Catching Fire, feature

Now officially the all-time November opening record holder, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" was always a fairly sure thing in terms of box office. But what's more impressive is the advance word on the film (our own included), and the buzz around it, which has been so positive, with it being touted as the rare sequel that improves on the original, and with many going so far as to compare it to "The Empire Strikes Back." (Though, to be honest, we think that comparison is more to do with how open-ended it feels, with the good guys separated and some of them still imperiled, at the film's close.) Some of us might not go quite that far, but certainly director Francis Lawrence has made good on delivering a broader, more nuanced and more layered film than the first, which is fitting considering he was adapting what we'd consider the best of the three books, by quite some distance.

But not everything worked for us, even for those of us who are among the film's bigger fans. The film is long, it's quite slow to start with and the aforementioned mid-air ending does mean the pacing issues tell a little as it wears on. However, on the other hand, that slightly strange shape does make it feel a great deal less formulaic than the average YA sequel. So know then, that we're coming largely from a very positive place as we take a look through some of notable aspects of "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" that stuck with us—the good, the bad and the somewhere-in-between. Oh, and obviously this is a post for people who've seen the film already, so spoilers ahead

The Good

Catching Fire Jena Malone

Jena Malone as Johanna Mason
Jena Malone as returning tribute Johanna Mason is some of the most spot-on casting of the franchise, and she tears into the axe-wielding part with gusto. Malone brings a much needed wild-eyed ferocity to the proceedings, a fine foil to the also badass, but often overly compassionate Katniss. She’s mad as hell about this Quarter Quell and everyone’s going to hear about it too (her brutal honesty is refreshing). Malone walks off with every scene she’s in, starting with the infamous elevator strip down, where she sheds her District 7 tree costume in order to get a rise out of Katniss (she elicits some quality Jennifer Lawrence side eye that is truly a delight to behold). She’s not without nuance though, demonstrating her willingness to protect others at all costs and hinting that her ferocious demeanor comes from a place of real trauma and loss caused by the Games. In fact, Malone's version of the character comes across as almost a crazy-mirror version of Katniss—she has all the strength of will but none of the love and the edge of jealousy this brings to her dealings with Katniss is deliciously played by Malone. We almost felt like Johanna envies Katniss being the girl who will start the revolution, as it's a role she herself would have relished, but she simply doesn't possess the same inspirational quality. Which makes her spiteful and bitter, even while she's principled and fundamentally decent enough to be doing the right thing. The only complaint might be that there wasn’t enough of her on screen. Prequel material, maybe?

Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Amped-Up Scope And Scale
In the first film, the arena where the games are held seemed like a magically science fiction-y realm, where it seemed like the godlike architects of the games (alongside the nefarious President Snow) could reconfigure land, sea, and air, almost on a whim. But in execution, it seemed like the woodsy arena was next door to the rundown district where Katniss hailed from; the lack of variety didn't just seem like a creative deficiency but a budgetary one too. With "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," both the budget and the creative principals' imaginations seem to have been widened considerably. Not only do we get cool stuff outside of the arena like glittering, futuristic cities and luxury monorails, but the arena seems bigger and more magnificent. The tropical setting was an inspired flourish; it makes it deadlier and differentiates itself completely from the original's Appalachian backdrop. The games themselves are grander too, with stuff like the sinister wave of toxic fog, a band of carnivorous baboons and the rotating island. In this film, the promise of the games, especially with the expanded "Survivor: All Stars"-like cast of characters, has been fully realized.

The Hunger Games Catching Fire

Josh Hutcherson's Peeta Begins To Come Into His Own
While, not being thirteen, we don't want to spend any time rehashing the "OMG Liam Hemsworth's Gale is sooo way hotter than Josh Hutcherson's Peeta" debate, (especially as The Onion's terrific review dives deep into that same issue), from a slightly less hormonal standpoint, Hutcherson's casting as Peeta did begin to make more sense to us during this outing. While it felt a little like a miscalculation in the first film, here Hutcherson's relative slightness and lack of out-and-out hunkiness seems to be part of the point: the love triangle, for all it feels a little mishandled (see below) is between Katniss and two actual people, not just two guys who are desperately in love with her but otherwise differ only in the type of "studly" they embody. In fact Peeta, who is still something of a liability during the actual games (he does temporarily die, after all), thanks to some sensitive writing, gets to deliver some decent dialogue that suggests his independent thought processes, and makes it clear that Katniss, to her credit and that of the film, has a choice to make not between Hottie 1 and Hottie 2, but between two different young men who are defined by different things in the wider world, and not just their relationship to her.