Wednesday, November 15, 2023

A ‘Hunger Games’ prequel lacks urgency


   Is there still an appetite for The Hunger Games
The makers of The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes presumably hope so. 
   Unlike the four previous movies, this prequel doesn't center on a young rebel who must survive and triumph in a lethal contest. Instead, it focuses on a different series regular, Coriolanus Snow, played here as an 18-year-old by Tom Blyth.
     Anyone who's up to speed on the previous Hunger Games movies — and I can’t imagine others will be interested — knows that Snow will become the coldly cunning president of the dystopia author Suzanne Collins creates in her YA novels. Donald Sutherland played Snow in the earlier movies.
     Based on a Collins novel published in 2020 and directed by series vet Francis Lawrence, the movie seems an odd duck, a kind of extended backstory that reaches the screen 10 years after the last movie.
    Despite its Songbirds title, you may be surprised to learn that the movie sometimes feels like Hunger Games, the Musical.  Lawrence showcases several musical numbers by Rachel Zegler (West Side Story), who plays Hunger Games contestant Lucy Gray. 
     Zegler’s Lucy enters the games with Coriolanus as her mentor, the tribune assigned to guide her through the violent Hunger Games spectacle. We see enough of the games to get the point; they’re brutal and unforgiving and … well … a tedious nod to expectation.
     The story eventually illuminates Coriolanus's inner struggle;  his capacity for love and empathy bumps up against the brutal imperatives of his ruthless ambition.
    The supporting cast includes a notable contribution from Peter Dinklage who brings tormented depth and sadness to the role of a professor who instructs tribunes. Jason Schwartzman plays the game emcee, but the movie lacks the satirical spark that boosted the earlier movies and gave Stanley Tucci's performance its verve.
      Josh Andres Rivera has a nice turn as Sejanus Plinth, a rich kid who befriends Coriolanus. Although Plinth’s family can buy his safety, a sense of justice turns him into a rebel. 
       Viola Davis appears as Dr. Volumnia Gaul, the person charged with spicing up the televised games, which, in their 10th year, have begun losing viewers. The decline invokes the story’s major question: Why are The Hunger Games necessary?
      The movie offers one answer; franchise-hungry Hollywood may have another.
       A plodding story becomes more interesting in the final going but not without raising another issue: length. At two hours and 37 minutes, the last segment asks the audience to stay involved past what feels like amore natural ending.
      I wouldn't say that Songbirds is dreadful, but like its lynchpin performer Jennifer Lawrence, it probably should have moved on. What's the point? The idea of exploitative TV as a social control mechanism seems like a dragon that already has been slain — or is that some other franchise?


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