No strings attached in this wooden satire

The nihilistic 'Team America' uses marionettes to skewer players on both sides of political spectrum.

'Team America: World Police," from the folks who bring us "South Park" on TV, is the latest reminder that alongside the popular Hollywood animations pitched as family fare, there's a whole different brand aimed at a more specialized, mostly young audience.

TV's best example is "The Simpsons," which sometimes is downright shrewd in its observations of contemporary life. "South Park" is different, matching the level of its visuals - stark and simple - to the level of its humor, which is as profane and boisterous as the kids that make up its animated cast.

They reached the wide screen five years ago in "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut," a feature-length parody of everything from R-rated movies to a deal between Satan and Saddam Hussein to rule the earth.

Subtle? Hardly. "South Park" offers occasional gems of sociological humor, and its theatrical spin-off merited points for audacity, even if "Beavis and Butt-Head Do America" scored more satirical bull's-eyes.

It operates mainly on the naughtiness principle, whereby the characters say badly behaved things and we're supposed to hoot with laughter at how mischievous it all is.

In other words, we're asked to regress to the level of the silly, insensitive kids we're watching on the screen. To the degree this happens, the show mocks its own viewers by addressing them in infantile terms - and gets those viewers to join heartily in the process of throwing their own maturity out the window. That's how it seems to me, at any rate, although I don't belong to the show's primary demographic of adolescents and 20-somethings.

"Team America" leaves behind the "South Park" population but carries on its tradition of infantile humor. The title characters, played by marionettes, are a team of action heroes who patrol the planet for terrorists. Their newest member is a Broadway star who signs up when he's told espionage is just another kind of acting. Their chief enemy is Kim Jong Il, the North Korean dictator.

Their chief critics are Hollywood celebrities whose professional society, the Film Actors Guild, provides an acronym that's typical of the picture's homophobic, often racist humor.

Directed by Trey Parker from a screenplay he wrote with Matt Stone and Pam Brady, the film has been eagerly anticipated by devoted fans of Mr. Parker's satire, and by politically minded moviegoers thirsting for a film that offsets the likes of "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Silver City" by aiming its barbs at the left as well as the right. Some will find "Team America" the equal-opportunity parody of their dreams, making fun of everyone from terrorist-hunting zealots to Michael Moore and Alec Baldwin, who get very rough comic treatment.

What deprives the movie of any real impact is the deep-down inanity of its screenplay, which serves up a dozen supposedly uproarious four-letter words and gross-out gags for every touch of meaningful satire.

The net effect is a barrage of jokes that strain to be outrageous - just as the marionette gimmick strives to be different - but wind up canceling each other out.

While it may seem superficially clever to spray the same childish irreverence onto flag-waving militarists, celebrity peaceniks, and everyone in between, the message that emerges is negative and nihilistic, taking no stands whatever - except, I suppose, that all grownups are equally stupid. If you're not a fan of naughtiness for naughtiness's sake, "Team America" is this week's must-miss movie.

'Primer" stands at the other end of the intelligence spectrum, flaunting so many intellectual notions that it's hard to keep track of them.

The movie had its United States première at the Sundance Film Festival, where it collected both the Grand Jury Prize and the Alfred P. Sloan Award for filmmaking that promotes interest in science.

Since then it's been building positive buzz at other festivals.

Written, directed, produced, and edited by newcomer Shane Carruth - who also stars in it and composed the music - "Primer" focuses on four young computer geeks, two of whom are experimenting with an energy-making gizmo they've devised. It turns out to be a sort of time machine that operates by creating a duplicate of whoever is inside.

The inventors decide to exploit its time-travel capabilities by using it to play the stock market, but the doohickey proves more unpredictable than expected, keeping them in confusion during much of the story.

The same goes for the audience, and perhaps Mr. Carruth himself, who seemed a bit daunted when he discussed it after a Toronto film festival screening last month.

At one point he explained an aspect of the plot, then paused and added, "At least, I think so." Then he paused again and said, "It makes sense - doesn't it?"

I don't think Carruth intends to mystify viewers.

He claims the film is logical and coherent if you think about it enough. He also says it's not just a fantasy but a moral tale about young professionals who are "basically kids" and now find themselves facing serious moral questions for the first time.

"They're very young people who wear their office outfits [ties and white shorts] when they work in the garage, even though it's totally inappropriate," he adds, illustrating their naiveté.

"Because the central idea of the film is so fantastical, I felt everything else needed to be grounded in as believable a world as possible."

Carruth's work was enthusiastically received by the jam-packed Toronto audience I saw it with, even though the festival programmer who introduced it said most people's response was likely to be head-scratching.

"Primer" probably won't become a box-office hit, but its low production cost (reportedly $7,000) means it needn't do big business to recoup its costs. Carruth is an original who's not afraid to think - or to ask his audience to do the same.

• "Team America," rated R, contains foul language and an explicit puppet sex scene. "Primer," rated PG-13, has vulgar language.

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