The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes

4K ULTRA HD REVIEW:

Street Date 2/13/24;
Lionsgate;
Sci-Fi;
Box Office $166.35 million;
$29.96 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, $42.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for strong violent content and disturbing material.
Stars Tom Blyth, Rachel Zegler, Peter Dinklage, Hunter Schafer, Josh Andrés Rivera, Jason Schwartzman, Burn Gorman, Fionnula Flanagan, Viola Davis.

The world established in 2012’s The Hunger Games and its sequels offered a lot of fertile ground for a prequel. The dystopian setting of that first film gave viewers a look at the 74th iteration of the Hunger Games, the ritual competition that forced children from the districts of the future nation of Panem to fight to the death as a warning to never wage war against the Capitol.

While it would be interesting to learn more about the cataclysm that led to the collapse of civilization and the rise of Panem and the Districts. This isn’t that story, as it begins in a war-ravaged Panem just before the creation of the Hunger Games as an institution. But it’s also not the story of the first Hunger Games, as the movie jumps from the opener of two children trying to survive a dystopian hellscape, to a decade later and the kids having grown up into a slightly less-dystopian world on the verge of the 10th Hunger Games.

One of the kids is the 18-year-old Coriolanus Snow, the future president of Panem played in the earlier movies by Donald Sutherland. He’s played here by Tom Blyth, and this is his story.

The young Snow is depicted as a student eager to restore his family’s fortunes, but his efforts are stymied by the academy’s dean, Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), creator of the Hunger Games, which in their earlier years are seen as too barbaric to be embraced by the residents of Panem. Highbottom wants the students to mentor the tributes at the next games, and hopes to humiliate Snow by assigning him Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), whose prospects for winning aren’t great since she’s from the poverty-stricken District 12. A folk singer with a penchant for eccentricity, Lucy Gray has herself been set up, forced to serve as tribute as the result of a feud with a local mayor’s daughter.

Convinced that leading his tribute to victory is key to a substantial cash prize, Snow embraces his task, going so far as to present a series of recommendations for improving the spectacle of the games to Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis), the mad scientist in charge of implementing the competition. Her lab is filled with the kind of bizarre creatures that become a staple of the later games.

In working with Lucy Gray to prepare her for the games, Snow begins to fall in love with her, setting off an unexpected chain of events that begin to forge the man destined one day to ascend to his own ruthless reign.

Subscribe HERE to the FREE Media Play News Daily Newsletter!

The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes serves as an entertaining companion piece to the original “Hunger Games” movies, which began to falter toward the end as a victim of their own success, as the young adult books upon which they were based and subsequent movie adaptations spawned a tiring trend of dystopian fiction involving teenage warriors of the future.

The focus on Snow puts a new spin on the familiar, and it’s interesting to see an earlier version of the games set in a simple arena, rather than the elaborate landscapes into which they evolve. It’s also a bit remarkable that the Blyth’s performance manages to make Snow, through his relationship with Lucy Gray, a sympathetic character for the audience to root for, in contrast to the villain we know he becomes.

The film switches gears a number of times as Snow learns how to maneuver through the games and their aftermath. The prologue, which was no doubt effective in the book version, feels a bit extraneous considering its details could have been explained through some quick exposition or flashback, and excising it might have shaved a few minutes off the film’s long two-and-a-half hour run time.

However, from the production design of the Capitol to the camera-friendly landscapes of District 12’s wilderness, the film looks great in its Ultra HD disc presentation. The 4K and Blu-ray discs both contain the same slate of bonus materials.

The details of the making of the film are covered in an extensive eight-part documentary that itself runs two-and-a-half hours, while the film includes a feature-length commentary track from director Francis Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson.

Also included is Zegler performing “The Hanging Tree” song, and a letter to fans from Suzanne Collins, author of the “Hunger Games” novels, heaping praise upon the film.

 

The Offer

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Paramount;
Drama;
$25.99 DVD, $33.49 Blu-ray;
Not rated;
Stars Miles Teller, Matthew Goode, Dan Fogler, Burn Gorman, Colin Hanks, Giovanni Ribisi, Juno Temple, Patrick Gallo.

There are a few ways to interpret “The Offer.” On the surface, it’s the story of the quest to achieve a creative vision no matter what it takes. From another perspective, it’s a studio, Paramount, celebrating the 50th anniversary of one of its greatest achievements, The Godfather, by sensationalizing a unique period of Hollywood history.

The details as presented in the 10-part limited series series made for Paramount+ likely lean more on the side of embellishment than fact, punching up the outlandishness beyond the point of believability in some cases. But that hardly matters when the end result is as entertaining a guilty pleasure as it turned out to be.

The particulars of the making of the “Godfather” films are easy enough to come by, given the plethora of bonus materials on DVD and Blu-ray releases of the trilogy over the years, not to mention countless books on the subject. The primary inspiration for “The Offer” is credited to the experiences of producer Albert S. Ruddy, thus making him the central figure for the series.

Ruddy (Miles Teller) is introduced as a bored programmer at the Rand Corporation who, thanks to a chance encounter, ends up creating “Hogan’s Heroes” for CBS (in truth, Ruddy’s Hollywood experience stretches back before his time at Rand).

Wanting to break into film, Ruddy convinces Paramount boss Robert Evans (Matthew Goode) to give him a shot with a low-budget film starring Robert Redford.

Meanwhile, Mario Puzo (Patrick Gallo) writes The Godfather, which turns out to be one of the best-selling novels of all time. Paramount owns the rights to make a movie version, but parent company Gulf + Western doesn’t want to risk too much money on yet another “gangster picture,” so they stick Ruddy on it.

Ruddy immediately breaks convention by hiring Puzo to write the screenplay (Hollywood for the longest time had taboos about creatives crossing mediums — TV to movies, novels to screenplays, etc.). When Puzo’s efforts stall, Ruddy brings in Francis Ford Coppola (Dan Fogler) to direct — another controversial move given Coppola’s disastrous track record as a director despite an Oscar win for writing Patton. Coppola is reluctant at first, but agrees to the project on the basis of bringing authenticity to an epic story about an Italian family.

Sticking Puzo and Coppola in a house together to hash out the screenplay (even though in real life they supposedly worked on it separately), Ruddy must then deal with a bigger obstacle to the film — opposition from the mafia itself, who see the book as a slur. Frank Sinatra is particularly offended by a crooner character in the novel, and vows to shut down the production.

Now supposedly thrust into the middle of a mob war against Hollywood, Ruddy makes pals with mob boss Joe Colombo (Giovanni Ribisi), which gets some heat off the film but doesn’t please the corporate brass at Gulf + Western or Paramount. Meanwhile, Colombo’s support of the film draws out some of his enemies within the mob who seek to replace him.

And so the series continues as a tug-of-war between artistic integrity, mafia greed and the corporate bottom line. The mob influence on the production was probably played up to draw parallels to the movie’s storyline, while the show contains no shortage of references to nostalgia touchpoints from the era audiences will recognize, from other movies to some of the actors up for roles in the film.

Subscribe HERE to the FREE Media Play News Daily Newsletter!

As with most docudramas, certain events and characters are condensed and conflated for the sake of the narrative. For instance, Colombo rival Joe Gallo is shown being taken out because his attempts to extort the production threaten the budget to film in Sicily, when in reality he wasn’t killed until after the movie was released.

The cast is mostly solid, and Teller does a great job carrying the load as Ruddy, though his portrayal as a miracle worker and solver of all problems seems to be a bit overblown. Ribisi, on the other hand, is so over-the-top as Colombo he seems like he’s on a different show. But the standout is Goode as Robert Evans, so completely transforming into the iconic Hollywood executive that it might as well be Evans playing himself. If Paramount+ doesn’t greenlight a docudrama of Evans’ autobiography The Kid Stays in the Picture starring Goode, it will be missing out.

Through Evans, “The Offer” gets to indulge a bit in telling the story of Paramount in general in the early 1970s, when he was brought in by Gulf + Western boss Charles Bluhdorn (Burn Gorman) to turn the studio’s fortunes around. As such, the show delves a bit into the success of Love Story, starring Evans’ wife Ali MacGraw, and how their marriage disintegrated when he started to focus on The Godfather, and she ended up in the arms of Steven McQueen on the set of The Getaway. Evans also keeps an eye on his next project, Chinatown, despite his corporate overlords wanting to dump it as something they “don’t understand.” (Corporate stooges being idiots when it comes to art is a big theme of the show.)

Follow us on Instagram!

Those familiar with The Kid Stays in the Picture (the book or the 2002 documentary adaptation of it narrated by Evans) might note a number of discrepancies between Evans’ own accounts of these events and how “The Offer” portrays them. For instance, in the show, Coppola and Ruddy are fighting with Gulf + Western over how long The Godfather is, preferring the nearly three-hour version we all know and love today, while the bean-counters want to maximize screenings with a two-hour version (a classic debate in Hollywood — the best-known recent example involving the 2017 Justice League movie). Evans has to swoop in from a drunken stupor over his failed marriage to save the longer cut, thus sending the film on a path toward Oscar glory.

In Evans’ own account, Coppola turned in a two-hour version, and Evans ordered him to recut it to make it longer, thus delaying the film from a Christmas 1971 release to March 1972 (a delay mentioned in the show that doesn’t make much sense if the longer cut already existed). Conjecture over the editing of The Godfather has occupied much discussion over the years, and Coppola’s own accounts would likely fill further volumes.

For however inaccurate it may be, “The Offer” is still first and foremost a love letter to The Godfather, and should only serve to build on fans’ appreciation of that classic film, and a love of cinema in general.

The Blu-ray includes more than two hours of behind-the-scenes featurettes, most of which are on the fourth and final disc. Five are offered under the “Crafting ‘The Offer'” banner, and are short promotional videos, about four-and-a-half minutes each, about a different aspect of the production — wardrobe and costumes, music composition, production design, props, and hair and makeup.

There is an hour-long making-of documentary called “No One Can Refuse: Making ‘The Offer’ that is presented in four parts.

Rounding out this list are four standalone featurettes: the four-minute “Meet Al Ruddy,” which focuses on the main man himself; the five-minute “Directing ‘The Offer'”; The nine-minute “Parallels: Art Imitates Art,” about some of the references to the original “Godfather” movie layered into the production; and the seven-minute “The Offer: Sending a Message,” in which the cast members discuss the legacy of The Godfather.

Since there’s some overlap on the topics being covered, there’s a fair bit of reuse of a few of the interviews, but there are a lot of good insights into the making of the miniseries.

Sprinkled throughout the discs and available with each episode is a short “Backstories” featurette that originally accompanied the episode when it debuted on Paramount+. Several of the episodes also include deleted scenes.

Originally published as a streaming review June 18, 2022.

Pacific Rim Uprising

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street 6/19/18;
Universal;
Sci-Fi;
Box Office $59.19 million;
$29.98 DVD, $34.98 Blu-ray, $37.98 3D BD, $37.98 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language.
Stars John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Jing Tian, Cailee Spaeny, Rinko Kikuchi, Burn Gorman, Adria Arjona, Max Zhang, Charlie Day.

The original Pacific Rim in 2013 was never going to be hailed as an artistic masterpiece. But under the guidance of director Guillermo del Toro, it proved to be a fun, entertaining sci-fi adventure with just the sort of goofy premise that could be exploited for franchise potential in a market dominated by “Transformers,” “Power Rangers” and “Voltron.”

The film’s story was a simple-enough starting point, positing a future in which the world was besieged by giant monsters called kaiju that emerged from undersea interdimensional rifts. To stop them from rampaging through major cities, mankind built giant robots called jaegers to fight them.

Pacific Rim Uprising picks up 10 years later, with the breaches closed but the militaries of the world strategizing about the best defense should the kaiju return.

Veteran TV producer Steven S DeKnight takes over directing duties from del Toro (who produced) and delivers about as much as could be expected for a sequel. The film offers a mix of new and returning characters to provide an enjoyable yet unsophisticated follow-up that delivers on the promise of more monsters and machines beating each other up while everything around them gets trashed.

It’s to the screenplay’s credit that it finds a few interesting plot twists to put a different spin on the basic premise while still delivering the kind of action the set-up would warrant. The story expands upon some of the key plot points of the original to set up future sequels (though, given the film’s underwhelming box office, future story continuations may end up being through alternate mediums such as animation or graphic novels).

The Blu-ray includes a slew of behind-the-scenes material, highlighted by a feature-length DeKnight commentary that really delves into his goals for the film, the challenges he faced, and other insights, such how how much inspiration he drew from the works of Steven Spielberg.

In addition, the Blu-ray includes 10 featurettes that runa bout 40 minutes in total and delve into various aspects of the film, with an emphasis on casting, visual effects and stuntwork. One of them “Hall of Heroes,” amusingly presents star John Boyega spending more than three minutes showing off all the new jaegers introduced in the film, describing all their amenities and weaponry in minute detail as if he were some sort of jaeger salesman.

There are also seven minutes of deleted scenes with optional commentary that provide a few good character moments but otherwise aren’t glaring omissions from the film.

‘Pacific Rim Uprising’ Arrives in Homes in June

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment in June will send to homes the action sequel Pacific Rim Uprising, which earned just under $58 million in U.S. theaters.

The film will become available on digital and through the Movies Anywhere app on June 5, and on Blu-ray Disc, DVD, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray, and On Demand on June 19. The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc combo pack includes copies of the film on both 4K Ultra HD and regular Blu-ray, as well as a digital copy.

Pacific Rim Uprising is set 10 years after the events of the first film, which earned a domestic gross of nearly $102 million. In the sequel, the Kaiju return with a new deadly threat that reignites the conflict between these otherworldly monsters of mass destruction and the Jaegers, the human-piloted super-machines that were built to vanquish them.

Pacific Rim Uprising features a next-generation battleground complete with upgraded Jaegers and new Kaiju.

The film stars John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) as the rebellious Jake Pentecost, a once-promising Jaeger pilot whose legendary father gave his life to secure humanity’s victory against the Kaiju. The cast also includes Scott Eastwood, Cailee Spaeny, Charlie Day, Rinko Kikuchi and Burn Gorman.

The disc releases include more than 40 minutes of bonus content, including the following:

  • Deleted scenes with commentary by director Steven S. DeKnight
  • Feature commentary with DeKnight
  • “Hall of Heroes” – Boyega takes viewers on a tour of the weaponry and enhancements of the latest generation of Jaegers featured in the film.
  • “Bridge to Uprising” – The cast and crew discuss how the world of Pacific Rim has changed in the 10 years since the events of the original film.
  • “The Underworld of Uprising” – Humanity won the Kaiju War, but every war has casualties. Boyega and DeKnight give viewers a tour of the coastal “Relief Zones.”
  • “Becoming Cadets” – Viewers learn the grueling physical and mental preparation required of the young actors who portrayed the Pan Pacific Defense Corp cadets.
  • “Unexpected Villain” – Viewers discover the secret reason that turned one of the most beloved heroes of the original film into a villain obsessed with humanity’s destruction.
  • “Next Level Jaegers” – The cast and crew discuss the technological advances of the Jaeger program in the years since the events of the original film.
  • “I Am Scrapper” – Actress Cailee Spaeny shares the backstory of Scrapper, Amara’s incredible self-built Jaeger and its many unique abilities.
  • “Going Mega” – Filmmakers take viewers through the technical and creative challenges of creating the most deadly threat the Pan Pacific Defense Corp has ever faced: the Mega Kaiju!
  • “Secrets of Shao” – Actress Tian Jing shares her insights on the enigmatic tech tycoon Liwen Shao, the woman behind Shao Industries.
  • “Mako Returns” – Actress Rinko Kikuchi and director DeKnight explain the significance of Mako Mori’s return and her importance to the events of Pacific Rim Uprising.