The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (★★★)

hunger_games_catching_fire_ver33An almost all around improvement on the already solid film that The Hunger Games was, Catching Fire (or officially The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) is a very well made and enjoyable flick that only has a few things standing between it and being an all around great movie. I never thought I’d say this, but Francis Lawrence does a much better directing job than Gary Ross did the last time around. At the same time, new scribes Michael Arndt and Simon Beaufoy improve on what writer Billy Ray did, so everything is on a higher level, including the performances of both the returning cast members as well as the new ones too. Jennifer Lawrence exudes some terrific screen presence this time around, while Jena Malone steals some scenes as a new (or should I say old?) competitor on the scene. There are still problems to be found here, including a bloated running length, a disconnect between the first half of the film and the second half, but overall The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is a strong sequel and an easy flick to recommend. It doesn’t need my help to likely become a huge box office success, but I’m here at least to report that it’s worth that sort of monetary haul.

Picking up after the end of The Hunger Games, we see what the victory by Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) at the 74th Hunger Games has meant to the people of Panem. Katniss has become a hero, and against her will, a bit of a revolutionary figure. She’s mostly still haunted by the game and wishes to run away with her true love Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). President Snow (Donald Sutherland) requires her and Peeta to go on a victor’s tour though, hoping that they’ll quell the riots that are beginning by continuing the ruse that her and Peeta are star-crossed lovers. If not, he’s prepared to have their loved ones killed. When the tour doesn’t go as planned, Snow and new head game maker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) decide that Katniss needs to die. Instead of just killing her however, they come up with a special version of the 75th Hunger Games, one to be filled with only past winners. Of course, District 12 will have Katniss, but when mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) is picked, Peeta volunteers in his place. They’ll be competing with the best of the best, including Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) and Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) in an arena stacked against them all, though especially Katniss and Peeta. Can they beat the odds again?

catching-fire_620x350The star of this film is obviously Jennifer Lawrence, but unlike last time, this is less of a one woman show. Yes, there are flashy supporting turns again by Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci, but they’re less noticeable this time since others are pulling their weight more. Specifically, Liam Hemsworth has something to do this time, while Josh Hutcherson isn’t a damsel in distress the whole time either. Lawrence still is the centerpiece, and she’s magnetic in the role. She has the full range of emotions going on and you’re with her every step of the way. The highlight of the newcomers is Jena Malone, who brings a chaotic energy to her part as a past winner who becomes part of an uneasy alliance with Katniss, Peeta, and a few others in protest of this unfair game. Other returning players include the aforementioned Woody Harrelson and Donald Sutherland, along with Toby Jones, Lenny Kravitz, Paula Malcomson, and Willow Shields. In terms of newcomers, I mentioned Philip Seymour Hoffman and Sam Claflin, but we also have Lynn CohenAmanda Plummer, Jeffrey Wright, and others on hand as well. Still, it all comes back to Lawrence.

Stepping in for Ross, Francis Lawrence does his best directing to date, largely keeping things moving. He does fall into the trap of not sustaining energy throughout the flick, but he does handle the action scenes pretty well. He also thankfully almost completely discards the shaky camera that randomly popped up last time and always distracted Oddly enough, once we’re in the arena things are at their slowest, but the first half of the film is compelling enough to forgive that. It’s a credit to the script by Michael Arndt and Simon Beaufoy that you’re invested enough in the drama of the potential rebellion/uprising that when the games begin, you almost don’t want to leave. Arndt and Beaufoy take things a little too seriously, which Lawrence does as well, but laughs aren’t a priority. The writers also go a little overboard with the machinations of the arena, though I suspect the novel did that as well. Lawrence does get better work from his cast on the whole, so I’m very pleased with what he did here. The movie ends on a slight cliffhanger, but with the two part finale coming our way next, did anyone expect otherwise?

Awards wise, I wouldn’t expect anything, though you can’t completely count it out of the technical fields. Nothing really stands out, but stranger things have happened. Perhaps a Best Original Song nomination or a Visual Effects nod? The first movie was shut out, but that might not wind up being the case here, though I wouldn’t hold your breath for a nom anywhere. Time will ultimately tell though.

In the end, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire should please just about everyone who has an interest in the flick. If you liked the first movie, you should like this one slightly better. If the last one did nothing for you, I’d say that this one won’t either, but it won’t bug you as much I believe. Buoyed by steadier direction and a fine performance by Jennifer Lawrence, this is officially a franchise headed in a solid direction. I for one am eager to see where things go next, and if the final installment(s) doesn’t even include a Hunger Games, I’d be perfectly alright with that. The story has drawn me in enough already.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!