The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Opens Fri., Nov. 22 at Cinerama and

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Opens Fri., Nov. 22 at Cinerama and 
other theaters. Rated PG-13. 146 minutes.

The second chapter of this saga still hasn’t figured out how to reconcile being a big-budget spectacle of violence while criticizing big-budget spectacles of violence. But Catching Fire is an improvement over last year’s quadrilogy opener, even if designed and executed as a placeholder (complete with a cliffhanger ending) rather than a full-blooded story on its own.

In the first installment we met the tragically named Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who triumphed in the annual Hunger Games staged by an evil dictator (Donald Sutherland) and his media-savvy minions. Katniss had to kill her competitors in the Games, save for Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), with whom she feigned a love interest in order to survive. The two victors, plus their drunky mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), are now paraded around in a Soviet-style pacification of the downtrodden audience; then the pair is inevitably sucked back into another round of the Games.

Despite the 146-minute movie’s lopsided structure, it manages to sustain some momentum—in no small part thanks to Lawrence’s complete commitment to this pulpy material. And director Francis (I Am Legend) Lawrence’s style is an upgrade over the previous film’s phony camera jitters. We also get a new supporting cast with some surprisingly top-shelf talent: Philip Seymour Hoffman as a Games designer; Jeffrey Wright and Jena Malone as former Games victors; and newcomer/sure-thing breakout star Sam Claflin as a potential third romantic possibility for Katniss. (Liam Hemsworth is around again as her small-town beau, once again sidelined from the real action.)

Catching Fire uncorks a few genuinely exciting revelations in its final minutes, which aren’t quite enough to cover the absence of an actual climax for this story. But after years of the Twilight movies, we should be prepared for that: The real goal here is a DVD box set, ready for power-watching marathons. (The final book in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, Mockingjay, will be split into two films released in 2014 and ’15, so next time expect even more water-treading.) I still don’t understand why we never see anybody in the movie actually watching the Hunger Games on TV, given their place in this society’s culture. But the franchise has to be careful with that—criticizing the audience for its taste for mindless distraction is probably not the wisest path to blockbuster success.

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