Wednesday, November 27, 2013


Have no fear. "Catching Fire" is a worthy, exceptional and uncommonly smart second installment to the promising start Gary Ross' "Hunger Games" kicked off a year ago. With director Francis Lawrence taking over the helm, he and his team, including screenwriters Michael Arndt ("Toy Story 3") and Simon Beaufoy ("127 Hours"), deliver high-caliber pop culture escapism that doesn't get much better than this. It's pure entertainment spectacle with a strong beating heart in the right place. Amidst a sea of other YA crap, it's hats off to "The Hunger Games" for officially staking its claim as the next great franchise in our post-"Harry Potter" landscape.

Building on the political parable foundation of its predecessor, this second chapter delves deeper into what will become a revolution against Panem's cruel Capitol and the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Having just won the Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are required to immediately embark on the soul-crushing Victory Tour, which forces them to relish in their triumphs, the ones that cost others their lives. Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) all are a welcomed return, infusing warmth and humor into the proceedings. And there's of course a gleaming and hilarious Stanley Tucci as the flamboyant host Caesar.

The announcement of the Quarter Quell brings a more thematically complex component to this installment. It becomes more about fighting back than just surviving inside the games. One male and one female victor from each district is required to re-enter the games for the 75th anniversary. Instead of trying to remake a life with her mother, sister Primrose and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss is once again ripped away, forced back into the killing ring next to Peeta. This also allows for the introduction of new characters, namely the strapping Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin). In the new and improved training facility, we're introduced to the other victors, ranging from the technologically savvy (Jeffrey Wright's Beetee) to ones livid and fed up with the Capitol's manipulation (Jena Malone's Johanna).

Leaner and meaner, "Catching Fire" is decidedly darker in tone than the original and for good reason. The games are less about the games and more about the horrors they symbolize for the world of Panem. Since these are all past tributes, there's a sense of anger and hurt that creates a more robust emotional resonance. And especially with our two stars, when the feigned romance between Katniss and Peeta to appease the Captiol turns to something genuine, we can feel it.

The movie indeed carries like a middle chapter should and leaves the audience with a deliciously teased cliffhanger leaving viewers salivating for "Mockingjay Part 1." But it works in the best way a franchise should, and it feels effortless and concludes a two-and-a-half-hour showcase that's thrilling, funny and touching.

Then there's Jennifer Lawrence. The now Oscar-winning actress acts the hell out of the role, embodying Katniss' angst, strength and vulnerability; she's one of the best heroines genre films have known, but you'll not once catch her acting with a capital A. It's all organic, earned and builds naturally under her character's circumstances. Playing the girl on fire, she lights up the screen, commanding your attention and admiration. She's unstoppable.

My four-star review of "The Hunger Games"

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