Francis Lawrence, Catching Fire

It Looks Good (No Shaky Cam!)
Considering how quickly "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" was put together, it's sort of amazing that the production team had any time to design (or redesign) aspects of this particular, bloodthirsty futureworld; the fact that these designs are so striking is even more impressive. But director Francis Lawrence, taking over from Gary Ross, has designed and implemented a fully realized world, whether the proto-Stalinist architecture of some of the outer districts or the zooming monorails and grand balls of the Capitol, not to mention a version of the Hunger Games in which the lightning trees, whirling typhoons, and clouds of toxic gas are really given memorable, malevolent design. Gone is the first movie's over-reliance on frantic shaky cam cinematography, which added a level of frenetic electricity but often at the cost of things like spatial geography or character placement. Lawrence instead chooses to shoot in long, fluid takes that root you firmly in the action, cleanly establishing the geography of each scene without having to overtly explain it. The best of these sequences is Katniss' introduction to the new arena, mere moments after watching one of her mentors get brutally beaten: initially we're as disoriented as she is, before in just a few strokes, the layout is established and the action breathlessly kicks off. Lawrence is an underappreciated stylist who makes exciting genre movies where very little actually happens ("Constantine," "I Am Legend"); here he steps up his game by making what is arguably the best movie of his career. It's full of action and suspense and, much to our shock and delight, you can actually understand what's going on. Most of the time, anyway.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Jeffrey Wright as Beetee and Amanda Plummer as Wiress
Along with Lynn Collins’ Mags, fan favorites Wiress (Amanda Plummer) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) add a different layer of humanity to the games that audiences hadn’t seen before. While the first film’s plot just allowed children and teens in the arena, bringing in seasoned veterans gives a new element, and of course this gives the filmmakers the chance to stack the cast more experienced actors. So while Lawrence was by far the most gifted among the tributes’ actors in the first film, seeing her interact with big-league talent here is invigorating. With their quirky intelligence and strategy, Wiress and Beetee stand out among the alumni tributes. From the first moment we glimpse them as they prep basic survival skills for the upcoming games, they are differentiated among the flashing teeth and brawny muscles of the career tributes. Plummer’s Wiress in particular still seems to always carry the weight of what she did, making it clear that though they aren’t as eager for violence, they still have a deadly past that neither can escape. Both Wiress and Beetee could have simply been twitchy, nerdy caricatures, but casting Wright (who seems to be everywhere) and Plummer (who we always want to see more of) gives them depth and brings additional emotional weight to the arena’s proceedings, to the cast of other tributes (which needs all the rounding out it can get) and to the film as a whole.

Catching Fire Lawrence Banks

Make Up and Costume
The makeup and costuming are of course showy elements that were fully embraced in the first film too, especially as regards Effie and the Capitol crowd. But this time there seems to be something a little subtler and more subversive at work. Part of the the first film's arc was a kind of makeover transformation of Katniss the dowdy District 12 girl into the Girl On Fire (as daft as those costumes were), and while the Capitol fashions were unbelievably over the top, there was a certain glamor to the flash and dazzle. This time out, however, care is taken to show the cracks in the makeup, the artificiality of the tanning, the absolute horror of of that stupid wedding dress before it reveals the simpler, and much more beautiful gown underneath (though we still have our reservations about the twirling and the fire). And Jennifer Lawrence is styled throughout to look much, much lovelier in her body suit with her hair in a braid running through the forest, than in whatever false-eyelash-and-too-much-bronzer get up she wears to whichever party. The styling cleverly walks this line to show the inherent ugliness of the Capitol's lavish decadence. And at the other end of the make up spectrum, perhaps the most impressively grim part of a film that also features some fairly graphic whip wounds, a gunshot execution and death by fanged baboon, are the big, blistering pustules that break out over the faces and hands of our heroes when they come into contact with the poison fog. Yes, we know they then wash off leaving no trace, but while they're there they are so totally gross and disfiguring that we actually had a hard time watching--perhaps due to some previously unidentified deep-seated fear. So we were simultaneously impressed by the makeup's disgustingness and totally repulsed by the makeup's disgustingness—no mean feat.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman and Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket
Speaking of makeup... We already know how fantastic Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks are as Caesar Flickerman, talk show host, and Effie Trinket, ditzy publicist/babysitter from the first ‘Hunger Games,’ but they are doing career-best work here, dialing their flamboyant and over-the-top characters way, way up without losing the utmost control. Tucci’s teeth alone are bewitchingly white, and every sigh and gesture he makes captures the blissful artifice and ignorance of the Capitol. Banks, on the other hand, lands perfectly intoned and placed asides with aplomb, and even manages to imbue her materialistic character with some heart and soul. They’re an integral part of creating this world, and do much of the heavy lifting for it. In fact, Effie's dawning conscience and the sudden glimpses we get of her sincere grief and sense of injustice, roiling beneath the ludicrous artifice of her exterior, are among the most affecting parts of the film.

Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Jennifer Lawrence
It kind of feels like we don't even have to mention this, but Jennifer Lawrence's performance, while it's nothing less than we now expect from the actress, does deserve its own props. It's difficult to imagine another actress really delivering as much as we get from Lawrence in this role—and director Francis Lawrence, for all he's mostly a genre/visual stylist, knows how to exploit his star's fundamental watchability, and gets more than a few bravura close ups and character moments from her. It's also unusual that it's not her prettiness that is ever emphasized, instead it's that wonderful watchful and intelligent quality that Lawrence gives Katniss that makes her so compelling: there is always something more going in her eyes. We particularly loved the moment when Katniss hears her sister's voice calling to her and pure protective instinct takes over, trumping her rationality, as she goes racing off in search of her. It's a scene that, in showing how the source of Katniss' strength and goodness is also her Achilles heel, tells us almost everything we need to know about her.