SharpVision projector, with just the right amount of grain delivering a very film-like presentation.

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Scratch Tracks:

As befitting a movie that spoofs the excessively bang, crash, wallop punch of those Jerry Bruckheimer flicks, Team America delivers the same deep bass rumbles and dynamic soundtrack one would expect. Dialogue is stuck front and center, but when the Team head into action, the world comes alive with multi-directional effects and whooshes that really put some real world action films to shame. No doubt the intention was to poke fun at those mixes in general, but what we have here really works well in a home theater set up. The subwoofer gets a thorough LFE workout, not least from Harry Gregson-Williams’ score. A late replacement for South Park: Bigger, Longer And Uncut’s Marc Shaiman, Gregson-Williams was brought in for that authentic sound, and as someone coming from Hans Zimmer’s Media Ventures family, the music is as bombastic as it should be (Shaiman’s songs, including the hysterical Kim Jong Il “want song” Ronery, remain in the film). The 5.1 track is the one to go for, but the 2.0 surround mix does its job well, for those who need it. A French (!) dub is also included, as are English and Spanish subtitles.

Final Cut:

Attacking all sides of the political war for and against terror, Team America: World Police is biting satire at its best, taking Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s South Park humor to its logical conclusion. Targets are hit and missed, and the boys don’t quite commit themselves to voicing a true opinion, but that the film treats everyone – including a Bush-styled US – equally surely says something. It’s also, as with the South Park movie, a very clever parody of the kind of film it actually is, packing in all the clichés and moments that have come to epitomise the word “formula”. And yet, Team America is so much more than all this: it’s a riotous hour and a half that deserves multiple viewings, and is a great “audience movie” that will surely go down well with liberally minded guests at movie night parties. If I told you about a movie that raises some questions, pushes the boundaries and astounds with its frank content, you’d want to see that movie, right? Well, see Team America: World Police, and don’t forget to make sure the kids are out of earshot. MAAATT DAAAMON!

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

tawp-16.jpg MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD

 

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