<preform>Team America: World Police (15)</br>Vanity Fair (PG)</br>Closer (15)</br>A Hole in My Heart (18)</preform>

Hollywood liberals beware: Virgil Tracy's nephew's gonna get you
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The Independent Culture

If you watched five seconds of Team America: World Police (15) you might guess it was an old episode of Thunderbirds or Captain Scarlet. If you watched it for five more seconds, you'd probably hear some of the most colourful swear words ever to emerge from the mouth of a puppet, at which juncture you wouldn't be surprised to learn that the film was made by the creators of South Park, Matt Parker and Trey Stone.

If you watched five seconds of Team America: World Police (15) you might guess it was an old episode of Thunderbirds or Captain Scarlet. If you watched it for five more seconds, you'd probably hear some of the most colourful swear words ever to emerge from the mouth of a puppet, at which juncture you wouldn't be surprised to learn that the film was made by the creators of South Park, Matt Parker and Trey Stone.

Having established their foul-mouthed comic brilliance with cartoon schoolchildren, they've now moved on to a squad of bazooka-wielding marionettes with more than a passing resemblance to Gerry Anderson's International Rescue crew. Whenever a terrorist surfaces, the Team zooms over in its star-spangled jets and triumphantly obliterates the bad guy, and pretty much everything else in a five-mile radius.

The film is a rip-roaring send-up of those mega-budget action blockbusters in which the hero's broken heart merits a tear-drenched power ballad while the fiery death of a hundred turban-topped foreigners merits nothing but a cheer. Throw in some gratuitous filth and some excellent comedy songs and you have the funniest movie spoof since Airplane. However, Team America has had some commentators scratching their heads over its political sympathies.

For half the time the film appears to mock the US's interventionist foreign policy and for the other half it mocks the Hollywood liberals who oppose it, so whose side is it really on? The key word, I think, is "Hollywood". Parker and Stone don't bother satirising anyone in politics, left-wing or right-wing. What they're targeting is anyone in showbiz who has a political stance - and, more broadly, anyone in showbiz, full stop. It's clear why Parker and Stone specialise in cartoons and puppets, and why they do most of the voices themselves. They obviously loathe actors - and once people have seen Team America the feeling's going to be mutual.

The mistake of Vanity Fair (PG), the film, is to try to enact Vanity Fair, the novel, in less time than it takes to read Vanity Fair, the magazine.

Thackeray's magnum opus runs to a wrist-spraining 900 pages; the film lasts a little over two hours, and while it feels much longer, it still has to rush along so breathlessly that we're like tourists on an organised coach trip. We stop at each beauty spot just long enough to snap a photo or two before being shuttled away to the next sight on the itinerary.

We see Becky Sharp (a sturdily pregnant Reese Witherspoon) as an impoverished artist's daughter, then as a country governess, then as a noblewoman's companion, then as a soldier's wife, and so on, as she claws her way into early 19th-century society. Taken one by one, the scenes are all fine. There's waspish badinage from Julian Fellowes, the Oscar-winning writer of Gosford Park, and it's performed charmingly by an A to Z of British thesps.

But these incidental pleasures are no substitute for plot, momentum and character development, and Vanity Fair's director, Mira Nair, hasn't brought any of these from the novel. She's too busy spicing up the film with Indian flavours, a preoccupation that culminates in a Bollywood dance routine. At the end of our coach trip, we're left with no idea who Becky is or what her life story is meant to signify. For someone named Sharp she doesn't have much of a point.

Most films about relationships are essentially about how those relationships begin or end. Closer (15) is about nothing else. In one scene two characters will get together, and in the next scene we'll have jumped forward a year, and they'll be on their way to a bitter break-up. And it will be bitter.

Although it has its funny moments, Closer is an anti-rom-com, its four characters as callous and deceitful as they can be without being in a Neil LaBute film.

Jude Law plays an obituary writer who moves in with a stripper, Natalie Portman. A scene later, he has the hots for a photographer, Julia Roberts.

But, by a phenomenal coincidence, he unwittingly helps Roberts to pair-off with a dermatologist, Clive Owen. I mention their jobs, but I'd assume that they all moonlight as interrogators for the vice squad. No one else could keep asking questions about sex so relentlessly and clinically.

In fact, the dialogue has an artificial ring because Closer is adapted from Patrick Marber's hit play. And while the lines may have been less jarring - but not much - on stage, in the cinema they betray a playwright who's keener on his own cleverness than on his characters' plausibility. Portman's first line to Law is, "Hello, stranger," and, a few scenes later, Owen greets Roberts with the very same phrase while they're at a photography exhibition entitled "Strangers". Do you think, perhaps, that Marber might be saying that these people are actually all just strangers? I think so, too. Fluently directed by Mike Nichols and uncompromisingly acted, Closer is still more effective as fodder for an English essay than it is as a film.

Nichols and Marber must have thought they were releasing the most misanthropic film of the week, but it's like Mary Poppins compared to A Hole in My Heart (18), which drags us into the rancid minds - and other body parts - of three Swedes shooting a porn video in a high-rise flat. As they get more and more drunk and depressed, their day descends into a fetid orgy of vomit, urine and air-pistol target practice. And all the while the director's reclusive teenage son skulks in his bedroom.

If that all sounds too light and soppy for you, then fear not. The film-makers have edited migraine-inducing rumblings and blasts of white noise on to the soundtrack and shaken up the visuals with stroboscopic flickering and close-up shots of gynaecological surgery. It would probably be shown to great acclaim in a contemporary art gallery or, for that matter, in the backroom of a Soho video store.

What's particularly gob-smacking is that a film which could be one of Irvine Welsh's most feverish nightmares was actually written and directed by Lukas Moodysson, who gave us the humane and heart-warming Together as recently as 2000. His trajectory from that film to Lilya 4-ever to A Hole In My Heart makes me dread to think what he can possibly offer next. A snuff movie?

n.barber@independent.co.uk

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