Gary Ross is going to end up being the Chris Columbus of the "Hunger Games" franchise, the guy who set up a solid template before stepping aside for a director who brought a much stronger sense of style to the series. I think the first "Hunger Games" film is a much better movie overall than the first two "Harry Potter" films were, but I think the weakest link in what Ross did with the first film was his visual plan. I liked that he seemed unconcerned with spectacle, but there could definitely have been a richer sense of world-building in someone else's hands.

What Ross got completely right, though, was casting, and he got really lovely performances out of his entire cast. Jennifer Lawrence may have seemed like a gamble when she got the role, but now Ross looks positively prescient. It's one thing to cast one person correctly, but Ross built a very odd ensemble that doesn't make completely sense on paper, but that seems to perfectly embody the world that Suzanne Collins created. With this second film, new director Francis Lawrence takes that solid ensemble, adds some important new pieces to that group, and then expands the world in a way that doesn't throw out Ross's film, but that uses it as a way to get to something even better.

The screenplay, credited to Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, does a canny job of taking apart the novel by Collins, the second in the series, and reconstructing it in a way that makes it more than just another sequel and more than just a bridge from the first film to the conclusion. Middle films are difficult, and yet "Catching Fire" manages to do a great job of turning up the stakes for Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and every single citizen of Panem. It is smartly written on both a character level and as a piece of politically-minded science-fiction, and while I liked the first film quite a bit, I think this is the one that sinks the hooks in deeply and that makes it seem urgent that we get to "Mockingjay."

Picking up not long after the conclusion of "The Hunger Games," this film finds Katniss suffering from PTSD in a pretty major way, still dealing with the emotional fall-out from winning The Hunger Games in the first film. I'm glad to see that these films do not gloss over the damage done to the survivors of the Games. These are people who are forced to kill to survive, and they might be required to kill as many as 23 other people in order to win. You don't just shrug that off, and no one in this film seems like they're blithe about it. The only thing that seems to make life tolerable for Katniss is the knowledge that she'll never have to do it again and that she's given her family and her District some sort of benefit or protection.

Yeah, right. Panem is a rigged game, as Katniss learns very early in the film. She finally comes face to face with President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who would love to figure out how to harness whatever it is that people respond to in Katniss. After all, the Games are little more than a control, and one of Snow's greatest weapons to keep all of Panem in check is propaganda. This is a stage-managed reality, and what I like most about this film compared to the first one is the way we're starting to see the seams of the world. Katniss lit a fire, and in this film, we see everything starting to smolder while Snow frantically tries to put it out. The easy solution would be to simply kill Katniss, but martyrdom would be too likely at this point, and besides… why kill someone when you can compromise them instead and destroy what they believe in completely in the process?

Since Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) screwed up in the first film and let Katniss outsmart him, he was put to death, and there's a new Gamesmaster for this film. Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is brought in to find a way to restore order to things. It's bigger than just "what do you do about Katniss?" at this point, and he's a man of mystery. His is just one of the agendas driving the movie, and that seems to be the main narrative drive of "Catching Fire." The first film established that there is a conflict coming, and in this film, the chess game is fully underway. Plutarch comes up with a great way to throw some chaos into the mix with the Quarter Quell, the 75th anniversary of the Games, using it as an excuse to force former winners of the Games to compete again. They essentially stop-loss these people back in for another round, all in an attempt to force Katniss into a position where she can't escape and it won't look like murder.

The film handles the rising rebellion well, keeping things simmering, just below the surface, more insinuation than anything else at this point. In those moments where things bubble over and there is open defiance, it is dealt with harshly and quickly. There is no upside to standing up in public, no good outcome to that, and it becomes apparent immediately that Katniss isn't going to walk away from the Games as easily as she did in the first film. She means so much to so many people, but once she's in that arena, she's basically cut off from anything like help, and she's forced to once again simply fight for survival without any time to worry about the larger fate of Panem. That's the point, of course, and the film makes some very pointed observations about the way distraction is used to quell anger in a populace.

One of the reasons I respect Collins and her work way more than the creepy "romantic" pap that has defined the Young Adult genre in many ways so far is because she seems to have something significant on her mind, and her Katniss is a perfect hero for our times. Heroism is easy when you're the magical Chosen One or when you've got clearly marked Good Guys and Bad Guys or when you have a quest that has a distinct cause and effect to it. Find the magic sword, kill the bad guy, free the kingdom. That's simple. Katniss is a hero simply because she cannot be anyone other than who she is, and faced with being ground down by a broken system, she simply refuses to let it happen. That strength is what defines her, and everything in the film is about how she navigates her way through a world with no easy choices.

Yes, there is romance (of a sort) that factors into this series, but we're worlds away from the emotionally damaged fantasies of "Twilight." Here, Katniss is drawn to the person who has been her best friend for years, someone she's shared everything with, but she also owes a huge debt to this other person, and that debt has become something more complicated. There is a public role she has to play, but in order to play it, she not only has to damage the feelings of the person she owes so much to, but she also has to hurt her friend, and there's no way to avoid any of it. Her relationships are not simple "oh, he's dreamy" longings, but rather complicated collisions of obligation and affection and desire and sorrow, and there is no happy ending here, no matter who ends up with who.

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