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.

 

Shazam! Fury of the Gods

4K ULTRA HD BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 5/23/23;
Warner;
Action;
Box Office $57.64 million;
$24.98 DVD, $29.98 Blu-ray, $39.98 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for sequences of action and violence, and language.
Stars Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Adam Brody, Rachel Zegler, Grace Caroline Currey, Ross Butler, Ian Chen, D.J. Cotrona, Jovan Armand, Meagan Good, Faithe Herman, Lucy Liu, Djimon Hounsou, Helen Mirren, Marta Millans, Cooper Andrews.

If ever there were a poster child for a studio undercutting its own IP, it’s Shazam! Fury of the Gods.

It’s not that it’s a bad film — it’s fun and highly entertaining. But in the leadup to its theatrical release, the newly constituted Warner Bros. Discovery announced plans to reboot the entirety of the DC Comics film franchise — of which the sequel to 2019’s well-regarded Shazam! was a part. On top of that, the character’s historic comic book arch-nemesis, Black Adam, got his own solo movie just a few months earlier, amid widespread rumors that its star, Dwayne Johnson, was so adamant about downplaying any connection to Shazam that he nixed any potential crossover cameos.

Such PR negativity so dampened enthusiasm for any remaining DC sequels still tied to the old continuity that the studio’s marketers decided to spoil one of the film’s major cameos in a TV spot in a desperate attempt to reignite fan interest. It didn’t work, with Fury of the Gods generating about one-third the box office of its predecessor four years earlier.

The pandemic probably didn’t help matters either; taking two years off the timeline of when a potential sequel could come out doesn’t do any favors to maintaining audiences’ familiarity with a relatively niche character in the DC Comics canon.

The shame of it is, this is a decent, if imperfect, sequel to one of the more irreverent superhero properties to hit the big screen in a while.

Subscribe HERE to the FREE Media Play News Daily Newsletter!

Picking up a couple years after where the previous film left off, Shazam (Zachary Levi), the adult superhero form of Billy Batson (Asher Angel), is joined by his family of foster brothers and sisters in a full-fledged superhero team of kids who turn into adults imbued with the powers of the mythological gods when they say the word “Shazam.” And they are apparently horrible at it, being lambasted in the media for causing more harm than they try to prevent. On top of that, Billy’s best friend Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) is having too much fun in his superhero form (Adam Brody), often going on solo adventures to the chagrin of Billy.

In the midst of the Shazam Family trying to find its balance, a trio of sisters visits Earth from the Realm of the Gods in order to reclaim the Shazam powers, which they say were stolen from them by the Wizard (Djimon Hounsou) who gave Billy his powers in the first film. The Daughters of Atlas (Helen Mirren, Lucy Liu, Rachel Zegler) also seek the means to restore life to their own realm through a golden apple hidden somewhere in the Rock of Eternity, which happens to be the Shazam Family’s headquarters.

To force Shazam’s cooperation, the Daughters kidnap Freddy and remove his powers, having retrieved the magical staff that empowered the team in the first film. But they imprison Freddy in the same cell as the Wizard, and the interplay between Grazer and Hounsou as the pair plot their escape is among the film’s best material.

The sisters also encase Shazam’s home city, Philadelphia, in an impenetrable magic dome, which at least explains why other DC heroes aren’t getting involved in the fight. One downside to storytelling in a shared universe is that if the villain’s plot registers on a global scale, it raises the question of why the other established heroes of the franchise aren’t all showing up to try to stop it as well (a prime example of this is Marvel’s Eternals, in which the potential destruction of the Earth apparently drew the curiosity of zero Avengers).

To save Freddy, free the city and prevent the Daughters’ from unleashing monsters upon the Earth, Billy must figure out how to retrieve the staff and return the sisters to their realm.

Levi continues to have all the fun as a teenager inhabiting a middle-aged adult’s body, though he seems to be even more immature as Shazam than the teenage Billy, who is nearing 18 and demonstrates more self-awareness than his adult self. The film at least has other characters call out how Shazam’s shtick is getting old, pointing out that the “S” in his name is supposed to represent Solomon’s wisdom — a trait he has been lacking thus far.

Also a bit weird is that the film has retained all the adult/kid cast from the first film, with the exception that Grace Caroline Currey is now playing the adult hero version of Mary in addition to her younger form. The filmmakers cite the character now being over 18 as the reason for the change, as Michelle Borth played the older form of Mary in the previous film. It’s a bit weird visually just compared with all the other characters changing actors in their superhero forms (especially considering they reshot a flashback to the first film, but used Currey instead of Borth, and this film’s updated costume designs). As the film establishes that both Billy and Freddy are about to turn 18, this logic would have Angel and Grazer playing their own Shazam versions in any future installments instead of Levi and Brody, which doesn’t seem a likely direction for the filmmakers to go in (not that any more sequels are likely forthcoming given this film’s dire box office pronouncements).

However, the film’s best running gag, at least for anyone with an appreciation for comic book history, involves the Shazam Family trying to figure out superhero names, since they can’t just introduce themselves as “Shazam” without turning their powers on and off. That’s because their superhero names in the comics were variations of Billy’s original alter ego — Captain Marvel, a moniker now controlled by DC’s rival, Marvel Comics, thanks to a complicated legal history.

Follow us on Instagram

The film looks great in 4K and on Blu-ray, filled with some dazzling visual effects and an amazing array of mythological creatures with designs that draw inspiration from Ray Harryhausen.

The disc and digital editions of the film offer a number of good bonus materials. In the 4K combo pack, all the extras are on the regular Blu-ray, not the 4K disc.

Both the Blu-ray and 4K disc do offer an informative commentary track with director David F. Sandberg, who discusses how the production sidestepped a number of challenges in the visual effects and editing of the film.

Sandberg refers to a lot of material cut out of the film, many of which are included among the deleted, alternate and extended scenes, 29 of them totaling 31 minutes.

The Blu-ray also includes more than an hour of making-of featurettes.

The primary behind-the-scenes video is the 25-minute “Shazam! Let’s Make a Sequel,” which offers a nice overview of the production in general. The four-minute “The Zac Effect” focuses on the film’s star and his impact on the film, while the five-minute “Shazamily Reunion” shines a light on the other members of Team Shazam, and the eight-minute “Sisterhood of Villains” details the creation and portrayal of the Daughters of Atlas. “The Rock of Eternity: Decked Out” is a nearly six-minute featurette about how the Shazam Family have decorated their lair. The five-minute “Mythology of Shazam! Fury of the Gods” chronicles the real Greek myths that inspired much of the film’s premise.

Rounding out the extras is “Shazam! Scene Deconstruction,” a 10-minute video about the making of five action sequences.

 

Lionsgate Casts Rachel Zegler in ‘The Hunger Games’ Movie Prequel

Lionsgate May 31 announced it has cast Rachel Zegler (West Side Story) as Lucy Gray Baird in the studio’s upcoming The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, the adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ New York Times best-selling prequel to The Hunger Games. Zegler will star as the female lead in the film opposite Tom Blyth, who will play a young Coriolanus Snow. The movie is set to hit theaters on Nov. 17, 2023.

The Hunger Games film franchise generated more than $3 billion worldwide, making Jennifer Lawrence, who played Katniss Everdeen, a global star.

Rachel Zegler

Zegler received acclaim for her breakthrough performance in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, for which she was honored with Best Actress wins from the National Board of Review and the Golden Globe Awards.

Years before he would become the tyrannical President of Panem, 18-year-old Snow is the last hope for his fading lineage, a once-proud family that has fallen from grace in a post-war Capitol. With the 10th annual Hunger Games fast approaching, the young Snow is alarmed when he is assigned to mentor Baird, the girl tribute from impoverished District 12. But, after she commands all of Panem’s attention by defiantly singing during the reaping ceremony, Snow thinks he might be able to turn the odds in their favor.

Subscribe HERE to the FREE Media Play News Daily Newsletter!

“When you read Suzanne’s book, Lucy Gray’s emotional intelligence, physical agility, and fiercely powerful, determined singing voice shine through. Rachel embodies all of those skills — she is the perfect choice for our Lucy Gray,” Nathan Kahane, president of Lionsgate Motion Picture Group, said in a statement.

The film will be directed by Francis Lawrence, who previously directed the franchise’s Catching FireMockingjay — Part One and Mockingjay — Part Two. It will be shepherded by franchise producer Nina Jacobson and her producing partner Brad Simpson, along with Francis Lawrence. Suzanne Collins, Tim Palen, and Jim Miller will serve as executive producers.

“Like everybody, I first saw Rachel Zegler in West Side Story, and like everybody, I knew I was watching a star who would command the screen for a generation,” Lawrence said. “Lucy Gray is a perfect match for her as an actress: the character is bold, independent, and defiant, but also vulnerable, emotional, and loving. Rachel will make this character unforgettable.”

The latest draft of the screenplay is by Michael Lesslie (Macbeth, starring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, and Assassin’s Creed). Lesslie builds on the work of writers Suzanne Collins and Michael Arndt (the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Little Miss Sunshine, as well as serving as one of the writers of Catching Fire). The screenplay is based on Collins’ best-selling novel. Meredith Wieck and Scott O’Brien are overseeing on behalf of the studio.

Zegler is next set to appear in DC Comics’ Shazam! Fury of the Gods alongside Zachary Levi, Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu, which debuts in December 2022. She is currently filming the title role in Disney’s live action Snow White, directed by Marc Webb. She is represented by ICM and Freundlich Law.

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.

Subscribe HERE to the FREE Media Play News Daily Newsletter!

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.

Disney Sets Transactional Home Release Dates for ‘West Side Story’ Remake

Disney Media & Entertainment Distribution will release Steven Spielberg’s remake of the classic 1961 musical West Side Story through digital retailers March 2, and on Blu-ray Disc, DVD and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray two weeks later on March 15

As previously announced, the 20th Century Studios production be available for streaming on Disney+ and HBO Max starting March 2 as well.

West Side Story, which is nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, tells the tale of fierce rivalries and young love in 1957 New York City. The remake stars Ansel Elgort (Tony); Ariana DeBose (Anita); David Alvarez (Bernardo); Mike Faist (Riff); Brian d’Arcy James (Officer Krupke); Corey Stoll (Lieutenant Schrank); Josh Andrés Rivera (Chino); with Rita Moreno (as Valentina, who owns the corner store in which Tony works); and introducing Rachel Zegler (Maria.) Moreno also serves as one of the film’s executive producers. 

Subscribe HERE to the FREE Media Play News Daily Newsletter!

The film’s creative team includes Kushner, who also served as an executive producer; Tony Award winner Justin Peck, who choreographed the musical numbers in the film; Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor and Grammy Award winner Gustavo Dudamel, who helmed the recording of the iconic score; Academy Award-nominated composer and conductor David Newman, who arranged the score, Tony Award-winning composer Jeanine Tesori, who supervised the cast on vocals; and music supervisor Matt Sullivan, who serves as executive music producer for the film.

Extas include various making-of documentaries under the banner “The Stories of West Side Story,” including a look at the actors who play rival gangs the Sharks and the Jets, and a tribute to the late Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the lyrics to the film’s musical numbers. Bonus features on the digital editions vary by retailer.

Steven Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ to Stream on Disney+, HBO Max Starting March 2

Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-lauded musical feature West Side Story will debut on Disney+ in the United States and most international countries on March 2. 

It will also reportedly stream on HBO Max in the United States.

The film will launch in Taiwan on March 9 and Japan on March 30 on Disney+.

In addition, the ABC one-hour special “Something’s Coming: West Side Story — A Special Edition of 20/20” is available to stream on Disney+ now.

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress (Ariana DeBose) and 11 Critics’ Choice Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress (DeBose, Rita Moreno), West Side Story is the winner of three Golden Globe awards — Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy; Best Actress, Musical or Comedy (Rachel Zegler) and Best Supporting Actress (DeBose). The film has also received nominations from the DGA (Spielberg), PGA (Spielberg and Kristie Macosko Krieger), WGA (Tony Kushner) and SAG (DeBose for Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role) and has been named one of the year’s top 10 films by the American Film Institute and the National Board of Review, the latter having voted Rachel Zegler Best Actress of the Year.

Subscribe HERE to the FREE Media Play News Daily Newsletter!

Directed by Spielberg from a screenplay by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner Tony Kushner, West Side Story tells the classic tale of fierce rivalries and young love in 1957 New York City. This reimagining of the musical stars Ansel Elgort (Tony); Ariana DeBose (Anita); David Alvarez (Bernardo); Mike Faist (Riff); Brian d’Arcy James (Officer Krupke); Corey Stoll (Lieutenant Schrank); Josh Andrés Rivera (Chino); with Rita Moreno (as Valentina, who owns the corner store in which Tony works); and introducing Rachel Zegler (Maria).