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 Woman King’ Set for Digital Release Nov. 22, Disc Dec. 13

The Woman King, the historical drama that grossed over $67 million at the domestic box office, will be released through digital retailers Nov. 22, and on DVD, Blu-ray Disc and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Dec. 13.

The Sony Pictures Home Entertainment release of the film includes more than one hour of bonus content, including interviews with the cast, a documentary on the intense training regimen to become an Agojie warrior, and a behind-the-scenes look at the filming of the movie in South Africa.

The Woman King stars Viola Davis as the titular character and is inspired by true events that took place in the Kingdom of Dahomey, one of the most powerful states of Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Davis’ character, General Nanisca, leads the Agojie, an all-female unit of warriors who protect the kingdom. The film follows her as she trains the next generation of recruits and readies them for battle against an enemy determined to destroy their way of life.

The Woman King was directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and written by Dana Stevens. In addition to Davis, the cast includes Thuso Mbedu, Lashana Lynch, Sheila Atim, and John Boyega.

The world premiere for The Woman King was at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 9, 2022. Sony Pictures released the film to theaters the following week. 

 

‘The Woman King’ Exceeds Expectations, Tops Domestic Box Office

(This story was updated Monday, Sept. 19, at 8:30 a.m. PT.)

The historical drama The Woman King, starring Viola Davis, led a trio of smaller new releases to top the domestic box office the weekend ending Sept. 18 with an estimated opening of $19 million.

That’s significantly higher than the $12 million in ticket sales Sony Pictures, which co-financed the $50 million production with eOne, had expected. Other, independent tracking services had higher hopes of at least $15 million.

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Davis portrays General Nanisca, who leads an all-female unit of warriors, known as the Agojie, that protected the African kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s. The film also stars Lashana Lynch and John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), among others.

Helmed by Gina Prince-Blythewood, The Woman King reportedly cost $50 million to produce. The film received an A+ CinemaScore rating and has been highly praised by critics.

The weekend’s other two new films, A24’s horror prequel Pearl and the Disney/Searchlight mystery comedy See How They Run, finished in third and fourth place, with respective weekend box office grosses of $3.12 million and $3.1 million, according to Box Office Mojo.

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See How They Run stars Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, and others. Directed by Tom George and written by Mark Chappell, the film is set in the 1950s and revolves around a Hollywood film director who travels to London to adapt a popular stage play into a movie, only to wind up murdered.

Pearl, a prequel to X, is the origin story of the murderous Pearl. The film was directed by Ti West and co-written by West and Mia Goth, who also portrays the title character. Other cast members include David Corenswet, Tandi Wright, and Matthew Sunderland.

The weekend’s No. 2 movie was holdover Barbarian, from 20th Century Studios/Disney, a horror movie that took in an estimated $6.3 million. Written and directed by Zach Cregger, the film follows a young woman who rents a house that unbeknownst to her has a horrific past — and a deadly present. Barbarian stars Georgina Campbell, Bill Skarsgård, and Justin Long.

Rounding out the top five was Sony Pictures’ Bullet Train, which took in another $2.5 million to brings its total gross, after seven weeks in theaters, to $96.4 million, according to Box Office Mojo. The action comedy stars Brad Pitt as an assassin who has to fight off fellow killers while on a high-speed Japanese train.

Sony Pictures’ ‘The Woman King’ Hopes to Jumpstart Fall Box Office

Following weeks of lackluster box office revenue returns, the North American theatrical market gets a trio of smaller new releases the weekend ending Sept. 18.

The slate is led by Sony Pictures’ historical actioner The Woman King, starring Viola Davis, whose character, General Nanisca, spearheads an all-female unit of warriors that protected the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s. The film also stars Lashana Lynch and John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), among others.

Sony Pictures, which co-financed the $50 million production with eOne, is reportedly estimating around $12 million in ticket sales across more than 3,700 screens, in addition to Imax and related premium large-format theaters.

With other industry estimates upwards of $21 million, The Woman King should top the competition, which includes new releases Pearl ($4.5 million) from A24 about an axe-wielding teen motivated by her mother’s murder, and Disney/Searchlight Pictures’ mystery comedy See How They Run ($2.5 million), co-starring Sam Rockwell, Saoirse Ronan and Ruth Wilson, among others.

Box office returnees include Sony’s Brad Pitt action-comedy Bullet Train ($2.4 million), Paramount Pictures’ unstoppable Top Gun: Maverick ($2.2 million), and Warner Bros. Animation’s DC League of Super-Pets with $2 million in projected ticket sales.

Maverick, which is available across digital retail channels and will be released on packaged media Nov. 1, will debut on the Paramount+ streaming platform in December. The movie is approaching $710 million in total North American box office revenue.

The Suicide Squad

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 10/26/21;
Warner;
Action;
Box Office $55.8 million;
$34.98 DVD, $39.98 Blu-ray, $49.98 UHD BD;
Rated ‘R’ for strong violence and gore, language throughout, some sexual references, drug use and brief graphic nudity.
Stars Idris Elba, Margot Robbie, John Cena, Daniela Melchior, David Dastmalchian, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Alice Braga, Peter Capaldi, Taika Waititi, Jai Courtney, Nathan Fillion, Flula Borg, Pete Davidson, Sean Gunn, Michael Rooker, Jennifer Holland, Sylvester Stallone, Dee Bradley Baker.

Writer-director James Gunn’s subversive follow-up to 2016’s Suicide Squad resets the franchise by embracing the absurdity inherent in comic book movies.

Like its predecessor, The Suicide Squad is based on the DC Comics series about a team of supervillains who are blackmailed into conducting black ops for the American government through the threat of an explosive chip in their head. The 2016 edition, while a financial success, was panned by critics and audiences after it was infamously re-edited by a trailer company into essentially a series of vignettes set to popular music, trying to capture some of the magic that made Guardians of the Galaxy work so well.

So, for the sequel, DC just brought in Gunn, writer-director of Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies. The hire came shortly after Gunn was fired by Marvel over some questionable tweets in his past, only to be re-hired for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, which he’s working on now.

The Suicide Squad is just another example of why he’s such a good fit for these kinds of movies: a keen understanding of the source material, and a willingness to poke fun at it without undermining the credibility of the story. Here, Gunn assembles a team of some of the silliest comic book concepts ever created, gives their characters emotional depth, and makes it all work.

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This is one of the bloodiest comic book movies ever made, but also one of the funniest, with Gunn expertly finding the balance between the two extremes, beginning with an absolutely insane opening sequence that will leave audiences without a clue of what to expect from this movie.

The story involves the team heading to a tropical island to dispose of a top secret project before the new military dictatorship can expose U.S. involvement in its development. Idris Elba grounds the mission as Bloodsport, a weapons expert. He has a bit of a rivalry with the team’s other weapons expert, Peacemaker (John Cena), as they try to outdo each other running up the movie’s body count. With his earnest penchant for killing anything that stands in his way to achieve “peace,” Peacemaker would seem to be Gunn’s metaphor for American foreign policy (though Gunn found the character appealing enough to write an eight-episode TV spinoff about him, set to debut on HBO Max in 2022).

Other standouts on the team include King Shark, literally a walking, talking man-eating shark voiced by Sylvester Stallone; Ratcatcher II (Daniela Melchior), who uses her deceased father’s technology to control the minds of rats; Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), who was experimented on by his mother with an interdimensional virus that gives him the power to expel dots of deadly energy; and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), one of the few holdovers from the first movie, along with team commander Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), and Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), the government agent who will detonate their heads if they disobey her.

Like the first movie, the sequel has plenty of songs, but thanks to Gunn, they are well integrated into the structure of the film, rather than seemingly played at random.

The Suicide Squad is fun, vibrant and visually distinctive like a graphic novel come to life, though its hard-‘R’ sensibilities may not appeal to everybody.

The Blu-ray edition of The Suicide Squad comes loaded with hours of insightful bonus material about the making of the film, including a good solo commentary with Gunn.

There are also about 17 minutes of deleted scenes that don’t amount to much, so it’s easy to see why they were cut.

Also included are three fun retro trailers done in the style of 1960s war movies, 1970s horror movies and 1980s buddy cop movies.

The regular Blu-ray Disc of the film contains all the extras. The 4K disc includes just the commentary and one featurette, a seven-minute breakdown of Harley Quinn’s violent escape sequence.

Originally published as a streaming review Aug. 9, 2021.

Netflix Announces a Series of Features, Including Lin-Manual Miranda’s Directorial Debut

Netflix June 19 announced several features for its upcoming slate, including Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut.

Tony, Grammy, Emmy and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, lyricist and actor Miranda (Hamilton) will direct Imagine Entertainment’s film adaptation of Tick, Tick … Boom!, to which Netflix has acquired worldwide rights. Tony Award winner Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen, Fosse/Verdon) will adapt the screenplay based on the original stage show by the late Rent (Pulitzer Prize winner for drama in 1996) creator Jonathan Larson.

Set in 1990, Tick, Tick…Boom! tells the story of Jon, an aspiring theater composer who is waiting tables in New York City while writing Superbia — which he hopes will be the next great American musical and finally give him his big break. Jon is also feeling pressure from his girlfriend Susan, who is tired of continuing to put her life on hold for Jon’s career aspirations. Meanwhile, his best friend and roommate Michael, has given up on his creative aspirations for a high-paying advertising job on Madison Avenue and is about to move out. As Jon approaches his 30th birthday, he is overcome with anxiety — wondering if his dream is worth the cost.

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Netflix also announced the live action family movie The Main Event, set to premier on the service in 2020. It’s based on an original screenplay by Larry Postel, directed by Jay Karas and produced by WWE Studios’ Richard Lowell. WWE Studios is WWE’s multi-platform content division that develops and produces scripted and non-scripted series, documentaries and feature films.

The film follows an 11-year-old aspiring wrestler who, after discovering a magical mask, enters a competition to become the next WWE superstar. It stars Seth Carr (Black Panther), Tichina Arnold (The Neighborhood, “Everybody Hates Chris”), Adam Pally (“The Mindy Project”) and Ken Marino (The Other Two, Black Monday, Bad Milo), alongside WWE superstars Kofi Kingston, The Miz and Sheamus, among others.

Netflix will adapt August Wilson’s play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom into a feature film starring  Academy Award winner Viola Davis (Widows, Fences), Chadwick Boseman (42, Get On Up, Black Panther), Emmy Award winner Glynn Turman (“How to Get Away With Murder”), Tony and Olivier Award Nominee Colman Domingo (If Beale Street Could Talk), and Michael Potts (Show Me a HeroTrue Detective). Academy Award winner Denzel Washington (who starred with Davis in the feature adaptation of Wilson’s Fences), Academy Award Nominee Todd Black and Dany Wolf will produce.

The story follows Ma Rainey, the “Queen of the Blues.” While making a record in a studio in Chicago, 1927, tensions boil between her, her white agent and producer, and bandmates.

Finally, Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis (Five Feet Apart and The Curse of La Llorona) are adapting the horror-fantasy children’s book Nightbooks by J.A. White for Netflix. The story follows Alex, a boy obsessed with scary stories, who is trapped by a witch in her modern, magical New York City apartment. His original hair-raising tales are the only thing keeping him safe as he desperately tries to find a way out of the twisted place.

Stars Bite on Apple Streaming Service

Stars and filmmakers from Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams to Steve Carell, Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Oprah turned out March 25 to help Apple launch it’s new streaming service Apple TV+.

Fox’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Champion of Redbox Charts

The Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody rocked the Redbox charts the week ended Feb. 17.

The 20th Century Fox film debuted at No. 1 on both the Redbox kiosk chart, which tracks DVD and Blu-ray Disc rentals at the company’s more than 40,000 red vending machines, and the Redbox On Demand chart, which tracks transactional video-on-demand (TVOD), both electronic sellthrough (EST) and streaming.

The critically acclaimed story of the lead singer of the rock band Queen received five Oscar nominations, including Best Actor for Rami Malek in the role of Mercury, and earned more than $212.2 million in theaters.

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The Grinch, the latest take on the classic children’s Christmas story from Universal Pictures, fell to No. 2 on the disc chart its second week in physical release. It landed at No. 4 (falling from No. 1) on the digital chart.

The only other new release on the disc chart for the week, Paramount’s Tyler Perry comedy Nobody’s Fool, debuted at No. 3. It came in at No. 2 on Redbox’s digital chart. The film, starring Tiffany Haddish, Tika Sumpter and Whoopi Goldberg, earned $31.7 million in theaters.

Fox’s heist-thriller Widows, starring Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki and Cynthia Erivo, slipped to No. 4 on the disc chart and to No. 3 on the Redbox On Demand chart. The film, which took in $42.4 million at the box office, gathered plaudits for Davis and Debicki, but it was snubbed in the Oscar race.

Sony Pictures’ action-thriller The Girl in the Spider’s Web, starring Claire Foy, took the fifth spot on both Redbox’s disc and digital charts after landing at No. 3 on both charts the week before. A sequel to the The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the film earned $14.8 million theatrically.

Meanwhile, more than a year after its digital release, Universal’s Happy Death Day made an appearance on the Redbox On Demand chart at No. 8 as its sequel, Happy Death Day 2U, came out in theaters Feb. 13.

Also popping back up on the digital chart at No. 10 about a month after its release was Warner’s A Star Is Born, which has received eight Oscar noms. The 91st Academy Awards takes place Feb. 24.

Top DVD and Blu-ray Disc Rentals, Redbox Kiosks, Week Ended Feb. 17:

  1. Bohemian Rhapsody (New)
  2. The Grinch
  3. Nobody’s Fool (2018) (New)
  4. Widows
  5. The Girl in the Spider’s Web
  6. Hunter Killer
  7. First Man
  8. Night School
  9. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms
  10. Venom (2018)

 

Top Digital, Redbox On Demand, Week Ended Feb. 17

  1. Bohemian Rhapsody
  2. Nobody’s Fool
  3. Widows
  4. The Grinch
  5. The Girl in the Spider’s Web
  6. Hunter Killer
  7. Crazy Rich Asians
  8. Happy Death Day
  9. The Sisters Brothers
  10. A Star Is Born (2018)

‘Grinch,’ ‘Widows,’ ‘Girl in the Spider’s Web’ Debut in Top Three Spots on Redbox Disc, Digital Charts

Three new releases took the three top positions on both Redbox charts the week ended Feb. 10, led by Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch, the latest take on the classic children’s Christmas story from Universal Pictures.

The Grinch debuted at No. 1 on both the Redbox kiosk chart, which tracks DVD and Blu-ray Disc rentals at the company’s more than 40,000 red vending machines, and the Redbox On Demand chart, which tracks transactional video-on-demand (TVOD), both electronic sellthrough (EST) and streaming.

Bowing at No. 2, also on both charts, was 20th Century Fox’s Widows, a heist film with an ensemble cast headed by Viola Davis and Michelle Rodriguez.

And debuting in third place on both Redbox charts was Sony Pictures’ The Girl in the Spider’s Web, an action thriller that is both a reboot and a sequel to the critically hailed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

The computer-animated Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch earned just over $270 million in U.S. theaters and is aimed at a younger crowd than its darker, live-action predecessor, 2000’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which earned slightly less in North American theaters ($260 million).

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Widows, about a band of women who turn to crime so they can pay back a crime boss after their husbands are killed in a botched $5 million heist, scored a domestic gross of $42.4 million.

And The Girl in the Spider’s Web, a theatrical underperformer with Claire Foy in the lead role as the avenger of battered women, took in just $14.8 million at the box office.

High demand for these three new releases pushed Lionsgate’s Hunter Killer to No. 4, also on both charts. The action film, about a squad of Navy SEALs who save the kidnapped Russian president from a military coup, had debuted at No. 1 the prior week.

Rounding out the top five on the Redbox disc-rental chart was Universal Pictures’ First Man, a biopic about Neil Armstrong’s celebrated 1969 moon landing. The film finished at No. 6 on the Redbox digital chart. The week before, First Man had been No. 2 on both charts, after a No. 1 debut the previous week.

On the Redbox On Demand, the No. 5 spot went to 20th Century Fox’s The Sisters Brothers, a Western comedy from 20th Century Fox with John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix as brothers Eli and Charlie Sisters, two assassins in the California Gold Rush.

The film – which earned just over $3 million in a limited theatrical release – also was the fourth new disc release to debut in the top 10 on the Redbox kiosk chart, coming in at No. 10.

Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch, Widows, The Girl in the Spider Web and The Sisters Brothers were all released on DVD and Blu-ray Disc Feb. 5 and for digital sale Jan. 22.

 

Top DVD and Blu-ray Disc Rentals, Redbox Kiosks, Week Ending February 10

  1. Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch (new)
  2. Widows (new)
  3. The Girl in the Spider Web (new)
  4. Hunter Killer
  5. First Man
  6. Night School
  7. The Nutcracker and the Four Realms
  8. Halloween (2018)
  9. Venom
  10. The Sisters Brothers (new)

 

Top Digital, Redbox On Demand, Week Ending February 10

  1. Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch
  2. Widows
  3. The Girl in the Spider Web
  4. Hunter Killer
  5. The Sisters Brothers
  6. First Man
  7. The Hate U Give
  8. Crazy Rich Asians
  9. Venom
  10. Halloween (2018)

 

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Fox Releasing ‘Widows’ on Disc Feb. 5

The heist-thriller Widows arrives on Blu-ray, DVD and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Feb. 5 from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

Directed by Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave), and co-written by McQueen and Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl), the film focuses on four women with nothing in common but the debt their dead husbands left to a crime boss after a botched job got them killed.

The widows — Viola Davis (Fences), Michelle Rodriguez (“Fast & Furious” Franchise), Elizabeth Debicki (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) and Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale) — come together to attempt a heist to pay off the debt.

The cast also includes Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall and Liam Neeson.

The film earned $42 million at the domestic box office.

The Blu-ray includes a photo gallery and nearly 60 minutes of behind-the-scenes featurettes, including “Widows Unmasked: A Chicago Story,” “Plotting the Heist: The Story,” “Assembling the Crew: Production” and “The Scene of the Crime: Locations.”

The digital download of Widows is expected Jan. 22, according to Apple’s iTunes.