Monday, April 2, 2012

The Hunger Games

Well, I suppose two posts a month shouldn't be too hard to maintain, if I'm going to keep this site revived. And what better way to commemorate that than by reviewing the film with the third largest opening at the box office ever?

The Hunger Games is based off of the young adult novel of the same name by Suzanne Collins (who also co-wrote the screenplay). I never read the book or its two sequels, so I had the benefit of going into it semi-blind, albeit with the knowledge that the plot was supposed to be pretty similar to the awesome Japanese film Battle Royale. For the two of you that haven't seen/read it yet, it's basically set in a future where the countries divided into twelve districts, and each year each district has to pick one boy and one girl aged 12-18 to compete in the Hunger Games, a reality show in which all 24 contestants have two weeks to fight each other for survival out in the wilderness, with the last survivor winning fame or something (I don't remember a prize ever actually being mentioned, unless the prize is that they get to return home alive).

So yeah, plotwise it's pretty close to identical to Battle Royale, as we get a dystopian future and a villainous government that forces a large group of teenage kids to kill each other, though stylistically thw two films are still pretty different. BR managed to be simultaneously much darker, with a level of violence that might well have gotten it an NC-17 if it had ever gotten a theatrical release here, while also having a good deal of gallows humor to itself. Hunger Games is obviously much more mild with its PG-13 rating, though it's as serious as a heart attack once it finally gets to the Hunger Games.

That's actually one of the main problems I had with the film. Not so much that it takes the premise very seriously, mind you, but that it takes it very seriously almost exactly half of the time. The other half of the movie is devoted to a ridiculously over-the-top parody of the main government and the fashions (and over-elaborate facial hair) on display in District 1. It's an extremely jarring tonal shift, and one that weakens a pretty large chunk of the film.

That said, the Games themselves are pretty entertaining, with a good deal of action and strategy. There were some bits that confused me here and there, such as the seemingly magic medicine used (which actually led to me asking my friend Jasmine if it was meant to be a virtual reality environment, which would have also explained a few other things -- it wasn't), and the outrage racists felt over how a "major character" like Rue was cast by a black girl, when she's barely in the movie anyway, but these are all minor quibbles. Somewhat more major is the ongoing Hollywood obsession with shaky cam for every action sequence in what feels at times like every damn movie that comes out, but while irritating that's obviously hardly a problem exclusive to Hunger Games. Much more fun are the strategies employed by Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) to try to defeat her rivals, from blowing up the food supply to dropping a hive of killer wasps into their midst.

This isn't a great movie by any means, but it's pretty entertaining all the same. I don't know that it really warranted getting the third biggest opening of any film ever (and the outright largest for a non-sequel), but it was good enough that I'll probably go see the next one in a year or two when it comes out. Those of you that can handle more violent material, though, should definitely check out Battle Royale. It's pretty much the same story, though much darker and (mostly) more intelligent too. By the way, while I mentioned earlier that I haven't read any of the books, supposedly the film hews pretty closely to them, and while obviously a few things had to be abbreviated or outright removed to keep the film from being four hours long, I should probably thank co-writer/director Gary Ross for apparently deciding to heavily downplay the love triangle that every damn young adult writer feels they have to include in their books these days. Stop that shit already.

Rating: ** 1/2


Friday, March 9, 2012

Of Non-Profits and Con Artistry

I know, I don't update in almost a year, and when I do, it's not to review an actual movie on my movie blog. This is the kind of shoddy workmanship one can expect when none of you pay me, you know.
Well, I suppose it's a bit disingenuous to claim that there's no movie involved, just one that's designed for free viewing on Youtube called Kony 2012. According to the video's creators Invisible Children, "Invisible Children has been working for 9 years to end Africa’s longest-running armed conflict. U.S. military advisers are currently deployed in Central Africa on a “time-limited” mission to stop Kony and disarm the LRA. If Kony isn’t captured this year, the window will be gone." Sounds like a good cause, on the surface: after all, Joseph Kony is one of the biggest monsters of the 20th century, and still remains uncaught. Of course, there are some small issues one could take with the video, and the stated goal of the group. For instance, while president Obama has indeed sent some military advisors into the region to assist in finding and capturing him, he didn't put any kind of time limit on their work. Indeed, he specifically said that they're being deployed until Kony is captured or killed, however long that takes. Now, one could say that there is a time limit in that, should Kony not be caught/killed before Obama leaves office then it's possible his successor will recall the advisors, but there's only two possible outcomes for that. One is that Obama loses the election this fall (not bloody likely barring a major scandal or major economic meltdown) and Romney or Santorum decides that one of their first actions in office is to start scaling back the military. The other is that Obama wins re-election, serves another four years, and frankly if Kony still hasn't been caught by then the advisors should be recalled because they would have shown that they're completely ineffective by then. Either way, claiming that you need donations to help spread your message or else the U.S. will no longer be trying to stop him after this year is, to put it charitably, somewhat inaccurate. To put it less charitably, it could also be described as out and out lying to people to get money from them.

There's also the general inaccuracies in the video itself, from grossly exaggerating Kony's power (claiming he has over 30,000 child soldiers at his command, when he's only captured about 30,000 children for his army in the thirty years he's been around, for instance -- for the record, most estimates by people not looking for donations claim he has a few hundred child soldiers left in his army, or about one-fiftieth of what the filmmakers claim) to being somewhat confused as to where he actually is (the video barely makes a blink-and-you'll-miss-it mention that he fled Uganda six years ago from increasing pressure from the Ugandan military, choosing to portray that as him expanding outward into more countries because he's so powerful instead of acknowledging that his army was almost obliterated and he fled to other countries to avoid being killed), but that's just the sort of thing one should expect from a propaganda video released online. I can't get too mad at the filmmakers for that. What else can you expect in a day and age when the likes of Michael Moore and Andrew Breitbart are considered benchmarks of political filmmaking? Oh hey, while we're on the subject of Youtube propaganda, here's a masterpiece in propaganda filmmaking for you called When Mitt Romney Came to Town, commissioned by Newt Gingrich. It's one of the most masterful hit pieces ever made, and while it has little bearing on this conversation, it's a pretty amazing video all the same. When I showed it to my friend Paul, he laughed hysterically at the part where they actually got a picture of Romney getting his shoes shined on a runway in front of his private jet.

But back to Kony 2012 and Invisible Children. One could argue (indeed, many have) that even if the charity is misleading people to get its donations, it's still all going to a good cause, right? After all, Kony is a legit war criminal, and even if most of his atrocities are long in the past, the world will be a better place once he's gone, right? That's certainly true, but that in no way means that donating to Invisible Children will do anything to actually help the situation. Charity Navigator, a major charity watchdog, gives Invisible Children a low rating of 2 out of 4 stars, partly because they've never disclosed exactly how they spend the money they've received, beyond the vague terms they're legally required to publicly disclose as a non-profit organization - terms that, according to their 2011 report, show that, of the 8.9 million dollars they received, they only spent 2.8 million (or 31%) on actual "Direct Services", with most of the rest going to salaries, travel expenses, and making propaganda videos about how only white people can help poor Africans. Given their complete lack of visibility, it's impossible to say just what that 31% of actual aid is going toward, but given that they openly favor using the Ugandan military to capture/kill Kony, it's a safe bet that at least some of the money is going towards funding them. Which would be fine, of course, aside from the widespread allegations of looting and rape connected with the Ugandan military, or how the Ugandan government was most recently in the news for making homosexuality an offense worthy of the death penalty. Now, far be it from me to make the claim that by donating to Invisible Children, you are helping to pay for the executions of homosexuals, but given the evidence I'm pretty sure that's exactly the case here.

I guess my main point in all of this is that it's generally not a wise decision to just blindly donate to a charity without first investigating it. Not just because you might wind up donating to some shady bastards that don't seem to be helping much beyond their own bank accounts, but because you might well end up funding something that actually makes whatever situation you're trying to help even worse. Like those commercials you used to see, where for just ten cents a day you could help some starving African in Somalia. The reason the people are starving isn't because there's not enough food, but because brutal warlords are oppressing everyone there. So of those ten cents a day, one cent is going toward actual helping your personal African, while the other 9 cents is going to the warlord that's causing your pet African's life to be so shitty in the first place. Your money is making things worse there, not better. Instead, you could always make a donation to the Red Cross, which gets a perfect four star rating from Charity Navigator, and shows that, for the year 2010, out of the 3.6 billion dollars they received in donations, 3.1 billion was actually spent on their programs helping people. That would be 86%, as opposed to the 31% Invisible Children uses, because the Red Cross is a real charity and not a method for its founders to make money off of white guilt.

While we're on the subject, I will also never make a donation to any form of animal charity. Not because I don't support their general causes, because I am an animal lover first and a lover of humans second (I had actually written up a good bestiality joke here, but then realized it may somewhat affect my future employment opportunities), but because I have no desire whatsoever to get mail filled with pictures of abused animals so they can try to guilt trip me into sending them further donations. I don't care how much I support your overall cause, that kind of emotional blackmail is completely repugnant, and I'm never letting any animal charity have my address or e-mail because of it.

So after almost a year since my last update, why choose to restart the blog with this? Well, it's partially because, with several of my Facebook friends posting about it and putting the Kony 2012 banner on their pages, I don't want them being duped into donating money to 21st century snake oil salesmen. Mainly, however, it's because I'm really damn tired of seeing a new cause every damn month sweep hold of my friends there. You know what would help fight cancer more than buying some garish bracelet? Actually making a direct donation to a cancer research facility, like for instance St. Jude's Childrens Research Hospital, which gets a perfect four star rating from Charity Navigator for spending 609 million of the 923 million it received in donations on actual research for the year 2010 (In contrast, the American Breast Cancer Foundation got a zero star rating because 3.3 of the 5.1 million they received in donations in 2011 was spent on fundraisers). Buying one of those bracelets donates next to zero dollars to fighting cancer; all it effectively does is let you show off to everyone that you now have a bracelet that shows off how you don't like a disease. Because clearly it's more important to publicly show off to everyone how you're taking a stand against cancer than it would be to actually send 100% of the money direct towards fighting it. But the instant I respond on someone's Facebook calling them a vapid whore that's only wearing their cancer bracelets to be trendy, suddenly I'm now the bad guy and I have one fewer Facebook friend. I ask you, is life fair?

Rating for Kony 2012: Zero stars

Rating for When Mitt Romney Came to Town: *** 1/2

Update: I totally forgot to include a link to the totally awesome Kony 2012 Drinking Game! Enjoy!