Phil on Film Index

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Review - Team America: World Police

A group of Middle-Eastern terrorists have been spotted with a weapon of mass destruction in Paris. Fortunately Team America, a specialised military group dedicated to wiping out terrorism across the globe, swiftly flies in to save the day. Team America is a terrorist-fighting super-squad which patrols the world, putting a spanner in the works of terrorists everywhere. These ass-kicking heroes make quick work of the villains and the free world is a safe place once more.

Unfortunately, they also manage to destroy The Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and The Louvre in the process.

This is the opening sequence to Team America: World Police, the patchy but hugely entertaining satire from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Made entirely with puppets, strings and all, the film is a frequently hilarious satire which attacks those on both the left and right of the political divide. It also works as a spot-on parody of Hollywood action films, and in particular the offerings of Jerry Bruckheimer, and this aspect of the film is arguably more successful.

The plot centres on Gary Johnston, the most acclaimed actor on Broadway, who is recruited by Team America boss Spottswoode after they lose one of their elite in Paris. Spottswoode thinks Gary's acting skills will be perfect for infiltrating the terrorist network, led by Kim Jong Il, and finding the details of the suspected plot which, we are told, will be 9/11 times 100 ("Jesus, that's 91,100!"). Gary agrees, but only after he's fallen in love with team member Lisa and incurred the wrath of the distrustful hothead Joe. After undergoing surgery to 'become' a terrorist, Gary bravely goes undercover to do his duty. But can he go up against 'The greatest actor in the world' and leader of the Film Actors Guild (F.A.G) Alec Baldwin?

Team America is tasteless, childish, offensive and uneven, but it's also one of the funniest movies to emerge from America in years. Parker and Stone's script is too unfocused to work as a political satire, but as a spoof of Bruckheimer-style action movies it's hard to fault. The cheesy dialogue, false sentiment, clumsy exposition and one-note characterisation of those movies is brilliantly sent up. The first hour of Team America is so full of hilarious moments it's impossible to know where to start. The explicit puppet sex scene is as funny as it is bizarre, weapons inspector Hans Blix meets his match at the hands of Kim Jong Il, who behaves like a Bond villain and talks like Cartman, while songs such as America, Fuck Yeah!, The Montage song, Pearl Harbour Sucked and Everyone has AIDS offer as many laughs as what's happening on screen.

Unfortunately, Parker and Stone are determined to attack the self-importance of Hollywood liberals such as Baldwin, Sean Penn, Michael Moore, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon; and it's here that Team America falters. Too many celebrities are introduced at once and most of them seem to serve little purpose other than to die in increasingly gruesome ways. The likes of Matt Damon, Helen Hunt and Liv Tyler seem especially pointless and the whole actor subplot only offers a few memorable gags ("It's our duty to read the newspapers and repeat what we've read as if it is our own opinion").

In fact, the entire final third of the film seems to run out of steam as Parker and Stone fail to come up with any ideas to match the quality of what's gone before. Team America sadly deteriorates into an endless and repetitive stream of jokes about oral sex and vomiting and it outstays its welcome some time before the credits roll.

However, Team America is a better film than Parker and Stone's previous efforts and is funny enough to let us ignore the occasionally duff moment. The pair behind the film are clearly having a whale of a time with their broad scattergun approach and if you're not too easily offended then the chances are you will too. Team America is like a weapon of mass destruction itself, set to destroy as many taboos and sensibilities as possible, and few of its targets remain unscathed.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Review - Alexander

Turkeys don't come much bigger than Alexander, Oliver Stone's epic biopic of Alexander the Great. This $150 million, 3-hour travesty is confusing when it should be informative, boring when it should be thrilling and the whole thing is (unintentionally) hilarious. It's not much of a surprise, I suppose. Stone's films have become increasingly self-indulgent, messy and uninteresting over the past decade, and Alexander is simply a showcase for everything that's bad about an Oliver Stone picture.

Normally, you can at least expect some decent performances in one of Stone's films but the cast here never seem to be on the same page. Colin Farrell has the task of carrying the picture as Alexander but he struggles throughout with the lame dialogue and thin characterisation, not to mention the blond mullet and dodgy eyeliner Stone has inflicted upon him. It's impossible to believe in Farrell as a great leader whose men would willingly follow to the ends of the earth, he simply doesn't have the stature or charisma to pull it off. I feel for Farrell because he really does give it everything he's got in an attempt to make it work but he has been horribly miscast and there's nothing he can do about it.

One of Stone's biggest misjudgments is the decision to let Farrell play the role with his natural Irish accent. To make this work, all the other actors have to adopt the same accent giving us the bizarre sight of an supposedly Greek army all talking like Irishmen, we even get Mick Lally (Glenroe's Miley Byrne) popping up in the background. What on earth was Stone thinking? It's like some sort of Monty Python sketch. In an early scene of Alexander's childhood, there were howls of laughter among the audience when one of the Greek children asked Aristotle (Christopher Plummer) a question in a thick Dublin accent.

The next off-note performance comes from Angelina Jolie as the hero's nutty mum, Olympias. She has a number of long speeches about how great Alexander is and spends the rest of her time playing with snakes and screaming in a ridiculously camp display. Also, in an effort to be disassociate herself from the rest of the cast I assume, Jolie has adopted a comedy Russian accent for the occasion. The only actor who could mark this down as a success is Val Kilmer who plays the one-eyed King Philip with plenty of fire and depth and is brings a bit of excitement to proceedings whenever he appears.

Stone gives himself three hours to pack in all Alexander's conquests but he never seems to have a clear grasp of where he's going, and we end up with a film that has almost no structure whatsoever. We start with a long, boring look at Alexander's childhood and then leap ahead to see him as the newly crowned King and preparing to fight the Persians (strangely, Stone pulls out a long sequence depicting Philip's death and sticks it in an hour before the climax). There is an endless voice-over from Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) in an attempt to make some sense of the narrative, but it doesn't work, and even the battles are underwhelming.

Stone has two big action sequences, one an hour in and another towards the end, and he makes a hash of them both. Seemingly edited by a blind man with shears, the fights are overlong and confusing and Stone seems completely incompetent in these scenes, failing to make them the least bit exciting or possible to follow. Peter Jackson has raised the bar for this type of thing and the fact that Stone involves elephants in the second battle invites unfavourable comparisons with Return of the King.

However, Stone still seems happier in the warzone than he does when handling the gay aspects of Alexander's life. He has plenty of long speeches with Alexander and Hephaistion declaring their love for each other but doesn't allow them any more than a lot of lingering looks and a few embraces, seemingly terrified of going any further. Despite the fact that lots of Greeks were bisexual or homosexual at the time, Stone only lets loose when Farrell and Rosario Dawson enjoy a sweaty, thrashing, but like everything else boring, sex scene.

There really is nothing to recommend Alexander. Abysmal dialogue, flat characters, a truly awful musical score and Stone's incoherent and clueless direction make it a disastrous mess. Who is responsible for this monstrosity? Stone's films have never made money, and Farrell is unproven as a leading man, yet he was still given $150 million to throw at this rubbish. In The Aviator, Martin Scorsese recently showed the skill of making a three-hour film feel like a 90-minute film. Alexander doesn't feel like a three-hour film either, it feels like a six-hour film and when Ptolemy says, with half an hour still to go, "Alexander should have died in India", you really wish he had.