Movie review in the Friday, Nov. 22 Oregonian....
Even the biggest fan of Suzanne Collins' "Hunger Games" book trilogy might admit the 2012 film adaptation (while a big hit) was largely carried by its cast.
Jennifer Lawrence was terrific as warrior-heroine Katniss. But that first "Hunger Games" movie's postapocalyptic world-building was ... a little thin.
I suppose the depiction of life in the struggling districts enslaved to feed the Capitol of Panem was gritty enough. But when the movie got to the big city, it briefly turned into a bright, barn-broad satire of overindulged ignorance. I'd argue this undermined the earlier attempt at realism. And also that whole final section where children fought each other to the death.
Other than the ruthless dictator (Donald Sutherland), the manipulative TV host (Stanley Tucci), the conflicted showrunner (Wes Bentley) and the caring stylist (Lenny Kravitz), the Capitol seemed to be populated exclusively by cartoon Louis XIV yuppie sheep barely capable of enslaving their own hats -- much less forcing kids to compete in annual gladiator combat (even gladiator combat carefully edited to secure a PG-13 rating).
But now, with "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" -- the middle story in the book trilogy, and the second of four planned film adaptations of the series -- the movie's quality catches up with Jennifer Lawrence's performance to an unexpected degree.
Under director Francis Lawrence ("I Am Legend") and adapting screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, "Catching Fire" does what any good middle film should: It deepens the characters (even the cartoonish ones), expands the world and complicates the situation -- in ways that will delight fans who've read the books and surprise those who haven't.
"Fire" finds Katniss and fellow Hunger Games winner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) on a miserable post-victory publicity tour of all the enslaved districts serving Panem. As the kids' drunken mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) points out, that tour will last the rest of their lives: The kids are now pawns of President Snow (Sutherland) -- with the added emotional torture of having to pretend for the cameras that they're in love.
But Snow is unhappy that Katniss' performance in the Games made her a symbol of rebellion to the commoners. On the advice of a new showrunner (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Snow forces her and Peeta into a second, far deadlier round of arena combat -- where the threat lies as much in the arena's design as it does in the extremely annoyed Hunger Games survivors the kids will be forced to fight.
Snow's goal is to wreck Katniss' growing public appeal. Matters complicate.
Francis Lawrence brings a much-stronger visual sense to "Catching Fire" than previous director Gary Ross. (To be fair, the sequel's bigger budget probably helped, and Ross did bring the original cast.) But more important, the filmmakers add a bit more heft -- emotional and otherwise -- to everything from the first film's world, from the characters to the setting to the action.
The Capitol itself feels more filled-in, more decadent and nuanced and threatening; even wading-pool-shallow Panem citizen Effie (Elizabeth Banks) gets to reveal a few cracks in her couture armor. (I should probably note parenthetically that this is relative praise. I still don't think the Capitol is in the same league or sport as the great cinema dystopias of, say, "Metropolis" or "Blade Runner" or "Brazil." I just think that in "Catching Fire" the Capitol feels a lot less like an "SNL" spoof of those places.)
The arena threats are more nightmare-weird this time around, to the degree that I started wondering if Collins was a fan of Patrick McGoohan's "The Prisoner." And the previous Hunger Games victors dragged back into the ring are wonderfully bristly -- particularly Jena Malone as an axe-wielding valkyrie with a sneering contempt for polite society, Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as oddball tech-heads, and Sam Claflin as what can only be described as the Val-Kilmer-as-Iceman of this series.
But Jennifer Lawrence remains the series' biggest coup. "Catching Fire" asks the actress to add PTSD and romantic stirrings to Katniss' psyche, then cover it with a barely affixed public mask. Lawrence steps up. And her character's fierce independence provides a welcome alternative to certain vampire-fixated young-adult heroines who define themselves entirely through the attention of much-much-older men.
(146 min., rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language) Grade: B-plus
'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' (The Oregonian, Friday, Nov. 22, 2013)