The Hunger Games: Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

Posted on November 16, 2023 at 5:45 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for largely bloodless child death and disturbing content
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol, drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and graphic peril and violence including teens murdering teens. Characters are shot, impaled, poisoned, bitten by snakes, and hung.
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: November 17, 2023
Copyright Sony 2023

The Hunger Games prequel is a villain origin story. The popular trilogy centered on rebel Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), in a dystopic world ruled by Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland). Author Suzanne Collins was flipping channels one night and saw both sports events and news footage of the Iraq War. This inspired her idea of a future society where entertainment — and the fundamentals of a totalitarian society — rest on a television show with teenagers competing to the death like gladiators. The grotesquery of the competition is reflected in a perverted concept of the selection process as patriotic and the young competitors paraded in glamorous attire before the “games” begin.

Collins has said she was drawn to “the idea of an unjust war developing into a just war because of greed, xenophobia and longstanding hatreds.” With this new installment, we get a better look at how that happens, on both a structural level and a personal one. Young Coriolanus Snow (Tom Blyth), whose name harks back to the title character in a Shakespearean tragedy about a general who is a hero in battle but becomes resentful that he is not honored enough by his community and then loses his own honor. As this story begins, he is a senior at the country’s prestigious school, barely scraping by with his grandmother (Fionnula Flannagan) and cousin who is like a sister (Hunter Schafer as Tigris). He does his best to keep up appearances as he hopes to win the school’s lucrative top prize for academic achievement. But there is an announcement — the prize has been canceled. The games, in the 10th year and much less elaborate than the ones we know from the original trilogy, are losing their audience. And so the candidates for the prize will each be assigned a games contestant to “mentor.” The contestant who does best — that means “spectacle, not survival.” The mentor who wins will be the one whose contestant gets the most support from the audience.

At this point, Coriolanus is devoted to his family and a loyal friend. He meets his assigned contestant, Lucy Gray (“West Side Story’s” Rachel Zegler) and quickly shifts from wanting her to be spectacle to wanting her to survive. Lucy is the songbird of the title, a roots-style singer with spirit and a strong sense of community.

The “games” are nowhere near as flamboyantly extravagant as the ones we have seen in the earlier films, and it is intriguing to see the foreshadowing and origins of the familiar elements. Jason Schwartzman as oily weatherman/magician/emcee Lucky Flickerman is not as outrageous as Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket, but we can see the origins of the gulf between the “entertainment” and lethal in the tone of the events. Coriolanus himself is responsible for coming up with some of the most significant elements of the later games. Viola Davis has a lot of fun as mad, gene-splicing, snake-loving scientist Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Ms. Collins is quite the name-giver!) and Peter Dinklage shows us the terrible compromises of the school’s Dean, (another bonkers name) Casca Highbottom.

Fans of the series and the book will appreciate this faithful version, but others may find the relentless butchery outweighs the lessons about morality, trust, and resilience, leaving open the question of whether lethal gladiator games, even by proxy, are inevitably seen as entertainment.

Parents should know that this film includes intense and graphic violence including many murders with teenagers attacking other teenagers and military attacking civilians. Characters are shot, impaled, poisoned, bitten by snakes, and hung. The MPA’s “largely bloodless” rating is an inadequate description of the images, many of which are graphic and disturbing.

Family questions: Were there any indications in the early scenes that Coriolanus might turn out the way he did? Was he trustworthy? Why did he record Sejanus? What made Lucy Gray change her mind?

If you like this, try: the other “Hunger Games” movies and the books

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Shazam: Fury of the Gods

Posted on March 16, 2023 at 9:28 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sequences of action, language, violence
Profanity: Some schoolyard language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended action-style fantasy/superhero peril and violence, teacher killed, continuous peril
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 17, 2023

Copyright Warner Brothers 2023
I loved the first “Shazam” movie because it was — and this is a term you don’t hear often in connection with comic book movies — endearing. Asher Angel winningly played the young Billy Watson, searching for his lost mother and running away or being kicked out of a series of foster homes until he finds (1) a wizard who selects him as the first one in hundreds of years worthy of the powers of the gods that make up SHAZAM (that’s Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles, and Mercury), and (2) a foster family we will understand before he does that is truly his home. Billy was a bit of a rogue, but that was because he was used to fending for himself. And it was a lot of fun to see a young teenager for whom the adult male persona was as much of an adjustment as the superpowers.

That film ended with Billy granting superpowers to the other five kids in the foster home, ranging in age from kindergarten to about to start college. So this movie loses some of the sweetness of the first in juggling adult and young versions of five of the six characters plus not one but three new supervillains, the goddess daughters of Atlas, played by “West Side Story’s” Rachel Zegler, “Charlies Angels'” Lucy Liu, and classically trained Shakespearean actress Dame Helen Mirren. Plus dragons, unicorns, and monsters. So that’s a lot of clutter and especially a lot of CGI that overwhelms the plot and all-but obliterates the tenderness of the first story.

Still, it is fun to watch (Helen Mirren!), all the way through the two extra scenes, one at the very end of the credits.

Billy (Zachary Levi as the superhero) is glad to be part of a team of superheroes, and insists that all six of them have to be together on all adventures. This is making some of the other five feel smothered, especially Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer as teen, Adam Brody as superhero). He calls his superhero version Captain Everypower, enjoying his freedom from the crutch he needs as his old self, and very tentatively making contact for the first time with a girl named Anne, new to his school. The oldest of the foster siblings, Mary (Grace Caroline Currey as both human and super versions) would like to go to college. But Billy, because of his history of trauma and abandonment, sharpening as he is about to age out of the foster care system, cannot let them go.

Two of the Atlas daughters, Hespera (Mirren) and Calypso (Liu), in a scene reminiscent of the first “Black Panther,” enter a museum in Athens and steal the pieces of the Shazam staff that was broken by Billy at the end of the first film. They use it to restore their powers and search for the golden apple that they will use to replant the Tree of Life from their realm, even though its impact on our world will be total destruction.

So it is back and forth as various characters gain and lose powers and waver in their goals and loyalties. The weaker parts of the film include Billy’s fixation on Wonder Woman, which is weird and a bit creepy, and the murder of a kind teacher, which is jarring in the world of this story. The look of the film is fine, especially the lair (so labeled), with a mysterious room of doors that deserves more exploration, and a fabulous library with a sort of proto-Google and Alexa, a magical pen that writes answers and takes dictation. Freddy and the wizard (Djimon Hounsou) play more of a role in this film. Grazer has an exceptional sense of timing and Freddy is one of the series’ best characters. The creatures are not as well-designed, though the dragon flies well. The mid- and end-of-credits scenes give us a sense of what comes next. I hope chapter 3 will return to more character and story.

Parents should know that this film has extended comic book-style action violence (meaning no blood or graphic images), with scary monsters and constant peril. A teacher is murdered. Characters use some strong language.

Family discussion: Which superpower would you want to have? What made Billy deserve to be granted powers?

If you like this, try: the original “Shazam” and other DC movies including “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman”

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