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'Hunger Games: Catching Fire' burns bright

Sequel is a smart, deep, and intense

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    Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, left, and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark in a scene from 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.'



Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, left, and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark in a scene from 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.'


At the conclusion of the first Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and fellow District 12 contestant Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) emerged as the sole survivors of the annual gladiatorial battle to the death with the reward of a lifetime of wealth and privilege.

But Catching Fire, the second adaptation in author Suzanne Collins' popular post-apocalyptic trilogy, is anything but a happily ever after tale. Or a young adult novel. Bleak and brimming with political and social commentary, the sequel explores the ramifications of Katniss' Hunger Games victory in dark and occasionally surprising terms.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Directed by Francis Lawrence.

Written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, based on the Suzanne Collins novel.

A Lionsgate release, playing at Cinemark Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, Levis Commons, and Mall Cinema.

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images,thematic elements, a suggestive situation, and language.

Running time: 146 minutes.

Critic’s Rating ★★★★

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright

★★★★★ Outstanding; ★★★★ VeryGood;

★★★ Good; ★★ Fair; ★ Poor

Since the game, she's inspired the oppressed people of the 12 Districts, a turn of events that doesn't sit well with the ruthless Snow (Donald Sutherland), president of the ruling Capitol and its conquered districts. He fears her growing appeal is fomenting an uprising against he and his ruling class.

"She is a beacon of hope for the rebellion and she must die," Snow tells the new tournament game master, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Sutherland and Hoffman make for a terrific tandem of ruthless elites, who scheme Katniss' return to the Hunger Games as part of a special 75th anniversary edition of the tournament. They change the rules so that she'll be competing against previous district winners, including a deadly brother-sister team, the axe-wielding Johanna Mason (Jena Malone), a science geek named Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) and his equally brilliant partner Wiress (Amanda Plummer), and the cocky Finnick (Sam Claflin), an eventual ally Katnis isn't certain she can trust.

As with The Hunger Games, the tournament dominates much of the Catching Fire's story. But the sequel is about bigger stakes. Everything feels grander and more important, including the tournament and its nasty surprises. As Plutarch unleashes wave after wave of vicious traps on the contestants, they come to learn they have more to fear from the game master than each other.

"Remember who the enemy is," Katniss is reminded prior to the games by her boozy but wise mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson, delivering equal measures of laughs and sage advice).

Even before the tournament, Katniss has troubles. Snow threatens to harm her family if she doesn't adequately sell the illusion of her relationship with Peeta to a fawning public. Peeta wishes those affections weren't a ruse. And Katnis is torn by her feelings for her handsome friend back home, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth). It's a romantic triangle that leads to hurt feelings, jealousies, and the occasional corny dialogue between Katniss and Peeta.

"Nobody needs me," he tells her in a moment of self-pity.

"I do. I need you," she replies.

If the lines don't always ring with authenticity, Lawrence and Hutcherson sell it well.

With Katniss now fully established onscreen, Catching Fire let's Lawrence, Best Actress Oscar winner as a troubled widow in last year's Silver Linings Playbook, dig into the complexities of the character. Katniss is no longer an underdog warrior concerned about self-preservation, but haunted by her violent in-game acts and now straining under the crushing weight as symbol for the people. On film at least, Collins' heroine has more depth and emotional resonance than all of Stephanie Meyers' Twilight denizens combined.

But Katniss' arc comes at the expense of Peeta, whose flagging internal love meter requires little more of Hutcherson than to mope about during much of his screen time. The film at least implies that his character, along with Hemsworth's Gale, factors more significantly into the story to come.

Not to be overlooked are Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman and his snarky send-up of smarmy TV hosts or Elizabeth Banks as the once-unlikable Effie Trinket, a superficial and shrill Capitol resident (the 1 percent of the story) who grows more empathetic of the plight of Katniss and Peeta than we might have believed otherwise in the first Hunger Games. The fact that terrific actors like Wright and Plummer are essentially bench players in Catching Fire is a testament to the depth and talent of its cast.

The impressive level of talent applies off-screen as well, with two Oscar-winning screenwriters Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) and Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours) handling the adaptation.

There's more to Collins' Hunger Games series than the pangs of young love and does she or doesn't she. Catching Fire's omnipresent themes of class warfare and abusive government powers are heady distractions from the story's soap-opera drama. Directed by Francis Lawrence (I am Legend, Like Water for Elephants), replacing The Hunger Games writer-director Gary Ross, Catching Fire is unvarnished sci-fi commentary on the present-day declination of our middle and lower social stratum and the moral indifference of the powerful and wealthy to their plight.

The Hunger Games novels are anything but young adult reads. And Catching Fire is anything but a love story.

Contact Kirk Baird at: or 419-724-6734.


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