- The Washington Times - Friday, May 27, 2005

The most astonishing and hilarious movie of last year, “Team America: World Police,” finally has made its belated transition from theatrical to home-video release. The adventure-flick parody from “South Park’s” Trey Parker and Matt Stone ridicules in one fell swoop the U.S. war on terror, a lucrative Hollywood genre, Kim Jong-il, several Hollywood stars and their most conspicuous political propagandist, Michael Moore.

It was never in the cards that such a movie would be in serious contention for Academy Awards. Nevertheless, “Team America,” a marvel of satirical perversity and technical craftsmanship, deserved the Oscar for best animated feature and nominations for best art direction, visual effects, cinematography, editing and costume design. The DVD edition,released May 17 and retailing for $29.98, provides behind-the-scenes featurettes showcasing many of the people responsible for the movie’s conceptual effrontery and pictorial sophistication.

“Team America” hit on a happily brazen way of cutting Hollywood down to size, literally as well as figuratively: The characters are played by 2-foot marionettes.

The timing of its theatrical release was dandy. This uninhibited smack-down of Hollywood cliches and pieties appeared in the wake of a long summer of derision aimed at President Bush and his re-election aspirations. The one-sided malice began with Mr. Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” and continued through such summertime monstrosities as “The Day After Tomorrow” and “The Manchurian Candidate.”

By targeting selected Bush-bashers, notably Mr. Moore and Alec Baldwin, for timely caricature, humorists Parker and Stone restored a bit of balance to the political brawl.

Someone has coined the term “South Park Conservatives,” borrowing the title of the animated TV series that made the Parker-Stone team successful in the late 1990s. I doubt if it’s a flattering coinage to the filmmakers, who seem jealous of their independence and fond of blatantly offensive jokes.

Lest we forget, they also collaborated on a flop sitcom of 2001 titled “That’s My Bush!” that aimed to portray the president as an incorrigible doofus.

The partners display humorous inclinations that echo an earlier maverick, P.J. O’Rourke, an apostate radical who coined the term “Reptile Republican” to describe his turnaround in the 1980s.

The material he encouraged as editor of National Lampoon a decade earlier anticipated the Parker-Stone outlook: Nothing is sacred; everything is fair game for gleeful, indecent ridicule.

“Team America: World Police” is simply too violent, foul-mouthed and obscene to endear itself to spectators who recoil at sick or prurient humor. I still haven’t seen an alternate DVD version of the movie known as the “Uncensored and Unrated Special Edition.”

Hearing of certain details restored to one of the movie’s funniest scenes, an explicit sexual encounter between puppet consorts, I decided I wasn’t quite ready for the filthiest available version of “Team America,” the one that would have tipped the balance from well-deserved R to NC-17.

Maybe I’ll come around eventually. For the time being, I’d rather protect the relative innocence of the post-coital sight gag in which heroine Lisa murmurs “Shhh!” to her partner Gary and lifts a finger to his lips. Being slightly herky-jerky, as the puppets frequently are, she pokes him tenderly in the eye.

Ironically, the industry might have deflected this impudent masterpiece by agreeing to an earlier Parker-Stone brainstorm: They wanted to do the disaster howler “The Day After Tomorrow” as a deadpan puppet extravaganza.

A segment of the DVD that highlights cinematographer Bill Pope, a specialist in live-action, computer-enhanced spectacles for years, notably the “Matrix” trilogy, underlines the fact that Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone know their prototypes. They have the cliches and absurdities of action movies down cold.

“Their analysis is very astute,” Mr. Pope reflects.

So astute that “Team America” puts the models to shame as a streamlined and effective action scenario. It circles the globe and makes a lot of preposterous headway in 98 minutes. Better yet, all the comic payoffs are intentional.

Independent spirit

The death of producer Ismail Merchant earlier this week at 68 ended the career of a commendable civilizing influence within the movie business. A native of Bombay, Mr. Merchant later made New York City his adopted home. Active in the British, American and Indian film industries for two generations, he became identified with a prestigious, art-house brand of filmmaking while partnered for more than 40 years with director James Ivory, an American-born cosmopolitan.

It took them a couple of decades to overcome an often tentative and stiff-jointed approach to literary adaptation. They exemplified an erudite approach to popular filmmaking that was often at odds with mass popularity. It also seemed unfashionable in the 1960s and 1970s, when so-called “traditions of quality” were regarded as stale and overly calculating.

However, because people who read also constitute a considerable percentage of devoted moviegoers, the door was also open to filmmakers who could reconcile vitality with cultivation.

The novels of E.M. Forster seemed to liberate something in the Merchant-Ivory sensibility. They enjoyed a delightful triumph in 1986 with their adaptation of “A Room With a View,” the first Merchant-Ivory production that sustained a fresh and confident mood.

The partners enlarged on their prestige a year later with another Forster title, “Maurice,” and then clinched it for keeps with “Howards End” in 1992. Joined by the screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, also a trusted collaborator since the 1960s, Mr. Merchant and Mr. Ivory owned the once elusive Forster franchise.

Other books were also down their alley, in whole or part: “The Bostonians,” “Mr. & Mrs. Bridge,” “The Remains of the Day,” “The Golden Bowl.” Television audiences began rediscovering the appeal of extended literary adaptations in the 1970s, courtesy of “I, Claudius,” “Roots” and “The Thorn Birds.” Mr. Merchant and Mr. Ivory kept the faith long enough to demonstrate that astute distillation could be a satisfying rediscovery on the big screen.

It’s a pity that the board of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts & Sciences dawdled too long to recognize Ismail Merchant with the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award, reserved for distinguished producers. Only Mrs. Jhabvala has been an Oscar winner. She won for both “Room With a View” and “Howards End.” Her collaborators settled for nominations.

Although a formidable charmer and persuader, Mr. Merchant may not have spent sufficient time in Hollywood to make himself an irresistible candidate. Always an independent, he demonstrated how to sustain an enviable career while remaining largely outside the Hollywood orbit.

He acquired material he liked and worked as often as possible with trusted friends. That example should grow more and more valuable as independents, foreign-born and domestic, proliferate in the modern film business.

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