Film Reviews: New Releases for Nov. 17 | Buzz Blog

Friday, November 17, 2023

Film Reviews: New Releases for Nov. 17

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, May December, Trolls Band Together and more

Posted By on November 17, 2023, 5:00 AM

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click to enlarge Rachel Zegler and Tom Blyth in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes - LIONSGATE FILMS
  • Lionsgate Films
  • Rachel Zegler and Tom Blyth in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes
Dashing Through the Snow **
There’s a certain kind of modern holiday comedy that takes what’s already a tired high-concept emotional hook—the protagonist who needs to learn What Really Matters—and assumes the spirit of the season will do all the heavy lifting for a dopey script. “Humbug,” I say. This variation on the theme casts Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as Eddie, a longtime holiday-season agnostic after a childhood trauma. Spending Christmas eve with his daughter Charlotte (Madison Skye Validum) and away from his estranged wife (Teyonah Parris), Eddie encounters a man claiming to be Santa Claus (Lil Rel Howery) who has somehow gotten himself on the wrong side of a crooked congressman (Oscar Nuñez). Shenanigans ensue, with Howery’s genial but flustered Saint Nick always managing to be just this side of magical enough to make Eddie’s continued doubts plausible as they wind their way through Atlanta. Nothing that happens is particularly interesting or amusing, though, especially given Bridges’ limited dramatic chops and a demeanor that comes off mostly as sleepy. Director Tim Story tries for the same odd-couple caper vibe he brought to 2004’s Taxi, and at least has the reliable comedic gifts of Howery to elevate the proceedings. It just all feels like the kind of thing greenlit to fill a seasonal release slot, with little more to say than, “Isn’t Christmas nice, folks?” Available Nov. 17 via Disney+. (PG)

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes **1/2

A story about how a despot became a despot isn’t inherently doomed to failure—the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy managed to turn it into Shakespearean tragedy—but Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games prequel about the origins of President Coriolanus Snow managed to make him an unsympathetic asshole from page 1. This adaptation does soften up the ostensible protagonist, but can’t dodge many of the book’s other key structural flaws. Set 64 years before Katniss Everdeen became the “Girl on Fire,” it posits Coriolanus (Tom Blyth) as scion of a once-privileged family, trying to return to a place of significance by serving as one of the first Mentors during the 10th annual Hunger Games, guiding a District 12 tribute named Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler). The ensuing romance proves moderately successful, with Zegler’s natural charm pairing with a version of Coriolanus who’s not constantly Machiavellian. Yet while the opening two-thirds is generally engaging—thanks in part to outsized supporting performances by Viola Davis as the demented Games designer and Jason Schwartzman as the smarmy host—the actual Hunger Games are over with around an hour of the movie left to go. And the third act proves to be quite a slog through Coriolanus’s various failed moral tests as he moons over Lucy Gray. Director Francis Lawrence—who oversaw three of the original four Hunger Games features—brings some energy when he can, but there’s only so much he can do with a narrative that ultimately comes down to hoping we can root for a budding fascist. Available Nov. 17 in theaters. (PG-13)

May December ***1/2
See feature review. Available Nov. 17 in theaters; Dec. 1 via Netflix. (R)

Next Goal Wins **
It’s not really Taika Waititi’s fault that, in the nearly four years since this fact-based story was shot, Ted Lasso has come and gone as a superior version of a similar dramatic arc; it is his fault that he can’t even manage something that compares favorably to Cool Runnings. The subject is the national soccer team of American Samoa, an international laughingstock that had never managed a win in competition, and the new coach—Dutch-born Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender)—who arrives in 2011 to try to turn their fortunes around. Waititi and co-screenwriter Iain Morris work overtime to make sure it’s clear this isn’t a “white savior” narrative, pointedly making jokes about Rongen learning island spiritual wisdom and approaching American Samoa’s unique culture with respect. But that doesn’t mean the Samoan characters are really given complete characters to play—aside from Jaiyah (Kaimana), an openly transgender team member)—as the story focuses on Rongen’s personal healing. And even that arc feels kinda half-assed, with Fassbender sleepwalking through a transition from naked disdain to grudging respect. All that remains are quintessential underdog-sports clichés, delivered with a wee dose of Waititi’s trademark deadpan humor and a shaggy structure that borders on a lazy assumption that the tropes can do all the heavy lifting. Available. Nov. 17 in theaters. (PG-13)

Please Don’t Destroy: The Treasure of Foggy Mountain ***1/2
The obvious question when dealing with a group whose brand of comedy is best-known in 3-minute doses is, “Does it work in a 90-minute dose?” And the answer, it would seem, is, “Hell, yes.” The trio that has contributed short films to Saturday Night Live since 2021—John Higgins, Martin Herlihy and Ben Marshall—play same-named versions of themselves as long-time best friends and housemates who go on an adventure to find a long-lost bust of Marie Antoinette. Not surprisingly, that premise proves to be a thin armature around which to mold a bunch of weird comedic ideas, from the trio getting stalked by a walking hawk, to a fusillade of throat-punching, to an encounter with a forest-dwelling cult and its leader (Bowen Yang). It’s all about the batting average for those gags, and it’s kind of impressive how many of them hit, considering how the writer/stars are kind of an interchangeable trio without distinctive comedic personas on their own. They simply have a great sense—along with their regular director, Paul Briganti—for when to get in and get out of a premise, how to underplay an absurdist concept, and when to lean into the talents of co-stars like Yang and Megan Stalter. It’s all quite enjoyably silly and sly, without ever making you wonder, “Isn’t this over yet?” Available Nov. 17 via Peacock. (R)

Trolls Band Together **1/2
It was perhaps too much to ask that this third animated Trolls installment could match the surprising thematic complexity of 2000’s Trolls World Tour, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask that it should be about something. The fuzzy-haired critters—notably Queen Poppy (Anna Kendrick) and her boyfriend Branch (Justin Timberlake)—end up on a quest to save one of Branch’s brothers (Troye Sivan) from a pair of fame-hungry siblings (Amy Schumer and Andrew Rannells) advancing their own careers by siphoning away trolls’ musical talents. A lot of the appeal of these movies comes down to their aggressively candy-colored aesthetic and even-more-aggressively poptimistic soundtrack of cover tunes, both of which target an audience that can best be described as “not me.” But as the plot focuses on a reunion of Branch’s boy-band siblings, plus Poppy’s discovery of her own long-lost sibling (Camila Cabello), it’s hard to know exactly what the point of it all is. To share the earth-shaking premise that “family is important?” Or that cheating to get famous is bad? There was a real edge to Trolls World Tour’s spin on what a truly diverse society requires, but this thing feels like nothing more than a bundle of platitudes with an NSYNC reunion air-dropped into the finale as a shiny distraction from all the absence of anything going on at the center. Available Nov. 17 in theaters. (PG)

About The Author

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw has been a City Weekly staff member since 1999, including assuming the role of primary film critic in 2001 and Arts & Entertainment Editor in 2003. Scott has covered the Sundance Film Festival for 25 years, and provided coverage of local arts including theater, pop-culture conventions, comedy, literature,... more

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