As no fan of the first Hunger Games movie, I had very low expectations going into the second film in the series, CATCHING FIRE.
The surprise for me is just how much better this film IS! New Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) brings a sure touch to both the drama and the action and the best news is that he is dealing with a much bigger budget that really shows on screen.
My problem with the last film was shoddy special effects and poorly executed action and FIRE gets both these absolutely right.
Our heroine Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, bringing a lot of talent to the film and the role) finds herself emerging as a symbol of hope in the desperation of everyday life in the districts.
She is pretending for the theatre of the games to be in love with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) but is truly in love with Gale (Liam Hemsworth).
If it was a screen presence contest, the cannon would boom for Hutcherson in the first 5 minutes.
At odds with President Snow (Donald Sutherland, perfectly oozing menace), Katniss tows the company line celebrating her status as a victor in the last games.
But as the new games approach, the President wants to smash all signs of hope, new games runner Plutarch Heavensbee (where the hell do they get these names) pulls out all the stops for new ways to kill the contestants and most of the past victors are drawn back into battle.
The last half of the film really moves and is everything the first film wasn't: well executed, beautifully shot with great CGI and sharp editing.
New contestants are well cast.
Following the Harry Potter model, Part 3 will be split into two parts. Unlike after the first film, I am actually looking forward to seeing what happens next.
Lawrence is growing into a real movie star. She manages to make a very serious character someone you care for, never easy when Katniss NEVER lightens up.
Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman are all very good.
I find both Elizabeth Banks as Effie and Stanley Tucci as Caesar very, very annoying, but that being said, there is a lot more to like about this film than the really dumb, cheap first film.
Kudos to studio Lionsgate for sinking the huge box office of the first film back into the budget here and making a film that truly elevates the series.
CATCHING FIRE indeed. We'll give it a B.