The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Directed By: Francis Lawrence

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland

May the odds be ever in Jennifer Lawrence's favor.  Her rise to stardom has been meteoric to say the least.  Just three short years ago in 2010, Hollywood's new golden girl was debuting in the indie Winter's Bone.  In 2011, she had a couple of supporting roles in Like Crazy and X-Men: First Class.  Then in 2012, the first tidal wave began.  Lawrence kicked off the year with the box office smash The Hunger Games, dabbled in horror with House at the End of the Street, and closed the year with her Oscar-winning performance in David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook.  Now, she's poised for another big wave on the big screen over the course of the next several months.  She's again teaming with Russell for his Scorsese-like crime drama American Hustle, and she's joining a mega ensemble in Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past.  It all starts this weekend though with Lawrence reprising her role as the girl on fire in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

Despite victory at the 74th Annual Hunger Games, the odds are never quite in the favor of Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence).  After defying the Capitol by threatening to eat poisonous berries alongside her teammate Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the girl on fire has become the mockingjay, a symbol of hope throughout the twelve districts that could ignite a revolution.  On the eve of her victory tour with Peeta, Katniss must attend to an unexpected visitor, President Snow (Donald Sutherland).  Trying to avoid a costly conflict, Snow coerces Katniss to pretend to be in love with Peeta to enhance her image and distract the public.  If she does not do so, he will have her mother (Paula Malcomson), her sister Primrose (Willow Shields), and her lover Gale (Liam Hemsworth) all killed.  Under this threat, Katniss opts to wear a smile on tour with Peeta.

Things quickly go awry as the victors arrive in District 11, home of fallen tribute Rue, a little girl gone too soon.  Peeta abandons the canned speech written by their chaperone Effie (Elizabeth Banks), and Katniss's brief words on the mic inspire an older gentleman to whistle and gesture the three-finger salute.  Government forces quickly apprehend and execute this man in front of Katniss and Peeta.  As floggings persist throughout the districts, Katniss and Peeta decide to take drastic action to assuage President Snow.  They decide to announce their engagement.  This matters little when they arrive back at District 12 after their tour.  A rebellious incident involving Katniss and Gale forces Snow's hand.  For the Quarter Quell marking the 75th anniversary of the Hunger Games — a tradition that allows a twist to the Games every 25 years — Snow announces that this year's tributes will be chosen from the pool of living victors from each district.  Having hired the devious Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to run things this time around, Snow can't wait for Katniss to pick up a bow and put out the spark of rebellion.

Panem today.  Panem tomorrow.  Panem forever.  The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is the best damn blockbuster I've seen in 2013.  In a year of many films not meeting expectations, Francis Lawrence's adaptation of Catching Fire lives up to the hype.  With smart direction and production, a grounded performance from the girl on fire, and strong performances from her fellow cast members, we’re treated to one vicious Quarter Quell.  When I watch middle installments in franchises, I often compare them to The Empire Strikes Back as a standard. 
Given the theme of rebellion in this futuristic sci-fi movie, the second installment in the classic Star Wars trilogy is an apt comparison point.  The best middle installments are superior to their predecessors and wet moviegoers' appetites for the final installment.  That being said, Catching Fire is a gripping cinematic experience that meets both these criteria.

Catching Fire is popcorn fare at its best.  The production value is undeniable.  The special effects enable Lawrence to give us a spectacular vision of Panem and the ticking tropical death trap in which the 24 victors must compete.   With this in mind, the arena is something really special to behold throughout the film.  The sound mixing and editing is also critical to help Lawrence craft a nonstop thrill ride as the victors deal with one calamity after another throughout the Games.  Whether it be birds or baboons, the crew finds the right balance in mixing the sound of each danger looming and the resulting sound of fear rising.  Lastly, the dark, grainy cinematography really adds to Lawrence’s macabre vision of Panem, this oppressive society in which the haves thrive in an urban utopia while the have-nots suffer in outlying rural hells.  Akin to a Christopher Nolan flick, the cinematography plays a key role in setting the tone of the film.

The young actress is a little more seasoned, a little more engaging, and a little more entertaining.  As she continues to tackle great roles in a variety of films, Jennifer Lawrence just keeps getting better and better and better.  This trend hasn't changed in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
As the districts' mockingjay Katniss Everdeen, Lawrence has never been better.  In tackling this role for the second time, Lawrence gives her character a lot more nuance.  At times, she gives us the gutsy, rebellious tribute who amused us in the first installment of the franchise.  At others, she gives us a conflicted victor dealing with Hunger Games PTSD.  We also see a born rebel not ready to embrace her destiny and a confused lover unsure of what her heart truly desires.  All in all, Lawrence deftly gives us a well-rounded character with deep conviction.

With many of the actors reprising their roles, Lawrence's supporting cast really delivers strong performances as they delve further into their characters.  For his part as Katniss's fellow victor Peeta, Josh Hutcherson gives us a layered interpretation of his character.  Grappling with his feelings for Katniss yet struggling with his own challenges of surviving the previous Games, Hutcherson is a lover boy as much as he is wounded veteran on screen.  As Katniss's friend and mentor Haymitch Abernathy, Woody Harrelson is more comical than ever.  Always looking to get the party started and the drinks flowing, Harrelson gives a colorful performance as Haymitch.  For her part as the group's chaperone Effie Trinket, Elizabeth Banks continues to play on the theme that Capitol-born individuals in this series are symbolic of Hollywood on crack.  In all her glitz and glamor, Banks satirically delivers one remarkably consistent ditz.

Amongst the antagonists, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Donald Sutherland are the clear standouts.  As the new Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee, Seymour Hoffman is just as cunning on screen as you would expect him to be.  He oozes with devilish contempt throughout the film.  Delivering his best villain since Mission Impossible: III, Seymour Hoffman definitely rises to the occasion here.  As President Snow, Donald Sutherland once again delivers a cunning, ruthless politician who will do whatever he must to continue the oppression he so desires.  Offering plenty of witty barbs and a number of looks that could kill, Sutherland really gives this politician some bite.  I thoroughly enjoyed his interpretation of this character.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire stands as my favorite blockbuster of 2013.  We need more well-crafted movies like this in theaters.  You'll enjoy this movie so much that you'll lose track of time and want nothing but more by the end of it all.  Jennifer Lawrence is on fire.  Her director is on fire.  Her fellow cast and crew members are on fire.  This movie is on fire.  The Hunger Games: Catching Fire gets a sober rating.  May the odds be ever in your favor.