Hunger Games prequel, Saltburn a would-be social commentary, Leo loses its way

Snakes effectively revives Games

Far better than anticipated, Francis Lawrence's Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, proves to be a worthy addition to the franchise. Taking place some 60 years before the adventures of Katniss Everdeen, the Hunger Games, a gladiatorial event used to keep the masses in check, is in trouble. In addition to being a tool of oppression, it's big business as well.

Unfortunately, ratings are down, and to boost them, the creator of these televised death matches, Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), has come up with a way to renew interest in them. He's assigned the tributes from each district to a mentor, whose job is to make them more charismatic and sympathetic, the theory being that if viewers can relate to them personally, they will be more invested in them and how they do in the games.

It's a good idea but it can be improved upon, and Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) is just the man to do so. The scion of a once-powerful family, he and his family now live in poverty, their hopes hanging on his getting a valuable scholarship that will save them. As a mentor to District 12's tribute Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), he sees a way to winning it, as the young woman has a natural charisma he can exploit. What he doesn't count on is falling in love with her.

Of all the YA dystopian tales, Games was always the starkest and, as a result, the most engaging. The stakes are higher here, and Collins' characters are fully drawn, so our emotional investment with them makes for a more engaging experience. That the very plot of this film revolves around that kind of vicarious, cathartic experience is no coincidence. Blyth and Zegler are very engaging and that certainly helps, their scenes alive amidst the dour locale. Dinklage brings solemnity to the proceedings while Viola Davis and Jason Schwartzman steal every scene they're in as mad scientist Dr. Volumnia Gual and TV host Lucky Flickerman respectively, each trying to outdo the other in terms of scenery rending.

The film suffers from the fact that the death match takes place in only one location, a sense of stagnation setting in early on, while the third act is needlessly padded, though I suppose necessary to set up the sure-to-come sequel. Still, there's enough meat here to make this worthwhile. Collins' heavy-handed metaphor concerning government oppression and the elimination of freedom and individuality is effectively driven home and more pertinent than ever.

In the end, Snakes works because of its ability to get us to identify with Snow and Baird, people caught in a no-win situation, forced to sell their very souls to survive, the tragedy effectively cutting through the dystopian artifice. In theaters.

Style, but little substance in Saltburn

This penchant for sensationalism, to shock for shock's sake, ruins Emerald Fennell's sophomore effort, Saltburn, a would-be social commentary that falls prey to the director's own adolescent proclivities. However, its many gasp-inducing scenes are only part of the problem as the script's third act reveals lapses in logic that are hard to reconcile, the filmmaker's intent ultimately undone by narrative inconsistencies the shocks are supposed to obscure.

It all starts off promisingly enough at Oxford University. Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) is an unassuming student, a working-class kid on scholarship who's there to escape his mentally ill, drug-addicted parents. Like so many Dickensian heroes, he longs for something more and sees it personified in Felix Catton (Jacob Elordi), scion of an old money family who live on the sprawling, titular estate. Their paths cross, Quick does the Blue Blood a favor and before you know it, he's been tendered an invitation to visit the Catton Mansion for the holidays.

To say the inhabitants are each in a world of their own is an understatement. Felix's father, Sir James (Richard E. Grant) is content to absent-mindedly watch old sitcoms and solve problems as they come along with his checkbook, while his sister Venetia, is "ennui" personified, looking to seduce Quick just to relieve her boredom. However, the highlight is Elspeth, the vacuous matriarch of the clan, who has no filter, her random, inappropriate thoughts falling from her mouth to create one deliciously uncomfortable moment after another. Rosamund Pike is relishing every moment of this outsized creation, stealing each scene she's in, dropping gems like "sexually incontinent" to describe her daughter.

Nothing is what it seems and to reveal more is verboten. While Fennell goes out of her way to shock us with narrative switchbacks, upon reflection there's nothing really new under this stylized sun. The audacity of the twists and turns offered up seem shocking and revelatory. However, once the viewers' initial reaction wears off, the fact that Fennell has duped us sets in.  Having put a high sheen on hoary narrative conventions, which prove seductive, Saltburn reveals itself as simply a pastiche of repackaged goods.

Keoghan and Pike in particular, delight in bringing out the quirky nature of their characters and their pleasure in performing proves infectious, compelling us to hang on even when the fault lines in Fennell's script begin to crack. In the end, Saltburn is much like the feelings of elation and daring you experience while out on a night of reckless abandon. It's only during the morning after that you realize that sensation was but a momentary illusion. In theaters.

Inspired Leo loses its way.

I really liked Adam Sandler's animated feature Leo; I mean, I really liked it! It was charming, funny, uplifting, and brisk...until it wasn't. It's a shame this family-friendly feature took a left turn into predictability with its third act as it contains a pertinent message that needs to be heard as well as a dual-pronged sense of humor that appeals to both children and adults. That almost proves to be enough.

Stuck in a terrarium in a 5th grade classroom his entire life, Leo (Sandler) doesn't know what he's been missing. The lizard is content to sit through another year of watching a new group of students attempt to deal with the inherent drama each 11-year-old must contend with. It's only after a parent makes an offhand comment that lizards of Leo's sort live to be 75, and our hero figures out he's 74, that a sense of urgency sets in. Suddenly, he longs to break out and experience the world. Fate, and screenwriters Robert Smigel, Paul Sado and Sandler provide him with the opportunity to do so.

Long-term substitute teacher Ms. Malkin (Cecily Strong) has a policy in which each student in the class takes Leo home for one weekend and cares for him. This is done to teach them responsibility, but the kids get so much more. Leo reveals that he can talk and once each child gets over their initial shock, they begin to share their troubles with their lizard-confessor. In return, Leo dispenses sage wisdom that helps them deal with their woes.

The songs Leo uses to dispense his advice are quite funny, made more so by the creaky, old man voice Sandler uses. The sentiment isn't laid on too thick and the humor – much of it effectively provided by Bill Burr as Squirtle, a curmudgeonly turtle – is effective, as are some of the inspired sight gags. The film is unabashedly sweet, and I found myself smiling repeatedly during its first hour.

However, the idea well must have gone dry, as the final 30 minutes consists of nothing but tired slapstick and labored storytelling. Circumstances occur in which Leo finds himself alone in the Everglades, combating alligators at every turn, the kids hijacking a school bus to come to the rescue. Manic, uninspired and tiresome, this by-the-numbers conclusion is a regrettable ending to what had the potential to be truly special. To be sure, the kids will be engaged from beginning to end, but those over 12 will likely find their attention wandering back to Leo's inspired beginning. Streaming on Netflix.

Chuck Koplinski

Writing for Illinois Times since 1998, Chuck Koplinski is a member of the Critic's Choice Association, the Chicago Film Critics Association and a contributor to Rotten Tomatoes. He appears on WCIA-TV twice a week to review current releases and, no matter what anyone says, thinks Tom Cruise's version of The Mummy...

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