Grade: A-

Directed by Francis Lawrence
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson

The second chapter in the Hunger Games trilogy is the epitome of all things cliffhanger. Despite knowing this beforehand, whether from reading the book by Suzanne Collins or realizing there is a third (and fourth) film on the way, Lawrence takes the series to a new level leaving you wanting more, in the best way possible.

It's been a year since Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) walked away as victors of the 74th Hunger Games. While they've been put up in nicer housing than they were used to in District 12, the people in almost every district have been suffering through uprisings and revolutions, mostly in thanks to the bravery of Katniss. The Capitol's President Snow (Donald Sutherland) isn't too pleased to see the people throughout Panem choosing to speak out instead of fall in line with the dystopian society. Seeing as the new year brings about the 75th Hunger Games, President Snow is enamored to present the rules around what's called the Quarter Quell (every 25 years a special edition of the Hunger Games is played). This third Quarter Quell finds the game's players being picked from past winners from each district. After a few dramatic choosings in their fellow districts, Katniss and Peeta face the same fate they did just a year earlier. However, thanks to the new rising revolution, Snow and the Capitol have it out for Katniss, the darling of the people.

The story becomes even more twisted than that brief synopsis, thanks to Collins' clever novel on which the movie is based. Not much strays from the original story, which is probably why the movie clocks in at over 2 1/2 hours. But, it doesn't feel that long. By the end you'll almost feel cheated by realizing you have to wait until next year to see the beginning of the end. I read the book, so I knew what was going to happen, and I still may have said an inappropriate word when the end credits started rolling because I knew I would have to wait a year for the next part.

The first Hunger Games film's success helped this film earn a bigger budget, much to the delight of the final product. Catching Fire is full of some intense scenes of creative violence that a small budget would probably ruin. The great thing is, however, that despite the new large budget, Catching Fire fits right in line with The Hunger Games.

Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss is the ultimate hero if there ever was one. Lawrence plays her with the same earnest honesty she did in the first film, allowing Katniss to grow with new experiences, but not lose the honorable drive she started with. Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth both get some new territory to play with as Katniss goes back and forth between the two. Elizabeth Banks' Effie earns more screen time, to our delight. And, Stanley Tucci brings the same over-the-top zaniness he did in the first film. Newcomers to the cast become scene-stealers in their own right. Jena Malone kills it as Johanna Mason. Sam Claflin fits the role of Finnick Odair perfectly. Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn't get much to work with, but plays his scenes with the right subtlety to hint at things to come.

With so much going on here that I can't really say without giving anything away, Catching Fire is a great second piece to the Hunger Games trilogy. Where some sequels lose their importance with the onslaught of the next sequel, Catching Fire delivers as a single film and cleverly leaves you wanting more.

Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 146 minutes

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