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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Sci-fi theft and sick jokes

The Island

Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Michael Bay
Running time: 136 minutes
Language: English
Opens July 23
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Team America: World Police

Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Trey Parker and Matt Stone
Running time: 98 minutes
Language: English
Opens July 30
[See Japan Times movie listings]

The first thing you notice about director Michael "Pearl Harbor" Bay's new flick, "The Island," is how similar it looks to George Lucas' 1971 debut, "THX-1138." Exactly like that film, "The Island" is set in a strictly-controlled future society, where everyone wears pristine white uniforms and emotional outbursts are strictly verboten.

News photo
Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson in "The Island"

Softly synthetic female voices are piped around the gleaming compound's speaker system: "Remember, be polite." "A healthy person is a happy person." As in "THX," it's the same worker-drone nanny-state, cut-off from a devastated outside world.

But then we learn there's a lottery, where the winners get to retire to an idyllic, tropical isle where they can live out their lives in unregimented bliss.

It's not giving away anything that isn't in the preview to tell you that a worker named Lincoln 6 Echo (Ewan McGregor) starts to have suspicious that there is no island, and a terrible fate awaits them. When the woman he's attracted to, Jordan 2 Delta (Scarlett Johansson), "wins" the lottery, Lincoln 6 Echo, convinced there is no "contamination" outside, grabs his honey and makes a dash for the world beyond the walls, pursued by the black-clad security forces.

All this is close enough to the (now mostly forgotten) 1976 sci-fi hit, "Logan's Run," that it wouldn't be surprising if this were a remake . . . except for the fact that it doesn't credit its source. One imagines the director, and his committee of three screenwriters, have great confidence in their legal team.

They'd better, for the steals don't stop here: While escaping, Lincoln and Jordan drop into a basement cavern where they have an "everything you know is wrong" moment straight out of "The Matrix"; they find row upon row of humans being bred in gelatinous synthetic uteri. Without spelling out why, suffice to say that there's a hefty quote of "Blade Runner," which involves implanted memories.

Despite all the "sampling," "The Island" plays pretty well in its first half. The details of this future dystopia are fascinatingly arranged, often with touches of black humor, like when Lincoln's toilet automatically analyzes his urine in the morning and a digital message pops up on the wall warning him to watch his diet. It all looks great, too, with a precarious walkway over a metal canyon covered in holograms being the best use of the computer-graphics budget.

Perennial character actor Steve Buscemi shows up as a crusty engineer, and manages to hoard all the best lines. When Lincoln, unclear of certain "old world" concepts, asks him, "What's God?," he replies, "When you close your eyes at night and wish for something, the guy that ignores you, that's God."

Up through Lincoln and Jordan's flight from the compound, everything's fine, but once their pursuers -- a group of mercenaries who look like extras from a ZZ Top video -- catch up with them, the violence kicks in harder than expected. A nail gun sticking a guy's hand to the door is the first bit of gruesomeness, but it's not the last.

Director Bay's normal instincts kick in, and thus begins an orgy of destruction, mayhem and 120-decibel auto-pileups that hardly lets up for the rest of the film. This is thrilling at first, but as one chase scene runs into another, it begins to drag, and the stench of Jerry Bruckheimer action-schlock is hard to ignore. Bay is working without his producer-protege here -- they collaborated on "Pearl Harbor," "The Rock" and "Armageddon" -- but let's just say he learned his lessons all too well.

* * *

"Team America: World Police," the puppet-animation comedy by "South Park" creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, actually plays like a pisstake of Jerry Bruckheimer directing an episode of "Thunderbirds."

News photo
Cast members of "Team America: World Police"

It's all there: the gratuitous explosions; oversize guns; constant flag-waving; and stupid puns before wasting the bad guys. About the only thing missing is Nicolas Cage in the lead.

Parker and Stone wish to ridicule Hollywood popcorn-flick cliche to the limit; Michael Bay is even ridiculed by name in one musical number " 'Pearl Harbor' sucked.").

But if you talk trash like this you'd better be able to walk the walk, and unfortunately, that's not the case here. "Team America" is every bit as moronic and insipid as "Pearl Harbor," just more obnoxiously so.

The story follows the SWAT-style supersoldiers of Team America as they sally forth from their secret headquarters deep inside Mount Rushmore to combat terrorists across the globe. The first scene, in which the World Police successfully thwart Arab terrorists from exploding a weapon of mass destruction in Paris -- while destroying half the city, including the Eiffel Tower, in the process -- speaks volumes on the ironies of current U.S. foreign policy. But liberals who smirk at this scene may be less amused when a hot-dog gorging Michael Moore appears as a suicide bomber and blows up Mount Rushmore.

Spottswoode, the controller for Team America, tries to recruit actor Gary (a Leonardo DiCaprio lookalike puppet) to work as a spy for TA, and -- in a canny parody of Hollywood's rote "love interest" in every action flick -- he agrees after falling for Team member Lisa. Meanwhile, Kim Jong Il -- yes, the guy with nukes and bad hair and conspicuously absent from the ads for this film -- hatches a plan to detonate WMDs all over the world simultaneously, while the leaders of the world are distracted by a gala event he is holding in Pyongyang. Assisting him in his evil plot is the Film Actor's Guild ("F.A.G.," get it? Sigh . . . ), which consists of traitorously liberal actors like Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, George Clooney, Alec Baldwin and Sean Penn.

The animation here, shot by cinematographer Bill Pope (of "The Matrix" series), is a mix of immaculately designed and lit sets, and the deliberately herky-jerky movement of the puppets. If their acting is, ahem, wooden, then take that as a commentary on all the Ben Afflecks of the world. The doll-on-doll sex scene, shot with an insane gusto, is guaranteed to raise a howl.

"Team America" is best when it doesn't try too hard, when it plays exact ly like the films it's sending up. The recurring line of dialogue, "sometimes, all we can do is believe," sounds like just the sort of vaguely inspirational tripe we get in our blockbuster du jour.

Like "South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut," "Team America" is also full of musical numbers, including Gary's performance in a gay Broadway musical ("Everybody has AIDS"), Kim Jong Il's send-up of Andrew Lloyd Webber in "I'm So Ronery," and the film's rockin' theme song, "America, F*** Yeah!"

Nevertheless, this is a hard film to like unless you're a cynical 16-year-old skater with a taste for the chronic and who absolutely doesn't give a toss about anything. The humor borders dangerously on the homophobic: Aside from F.A.G. and the AIDS musical, there's a scene where Gary is forced to service Spottswoode. Family viewing this is not.

"South Park" has always been as eager to enrage those on the right as on the left, but "Team America" seems strangely unbalanced. Liberals may grimace at the direct ridicule of Michael Moore and Sean Penn etc. but you can imagine the rightwingers cheering along as Paris gets blown to hell; the irony is likely to sail right over the their heads. C'est la vie.

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