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Masters of Puppets

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Seekers of sophisticated satire, and anyone who is easily offended, look elsewhere. Please. If, however, you can see the humor in a movie that skewers Hollywood blockbusters and self-righteous celebrities, casts America as a big bully and drags out a puking scene to operatic lengths, settle in for Team America: World Police. It's easily the funniest (and most tasteless) movie of the year, brought to lifelikeness by a cast of wooden puppets.

Given its title, which pretty much sums up the premise, Team America is surprisingly all over the political map, spraying barbs left and right and impaling targets both obvious (over-the-top patriotism) and seemingly random (Matt Damon). Just about the only topic creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone (aka the South Park guys) leave untouched is the presidential race, with George W. Bush glimpsed only in a brief cameo. Existing in some kind of Jerry Bruckheimer dream universe, Team America's titular squadron of commandos answer not to the White House but to their own cocktail-swilling chief. From deep in their Mount Rushmore lair, the crew await news of terrorist activity so they can rush off, guns and gadgets blazing, and blow up landmarks in the name of global safety.

Horribly inept though they are, Team America believe they're doing the world a great service; the reminder that "freedom isn't free" (in one of the film's many musical interludes) is enough to recruit Gary, a Broadway star whose acting skills become the crew's secret weapon. On MTV's Team America making-of special, Parker and Stone explained that in their film, acting is like the force in Star Wars: It can be harnessed for good or for evil. Evil is personified by the Film Actors' Guild (yes, the abbreviation is milked for guffaws), a coterie of liberal-minded thespians led by Alec Baldwin, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, and real-life Stone and Parker hater Sean Penn, who'll no doubt be unamused by his portrayal here (in the grand tradition of South Park, all celeb voices are impersonated). FAG protests Team America's combative tactics -- which makes sense, since their actions are clearly hideous -- and, in a bold misstep, agree to add glamour to a peace summit for world leaders, improbably hosted by North Korea's Kim Jong Il.

A film populated solely by puppets (marionette bodies and surprisingly expressive animatronic heads), magnificently set-designed (dig that tiny Times Square!) and shot with a sure hand by Bill Pope (cinematographer on Spider-Man 2 and the Matrix movies), Team America achieves a low-tech high point not seen since CG took over the cinematic universe. It's so convincing, a person could almost forget he or she's watching puppets -- until the characters try to fistfight, or point at something, or dance, when hilarity inevitably ensues. Team America's jokey dialogue doesn't always stick, but its many sight gags provide endless, often mean-spirited amusement: Where else can you see a puppet's head explode into a thousand gory pieces?

Like South Park, a show that often uses ca-ca jokes to couch certain astute observations (five words: The Passion of the Jew), Team America does make its point about America's well-deserved bad reputation of late. And though it's not as well executed as 1999's South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, which speared censorship with perfect precision, Team America does have balls, to echo an oft-repeated motif. Not only does it take jabs at stuff a lot of folks won't necessarily feel comfortable laughing at -- weapons of mass destruction, an attack planned to be "9/11 times 1,000!," Sarandon's advancing age, etc. -- it also depicts other countries with deliberate insensitivity, making non-English speakers babble gibberish (the terrorist vocab is pretty much limited to "Mohammed jihad!") and saddling Kim Jong Il with a vaguely racist speech impediment (not that you can really feel sorry for the guy Š it is Kim Jong Il, after all). At its core, though, Team America is truly a self-mocking affair, holding not just America's foreign policy but also our practice of celebrity worship (and the mystifying longevity of director Michael Bay's career) up for scrutiny. And, since it does spring from the South Park gene pool, it also features a soon-to-be-legendary puppet-on-puppet sex scene -- which may or may not be more terrifying than all of the above.

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