Catching Fire keeps the trilogy burning

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“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” does not have one single good scene.

Now before fans of the series volunteer me as tribute, let me finish my bold thought.

“Catching Fire” does not have one single good part, because every part of it is phenomenal.

The culmination of an entertaining story, an extremely talented cast, and a bold intensity makes the “Hunger Games” sequel a superior film in every sense. It isn’t just an improvement for the series; it’s an improvement in contemporary blockbuster cinema.

After a monumental win in the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) return to District 12 to start their victory tour. Unfortunately, neither tribute can find anything victorious about it. Both struggle to assimilate back into regular life and are forced to continue faking a celebrity romance for the press, much to the displeasure of Katniss’ original love interest Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

To make matters worse, the tour sparks uprisings around the country, only strengthening President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) personal vendetta against Katniss for her bold actions against the Capitol in the first film. The new Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) poses a solution to the president – choose the tributes for the 75th Hunger Games from past survivors.

Here, “Catching Fire” could have made the mistake of countless other sequels and simply remade the first film in a different setting. Not only does director Frances Lawrence prevent this cop-out, but he improves on the “Hunger Games’” weak points.

The stakes are higher both in the arena (killer baboons and poison fog are only two of the new obstacles in the Games) and in the political turmoil. Although the film is two and a half hours long, even pacing keeps the action exciting throughout (in all honesty, I could have sat through another 30 minutes, but Hollywood loves its cliff-hanger endings).

Scenery and costumes, normally taken for granted, keep the dramatic tone. The dilapidated districts are dressed with unforgiving snow and rebellious fires as the military tries to restrain any potential uprisings. The Capitol, decorated with the most extravagant trimmings, makes a striking societal contrast. Men and women in gaudy attire offer Katniss and Peeta a purple drink that makes them throw up so they can keep eating, and all our heroes can think about are their starving neighbors back home.

Action sequences in the Games and throughout the districts bring a new level of intensity. Plot twists gave the characters something to lose, and the audience a reason to sit on the edge of their seats. More screen time for returning characters allows for more development, especially from Hemsworth, who was severely overshadowed in the first installment, and Sutherland’s increasingly evil and intimidating Snow. And while Hutcherson may not bring the same vigor as his brilliant female co-star, their compatibility makes them a winning duo.

Despite the strong original cast, newcomers fit right into the all-around chemistry. Hoffman’s character may be a bit predictable (coming from someone who has not read the book), but he brings a tangible connection between the Capitol snobs and the common folk. Sam Claflin and Jena Malone as fellow tributes Finnick and Johanna keep the games entertaining with new perspectives, especially with Malone’s snarky comments against the Capitol.

Lawrence, however, steals the show as the stubborn, determined Katniss. It has only been three years since her breakout role in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone,” but Lawrence has already defined herself as an actress, winning an Oscar last year for “Silver Linings Playbook.” She embraces the depth of Katniss’s inner turmoil against the status quo, constantly debating between standing up to injustice or risking the lives of those she loves. Lawrence, the director, is wise to allot a fair number of facial close-ups on the actress, as her expressions give such sincere emotion to let audiences connect with Katniss on another level.

“Catching Fire” is nothing short of stunning. Any movie that brings the audience into the story is impressive, but the talents of both Lawrences transform every theater into the world of Panem. It delivers a story that is captivating for theatergoers of all preferences. That could pose a problem getting seats over this Thanksgiving break. If it comes to that, may the odds be ever in your favor.

Stars ***** out of five