Film #80: Team America: World Police (2004)

film 80 team america world police

Rating: 4/5

“Remember, there is no “I” in Team America.”

How timely that, just as Alec Baldwin announces his decision to leave the public eye, we watch a film that completely, utterly, and entirely rips him – and a substantial number of other actors, it must be said – to shreds. Of course, it’s not just actors that come under the firing line here; almost everyone is insulted at some point. That’s the beauty of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who manage to make fun of everyone in crude, juvenile, immature ways – yet somehow the result is not only inoffensive, but quite astute. Team America: World Police, a sometime musical and love letter to the Thunderbirds style of puppetry, is typical Parker-Stone fare, political yet stupid, crude and clever, and best known for two things: Kim Jong Il singing “I’m so Ronery” in his vast mansion; and the puppet sex scene. Having seen the film multiple times, the novelty has worn off but my appreciation still remains. And, honestly, the puppet sex is still rather funny.

Despite the opening sequence featuring a clever puppet show within a puppet movie, there is little acknowledgement of the film’s distinctive creative choice, to its benefit. Its visual absurdity is made all the more ridiculous because of this, and there’s such pleasure to be had from the simplest of actions – the puppets bouncing off screen instead of walking, the secret signal (frantic arm waving) to get actor extraordinaire Gary out of the clutches of the middle eastern terrorists. There are sight gags a-plenty, perfectly matched with a script that is equally as funny, and just as daft. Despite the literal small scale of the film’s production, Team America is also easily one of the largest, most destructive disaster movies around – Michael Bay must be so jealous. Just consider how much destruction occurs thanks to the incompetence and sheer arrogance of the team – how many landmarks get obliterated. Of course, it’s hardly a unique gag, making the “heroes” more dangerous to humanity than the bad guys they’re trying to stop, but undoubtedly it works.

Team America‘s plot blends political satire with general crudeness – the team exist to stop terrorism and, armed with a vast arsenal and a general conviction of their authority and greatness, aim to rid the world of a random assortment of foreign enemies. Needing someone to infiltrate one of the terrorist cells, they enlist the help of Broadway actor Gary, who begrudgingly dons some brown face paint, a smattering of facial hair and, with an actual towel on his head, convinces the terrorists he’s one of them. Their conversation – a wonderfully offensive interpretation of random Middle Eastern dialects – is one of the most quotable moments in the film. Of course, soon it transpires that these baddies are merely… puppets… (haha!) and the true villain of the piece is none other than Kim Jong Il, then leader of North Korea. It’s a perfect choice of enemy; Jong Il remains, even in death, an enigma. In fact, the film is perhaps even more interesting when viewed today – I wonder when Parker and Stone will turn their sights onto the dictator/ great leader’s son, who is just begging to be parodied by the irreverent pair.

It’s not just foreign powers that get ripped – Parker and Stone never forget about their home country. Given their penchant for attacking Hollywood, it’s unsurprising that actors bear the brunt of the pair’s comedic wrath; Jong Il at least gets a sympathetic musical number to justify his desire for global domination, but Alec Baldwin gets no such excuse. The Film Actors Guild (most frequently referred to as FAG, conveniently) features a great array of actors convinced of their own self-worth beyond the big screen – Sean Penn, Michael Moore, Susan Sarandon, and a mentally challenged Matt Damon (among others). It all culminates in an epic showdown that, while impressive, doesn’t quite match the carnage of the film’s opening scenes.

By the end the joke does, perhaps, wear a bit thin, but for fans of Parker and Stone’s cleverly crude humour, it’s a blast. Their ability to reduce even the most complex of ideas to toilet humour and cock jokes is to be commended – and I mean that completely sincerely. Team America: World Police marked a significant transition in the pair’s careers, hinting at their future desire for Broadway success (which they achieved when they brought The Book of Mormon to the stage – if you’ve not seen it, it’s superb) and demonstrating their sometimes uneasy relationship with the rest of the film industry (it’s perhaps telling that Gary’s acting does actually save the day in the end) and their home country (despite their arrogance and obliviousness, Team America are the film’s heroes). Like the later series of South Park – particularly those around Obama’s election – Team America proves that Parker and Stone have their finger firmly on the pulse of current affairs, and in the decade since this film was released, it remains just as relevant, just as crude, and just as funny.

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Film #69: Mary and Max (2009)

film 69 mary and max

Rating: 5/5

“When I was young, I invented an invisible friend called Mr Ravioli. My psychiatrist says I don’t need him anymore, so he just sits in the corner and reads.”

I remember Mary and Max showing at Edinburgh International Film Festival a few years ago, where it received very positive reviews. Unfortunately, trying to market a stop motion, mostly narrated film about two pen-pals is not necessarily the easiest thing to do, yet despite its limited cinematic release it’s still managed to enter into IMDB’s top 250 films – quite an achievement, all things considered, and a testament to writer-director Adam Elliot, who has created a movie that is both heart-warming and utterly devastating, desperately sad yet very funny.

Mary and Max is almost entirely narrated by Barry Humphries, whose matter-of-fact, warm tone is perfect to tell the two characters’ stories. He tells the tale much as one would read a children’s book, but the contents are far darker and more adult than any kid’s story; the bleak upbringing that Mary endures and the isolation surrounding Max are somewhat tempered by the calm, straight-forward language and Humphries’ voice. The two lonely souls meet by chance, when eight year old Mary, living in the Melbourne suburbs with a rarely-seen father and an alcoholic mother, picks a name out of an American phone book at random so she can write and ask where American babies come from (her mother has told her that Australian babies are found in the bottom of pints of beer). The name she selects turns out to be that of Max (voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman), a morbidly obese, awkward man living in New York. The two bond through their correspondence – two kindred spirits, living on opposite sides of the world.

Central to the film is the ways in which Mary and Max help each other – she views the world as a child does, and he responds to that in much the same way. While Max’s awkwardness is obvious from the outset, the extent of his problems are far more subtly introduced. It’s not until perhaps half way through the movie that mental illness is specifically mentioned, and his eventual diagnosis will come as no surprise. Yet it’s beautifully handled; the filmmakers’ never ask their viewers to take pity on the characters and, instead, it’s the friendship, and the ways in which that friendship both helps and challenges each character, that is most important.

Visually, Mary and Max is a treat – a wonderfully realised stop motion world with oddly maudlin-looking people. Mary’s world, the Australian suburbs, comprises of various warm brown tones; Max, living in an old tenement flat in New York, is surrounded by a monochrome city – the only splashes of colour in the film, and in their lives, are sporadic dots of red (the flirtatious lips of a woman at Max’s “over-eaters anonymous” group; a pompom Mary sends Max). The colour scheme perfectly reflects the tone of the film and the emotions of its central characters, who are further complemented by the beautiful animation, which is easily as distinctive and polished as Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s stop-motion, and as humorous as Aardman’s (Selick’s Coraline, a nightmarish, wonderful film released in the same year as this, garnered an Oscar nomination; despite Elliot’s previous Academy success for short film Harvie Krumpet in 2003, Mary and Max enjoyed no such recognition).

While it is Humphries’ voice that carries us through the years, as Mary grows older and Max grows wider, both Toni Collette (as the older Mary) and Hoffman should be commended – Hoffman in particular brings Max to life. The voice-over narration, initially disconcerting, adds to the lyrical, story-book style of the film, carefully commenting on the visuals at times, bringing a certain degree of tongue-in-cheek irony to the story. It is, by the way, inspired by Elliot’s own pen-pal correspondence; he has invented Mary (who shares more than a little with the title character in Muriel’s Wedding, also starring Toni Collette) but the friendship at the centre of the film is genuine. Like Mary, Elliot has yet to meet his pen-pal. It is perhaps this real-life inspiration that has ensured such humanity and warmth to the film, despite its rather bleak subject matter. Elliot’s script, with its moments of black humour and its often childlike response to events and situations, delicately ensures that the depressing elements of the story are lightened by some much needed comedy that never threatens to compromise the overall tone of the film. I laughed and giggled, then spent a substantial amount of time crying. Yet although it’s heartbreaking, Mary and Max is, in the end, full of hope – it’s a cliché to say “life-affirming,” but despite my tears, I found my faith in humanity restored.

Film #56: A Town Called Panic (2009)

film 56 a town called panic
Rating: 5/5

“Oh no! C’est ton anniversaire?! OH NO!!!”

If ever there was a film liable to make your head explode, this is it. A Town Called Panic, one of the most inventive, utterly bonkers movies of the last decade (and one of my favourites of 2009) is a brief seventy five minutes of sheer lunacy from the Belgian animation duo Stephane Aubier and Vincent Patar. The names might seem unfamiliar but a surprisingly large amount of (UK) readers will probably have seen several of their shorts: these are also the people behind those bizarre, manic Cravendale milk adverts. If you remember them, with the footballer (?) and friends whose fridge takes them back in time to provide Cleopatra with the appropriate kind of milk for her baths, or the angry bull who gets de-spotted on a milk-flume, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect from A Town Called Panic.

Aubier and Patar’s film follows the exploits of three housemates – Cowboy (played by Cowboy), Indian (played by Indian) and Horse (played by Horse). Really, the chaos ensues when Cowboy and Indian realise it’s Horse’s birthday, but they’ve neglected to buy him a present. Their master plan? Build him a barbecue, of course. So they go online and buy some bricks, but accidentally purchase 50 million of them, instead of 50. Inevitably, everything goes a little bit pear-shaped: their house collapses under the weight of the stashed bricks; someone (or something) keeps stealing their walls; their neighbour is wrongfully imprisoned; our intrepid heroes end up travelling to the centre of the Earth (and also underwater); a giant penguin robot throws huge snowballs at unsuspecting deer; and poor Horse just wants to get to his music lesson. If you think it sounds incoherent, it’s actually not. It is, of course, insanity, but the really fun, surreal kind of insanity, and just short enough to allow viewers to remain largely unscathed by the whole experience.

It’s not just the narrative that is manic: in truth, it’s Aubier and Patar’s animation style that really threatens to fry the brain. They offer audiences the antithesis to the crisp, polished stop motion animation of the likes of Aardman (Wallace and Gromit), Tim Burton (The Corpse Bride), and Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) – while Aardman’s creations occasionally reveal their hand-crafted nature through the faint indentations of a finger print, Aubier and Patar have apparently barely even bothered to make their own models. Cowboy and Indian stand on little green platforms, instantly reminiscent of cheap childhood toys (although, it should be pointed out that at one point Indian gets such a shock that he falls off his); Horse may as well be bought out of a poundshop. The same goes for the rest of the “cast” – the assortment of farm animals and some equally crudely realised people living in the village appear, at first glance, to be bought from a local toy shop for less than a tenner. One almost expects to see the “Made in China” stamp on the bellies of the pigs.

Yet, using this rudimentary style, something quite wonderful is created. The stop motion appears crass, almost, but the artistry and sheer style of the finished product is something truly unique and, in an unconventional way, often rather beautiful. The characters move in unnatural, disconcertingly jerky motions – their constant physicality making up for their unchanging appearance (their expressions, for example). Yet they are utterly expressive at all times despite this facial inertia, although the voice artists should be equally included in this success, due to their quick-fire, frequently hysterical (in both senses of the word) interpretation of the script. Meanwhile, the backdrops and settings are inspired and powerfully cinematic; simple painted skies and basic model landscapes instantly capture the deceptively amateurish aesthetic. And, despite the literal size of the characters, Aubier and Patar never scrimp on their ambitious creativity – this is a film on a vast scale, both narratively and visually. As Cowboy, Indian, and Horse travel around the world – far from the comforts of their little village – the places they travel to are impossibly grand. Just consider the extreme long shots underwater, for example, or their exit from the tiny igloo into the snowy wasteland.

To be honest, I’ve barely scratched the surface of this piece of madness. A Town Called Panic is a very tangible film; relying heavily on slapstick and physical humour, its visual appeal is difficult to really do justice, its dialogue might appear stupid or repetitive when written down. It is a little masterpiece, however, and a surreal, head-shakingly hilarious one at that. Truly, I cannot imagine how anyone who has watched this film could possibly forget it – and if you haven’t seen it, well, trust me when I say, watch it (here’s the trailer to whet your appetite): your understanding of, and appreciation for, stop motion will never be the same again.

Film #42: Waking Life (2001)

film 42 waking life

Rating: 2/5

“They say that dreams are only real as long as they last. Couldn’t you say the same thing about life?”

Ten years after his feature debut Slacker, indie favourite Richard Linklater returns to the meandering, narrativeless form he started with. Waking Life, however, has a more recognisable purpose, despite its lack of plot (in the traditional sense): its protagonist wanders through dreams, meeting a number of pretentious intellectuals who discuss the meaning of life and dreams. Yet “discuss” is really the wrong word, suggesting some kind of interaction or debate – for the majority of the film, the nameless main character (Wiley Wiggins) is a passive observer and listener and, as a result, much of the movie seems like a series of lectures. Whether this appeals or not will most likely be determined by individual taste; personally, I was frequently bored, and found their lengthy philosophical monologues more tiresome and condescending than insightful or deep.

What makes these lectures marginally more interesting is the visual form of the film. After the unconventional animated form of the previous Movie Lottery pick, Waltz With Bashir, Waking Life also eschews live action for animation. Here, however, it is even more hallucinatory in style, taking on the qualities of a delirious trip rather than a dream. Initially shot on hand-held video cameras, the live action of Waking Life has been rotoscope-animated in post-production, and the result is a curious, not always pleasant, experience. While early scenes are fully capable of inducing motion-sickness, with buildings and backgrounds warping and wobbling constantly, thankfully this calms down somewhat as the film progresses, though it never really stops. It’s highly stylised and abstract, reminiscent of cubism and surrealism; faces are unfinished, scenery is roughly implied, and the characters’ dialogue is reflected back in the animated form of the sequences. Yet while I was undoubtedly impressed by the film’s visual flair, it was less enjoyable than disorienting – although, considering the subject matter, perhaps this is the point.

And what about the subject matter? Waking Life‘s intellectualism is at the fore throughout, and Linklater name-drops all the right people (Bazin, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Truffaut) and all the right -isms (existentialism, humanism, nihilism, and so on) to delight the pretentious college student. Its intellectual capital is front and centre at all times, and the way in which it is presented could alternately be viewed as smart, or annoying. There were times I struggled to not roll my eyes at the clichés – a free-thinking quirky twenty-something claiming “I want real human moments. I want to see you. I want you to see me. I don’t want to give that up. I don’t want to be ant, you know?” before proceeding to talk about her plans for a self-aware, ironic, meta soap opera, for instance. These comments, and the many others, are all delivered with an overt sense of sincerity, seriousness and, dare I say, smugness, and perhaps were the film to have adopted a slightly more tongue-in-cheek approach, it may have held my attention for longer. It’s only in the final few minutes that the main character becomes anything more than a blank canvass; his frustration at the never-ending nature of his dream is something that I could relate to.

If I seem especially derisory towards Waking Life, perhaps I can temper that by saying this is not really my kind of movie. Bought on a whim because it looked intriguing, it quickly became clear that I would struggle to stay interested. Fans of Linklater will no doubt get more from it than I did. For example, having not seen Before Sunrise or its two sequels, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s appearance meant nothing to me, although their bedroom scene, jarring in that our dreamer-protagonist is entirely absent, makes more sense now that I have discovered they were reprising their previous roles. Similarly, certain scenes are reminiscent of Slacker, and a number of familiar faces re-emerge (in a fashion). Yet I found my mind constantly wandering away from the film; I zoned in an out, found myself staring blankly at the screen without hearing anything. Perhaps this is a good way to watch a movie that it in essence about the nature of dreaming, and of mindlessly walking through life, but none of the messages, delivered in their incessantly intellectual manner, actually made any impression on me. By writing a screenplay as a series of monologues, Linklater offers no counter-argument to balance what is being claimed and, without debate, my attention rapidly waned. There is no opportunity for self-discovery, no chance to formulate your own opinions, no need to reach your own conclusions. While I can appreciate Waking Life for its visuals, and can understand how certain audiences could praise both its animated style and intellectual content, neither of these aspects were enough; as an experiment, the film is an interesting curio, but I remain underwhelmed.

Film #41: Waltz With Bashir (2008)

film 41 waltz with bashir

Rating: 5/5

“Do you ever have flashbacks from Lebanon?”

Were it not for Movie Lottery, Waltz With Bashir would have languished on my shelves, unopened and unwatched, possibly forever. I should point out that I did see this documentary in the cinema, and was overwhelmingly impressed by it, but its subject matter – the Lebanon war in the 1980s – is not necessarily the most inviting when sitting at home in the evening after working all day. It’s a great example of the kind of film that benefits most from the enforced randomness of our viewing selection and, while I must still confess to know or understand little of the complex politics of the events portrayed, I was horrified and captivated in equal measures.

Writer-director Ari Folman’s Oscar-nominated animated documentary is fascinating on both a technical and a psychological level; recollections of war represented through a distinctively comic-book-inspired aesthetic. Folman’s personal journey is triggered by a friend and former comrade’s recurring dream, which opens the film – a pack of wild, snarling, rabid dogs charging through an urban landscape. There are twenty-six of them, as there always are, and they don’t stop running. It’s a violent onslaught to the senses; as Folman’s friend later explains, his dream is directly related to a specific moment during his war service. While his friend is tormented nightly by his memories of war, Folman doesn’t dream, but this conversation unleashes something in him. Waltz With Bashir is the filmmaker’s attempts to discover why he can’t remember anything about his involvement in one particularly tragic, terrible event – the Sabra and Shatila massacre, when up to 3500 civilians were brutally murdered in refugee camps in Beirut – and why he is suddenly plagued by his own memory, in which he emerges, naked, from the ocean with some colleagues as the sky above him is lit brightly with falling flares.

Folman’s decision to present his story in animated form raises some interesting points. On a purely opportunistic level, it is perhaps the only way his documentary could be made. One interviewee states that he’ll only talk if he’s not filmed; Folman instead asks if he can draw the man and his son playing in the snow. Yet his reasons are not just to ensure his colleagues’ anonymity. Today, with the almost constant images of war on the news and recreated in movies, I’d argue that the general viewing public has become somewhat desensitised. Here, Folman shows us something unique – his memories, and the memories of his friends, are haunting and dreamlike. The animation subtly acknowledges that the images shown are the product of fallible recollections; they can be twisted and warped, they may not be accurate, they are the product of a mind that has been, quite probably, traumatised. Just as Folman himself has apparently locked away the truth to protect himself from his own memories, the images on screen can be fragmented, unreal, stylised, and edited.

The animation also has a direct impact on how the audience relate to the events being portrayed. The images, set against an evocative post-punk 80’s soundtrack, are shown in a detached manner – the lack of realism and the high-contrast graphics remove the viewer from the action, just as Folman has apparently emotionally removed himself from it. In flashbacks, his younger self’s handsome face is tinged with constant sadness but his expression never changes; he is blank, absent. Yet the stylised animation, which is beautifully rendered, creates an emotional barrier between the audience and the events, while simultaneously emphasising the true impact of the violence on those involved – and I mean here the soldiers, rather than the civilians caught in the crossfire. Their coping mechanisms – denial, amnesia, broken memories – reflect their sheer inability to deal with what they have witnessed and what they have done. In a sense, the animation reveals what Werner Herzog might describe as “ecstatic truth” and, just as Folman gets one recurring image stuck in his head, there are many moments in Waltz With Bashir that linger long after the film has finished.

In the film’s final moments, Folman makes the decision to suddenly jolt the audience into reality, showing newsreel footage of the aftermath of the massacre. It’s manipulative, but effective, and serves as a stark reminder that, despite the dreamy beauty that has enveloped the story to this point, these events were real, and dreadful. Thinking retrospectively about the film, I realise that much remains unanswered; yet maybe that is the point. As memories, the truth is only what we convince ourselves of, and our recollections are constantly changing, growing, evolving. Waltz With Bashir seems to acknowledge this, and the result is a harrowing, haunting, and profound documentary that, somewhat ironically considering its aesthetic choices, puts a very human face on a complex war.

Film #17: Wallace and Gromit in The Wrong Trousers (1993)

film 17 the wrong trousers

Rating: 4.5/5

“It was the wrong trousers, Gromit. And they’ve gone wrong!”

It was Easter Monday yesterday and, consequently, there were loads of family friendly movies on television throughout the day, including Wallace and Gromit in A Close Shave (1995). After watching this, it really was coincidence that Movie Lottery’s draw selected its predecessor, The Wrong Trousers, but it was a perfect Easter movie.

The Wrong Trousers is the second Aardman Animations short featuring Wallace, the eccentric inventor, and Gromit, his dog (the brains of the operation), after A Grand Day Out in 1989. It’s difficult to think of any contemporary comedies that are as quintessentially English as the odd couple – they delight adults and children alike and are bona fide mini-masterpieces.

In this adventure, Wallace decides to rent a room out to a lodger to get some extra income. The tenant is a penguin who, unbeknownst to the hapless inventor, is also a criminal mastermind who disguises himself as a chicken by placing a rubber glove on his head. While Wallace is blissfully ignorant of pretty much everything, Gromit becomes suspicious and, worse, begins to feel unappreciated. The film’s title refers to a birthday present given to Gromit – a pair of mechanical trousers that can be programmed to take him for walkies. Naturally, it all goes horribly – well, wrong.

Aardman’s visual designs, beautifully hand crafted plasticine models animated through stop motion, are expertly realised – only the occasional fingerprint reveals the creators’ hard work (and this is a reassuring, home-made touch, rather than a flaw). It is a true testament to the studio that they can create such well-rounded characters despite two of the leads – Gromit and the penguin – not speaking at any point. In fact, Gromit in particular is a wonderful achievement. By manipulating only his eyebrows, the animators manage to convey a vast range of emotions, cleverly exploiting the film’s score to ensure the dog is not only understood, but sympathised with.

The Wrong Trousers is filled with brilliantly realised set pieces and the constant, delightfully clever puns that Aardman has become associated with – from the beautifully designed village to the headlines on the daily paper, there is always something to catch your eye and make you laugh. It is funny, clever, quaint and – particularly during the diamond heist and the subsequent train chase (in Wallace’s house) – both tense and exhilarating. It’s hard to believe this is twenty years old – it still feels as fresh as ever and Wallace and Gromit remain, to this day, firm British favourites.