Movie review: White-hot “Catching Fire” tops first “Hunger Games”

By Columbus Alive
From the November 21, 2013 edition

Can I just say one more time how happy I am that there are no more goddamn “Twilight” movies? Because I’m really freakin’ happy there are no more goddamn “Twilight” movies.

I say this because the excellent adaptation of the second book of the “Hunger Games” trilogy once again shows us how it’s done. Granted, they are working from better material, but still, this is solid filmmaking — and even better than the first film.

The first “Hunger Games” is on Netflix if you need to catch-up/refresh, and you probably do, because “Catching Fire” thrusts us right into events in the wake of that film without fleshing out the backstory.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) return to their homes in District 12 facing both the national fame that comes to victors of The Hunger Games but pressure to maintain their supposed love story. Peeta, of course, has genuine feelings for Katniss, who is forced to put on an act despite her feelings for Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth).

This love triangle pales in comparison to what’s happening on a national level, as President Snow (Donald Sutherland) devises a new plan to squelch the uprising Katniss’ victory has slowly spread, with help from new Gamemaster Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

I was leery of “Catching Fire” topping its predecessor, but director Francis Lawrence (and, of course, a larger budget) makes everything feel more grand and ominous. If the first film sometimes seemed strained to transport you into another world, “Catching Fire” does so in a way that is often breathtaking without feeling unnecessarily showy.

All Jennifer Lawrence has done since the first “Hunger Games” is win an Oscar and the hearts of the American public (this critic not exempt … I (heart) J-Law.). Her Katniss is both steely and vulnerable, and it’s hard to imagine another actress in her place.

But it’s the rest of the cast that really steps up. Hutcherson shows the most growth, but great support from the returning Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks and, of course, Hoffman.

As the tale grows even darker and stakes seems higher, “Chasing Fire” takes full advantage of its middle-chapter status, delivering the “Empire Strikes Back” moment while setting up the (two-part) finale.

Fans of the books and casual moviegoers can agree this is the sort of great filmmaking that “Twilight” didn’t bother with.

Photo courtesy of Lionsgate