It's a very mixed line up this week with both The Hunger Games and Adam Sandler positioned for American Thanksgiving, the history of the Rolling Stones explored, Polynesian culture and soccer observed and North Korea denounced.
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes: 3 stars
Next Goal Wins: 3½
The Stones and Brian Jones: 4
Beyond Utopia: 3½
THE HUNGER GAMES: THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS & SNAKES: Of course when you have such huge successes as the four films made from the three Hunger Games novels by Suzanne Collins, there will be more. So, here's what happened before them all, 64 years before and long before Coriolanus Snow (played back then by Donald Sutherland) became the tyrant we knew. Tom Blyth plays him as a young man whose family has fallen on hard times and a campaign in Pandem land offers a way back. It seems people are losing interest in the games and two organizers (Viola Davis and Peter Dinklage) start a public brain-storming session to find ideas to revive them. Students become mentors to would-be fighters in the games which connects Snow with Lucy Gray (Rachel Zegler). She's from a lower-class district than he but a romantic attraction develops.
The real work here, though, is bloodshed. The 10th game starts, and we get the spectacle of teenagers murdering each other, impaling, poisoning, slashing, etc. Somewhere along the way, Snow will turn bad but it's hard to detect why it happens. Apparently the book has more about that. It's also hard to detect what this story is saying. The closest I got to it is a question Snow is asked several times: what is the purpose of the Hunger Games? His final answer is that they remind us what human beings are really like. With war in the story's past and going on in our world today, that makes some sense. Some. Francis Lawrence directs it well; Blyth and Zegler are a pleasing pair and Jason Schwartzman has some funny scenes as a TV weatherman and “amateur magician.” Levity is scarce in this one. (In theaters) 3 out of 5
NEXT GOAL WINS: Here's another film about soccer with fun as the main attribute. It's amusing but you do go far afield with this one, to the south Pacific island of American Samoa. “Inspired by true events”, this gives us a terrible soccer team (famous for a 31-0 loss) and their quest for redemption. They've haven't ever scored a goal and pray for just one. So they bring in a coach from the USA (Michael Fassbender) to train them, get that goal, and also qualify them for the World Cup. They don't know that the coach is willing to come only because he's suspended in the US for angry outbursts during games.
He inherits a motley crew that is weak on skills but strong in self-doubt.. Some are pudgy and slow. The goaltender in that huge loss is still hobbled by the disgrace. A transgender player (a woman? “not yet” she says though she's taking hormones) is one of the better athletes. She's also a voice for cultural connection. She explains the local ways to the coach, the loose approach they have to the game (so opposite to his) and a major mistake he's making. He barks orders; they want him to just talk, ask questions even. For Taika Waititi, the director of co-writer, it's another work to support indigenous attitudes, hear the local characters out and get us to a feel-good finish. (In theaters) 3 ½ out of 5
THE STONES AND BRIAN JONES: This one is essential viewing for fans of The Rolling Stones. Long-timers will already know much of what Nick Broomfield has assembled here but even they might be surprised by some of it. Jones in effect founded the band. He placed an ad inviting musicians and Mick Jagger, Keith Richard, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts responded. Seven years later, Jones was kicked out and a month after that, at age 27, died by drowning. The film tells us, with more empathy than Broomfield is usually known for, about the troubles and demons in his life.
He was a rebel with an inferiority complex. His dad kicked him out of the house. He lived with a succession of girlfriends, impregnating several, fathering five kids. He had the Stones playing American blues and R&B. Then, when Jagger and Richards started writing original songs, they became the centre of the band. He hated Satisfaction and called it “Nothing.” But he added brilliant touches to Paint is Black and others. That split in his life probably added to his troubles with drugs. Maybe the low point was when his girlfriend at the time left him for Keith. The film tells of that decline with haunting affect. There's terrific archival material, clips of concerts and even riots, and recollections from musicians, many from Bill Wyman, the only original Stone who participated (or was alive to). I wonder if Andrew Loog Oldham, the band's manager back then, has seen it. Is he still living in BC and teaching at Thompson Rivers University? He was a key player in this story. (In theaters) 4 out of 5.
BEYOND UTOPIA: Life in North Korea is worse than you've ever imagined, according to this provocative film by Madeleine Gavin. “The authorities want people to live in a constant state of fear,” says an observer. There are public executions, constant surveillance, state-controlled media, food shortages and major deficiencies like apartment buildings without elevators. Or how about, the collection of human excrement to send to farms that don't have fertilizer. It's hard to believe it all but there is video that's been smuggled out and stories from people who have defected.
The film gives three angles on that. A Christian pastor in South Korea helps people who want to escape. That's not easy. They have to cross the Yula River into China, travel mostly at night on to Vietnam and Laos and try to get to Thailand, the one country that won't send them back. There are brokers who charge them money, sometimes prolonging the trip so they can raise the price. We follow a family of five on that way, including an aging grandmother. It's a harrowing trip, caught on cell phone footage.
The third story is of a woman who defected years ago and now wants to bring out the son she left behind. She hasn't seen him in 10 years and gets alarming reports on his status. There's a court case (the regime goes after relatives of defectors), he's been tortured and sent to a detention camp. The film details how the country came to this: the collapse of the Soviet Union removed economic support and Kim Jong-un appropriated images from the Bible to show himself as a great leader. Utopia it is not. (In theaters) 3 ½ out of 5
LEO: Here's a nice surprise. Adam Sandler produced, co-wrote and stars in this animated film that's full of his style of cheeky humor and songs written in his style. But it'll appeal beyond his fans, families too, if the kids are old enough. There's a biting, sarcastic view of elementary school here, both of the kids, the teachers and parents. The young ones might not understand it all as it rails against entitlement and more, but for the rest of us, it's fun. And leads to reflections on death, how short life is and that it gets “more difficult the older we get. It's called growing up.” Even with that, it's a light comedy romp.
Sandler voices a lizard, along side Bill Burr as a turtle, who make wry comments about what they see in the classroom from the small terrarium they live in. The kids include a chatty girl who can't stop talking, a science nerd who flies a drone and a bully (“I'm different. I'm not smart”). The teacher goes off on pregnancy leave and the substitute, voiced by Cecily Strong, is crabby and tough. The students plan to “destroy” her but she pushes “discipline” and, gasp, reading. And makes them one by one take the two pets home on weekends. That's when they discover they can talk and reveal their thoughts on life. There's a trip to a history fair, a wild bus ride to the Florida everglades, and a lot of Sandler friends, several of them current or ex-SNL players, enjoying themselves. (Select theaters, then Netflix) 2½ out of 5