At Z Movies

“The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” Proves to Be the Epochal “Hunger Games” Overture 

Tom Blyth (Coriolanus Snow), Rachel Zegler (Lucy Gray Baird), Peter Dinklage (Casca Highbottom), Josh Andrés Rivera ( Sejanus Plinth), Hunter Schafer (Tigris Snow), Producer Nina Jacobson, and Director Francis Lawrence at the New York premiere of The Hunger Games prequel on November 13.

Alexandria, VA – In The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, director Francis Lawrence takes us on a haunting journey into the origins of the Hunger Games, offering a mesmerizing exploration of power, morality, and the relentless pursuit of survival. The fifth film in the lucrative Hunger Games franchise unravels a tapestry of conflicted morality, leaving Coriolanus Snow’s corrupted humanity in tattered threads. The songbird’s retributory final note sings a plaintive elegy that lingers long after the credits roll.

Set against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic Panem, the film dives into the complex evolving character of Coriolanus Snow, portrayed with understated brilliance by relative newcomer Tom Blyth. Suzanne Collins’s screenplay, based upon her novel of the same name, along with Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt, masterfully crafts a narrative that invites us into the mind of a young Snow, whose ambitions are as ruthless as the Hunger Games themselves. Blyth’s skillfully nuanced performance crafts depth into Snow’s metamorphosis, turning him into a tragic figure teetering on the razor’s edge of morality.

As Lucy Gray Baird, Rachel Zegler’s determined feistiness and captivating beauty take command of the screen. The gifted songbird who starred as Maria in Spielberg’s West Side Story 2.0 delivers new depth and maturity to her voice. Sejanus Plinth, played by Josh Andrès Rivera, Chino in West Side Story, acts as the counterfoil, injecting the film with a moral sensibility, brandishing the arms of unrelenting rebellion in a futile pursuit of humanity. His erstwhile camaraderie with Snow adds a layer of complexity to the story, challenging the audience’s perception of right and wrong. Lawrence’s vision deftly balances the film’s moral ambiguity, leaving viewers questioning their own convictions.

The visual palette of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes evokes a cinemascopic epic quality thanks to cinematographer Jo Willems. From the decaying streets of the Capitol, filmed in Berlin and Wroclaw, Poland, to the post-modern constructivism of the arena, filmed in the 1939 Berlin Olympics fencing stadium, each frame is a carefully crafted piece of cinematic art that enhances the film’s dystopian atmosphere. Lawrence’s decision to incorporate handheld cameras during the Hunger Games fighting sequences intensifies the raw brutality of the competition, creating a viscerally exacting perspective for the viewing experience.

James Newton Howard, a veteran of the Hunger Games franchise, reprises the composer role with a haunting score that complements the film’s dark undertone. Much like Lucy’s laments, the orchestration becomes a character in itself, punctuating the narrative with a sense of impending doom and fatalistic melancholy.

While Hunger Games aficionados may have reservations about a prequel without the ever-and-always embattled gravitas of its predecessors, Lawrence’s masterful pacing allows for a more introspective exploration of the human condition. The film examines provocative questions about the insidious nature of power, the prohibitive sacrifices of survival at all costs, and the thin line between hero, heroine, and villainy.

At Z Movies attended The New York premiere screening last month in Chinatown. Francis Lawrence and the producer of all five Hunger Games movies, Nina Jacobson, presented the film in person along with cast members Tom Blyth (The Gilded Age, Billy the Kid), Peter Dinklage (Elf, Game of Thrones, Cyrano), Josh Andrés Rivera (West Side Story), Hunter Schafer (Euphoria, Belle), and Rachel Zegler (West Side Story, Snow White).

Activist/actress/ model Hunter Schafer (Euphoria) posing on the red carpet at The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes in Los Angeles. (Photo courtesy of Cameron MacConomy)

The cast and crew proved to be not only as collegial as the original Hunger Games ensemble but equally as affable and diversely talented. Hunger Games alumni attended the Los Angeles premiere two days earlier, including Jacqueline Emerson, who played Foxface in the original Hunger Games and was the female lead in the diverting film Art Thief, awarded the top prize at the Alexandria Film Festival. Catch it if you can!

The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a powerful cinematic endeavor that transcends the science-fiction/action thriller genre. Francis Lawrence elects to create new worlds in each of his films: Constantine, I Am Legend, Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and Hunger Games: Mockingjay 1 and 2. His unique directorial vision and outstanding performances by veterans Viola Davis, Peter Dinklage, and Jason Schwartzman combined with striking visuals and a haunting score, cement this prequel as a worthy addition to the Hunger Games legacy. Yet the movie stands solidly on its own. It’s a dark ballad that resonates with the audience, leaving them to succumb to the echoes of a world where the siren songbirds sing and the snakes silently slither in the shadows.

In other Screen news, At Z Movies attended the Middleburg Film Festival again this year. Among the highlights are two films that will be heavily spotlighted come awards season. Put them on your holiday to-do list, whether you’ve been naughty or nice!

Cord Jefferson, writer, director, and producer of American Fiction with Middleburg Film Festival founder Sheila Johnson. (Photo Scott MacConomy)

American Fiction stars the amazing Jeffrey Wright as a distraught novelist who has become jaded and disenchanted by popular fiction exploiting Black stereotypes as he manages crises in his family and personal life. The direction and screenplay by Cord Jefferson, based upon the novel Erasure by Percival Everett, is a profound and, at times, tragic testimonial finger-wag by a mostly misanthropic protagonist while remaining incessantly LOL humorous. During the screening, the audience’s laughter was so loud and sustained that it all-too-frequently masked the ensuing dialogue. The film also stars Sterling K. Brown, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Leslie Uggams, who may well see a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

It’s a cinematic masterpiece without equal. A perfect film. Look for Oscar nods for acting, best adaptive screenplay, direction, and Best Picture.

Bradley Cooper stars as Leonard Bernstein in Maestro, which he also directed, produced, and co-wrote. Transformative makeup artistry of Kazu Hiro renders Cooper into a reincarnation of the music legend. (Courtesy photo)

Maestro, directed by and starring Bradley Cooper, who co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer, is a tour de force. This film is a monumental achievement that will dominate the awards circuit right and left. Having actually met Leonard Bernstein and experienced the privilege of seeing him conduct, I can attest to the persuasive authenticity of Cooper’s embodiment of the Maestro.

Cooper conducted the London Symphony Orchestra at Ely Cathedral in a single take during the final six and half minutes of Mahler’s Second Symphony. A daunting undertaking for the most accomplished conductor, least of all channeling Bernstein’s legendary direction. The audience screening the film in Middleburg broke into effusive applause with the drop of Cooper’s baton, forgetting that they were watching a movie.

If Cooper doesn’t walk away with at least three Oscars, it will be only because American Fiction won the hearts and souls of more than a few Academy voters. Two-time Oscar winner (Darkest Hour and Bombshell) special makeup effects artist Kazu Hiro was at the MFF screening. With 30 screen credits to his name, he’s best of the best and a likely shoo-in for another Academy Award in 2024. As for the schnozzola brouhaha overshadowing – or rather upstaging – the performance, Cooper has a pretty prominent nose himself. Besides, the children of the Maestro said—Fuggedabowdit!

ICYMI: Nearly 200 Dancers Hit the Stage for 15th Anniversary Performances of Alexandria Community Nutcracker

Kelly MacConomy

Kelly MacConomy is the Arts Editor for The Zebra Press.

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