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So what’s one of the biggest complaints about modern movies (aside from pricey concession snacks)? Much of the grumbling concerns the many sequels to successful films, often leading to a franchise. Last week we had THE MARVELS and there’s another TROLLS romp bouncing into the multiplex this weekend. In a bit of convoluted logic, many studio execs may think, “If you’re sick of sequels, how about a prequel, instead?”. Yes, it’s semantics but it’s a way of bringing in fans of the original while not having to pay the big salaries of those older pricier casts. Now, we’ve got that “master candy maker” waiting in the wings to spruce his chocolate factory right before Christmas, and for Thanksgiving, we’re going back to that dreary dystopian future of a quartet of flicks we thought had concluded eight years ago. But since the author of its source books took a look back at its history, we’ll now get to see if “the odds” are still in their favor (Lionsgate Films) with THE HUNGER GAMES: THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS & SNAKES.

As the story begins we’re back on the mean streets of the Capitol of Panem as two children search for food. Dodging dangerous wild dogs they make it back to the squalid apartment they share with their Grandma’am (Fionnula Flanagan). Flash ahead seven or so years and the young boy, Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth) gets ready for his high school graduation. He’s hoping he’ll be awarded the Plynth award which would take care of the expenses for Grandma’am and his older cousin Tigris (Hunter Schafer). But he’s in for a shock at the ceremony when Dean Highbottom (Peter Dinklage) announces that to get this cash prize, he and his classmates will have to be “mentors” to the winning “tributes” competing for survival in the televised tenth-annual Hunger Games. Oh, and the mentors can increase their chances by coming up with new ideas (the ratings are slipping) to head game maker Dr. Gaul (Viola Davis). Soon Snow meets his assigned pair of tributes, one of whom is the beautiful, but defiant songbird from impoverished District 12, Lucy Gray Baird (Rachael Zeglar). She expresses her rebellious nature by crooning ballads that may earn her viewer support, but does she have the killer drive to eliminate her violent rivals? And what happens when the venue arena is nearly destroyed by undercover rebels? Will the crafty Snow find a way to give Gray the needed “edge”, especially as their emotional bond becomes more intense?

Handling the most pivotal role in the film, the character with the strongest connection to that original trilogy of books (stretched to four movies) is relative big-screen newcomer Blyth. We know “Corie’s” future, so Blyth must subtly give us a bit of behavioral foreshadowing. He appears noble, and we’re rooting for his budding romance, but there’s that “ultimate fate” that Blyth conveys well. It helps that he has chemistry with the Gray character, given spunk and song by Zeglar in a big switch from the sweet Maria in the recent WEST SIDE STORY remake. Early on she shows us that Lucy doesn’t have that murderous instinct, and must rely on rallying the masses with her music. Zeglar displays that panic in combat, but is in complete control as she becomes a country crooning crusader, reminding us of many “Nashville belles” like Patsy Cline. As for the “game bosses”, Davis channels a bit of her Amanda Waller persona from the DC “movie verse” (supposedly she’ll survive the recent “purge”) as the cruel devious, mad-scientist Gaul, sporting a single blue eye to make her more “alien”. Dinklage is a sneering sod as the equally cruel and deceitful academic, chugging tiny tubes of booze as he weaves his web of evil. The story’s only real comic relief role is deftly handled by Jason Schwartzman as the smarmy unctuous host of the televised global death match, weatherman/magician “Lucky Flickerman”, an obnoxiously flamboyant phony. The superb character actor Burn Gorman shows up in the film’s last half as a strict military man, but he’s given little to do other than to hover ominously over Snow and Gray.

To offer another connection to the previous quartet of films, their original director Frances Lawrence returns to helm the screenplay adaptation by Michaels Lesslie and Arndt of the Suzanne Collins novel. Once again he creates the look and feel of a grim, soul-crushing future world with desaturated colors as clouds drift over the double sword-wielding statue at the center of Panem. And that may be part of the many problems in that we’ve seen it already, four times over. While the original “opened up the story” by having the skirmishes occur in the more pleasant countryside, this one’s “game” is played in an empty concrete arena filled with slabs of stone and dark hallways. Then, when we believe a “conclusion” has happened, the film jumps ahaead to a new setting for a “B” plot that feels more like an entirely new tale. And it’s not nearly as interesting making it seem as though it will never really finish. The final “epilogue” has so many “future jumps” and foreshadowing (and a subplot that’s left unresolved) that the casual viewer will feel hopelessly lost and unsatisfied after such a long investment of time. Perhaps it would’ve worked more coherently as a streaming app miniseries. This certainly won’t gain any new followers of the franchise as only the hardcore fans will embrace the rambling, uninvolving THE HUNGER GAMES: THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS & SNAKES.

One Out of Four

THE HUNGER GAMES: THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS & SNAKES is now playing in theaters everywhere

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.