'Catching Fire' review: Thoughtful, exciting sequel is a near bull's-eye

'Catching Fire' review: Thoughtful, exciting sequel is a near bull's-eye

Amid all the Oscars hopefuls and holiday flicks, 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire' is easily the most entertaining and exciting movie of the season.

In short: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark's (Josh Hutcherson) victory in the 74th Hunger Games has inspired a rebellion in Panem and made them enemies of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). In an attempt to quell the rebellion, Snow forces Katniss and Peeta to compete once again in the Hunger Games. (watch the trailer)

Jennifer Lawrence does for the 'Hunger Games' what RDJ did for the Marvel films and Johnny Depp did for the 'Pirates' series. This incredible actress single-handedly elevates the 'Catching Fire' from becoming just another stale genre flick.

Katniss was already an interesting character in the first movie, but Lawrence fully realizes the Hunger Games champion as more than just an action hero. She is a conflicted, traumatized, defiant and vulnerable survivor. The Oscar winner proves she can flesh out any role into a compelling, human character.

Her greatest acting moment has no dialogue. It's just Katniss standing atop a platform in the final seconds before the Games begin. She is focused, heartbroken and scared all at once.

While much of the core cast remains from 'The Hunger Games,' it's nice to see more of President Snow this time around. In the first film, Snow was a distant character whose actions and sentiments were alluded to - but now he personally takes action and directly affects the plot. If Katniss has become a symbol for rebellion, she deserves an adversary who is every bit her equal - and she gets that antagonist this time.

This action-packed sequel relentlessly puts Katniss in impossible situations. She must keep up a public romance while she is truly in love with another. She must toe the company line/propaganda or the Capitol will kill her family. The girl who doesn't make friends easily becomes close with the very people she is supposed to kill. Her honesty could incite a revolution - her lies strain every personal relationship she has.

'Catching Fire' is a series of no-win scenarios for Katniss - and she is constantly forced to make decisions that could decide her own survival, as well as the fate of everyone in her home District. This is the definition of solid drama.

Oddly enough, however, 'Catching Fire' becomes less interesting once the actual Games begin.

The film's first half is almost all character dynamics. But once the Games begin, the main plot elements are reduced to a series of death traps. Most of the nameless Tributes suffer off-screen deaths and have little story relevance beyond determining 'how many Tributes are still alive?'

The third act, while decidedly less character driven, does move the plot along at a nice clip and keeps the film exciting and enjoyable. And everything leads to the film's tantalizing ending.

In discussing the ending, no spoilers will be revealed. But it is fair to say 'Catching Fire' ends on an intriguing cliffhanger.

Generally speaking: cliffhanger endings - even really thrilling ones - are, by definition, not endings. A cliffhanger always leaves many threads dangling/unresolved and abandons the protagonist in a precarious situation. The 'Catching Fire' cliffhanger is absolutely effective in drumming up excitement for the final two 'Hunger Games' movies - but it abruptly cuts the narrative short. This is a story without any real closure or ending.

The ending sets up a potentially exciting conclusion to the 'Hunger Games' series - but its execution is slightly disappointing. 'Catching Fire' does not end with action - it ends with the description of action. Film is a visual medium, and relying on exposition to describe off-screen events is a terribly missed opportunity.

Final verdict: 'Catching Fire' builds upon every story element established in 'The Hunger Games' - and improves upon the first movie in every way.

Score: 4/5

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