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The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes

Updated: Jan 6

A prequel that sometimes feels as long as its cumbersome title, THE HUNGER GAMES: THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS & SNAKES is just ok until a clunky, strange final chapter.

I guess if "Wicked" can tell us the real story behind the Wicked Witch of the West, there a tale to be told about evil President Snow's childhood and teen years.

What the original films had that this one does not was Donald Sutherland in that role, chewing scenery and oozing bad guy vibes with style.

This time we have Tom Blyth as Corialanus Snow, secretly living in poverty as he and his sister Tigris (the bland Hunter Schafer) pretend to still be a part of the upper class. I'm just going to call him Cori, because using the last half of his name could lead down a dark path.

Anyway, he thinks that his fortunes may have turned when he's chosen to be a mentor for the 10th Annual Hunger Games. The Games creator Dr Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis, the absolute best part of the film) knows the games are losing viewership and has a plan to shake them up, starting with her new mentorship program.

The mentor whose assigned tribute wins the fight to the death will also win a scholarship to university and a life of riches. Knowing that Cori goes on to be the President of Panem in the future takes the suspense out of the fight, but there are occasional bright spots to be enjoyed.

Rachel Zegler, who was so brilliantly cast in Steven Spielberg's 2021 remake of "West Side Story" seems wrong for her role as Cori's tribute Lucy Gray Baird. A spirited rebel, she beats up a guard and then breaks into song when she's chosen in front of District 12. Is this going to be a musical? On that note, Zegler is at her best when she is singing. She's given plenty of chance to do so, especially in that draggy third act that seems to turn into some strange mashup of "The Postman" and previous Hunger Games entrees.

Peter Dinklage has a blast as Dean Casca Highbottom, the scheming head of their school and co-creator of the games. If only he'd been allowed to add some humor to the character to flavor all the scheming, he'd steal the entire movie.

Josh Andres Rivera is another standout as Sejanus Plinth, a wealthy young man torn between his hate for the social division of the games and family loyalty.

The entire thing goes on way too long and after the middle section of the film detailing the games ends, you're left with a coda nearly an hour long.

The original Hunger Games films with Jennifer Lawrence started off very badly and got better as they went, feeding off their own box office success with bigger budgets and Lawrence blossoming as an actress in the role. She always held your attention as the story's heart & focus. The things she was forced to do to survive always carried emotional weight in their balance.

Zegler is no Lawrence and Blyth is no Sutherland.

Meandering about and only perking up when Davis or Dinklage take focus, SONGBIRDS & SNAKES serves as a lesser entry in the series. It earns a C.

When the thing I'm most interested in during the film is how Lucky Flickerman (a wasted Jason Schwartzman) does that coin trick, you've got issues.

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