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REVIEW: 'Catching Fire' is step up for franchise

| Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

Well this was unexpected: “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is a good movie.

Not an OK movie, like the first one, that seemed flat and somehow listless, even while tributes from 12 districts were slaughtering each other for the amusement of the masses. An actual good movie; having Jennifer Lawrence at the center of things helps immeasurably.

Yes, the film, based on the immensely popular Suzanne Collins novels for 'tweens, has plot holes and head-scratching motives galore. But it never forgets its target audience, and if the grown-ups have to raise an eyebrow every so often, so be it.

A switch in directors helps. Francis Lawrence takes over for Gary Ross, and immediately you realize that this somehow feels more like a big movie. Lawrence treats the film more like an event, and it shows.

“Catching Fire” picks up where “The Hunger Games” left off. In the games, young people compete in a reality show that is, in fact, a fight to the death. The last person standing wins.

It's an ill-disguised way for the fascist government, led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland), to keep its citizens oppressed. In “The Hunger Games,” Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), the tribute from dirt-poor District 12, managed to win the games and engineer a way for her friend and fellow District 12 tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) to also survive.

As Snow points out in a visit to Katniss' home early on, she is now a symbol of hope for many of the downtrodden. This won't do, so she and Peeta are sent on a winners' tour of all the districts, pretending to be in love. It's a disaster, touching off riots. Katniss' growing popularity is becoming a threat to the government, so Snow and new game designer Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) scheme to take her down one way or another.

This leads to a sort of Hunger Games: All-Star Edition, in which winners of previous games are forced to compete again. It seems like a pretty obvious way to get Katniss and Peeta back in the arena, and the set-up is the film's weakest segment.

But the competition introduces some welcome new additions, such as Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as a couple of high-I.Q. odd ducks, Jena Malone as a woman vividly unhappy to be called back and Sam Claflin as a handsome winner who has cashed in, in big ways.

Back from the first film are Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci; the latter is especially good (again) as the effusive host of a talk show about the games. His blindingly white teeth and purple hair are not what make him ridiculous; his manner, somehow cynical and sycophantic, is.

Knowing the competitors a little better helps a lot. We have people to root for, and against, and never lose that nagging feeling that no one can be trusted (because, in fact, no one can).

Not everything will be resolved by the end of the film. Quite the opposite, actually.

Things are, however, established and reconfirmed. One is Lawrence's continued screen presence, which is considerable. Another is Francis Lawrence's ability to get his arms around so unwieldy a story. (He's signed on for the final two installments.)

“Catching Fire” is a great leap forward for the franchise. Seeing as it's all about hope and what it represents, here's hoping the next two are just as good, if not better.

Bill Goodykoontz of the Arizona Republic is the chief film critic for Gannett.

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