'Hunger Games' sequel a significant improvement

Jennifer Lawrence returns as Katniss Everdeen in "Catching Fire," the first "Hunger Games" sequel. -- Courtesy photo

 "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is the best kind of sequel. It builds off the foundation of the first film, addresses nearly every issue that existed in its predecessor, and ups the stakes in a very dramatic fashion.

I thought the first "Hunger Games" movie was merely OK, a sentiment that was only further solidified upon revisiting it recently. It had a lot of untapped potential thematically and from a character standpoint, plus it very clearly suffered from a slim budget that made the whole affair seem detrimentally small. "Catching Fire" ups the ante and left me satisfied in a way the first film just couldn't reach.

Things are significantly more complicated for our newest Hunger Games victors, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence). Though they may have survived the Games, they must now keep up the "star-crossed lovers" façade that helped save their lives as they mount a "victory tour" across the other impoverished districts. This task might be considerably more simple had Katniss' bravery not begun to plant the seeds of rebellion, seeds that the Capitol's president, Snow (Donald Sutherland), demands she help suppress.

However, once it becomes obvious that these acts of rebellion are dangerously close to becoming a revolution, Snow and newly appointed Games Master Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) decide that this year's Games will celebrate the Quarter Quell. Taking place once every 25 years, the Quarter Quell rounds up 24 surviving victors and has them compete in the games once more.

While that may make it seem like we get something of a retread, that's not the case at all.

For one, we actually get to know some of the other Tributes. One of my biggest issues with the first film is the way that most of the other kids facing off against Katniss were little more than cartoonish nobodies. We never got to understand who they were or what they felt going into this horrific situation. But here, we get a feel for a good number of these tributes and the frustration, horror, anger and helplessness they experience in being thrust back to face certain death once more. It also helps that these Tributes are a delightfully colorful bunch, ranging from the athletic and devilishly handsome Finnick (Sam Claflin), who has more depth and heart than initially appears, to the nebbish and nerdy Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), to Finnick's silent, elderly mentor, Mags (Lynn Cohen).

Secondly, it all feels much more personal this time around. Her first time through the Games, it was more or less by chance that Katniss became involved at all (she volunteered, but only after her sister's was randomly drawn). This time, she's back in it because Snow wants her dead, and that fills her with anger, especially as she's finally coming more to terms with how she actually feels about Peeta beyond simply pretending that she loves him.

The first film was very much hampered by its slim budget. Thankfully, the studio has given director Francis Lawrence (who takes over for Gary Ross) a much bigger stack of money to play with and he very much puts it to good use. Everything in "Catching Fire" just feels bigger, more alive, more dangerous. He's building off of someone else's groundwork, but Lawrence displays a very assured hand and helps to texture the world in a way that Ross' work never quite achieved.

This is a story that is ultimately quite anti-authoritarian, with a strong, spirited and very defiant female protagonist, the likes of which we never see in cinema. It feels like something of a minor miracle that we have a female like Katniss leading a major motion picture of this sort, and even more miraculous that it is performed by someone of Jennifer Lawrence's capabilities. She is a complex character forced to make some hard choices and against horrible odds and she is wonderfully realized.

I'm not sure it can really be overstated just how fantastic Jennifer Lawrence is in this. Katniss is a complicated young woman, one who was uncertain of how to navigate her life before the Games and positively adrift now that she has been emotionally traumatized by her experiences in the Games, to say nothing of the difficulty of maintaining a romantic façade with a boy she barely knows. It's a tremendously complicated role to weave one's way through, but Lawrence digs into it with such subdued grace and skill that it's become one of her standout performances. I still favor her work in "Winter's Bone" above all her performances, but it's clear she's drawing on some of Ree and putting her into Katniss.

The supporting cast also continues to be one of the highlights of the series. Donald Sutherland's character thankfully gets an expanded role here and Woody Harrelson as mentor Haymitch once more provides a perfect balance of understated comedic relief and dramatic gravitas as the situation calls for. Josh Hutcherson is notably improved from his bland work in the first film (or maybe it's just that the role is more fleshed out here). Sam Claflin has never really impressed before in movies, but here he comes alive as Finnick. I'll be happy to see his role expanded in the following films.

But the surprising heart of the supporting cast can actually be found in Elizabeth Banks as the clownishly attired Effie Trinket. She may be the steward of the District 12 Tributes and she may be a part of a ritual that is undoubtedly barbaric, but she genuinely sees herself as something of a mother to both Katniss and Peeta and it's surprisingly endearing to watch as she realizes she's likely to never see her "children" again. It's wonderful work in a role that could otherwise have been lost underneath layers of garish costuming and makeup.

This was a good movie. I'm still not what one would consider a fan of the films (i.e. I'll probably never go out of my way to own them on DVD or what have you), but I'll happily acknowledge that it's nice to see the potential of this world and the story being more fully realized. Here's hoping Lawrence and crew can sustain the excellent momentum they've attained for the following two films.

Grade: A-

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