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Evolution of evil: “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes”


4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR SCREENSHOTS

English actor Tom Blyth plays Academy student and Hunger Games mentor Coriolanus Snow. Rachel Zegler plays musician Lucy Gray Baird of District 12.


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“THE HUNGER GAMES: THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS & SNAKES”


4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, & digital copy; 2023: PG-13 for strong, violent content and disturbing material; Amazon Video (4K), Apple TV (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)

 

Best extra: “Predator or Prey: Making ‘The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes’” an in-depth two-hour and 30-minute documentary







THE SNOWS have fallen on hard times, along with everyone else after the post-Apocalyptic war that decimated Panem, but they’re putting up a good front.

Keeping that front going is the challenge Coriolanus Snow, 18, faces during the always-shifting edicts of The Hunger Games. He becomes one of 24 Academy students to become a mentor to the tributes during the 10th annual Games. Seems they aren’t as popular as they once were. Viewers have lost interest in watching children kill children. Imagine.


The Game runners need a new angle to boost ratings. Their latest concept is this pairing of students and tributes. Snow, played by Tom Blyth (“Billy the Kid” series), hopes to restore his family’s status and win a scholarship. He comes up with new ideas – which another mentor tries to claim as her own. She doesn't last long. And that’s part of the story-telling process that goes wrong. Characters, played by handsome actors, show up just long enough to be killed. Except for the leads, it’s difficult to remember who’s who. That becomes one of the worst problems of the film, aside from what should be the terrifying snakes that look like animated gummy worms. As the trials go on, Snow finds he’s not above manipulating and cheating, while guiding another unlikely tribute, Lucy Gray Baird played by Rachel Zegler (“West Side Story”). She’s the rebel songbird of District 12, her music inspiring others to stand up against Panem’s powers. Zegler truly delivers in presence and singing.


The first part of the film is a linear progression, easy and interesting to follow. Then it dips into a second half that’s just … well, confusing, despite some terrific performances by Viola Davis as very mad scientist and Gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul; Hunter Schafer as Snow’s resourceful cousin, Tigris; Peter Dinklage as guilt-ridden addict, Dean Casca Highbottom, and Jason Schwartzman as the Game’s “magical” emcee, Lucky Flickerman.  


Can there be any true winners here? Snow finds turning to the dark side easier than he believed. A fact he never thought about before. The finale is left deliberately ambiguous as he realizes the lengths he’ll go to get what he needs, even if it means betraying the woman he’s come to love.  



(1) Rosa Gotzler and Dexter Sol Ansell play the younger versions of cousins Tigris and Coriolanus Snow. (2) Now older, Tigris (Hunter Schafer)  presents Coriolanus (Tom Blythe) with a restored dress shirt for his appearance at The Games. She has crafted the buttons from bathroom tiles, and applied starch from boiled potatoes for a more finished look. (3) East Berlin is the backdrop for the opening cityscape of the Capitol. (4) Coriolanusfellow mentor, Sejanus Plinth (Josh Andres Rivera, also of “West Side Story”) dislikes The Hunger Games brutality. (5) Viola Davis plays the mad scientist and Gamemaker Dr. Volumnia Gaul. Davis asked to keep her wig at the end of the shoot.  (6) The new mentors gather to learn about their role in the upcoming 10th Hunger Games. (7) Peter Dinklage plays the guilt-ridden addict, Dean Casca Highbottom, in a fine, understated performance. He helped Coriolanus father invent The Games.






VIDEO & AUDIO

Cinematographer Jo Willems also filmed “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 and 2,” and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” Her efforts, again, look great on 1080p and even better on 2160p (2.39:1 aspect ratio) captured on 4.5K ARRIRAW digital cameras and mastered in TRUE 4K. Dolby Vision and HDR10 grading provide stunning detail and color, with its warm color palette, and excellent contrast in both interior and exterior scenes. Fleshtones look natural. Top-notch quality for this two-hour and 37-minute movie, encoded onto 100GB disc and averages in the low 50 Megabits per second range. The bitrate is quite good when you account for the 2.5-hour documentary onto the 4K disc. The peak HDR10 brightness hits 999 nits and averages a much lower 122 nits.


The eight-channel Dolby Atmos soundtrack delivers outstanding sound – dialogue, effects, and music – all around the room, especially the orchestral score from nine-time Oscar nominee James Newton Howard (“The Fugitive,” “News of the World”) and the excellent original bluegrass/folk music by composer/producer Dave Cobb.


Altogether, “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” is a visual and audio victory over the story.


EXTRAS

Ever listen to a person in love with their own perception of self-worth? I enjoy commentaries, but this one with Producer-Director Frances Lawrence (“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” “Constantine”) and Producer Nina Jacobson (“The Hunger Games,” “Crazy Rich Asians”), while loaded with information, is a tedious-listen.  


The eight-part documentary, “Predator or Prey: Making ‘The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes,’” fares better covering various aspects of the film in detail. “Songbirds & Snakes” showcases the actors through interviews. “A Palette of Tactics” explores shooting locations in Germany and Poland. After an earlier location shoot, Ziegler didn’t want a repeat experience, and initially refused the role of Lucy Gray Baird. She had second thoughts after the wrap and asked if she was still in the running. It didn’t hurt, either, that her boyfriend Josh Andrés Rivera who also co-starred in West Side Story was also cast in “Songbirds & Snakes.”




District 12 Lucy Gray Baird

(1) Selected as a tribute, Lucy Gray Baird responds in song to the bullying she receives from the government representatives of District 12. (2&3) The crowd in District 12 responds to Lucy’s song. (4) Lucy and Snow put on a show of friendship for the press in Panem. (5) Mentor Arachne Crane (Lilly Maria Cooper) is killed by her tribute Brandy (Luna Kuse).






Costume designer Trish Summerville of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” and “Westworld,” the series, headlines “Humanity Undressed,” covering costumes, make-up and hair. Tom Blyth wore a blond wig for the role of Snow over his dark hair, even during a scene where his head is shaved.

“To the Victor Go the Spoils” covers stunts and weapons; “Inner Sanctum” gets into the post-production process, and “Snow Lands on Top” explores the characters journey.


“Pure as the Driven Snow” delves into Lucy’s story-driven music. Screenrant credits Zegler and The Covey Band with composition, except for “Can’t Catch Me Now” by Olivia Rodrigo. Viewers may recognize music and themes from other composers. Still, that’s a tradition in folk music, where lyrics are changed to go with more current times and events.


Zegler performs “The Hanging Tree,” reflective of Billy Holiday’s "Strange Fruit" (composer Abel Mirapol/Lewis Allen) as a separate, music video bonus feature.


Fans and critics have been divided over the transition of Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader for years. Now, they can be just as divided over Coriolanus Snow. Why write books and make movies about a guy destined to be a dark tyrant?


Released in November 2023, “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes” grossed over $337 million worldwide against a budget of $100 million. Its overall rating from top critics on Rotten Tomatoes was only 55 percent but with audiences, it topped 80 percent.


— Kay Reynolds



(1) Snow wanders the maze of Dr. Gaul’s mutated creatures on the way to a meeting.(2&3) Snow’s partner and fellow-student Clemensia Dovecote (Ashley Liao) claims ownership of his idea of tribute sponsorship during The Games. It doesn't end well for her.




 

 


The 10th Hunger Games

(1) Jason Schwartzman as the Game’s “magical” emcee, Lucky Flickerman, the first television host for The Games. His hair, mustache and clothes become bigger and grander in each scene. (2) Sejanus, Snow and Tigris learn about the next challenge for the tributes after an explosion set off by rebels hit the arena. (3&4) During the second day of the Games, Lucy and Jessup (Nick Benson) escape underground. (5) Coral (Mackenzie Lansing) aims her weapon at Lucy. (6&7) Reaper Ash (Dimitri Abold) of District 11 takes down a flag to cover the dead tributes. (8&9) Academy students watch a tribute consumed by hundreds of snakes. (10&11) Dr. Gaul pauses as the snakes do not affect Lucy.

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