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.

 

West Side Story (2021)

4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 3/15/22;
Disney/20th Century;
Musical;
Box Office $38.32 million;
$29.99 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray, $43.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for some strong violence, strong language, thematic content, suggestive material and brief smoking.
Stars Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez, Mike Faist, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll, Josh Andrés Rivera, Rita Moreno.

Director Steven Spielberg tries his hand at filming a feature-length musical for the first time in his career with a fresh adaptation of the acclaimed 1957 stage version that played on Broadway.

The play, based on William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, was famously adapted into a film version in 1961 that won the Oscar for Best Picture, so there were serious doubts over whether a modern remake was even necessary.

Spielberg, though, grew up with the music of the original stage version, and felt a 60-year gap between the films was enough time to justify his own take on the material.

The original version, conceived of by Jerome Robbins, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents, modernized Shakespeare’s famed love story to be about rival street gangs in New York in the 1950s — the Jets, who were white Americans, and the Sharks, who were Puerto Rican. Their power struggle is complicated when a Jet named Tony falls in love with Maria, sister of the head of the Sharks.

Rather than re-modernize the play modern day, Spielberg is faithful to the 1950 setting, going so far as to shoot it on film in a way that just looks like it could have been shot back then.

While respectful of the 1961 version directed by Robbins and Robert Wise, Spielberg embraces the cinematic nature of the story’s gang war to great effect, with impeccably staged musical numbers that don’t detract from the romantic nature of Tony and Maria’s story, or the violent backdrop of the life-and-death battle to control the streets.

Ansel Elgort makes for a fine Tony, while newcomer Rachel Zegler carries the day as Maria. Rita Moreno, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for playing Maria’s friend Anita in the original film, returns to the cast in a reworking of the Doc character that serves as a mentor to Tony.

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The Blu-ray includes a thorough 96-minute behind-the-scenes documentary that is broken up into smaller featurettes that cover individual topics such as costumes, sets, and the staging for several of the songs, which have been slightly rearranged to heighten the emotional impact of the story.

Some of these making-of segments include one of the last interviews with Sondheim, who died aged 91 in November 2021 just days before the new film’s premiere.