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.

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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 French Dispatch

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Disney/Searchlight;
Comedy;
Box Office $16.05 million;
$19.99 DVD, $29.99 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R’ for graphic nudity, some sexual references and language.
Stars Benicio del Toro, Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Jeffrey Wright, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Christoph Waltz, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman, Anjelica Huston.

Writer-director Wes Anderson’s penchant for quirky storytelling is on full display in The French Dispatch, an ode to journalism and the eclectic practitioners of the profession.

The film is an anthology structured like the format of a magazine, in this case a journal for the fictional French town of Ennui. The magazine, called The French Dispatch, is the local arm of a newspaper in Kansas. The vignettes shown in the film represent the final issue of the magazine, which is shut down upon the sudden death of its editor (Bill Murray), whose life story is presented through his obituary.

The tribute issue begins with a roving reporter (Owen Wilson) giving a brief recap of the history of Ennui, where little has changed culturally in 200 years.

The main story concerns an artist (Benicio del Toro) sentenced to prison for murder, whose paintings are inspired by a guard (Léa Seydoux) with whom he has fallen in love. His work catches the eye of a corrupt art dealer (Adrien Brody), while the tale is recounted by an indulgent lecturer for the gallery that ended up with the prisoner’s work.

Next up is the story of a student protest whose leader (Timothée Chalamet) inspires the writer of the piece (Frances McDormand) to break her objective coverage of the situation and help him write his manifesto while they enjoy a love affair.

The final segment involves a food journalist (Jeffrey Wright) whose examination of a new type of cuisine specially designed for police officers is interrupted when the town’s criminal syndicates kidnap the son of the police commissioner.

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The sketches are infused with Anderson’s usual eccentricities, such as varying aspect ratios, an intermixing of color and black-and-white, charming personalities, sharp wit, spitfire dialogue, rapid editing, and the precise framing of each scene with imagery evocative of a snapshot.

The set designs and visual style make the film seem like somewhat of a spiritual cousin to The Grand Budapest Hotel.

The Blu-ray doesn’t include any bonus materials, but since it’s a Wes Anderson movie there’ll probably be a Criterion Collection release in a few years offering a smattering of supplements.