MeekinOnMovies on….Some Movies For a Change

Howdy Otters – the Ottie Awards are likely coming tonight / tomorrow / Monday depending on when I can get my video editing software working properly / build the right graphics, until then, a round up of movies I’ve seen, including Captain America: The Winter Solider, Wolf of Wallstreet, True Detective, and Saving Mr. Banks.  Also a review of South Park: The Stick of Truth is at the bottom.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

What a rush! While The Winter Soldier naturally refers to the super-powered villian in the movie, it also refers to the role of someone like Captain American in our current America, where the general idea is that we’re very quickly turning into an Orwellian / Minority Report kind of world.

 It tackles questions of security vs. freedom in a surprisingly even-handed way, and finally offers the counter-balance to the “stop spying on us NSA!” thing, which namely is an uptick in things like domestic terrorism. Robert Redford, looking like a non-eye-patched 616 continuity Nick Fury says something like “A Dirty Bomb in Atlanta, an EMP blast in Chicago, it’s inevitable!”, and sadly, it probably is. As technology grows and information becomes more wildly available to those people on the fringe with warped minds, these sorts of events become all the more likely. 

The action is also *awesome* with the hand-to-hand combat being particularly skillful. You can savor all the crazy choreography without feeling like you’re watching a rehearsed dance number, and there’s quite a few action set pieces, including shoot outs, chase scenes, a heist, and a climatic battle that doesn’t end the way action movie flicks normally do, along with some great twists and turns and callbacks that make the movie feel like a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe without it feeling hokey or tacked on.

It’s well acted, too. Scarlett Johansson seems to be doing a Rashida Jones impression, Chris Evans plays a man out of time really well, and Robert Redford brings so much legitimacy to his role that you almost feel bad for the guy. His heart was in the right place, it just got…tangled up along the way.

As far as the post-credits and overall Marvel connective tissue stuff goes, this movie nails it. Perhaps because this is now the 9th movie in that universe, but the call backs and references are becoming both more obscure and more obvious at the same time. There’s a couple of scenes involving a list of ‘targets’ that likely has enough Easter eggs to last you until the resurrection of Christ.

With Guardians of the Galaxy on the horizon, and Avengers coming next year, it looks like the Marvel Universe is in great hands. This is probably the most well-rounded of any of the Marvel Flicks, with the quiet scenes informing the action, the action being satisfying, and the message being front-and-center in a way that makes you think about it, but isn’t up its own ass like in say, The Dark Knight Rises.
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The Wolf of Wallstreet

I saw most of this movie on a post workout high where I was giddy and hyped, so the sheer insanity of this movie was totally welcome. Interesting is that this ultimately a comedy and a farce. It’s even labeled as such under Red Box.
And that it is. When movies claim they’re “Outrageous!” odds are they
often times are trying to hard to be that way. “Wolf of Wallstreet”

Like the best of his movies, this one is about process. We follow Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort through his rise to Wall Street supremacy as he brings friends, drugs, women, insanity, midgets, farm animals, fast cars, expensive suits, and Rob Reiner along for the ride.We understand what penny stocks are, who they exploit, why there’s no backlash from customers for awhile, and generally speaking over the movie’s three hour run-time we understand enough of what Leo and his band of merry men are doing, so that when it goes wrong, or something goes poorly, we get it. Compare this to American Hustle where you get a lot of time on the broad strokes of the various scams, but never really get a sense of the nuances that make them feel real.

It helps this is a true story and adapted from a memoir, allowing you to dig as deep into this subject matter as you want – additionally with the story being told from a first person perspective, when Belfort narrates about the various horrible things he’s done, it comes with remorse, sure, but also a sense of “Can ya blame me? Really, can you?” – as a result the wish-fulfillment aspects – the money, the women, the drugs, the parties, are all just a hint more rollicking and fun because we’re not being hammered with “THIS IS BAD FOR YOU”.

To borrow from Michael Cole, this is vintage Scorsese with a modern twist. Biker ‘Taker if you will. It doesn’t take itself as seriously as Goodfellas, Casino, or Shutter Island and the movie is better off for it. It’s a  ribald parable, the R-rated uncle to “Catch me if you Can” and less stuffy cousin to “Wall Street”. Belfort isn’t Gordon Gecko, he’s the guy someone like Gecko is worried about. Good comedy comes from drama, and boy oh boy does Marty know drama.
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True Detective (I know this isn’t a movie, shut up). 

A good sniff test for a great work of art is that you’re thinking about it after you’ve seen it. Even if you react negatively to something – like American Hustle, if you’re stilling wrapping your head around some of the juicer parts a week later, odds are it affected you in some way. True Detective has been swirling around in my head with every back road I ride down and dilapidated house I see. It’s a show about the horrible things that can happen on the fringe. The fringe of our mind, the fringe of society, the fringe of America, the fringe of the law, and so on. It’s totally bleak and nihilistic, but also darkly funny and poignant, and any time you get someone monologing about 4th dimensionality I’m up for it.

I also had the advantage of seeing six episodes of this show in a row while sleep deprived and on [drug that rhymes with flaccid], which added an entirely new element to the proceedings, which made the disturbing elements all the more disturbing and the awesome moments all the more awesome – including a 6 minute unbroken take scene in the 4th episode that is simply masterful – though I imagine there was a little compositing going on.

Anyway, I feel strongly about True Detective but I don’t have anything very strong to say about it. It’s great, well worth your time, and I can’t believe that Woody Harrelson has become such a reliable force in our entertainment, he’s the new Gene Hackman in that you can find him in some movie somewhere on cable at any given moment.
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Saving Mr. Banks
 
So this is the movie about how a raging anti-Semite and a child-abandoning lesbian wacko come together to make one of the most endearing movies of all time – Mary Poppins. Of course the anti-Semite and Child-abandoning and Lesbian things are completely ignored since this is a for all ages Disney picture, so instead we get a churned-up-inside tart of a woman who has to let go of her most precious possession – Mary Poppins in order to stay afloat financially.

This is a pretty great flick actually if you avoid checking into the ‘real’ story before watching it. It presents about fifty dozen cliches, sure: “The magic of Disney”, “Curmudgeon who doesn’t like fun,”, “Blue collar guy melts the heart of aforementioned up-tight curmudgeon”, and the eventual “Heart to heart between creatives” thing, but they are all executed pretty well.

This is a movie for fans of movie making. I saw it with two people, one who has seen “Mary Poppins” and one who hadn’t, and not seeing that flick makes a lot of the various references and call-backs feel hollow if you don’t know what they’re referring too. It’s weird. They’ll make a joke about how “Dick Van Dyke will never play that role!” and it’s dropped, but because you know what happened in reality, it becomes a funny gag.

The cast includes Tom Hanks as Walt Disney, Emma Thompson playing pretty much the exact same character as she did in Stranger than Fiction, BJ Novak, Bradley Whitford, and Jason Schwartzman as jolly producers writing the movie and music (the “lets go fly a kite” scene in this flick is wonderful and heartwarming even to an old cynic like me), Colin Farrell as Hollywood’s idea of a drunk, and Paul Giamatti as a limo driver with a heart of gold. 

Ultimately, good stuff for the whole family. Not ground breaking, trend setting, or mold breaking, but as far as general Hollywood mass-produced stuff goes, you can do a lot worse.
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 South Park: The Stick of Truth

 If Kurt Vonnegut was the “Moralist with a Whoopee Cushion”,  “South Park” packs a flaming bag of dog doo instead. Through 247 episodes and counting,  “South Park” has grown into itself, the intelligent writing and unique point of view hovering below the scatological surface becoming apparent. Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s brain child became something of a socioeconomic court jester, using Kyle, Stan, Cartman, Kenny, and a supporting cast of dozens to call out society’s hypocrisy and extreme polarization, while being foul mouthed and ribald and touching and scatalogical and subversive and popular and instantly quotable all at the same time.

And now RPGs and “South Park” have combined via Obsidian’s oft-delayed, publisher shifting “South Park: The Stick of Truth”, which is certainly “South Park”’s biggest undertaking in the gaming space, ever, and yet another high-profile licensed title from Obsidian, who’ve previously taken the reigns of “Star Wars” and “Fallout”.  

And “Stick of Truth” plays great once you get your hands around the gelatinous nature of the combat and environmental interaction. By which I mean the tutorial and introduction to the gameplay is anything but solid. A cohort I shared the first four hours with openly cursed when Cartman mocked her inability to parse the strong / weak attack timing mechanics for the fifth time.

Battles are turn-based, fast-paced, input-intensive, and getting comfortable with the timing, item management, and various buffs and debuffs will take a couple of hours, plus one or two more if you want to figure out the best way to synergize all your equipment modifications for a proper build. Attacks require hitting the right button at the right time for a ‘perfect’ hit, and you’re encouraged to hit “A” when being attacked to block some incoming damage. It actually feels quite a lot like the “Super Mario RPG: Legend of The Seven Stars” in that every spell or attack involves some sort of mini-game or input from the player to achieve the optimal result.

Like “Mario RPG” is the way you can affect battle conditions via environmental factors. Fart on enemies, they’re “grossed out” to start the battle. Hit them with your bow? Dazed. Knock a lamp onto an enemy or two? The boss battle starts with two enemies already downed. It’s really creative and lends an almost point-and-click adventure appeal to the non-combat parts of the game.

The combat difficulty is scalable, and on the normal setting I found hitting one or two powerful attacks could vanquish most enemies with ease if you know their weakness. Boss battles are tougher encounters, and you’ll find yourself engaged in a great back-and-forth struggle as enemies throw their best attacks and various defensive maneuvers at you – a particularly enjoyable battle involves being sure to defend every attack from an umbilical cord or else it regenerates life infinitely.

Once you’re cozy with all the systems, the whole shebang is quite a lot of fun. A neat addition is that you can also use items and attack on the same turn, which makes battles go by way faster, and a little easier to swallow for non-gamers or folks who picked this up for the “South Park” name but generally avoid RPGS. If you’re a game dev looking for a gameplay innovation worth popularizing, this would be a great one.

Ultimately combat feels great once you get the hang of it, and is made all the more sweet by the various South Park tropes that are layered on top. You’ll be utilizing things like bathroom robes for wizard cloaks, tin foil for helmets, cardboard for horses, and so on – in addition to actual ‘real’ looking weapons and armor too. Beyond that, you get to pick from several South Park mainstays as a battle companion. Butters is a lighting focused Paladin who decries “I uh…I was just seeing if it worked!” upon knocking out a fake elf with a very real ball-peen hammer. Jimmy is a bard, his special attacks requiring you hammer the “A” button when he stutters during one of his debuff creating songs. Stan uses his dog in all manner of not-PC ways in combat, and Cartman, of course, lights his farts on fire for AOE damage.

However one problem is the size of “The Stick of Truth”’s proverbial boat, versus its motion in it’s the ocean. I played “South Park” in about a week’s time, savoring a fair amount of the content, talking to pretty much everyone and completing the side quests that seemed interesting, and clocked in at around 12 hours play time if the save screen is to be believed. A lot of this 12 hours involved walking from Point A to Point B, arranging equipment, and watching cut-scenes. With such a robust combat system and litany of customization options, it’s a shame you find yourself nearing the final third of the game before you know it. I’m not one to harp on game-length, but I can’t help but feeling bummed by how quickly the whole thing wrapped up.

But the length could also be a “South Park” problem. There’s only so much to do in a single mountain town (and parts of Canada), and maybe Obsidian didn’t want to overstay its welcome, or Trey Parker and Matt Stone simply didn’t have it in them to write and perform the dialog required for a sprawling 30-40 hour RPG.

Regardless, it’s impressive how well the RPG part of “South Park: The Stick of Truth” comes together, to the point where it steals the show from the narrative. The only real gameplay misstep being the two non-combat special abilities you earn. One allows you to teleport over gaps, and the other allows you to shrink. While novel, switching from your bow to cross a gap, then hastily switching back to your bow to get a quick pot shot off at an enemy to daze them before combat, is a hassle, especially when a jump button would have been welcome and felt a little more organic to the experience.

Speaking of organic experiences, It’s almost…sublime how developer Obsidian managed to capture “South Park”’s crappy animation to perfection. Friends *will* think you’re watching the show if they casually glance at the screen. The school, all the characters’ houses, Tom’s Rhinoplasty – it’s all here and accessible to explore, and all completely authentic to the show. There are literally hundreds of callbacks to prior episodes spread across the open world, with cameos by the underpants gnomes, Mr. Hankey, the aliens from the pilot (“Cartman gets an anal probe”), Mongolians and the “Chitty wall”, and countless more in the various item descriptions and NPC one-liners. The bigger the fan of the show you are, the more masterful the world becomes, down to correct geography, and the diegetic audio being popular songs from the series. It’s a real nostalgia trip, with many moments not only calling back to a specific episode, but subconsciously stirring up the memories of whatever you were doing at that time in your life, too. And of course, Cartman, Kenny, Butters, Stan, and the supporting cast all get moments to throw in their most known phrases, and naturally Kyle’s mom gets called a…well, you know.

So It’s kind of a big fat bitch that the tale told in this fantastic world feels a little underwhelming. Look, I didn’t expect to be moved emotionally, nor did I want some grand deconstruction of gaming. I did expect some level of intellectual stimulation, be it a message, theme, blatant allegory – anything! Instead ”Stick of Truth” presents itself as a high-quality farce and nothing more, which is fine. “Airplane” is a high quality farce. So is “The Naked Gun”, “Young Frankenstein”, and “Family Guy”.

But “South Park” is a farce with a point, damn it. “South Park: The Stick of Truth” delivers shocking content in droves. wangs, balls, racism, abortions, sexism – it’s all here, and a lot of it will make you laugh in the “how did they get away with that?!” way. Yet, there’s little context to set up a lot of this stuff…so in a way it’s just a lot of (funny) racist, sexist, offensive, humor…without a point, which, if my memory serves me, is the exact same thing “Cartoon Wars” got all bent in a tizzy about in regards to “Family Guy”.

Previously, when “South Park” dipped its toes into the interactive media space – the N64 FPS being something of a cult-classic, “Chef’s Love Shack” trying to do the ‘Mario party’ thing, poorly, cart racers, tower defense games, and beat em’ ups, the titles were received lukewarmly.  The problem with these titles is they took the look and feel and style of South Park, but none of the creative pungency of Matt Stone and Trey Parker – creating a “South Park” experience in name only.

My theory? I don’t think Trey Parker and Matt Stone are very big gamers. They’ve tackled videogame related topics in “South Park” before, and have done so admirably, but generally those episodes have treated games as a sort of macguffin to arrive at a larger point – The “Chinpokomon” episode generally speaking to how fads can be good and bad, and it’s best not to get too riled up about them. Similarly, “Towlie” featured the ubiquitous Okama Gamesphere as an object of single-minded desire for the characters, but had little to say about gaming culture. The “World of Warcraft” episode is lauded, but ultimately closed with a lasting image of our South Park heroes sacrificing their lives and well being for a pointless MMO. Toss in the brutal message at the end of the “Black Friday’ trilogy about how the kids should use their imagination to play – not needing 500 dollar consoles to have fun, and not only do I think Trey Parker and Matt Stone aren’t gamers – I don’t think they “get” gaming.

Which is…okay. One thing Parker and Stone do very well is educate themselves on a topic before tackling it. I’m sure they’ve played games, lots of games in fact, because their entire livelihood depends upon being up-to-date with pop culture, and “South Park” certainly know the broad strokes of the who, why, how, and where of video gaming culture.

But considering their generally sour take on the medium, I don’t think they have anything (more) to say about gaming. Especially considering what they’ve said before is that gaming is a life-sinking, imagination killing, electronic, interactive, dopamine dispenser – all things you probably don’t want to communicate through a video game people pay hard earned money for.

Thus I find myself in territory similar to Remedy’s “Alan Wake” – a game I bought for the story, but loved for the gameplay. Here, “South Park: The Stick of Truth” delivers fantastic combat, customization, and strategy in droves – you can sink your teeth into the system and feel mostly full by the time you’re done chewing. However, if you’re a person who loves “South Park” for what it says, versus how it says it, you may find the story  portions a little malnourished, not because they aren’t good, or entertaining, or funny, but because ultimately it’s mostly empty calories.

Look, there’s no way a game where this much care, and effort, and personality doesn’t get a proverbial thumbs up from me. It’s a high-quality game that doesn’t quite live up to *my* high-standards of what “South Park” is, and can be, but it doesn’t stop me from appreciating it for what it is – a surprisingly deep, terrifyingly funny, oh-so-very beautiful, old-school, RPG that despite being brand new, will flash your brain back to 1997 and all the years in between with startlingly regularity as through not only a game, but 17 years worth of television history that may just be a little more important to you than you may think.