Thursday, August 13, 2009

Culture Shock 08.13.09: The summer's best 'G.I. Joe' movie isn't in theaters

The most entertaining "G.I. Joe" movie I saw last week wasn't the bloated Hollywood blockbuster currently assaulting multiplexes. Instead, it was the affectionate, five-minute video I discovered online.

"The Ballad of G.I. Joe" is a music video written and performed by Kevin Umbricht and Daniel Strange for the Web site

Give a Hollywood director $175 million to play with, and chances are he won't even get the costumes right.

Yes, I'm looking at you, Stephen Sommers. For that kind of money, I could at least have given Cobra Commander a proper chrome helmet.

But give a couple of musically inclined comedians a shoestring budget, and they'll come up with something special — in this case, "The Ballad of G.I. Joe," which, much like a Don McLean song, tells the story of what our beloved 1980s action figures do when they're not busy shooting at one another.

It doesn't hurt that "The Ballad of G.I. Joe" has a better cast than "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra."

"The Rise of Cobra" stars Marlon Wayans and Channing Tatum. Meanwhile, "The Ballad of G.I. Joe" features Julianne Moore, Billy Crudup ("Watchmen") and musician/actor Henry Rollins. Sure, "The Rise of Cobra" does have Sienna Miller, who is a fetching Baroness. But "Ballad" has Olivia Wilde ("House"). They both look great in that tight, vinyl costume, but Wilde doesn't need a wig for the role.

Did I mention that "The Ballad of G.I. Joe" also gets the costumes right? Cobra Commander actually looks like Cobra Commander. Snake-Eyes, the Joe team's resident ninja, actually looks like Snake-Eyes. Zartan looks like Zartan. It's amazing what not having a lot of money to spend — or waste — can do.

If it had been up to me, I would have let the "Ballad of G.I. Joe" guys make "The Rise of Cobra" instead of hiring the director responsible for "Van Helsing."

Sorry, Stephen. I know "The Mummy" was fun, but what have you done for me lately?

And this isn't the first time the Internet has beaten the Hollywood studios at their own game. For example, "Troops," a short film that mashes up "Star Wars" and the television series "Cops," is far and away more entertaining than George Lucas' prequel trilogy.

The Internet has become a kind of Wild West where talented filmmakers and actors can get noticed, hopefully without getting sued in the process. (To his credit, Lucas is supportive of his fans, even when they make better "Star Wars" movies than he does.)

So, it's no surprise that some of Hollywood's brightest talent is using the Internet to escape small-minded studio and network executives. Joss Whedon's latest Fox TV series, "Dollhouse," didn't find its footing until halfway through its first season, mostly because of network interference. But last year, during the Writers Guild of America strike, he created an Internet sensation with "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," an independent project he and his friends produced. Somehow, "Dr. Horrible" is now nominated for an Emmy award, even though it isn't a TV show.

What these Internet productions sometimes lack in polish, they make up with passion, even if it's in the form of fond memories for toys people played with 25 years ago. A smart studio executive might give these Internet filmmakers some bigger toys to play with — and then get out of the way.

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