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Mr. Brown and The Girl on Fire!

Last year, The Hunger Games came very close to cracking my Top 10 Best Films list, but missed the cut despite a star-making (and in my opinion, Oscar-worthy) performance from it's leading star, Jennifer Lawrence, who would later on win the Best Actress trophy in David O' Russel's Silver Linings Playbook, a terrific supporting cast, and sharp social commentary on reality TV and the inequality between the wealthy and the poor. The reason behind this was director Gary Ross, and the misuse of shaky cam, especially in the first hour of the film. I get that Ross wanted to shoot the film in a gritty, verite-style, but that format just doesn't work for when you're introducing the characters and the world they're inhabiting, and it became a distraction as the film went on.

This time, with its sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, I can easily say the following: this is not only the best Hollywood blockbuster flick I've seen all year, it's also one of the year's best movies. It's rare where a sequel improves on the original - go ask Dead Man's Chest, Iron Man 2, The Matrix Reloaded, etc - and even rarer when everything about it works almost perfectly the second go-around.

One year has passed since the last Hunger Games, and the co-victors Katniss (Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are about to embark on their Victor's Tour around all 11 Districts; a way to hammer home the cruelty of the games and to remind the downtrodden citizens the might of the Capitol. This time, though, some within the districts aren't playing by President Snow's (a evil Donald Sutherland) rules. In the last Hunger Games, some saw Katniss' plan to eat poison berries rather than kill Peeta and vice versa, not as an act of willing to die together, but as an act of defiance against the Capitol. Naturally, this doesn't sit well with Snow, so he turns to the new master of the arena games, Plutarch Hevansbee (Phllip Seymore Hoffman, always calculating and making "moves and countermoves") to get her and Peeta back into the arena, along with other past winners in the Quarter Quell, in order to kill her and put an end to the rebellion before it even starts.

Like I said earlier, just about everything works better the second time around. The estimated budget for the first Hunger Games film was $78 million, this time, it doubles to almost $140 million and you can see the filmmakers put the money to good use: the production design is some of the best I've seen this year. From the costumes, makeup, set design and visual effects - the sheer look and scope of the world of Panem is terrific, and worthy of Oscars for Costume Design, Makeup, Art Direction and possibly Visual Effects. The Hunger Games itself is more dangerous and deadly than before; this time swapping out the the forest arena for a Gilligan's Island of horrors: blood rain, poisonous fog, floods and face-ripping monkeys are just a few of the obstacles that are trying to kill the tributes, as well as each other. The danger and the deadly nature of this new arena is much more exciting and again, thanks to the limited shaky camera work, we're allows us to immerse ourselves in this island of death without feeling nauseous.

A larger budget to work with and a vastly improved production design wouldn't mean much if the acting and story fall completely flat. Thankfully, Oscar-winning screenwriters Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire in 2008) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine in 2006) don't let Susanne Collin's rich and at times, harrowing dystopian sci-fi thriller take a backseat to the visuals. What makes Katniss Everdeen a terrific protagonist is how the book and the movie, at the beginning, doesn't paint her as a heroic figure. "I did what I had to do to survive," Katniss tells Gale at the beginning of the film. She's no idealist, and she doesn't want people looking to her as either a symbol of hope for the impoverished Districts, or a celebrity for the PR campaign to keep the citizens of the Capitol ignorant of the oppressive regime they're apart of. She has a family to protect and that's all that matters to her.

Let's give a big round of applause for our lambs to be fed to the slaughter Tributes!
The casting, thusfar in this series, has to be some of the most impressive I've seen since the Harry Potter era, in the way that The Hunger Games has been able to blend polished and terrific young actors alongside veteran talent that brings out the best in both. There really isn't much I can say about Lawrence's performance that hasn't already been said, except that she's a livewire when she's being mouthy, and soulful in quieter moments when she has to face Rue's family, the young girl who died in the first film. All of her attributes - her compassion, her stubbornness, her demons of what she did in the Games, her fears - you can see through her eyes. I can't see another actress pulling off what Lawrence has brought to the role of Katniss Everdeen. The other victor, Peeta Melark, who was little more than the damsel-in-distress in the first film, emerges from the Games, a changed man. He's not some lovesick kid who couldn't fight to save his skin anymore, but a wiser, more competent person. Josh Hutcherson gets the change to dive deeper into Peeta and he doesn't miss a beat of what's going through his head. Hell, he's even more manipulative and plays to the audience better than last time, and becomes a sort of compliment to Katniss' more hot-headed nature. Even Liam Hermsworth's Gale is more involved this time; granted, I feel he's still not given more screentime, but his performance as Katniss' love interest and a young man empowered to stand against the Capitol's oppressive rule, isn't wasted by any means.

New actors enter the series, and they're just as wonderful as the main characters of the series. Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer are Beetee and Wiress a duo of nerds who use their intelligence to survive death traps; Jenna Malone plays the sarcastic and axe-wielding tribute from District 7, Johanna Mason, and newcomer Sam Clafin plays Finnick Oder, the handsome tribute from District 4 with an agenda to hide. Yet, the performances that stand out the most to me in this sequel (Besides Lawrence) are Phillip Seymore Hoffman as Heavensbee and Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket. Plutcarch is a calculating and cunning character, and Hoffman nails every nuance of a man who's not everything he seems on the surface. His scenes with Sutherland on how to kill Katniss and regain order in Panem is an exercise of an actor who's still in top form. Banks was hilarious and glam-up in the first installment as the PR guru, but in this one, we see a whole new side to her that even her character didn't know she had: a conscious. When you see her at the Reaping, pulling Katniss' name out from an empty bowl and watching Peeta volunteer himself for the Quarter Quell, she begins to understand the horror of the Games and how much she's cared for both tributes. It's, frankly, her best performance to date.

The next installment of the series will be split into two parts (of course), with the first coming out next November. After seeing what the actors and the filmmakers have done in Catching Fire, I'm confident that we're in for a explosive two-part finale, and with Jennifer Lawrence as it's centerpiece, I'm even more confident the series is in terrific hands. May the odds be ever her favor.

*** 1/2 stars out of ****

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