The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

After “Thor: The Dark World” topped the box office for two straight weeks, it was time for its blockbuster competition, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” to show up.

And show up it did. With a budget estimated at $50 million more than the franchise starter “The Hunger Games,” this second installment upped the ante for effects and suspense.

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“Catching Fire” picks up in the months after the 74th Annual Hunger Games. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are preparing for their tour of the districts as the new victors when unrest in the districts sends the pair back into the arena. The 75th Annual Hunger Games, or the Quarter Quell, is made up of 24 victors, who are now seen as beacons of hope against the Capitol, and as such must be eliminated in the eyes of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The introduction of new characters Finnick O’Dair (Sam Claflin), Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), as well as a new Gamekeeper Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) sets a new plot in motion, as a revolution spurs around Katniss.

Francis Lawrence picked up from director Gary Ross, and led the sequel with a fresh direction and eye for what makes the story so compelling to audiences. Translating a story that critiques our obsession with reality T.V. and its by-products, as well as the brutality of war and its effects, is no easy undertaking, and Lawrence rose to the occasion. He is on-hand to direct the two part “Mockingjay” adaptations, due out in 2014 and 2015.

With the bigger budget came bigger effects. The arena was especially impressive, with its rainforest make-up and deadly surprises, as well as the new digital training arena. What became even more outlandish due to the upped budget were the costumes. Effie Trinkett (Elizabeth Banks) and Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) had new colored hair, crazier outfits, and in the case of Flickerman, an even brighter orange tan.

What lacked for me was the chemistry between the two leads. Lawrence can convey the fierceness of her character, and Hutcherson the innocence that is the draw for Peeta, but when the “couple” is together, I don’t feel the sparks, or the tension, which should be present in a couple that is partly revolted, yet in love with each other. Barring this, the portrayal of the violent existentialism that is Katniss and Peeta’s situation is firmly in place, as their waking and sleeping minutes are now filled with the war they have been embroiled in.

Overall, the film transitions well into the series deeper aspects, flows well as the pace picks up, and the tension grows for the couple at the center of the saga. It was an A effort from its A-list cast, director and scriptwriters, whose abrupt ending to the nearly two-and-a-half hour movie made it feel that much shorter. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, violence and a suggestive situation.

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