Sunday, August 10, 2014

Project Terrible: The Starving Games


Well, here we are again for another round of Project Terrible. Tonight's film comes to me from Michele of The Girl Who Loves Horror.

I think in previous rounds I've been pretty clear on one point: bad comedies are the worst kind of bad movie, because you watch bad movies to laugh at them, and bad comedies are bad at being funny. So yeah...this was pretty painful. Many thanks to Al for going through this with me so we could at least complain--repeatedly and at length--to each other and blow off some steam. Pretty sure that's the only way I made it through this turd.

Okay, so this is pretty obvious, but The Starving Games is a parody of The Hunger Games, a very popular young adult fiction series and film franchise. The plot is therefore obviously lifted almost entirely from The Hunger Games, and concerns a horrific televised event in which children and teens are sent to fight each other to the death to earn food for their hometowns. It's basically the "what if we push reality TV way too far" angle, and (as The Starving Games points out in what...really isn't much of a joke) is very much in the concept of The Running Man (or Japan's Battle Royale, which I haven't seen).

Something else I haven't seen? The Hunger Games. So yeah, I've now watched a Twilight ripoff and a The Hunger Games parody without seeing either of the original films. Holy heck, I'm going to watch those one day and end up loving them just because I watched this crap and they seem way better in comparison. You might think that not having seen The Hunger Games would make it hard for me to review this film. The thing is, I really doubt this film was made for people who saw The Hunger Games at all...this is made, like the Twilight parodies that have sprung up, for people who haven't seen the films and just hate them on principle...and still aren't very discerning in their taste. Plus, as I'll go into later, a huge chunk of the movie's "humor" has nothing at all to do with the movie it is trying to parody. So...while I recognize that I haven't seen a major bit of this film's source material, I'm actually going to say I think my reviewing this is still defensible. If you've watched The Hunger Games you are not part of this film's target audience.

As you might guess, there's little point in discussing or critiquing plot or characters here. This isn't so much a film as a sequence of attempts at jokes at the expense of The Hunger Games or other films. There is a plot, but it primarily exists to get the film from joke to joke and follow the general outline of the film that it's mimicking. It wouldn't really be entirely fair to criticize the film for poor plotting, as a result, but I do want to note that this isn't like a Hot Shots or Loaded Weapon level of parody film. It's hard to really state the difference, but here's the best way I can put it, I think: those are comedy films that happen to be heavily joking about another movie or type of movie, and this is a joke about another movie or type of movie that happens to also be a film. I really prefer the former--it comes out much stronger and flows a lot better. To be honest, though, I'll call that a stylistic choice and I recognize that it's not necessarily a flaw in and of itself. I'd prefer this to be a movie first rather than just a joke sequence, but others might prefer the latter. And to be frank, the way this works isn't so different from what we reviewers often do, you know? It's just pointing out flaws in a work and at some points trying to do so in a humorous fashion. I guess the difference is that Al and I don't charge you folks money.

What I will criticize heavily is the actual humor in the film, or lack thereof. The Starving Games' attempts at comedy are, for the most part, abysmal. It has four kinds of jokes: the ones that aren't funny, the ones that were funny when other movies did them but have been done to death now, the ones that aren't really jokes at all but just brief humorless references to other movies, and a scant few that actually by some miracle work.

I think it's that third category that's the most troublesome...there are a lot of cases where The Starving Games references other films that have nothing at all to do with The Hunger Games or anything remotely related to it. If you're going to reference movies other than your subject matter, which this does all the time, you really need to reference 1) other films based on similar premises or styles, 2) other films targeted at the same audience, or 3) other films from the careers of the actors/actresses in your target film. So The Starving Games could reference things like The Running Man (which does get namedropped, to be fair) or Hard Target for similar premise (or for books/stories, The Most Dangerous Game or Lord of the Flies), Twilight or The Chronicles of Narnia or Harry Potter (which does, again, get really briefly referenced) for the tween/teen audience (maybe throw in some anime, too), and Jennifer Lawrence movies like X-Men: First Class or House at the End of the Street...not that many people would get the latter, I think. Of those, by far the greatest amount of references should be the first: films with similar concepts. That way, you can build a cohesive film that does seem to have a more defined and uniform world of sorts.

But here's some things you definitely shouldn't reference that this film does reference:

  • Oz: The Great and Powerful
  • Avatar
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • Various youtube videos
  • The Hobbit
  • The Expendables
  • The Avengers
I know there are others that I'm forgetting. And here's why that's a problem: these pull you further and further away from what you're parodying. It's one thing for, say, Hot Shots! Part Deux to chuck a lightsaber duel into the film when it's already got a swordfighting scene of some kind going on. It's quite another to suddenly chuck Gandalf and a couple dwarves into a cave just because you're in a cave, and then have those characters act nothing like they act in the movie they're from. I'll get to that in a bit.

Before I do, though, here's the other and much more major problem with the references. Between the films they should be referencing and do (Running Man, Harry Potter) and the films they shouldn't be referencing but do anyway (the above list), take a wild guess which gets more screen time? Yeah. By far more screen time is dedicated to films that have no relation whatsoever to The Hunger Games. So, rather than building a cohesive film that seems to work together, where jokes just kind of flow naturally, this film has a lot of jarring, sudden transitions or out-of-nowhere references that break up the movie and take you out of the world they're trying to make. Even in a parody, world-building and unity of concept is important. When you're making a parody, you don't just parody anything and everything--you pick a particular concept and stick with it. If you're parodying young adult fiction, go with that. If you're parodying "televised survival show" stories, go with that. Don't stick The Hobbit in there just because you're in a cave!

The other problem? While it doesn't quite overwhelm jokes centered on The Hunger Games itself, there are so many of these references in the film that it actually almost gets there! There are points where the references to the movie they're actually parodying are reasonably straight and serious, and it's only when a different movie is being referenced that they try for jokes. Is this a parody of The Hunger Games, or an attempt to argue that it's better than a bunch of other films?

(The Avatar one is particularly strange...they shoehorn it in as the result of Kantmiss getting a ton of bee stings and getting high, and it really, really doesn't fit at all. And the Oz one? Kantmiss just misses a shot with an arrow and it hits Oz in his balloon. That's it. Why? Who knows?

Wow...I didn't expect to go on quite so long of a tangent there, but it really is the single biggest issue I had with this film. Otherwise...the big problem is just that it isn't very funny. A lot of jokes just fall flat, or rely on really basic gross-out humor or senseless envelope-pushing that (like the references) frequently comes out of nowhere and returns to the void from whence it came just as fast. I'm not really sure what's supposed to be particularly hilarious about "Kantmiss" (wow, it's been a long time already and I'm just now mentioning the main character's stupid parody name) kicking her pal in the butt and getting her foot stuck in his crack, and then revealing that she has super-long dirty that's what would make that uncomfortable, not, y'know, the fact that her foot's stuck in his butt and she's wearing high heels already. I'm not sure why I'm supposed to laugh at a piece of bread being intentionally made rock-hard to break Kantmiss' teeth as a gag early in the film...especially when her teeth go back to normal seconds later. I'm not sure why Kantmiss shoots a guy with a piece of hardened bread that suddenly shows up in her quiver...when she has perfectly good arrows to use. Sure, Hot Shots! Part Deux does the chicken arrow, but that's because the hero runs out of arrows, they're in a woodland village, and there's a lot of chickens shown walking around. In The Starving Games, she just happens to have bread in her quiver and intentionally chooses it instead of an arrow. So...why? You can't just do something strange and call it a have to build some sense of reality and some sense of why characters do things and why it is supposed to be funny. Otherwise, you lose your audience.

On a related note...there's a bit in the middle of the film in which they do a "halftime show" in which they're suddenly selling loads of Starving Games merchandise featuring lots of posters and figurines and such of Kantmiss holding a bow and arrow. So yeah, obvious The Hunger Games merchandise reference, but 1) That's not inherently funny in and of itself, and they do nothing at all with it to make it so, and 2) At this point in the film, she hasn't used a bow at all during the televised event--she just uses it once in the very opening before she's part of the games. So why would people buy a figurine of a character using a weapon that character hasn't used yet?

Can I drop a Druss the Legend reference here? Anybody get that but me?

Anyone who knows what's wrong with this picture, buy yourself a cookie.
Then there are the missed opportunities. While watching this, Al and I repeatedly had to pause the film after a sequence and just start exploring ways a sequence could have been done better. A few examples (oddly enough, the ones that most easily spring to mind are the ones based on movies the film shouldn't have referenced in the first place):
  • Kantmiss is surrounded, and the film references the "rapid internal planning" thing they did in the Sherlock Holmes movies recently--the scenes where Sherlock rapidly analyzes a threat and plans his way through the situation, and then executes the plan. It's kind of a silly reference to begin with, as previously mentioned, but if you're going to do it...all they really do is have her do the same thing he does, but with some vaguely comedic moves like snapping someone's braces or kicking someone in the nuts instead of martial arts stuff. Why not have her plan it out in detail and then screw things up when she actually tries it? That'd be a really easy way to reference it and turn things humorous. She's actually supposed to end up on the losing end of that fight anyway, so you have a perfect plot reason to do that.

  • Later, there's a bit where the Kantmiss and her pal/stalker Peeta are in a cave becoming romantically involved, and then suddenly Gandalf is there groping Kantmiss and a couple dwarves are there groping Peeta. So yeah, we get a reference to The Hobbit, with the only joke apparently being that Gandalf is a dirty old man and dwarves are dirty old dwarves. This has no bearing on anything related to The Hobbit or the actors involved, of course. So, thoughts:
    • How can you do a The Hobbit reference without, y'know, a hobbit?
    • Wouldn't a guy with an invisibility ring be a much better choice for a joke about trying to feel someone up? You could do an entire bit with Kantmiss getting mad at Peeta and then have it turn out to be Bilbo.
    • If you're going to reference just one thing from The Hobbit, how do you not do the riddle game with Gollum? That's probably the most famous part of the story in all its forms--that or Bilbo's talk with Smaug.
    • Kantmiss is an archer. Bard the Bowman, anybody? Or heck, Legolas. This was made probably before people knew he was in the second Hobbit film, but he's in the greater Lord of the Rings universe, anyway. Or just have Kantmiss take on Bard's role from late in the book and spoiler spoiler spoiler?
      • Is it really a spoiler if the book's from the 1930s? Probably not, right? Oh, well.
    • If you're going to go offensive and rude anyway, why not go whole hog with it and have Gandalf be the one that's groping Peeta? Were you comfortable saying that Ian McKellan was a dirty old man but not with noting that he's homosexual? It'd be a terrible and extremely offensive joke, but you were already making one, so you might as well sprint ahead full steam.
      • To note quickly: I have no problem with Sir Ian McKellan or his sexual preference and I do not think he's a dirty old man who would like to grope young boys. I'm pointing out something this film might do, not something I think would be funny.
    • Last...seriously? No "You shall not pass!" joke?
  • How the heck did this film avoid any Twilight references? Pretty similar target audience, this has the love triangle aspect too, and the guy they picked to play Kantmiss' kindasorta boyfriend Gale back in town could easily play a parody version of Jacob the werewolf. It'd be so easy, and actually moderately appropriate, to throw that in.
  • The film does raise a few moderately decent critiques of the source material at times (based on my limited understanding of said source material), questioning how people let this go on and noting similarities to other movies and such...but it kind of forgets to make jokes with these things and just kind of brings them up and then drops them. Those are the sort of things you can build a parody around, not the sort of things you just let fall by the wayside while you focus on pervy Gandalf jokes that make no sense. If you're writing a parody, you should focus on exaggerating elements of the source material, poking fun at cliches, and widening perceived plot or characterization issues...not on stuff that's totally unrelated.
  • Al actually pointed out that the film could have done some good pointed humor critiquing the fans of The Hunger Games who complained about the character Rue being played by a young black girl, and claimed that lessened the emotional impact of events involving that character...despite the fact that the character in the book is described as dark-skinned. So yeah...apparently not only are people racist jerks sometimes, but they also don't really read too well. That could've been a pretty ripe area for criticism and given a few good pointed jokes at Hunger Games fans since it did get a fair bit of coverage for anyone that read anything about The Hunger Games when it was coming out.
I could go on and on about that segment and all the ways you could do it better, though of course my best advice is still "don't do it because it has nothing to do with anything in your film." Those are two great examples, though...the film repeatedly does this--it sets up a joke and then just kind of...loses track somewhere and does something that isn't funny when anyone watching can think of multiple ways to take the same concept and make it actually funny.

I do want to take a moment here and note that there were actually a few small bits I did find amusing in this film:
  • The film actually does a decent job periodically of highlighting the whole "we're fighting for food" thing, most notably the villain offering a pickle as a prize and then taking a bite out of it and clarifying that it's a half-eaten pickle for a prize, and then later on a pretty funny parody ad clearly poking fun at thing's like KFC's "Double Down" or other ridiculous sandwiches. What makes it work is that these bits are some of the rare bits where the film's reality holds together, and the crowd reacts with obvious annoyance and hunger, so it's more than just a reference or one-off joke. The crazy sandwich joke in particular works just because they go so far with it, dumping crazy ingredient after crazy ingredient on this thing until it's massive and just kind of a sloppy goopy mess.
  • While it doesn't make a lick of sense to include a reference to The Expendables here, it's at least pretty decently funny, with people that do pretty good impressions of the big stars from that film and a funny (probably stolen) Chuck Norris joke regarding catchphrases.
  • The Avengers bit at least cracks a joke about Hawkeye being upset when Kantmiss is invited to join since he's already filling the archer slot on the team, so they at least kind of tried there.
  • There's a little bit of a funny bit where a character is badly wounded and asks if she's going to die, Kantmiss tries to reassure her, and a singer starts singing about her impending death quite assuredly. It'd be much funnier if they didn't actually have the singer be standing right there (and make Taylor Swift jokes), instead just having the characters react to the soundtrack, but it works in that respect anyway.
  • The utter lack of emotion with which the color commentator handles his entire role is pretty funny for the most part.
I could go on and on for quite a while on this film, but it really isn't worth it. This is a very flat and dull parody that spends nearly as much time and energy parodying things totally unrelated to the film it's targeting as it does on The Hunger Games itself. It is full of unfunny humor, infantile jokes, and major missed opportunities. It doesn't flow well at all, and makes no attempt in many cases to have its jokes apply either to the situation the characters are currently in or the nature of the characters being parodied. It's a pitiful attempt at making a comedy and is pretty darn dull. As bad as Harry Knuckles and the Pearl Necklace? No...but still an utter waste of your time.

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