Review: Jennifer Lawrence digs in as ‘Catching Fire’ ups the stakes for Katniss Everdeen

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.

All I ask for with this sort of material is that you try to populate it with characters worth spending time and attention on, and that you build a world I can believe exists as more than an awkward metaphor. There are so many things I like along the way here, so many details that fill things out, that I can’t really list them all. I love Stanley Tucci’s teeth, for example, and everything they signify. I love the way we see past the shallow and preening exterior of Effie Trinket in this one, and the way Elizabeth Banks reveals the fear and the heartbreak that seem to be taking hold of this character who seemed like such a gross cartoon at first is moving and unexpected.

I love the addition of Sam Claflin and Jena Malone to the cast, and I think they both do lovely, muscular work filling out these characters as people. Claflin gives Finnick Odair a depth and a decency I wouldn’t have pegged as part of the character, and Malone shows us just how much it costs Johanna Mason to hand herself back over to the savagery that won her the Games the first time. I love the casting of Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as a couple, and I think they’re both really good in the film. I love that Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch feels more engaged in the films than he did in the books, like it matters more to him. I love that Sutherland, who has always had one of the most intense stares in film, has become positively demonic in his old age, and that he uses it to such glorious effect here. When he speaks, he is still pure honeyed charisma, and it makes him perfect for Snow. Both sides of who Snow is seem to manifest in Sutherland, and he’s the ideal foil for Lawrence as Katniss.

This feels to me like the first truly adult performance Josh Hutcherson has given. I like him as a performer, and I think he’s had an interesting ride so far. I’d love to talk to him sometime about his performance capture work for Robert Zemeckis on “The Polar Express.” I think both “Zathura” and “Bridge To Terabithia” are under-seen gems, and movies like “Detention” and “The Kids Are All Right” speak well to how adventurous he’s going to be with material. Up till now, though, I don’t think I’ve really seen a performance where everything boyish about him was simply gone, and here, he shows us what makes Peeta Mellark more than just some boy with a crush on Katniss. He’s got a personal definition of love and sacrifice that he lives by that seem far more intense than anything Katniss can possibly return, and he knows that there will never be a balance. He knows that she won’t feel the same way. But when he demands respect from her in this film, it’s one of those things that makes me really like a character, because he’s right, and the way he handles it actually helps things instead of making them worse. These people actually talk to each other. Even the so called “bad guys” are given room to behave like recognizable human beings instead of arch movie stereotypes.

Liam Hemsworth is affable.

I wish I had more to say about the guy, but so far, that’s pretty much all I get from him onscreen. I notice how agitated some readers get any time I say something like this about an actor. A recent review of a Gemma Arterton movie saw her defenders out in force, and I am sincere when I say I’m not trying to be unkind. Hemsworth isn’t bumping into furniture or wetting himself and forgetting his lines, but there’s nothing about his work that makes me want to watch him in a role. The actors I enjoy watching are the ones who surprise me the way people do all the time in real life. They’re the ones who I can see making genuine choices in a scene, the ones who suggest some inner life. Great acting isn’t about giant gestures in my book; it’s about all the small things that make up each moment in a performance. There are simply some people who never manage to quite cross that line from “acting” to acting for me, and Hemsworth is one of them. Even so, Gale still has room to grow in the next two films, and maybe he will surprise me. Maybe we’ll see something in him in those other two films that finally pays off the casting choice. I hope so.

Finally, there is Jennifer Lawrence, and she continues to impress as someone who shatters the archetype that exists for “strong young woman” in these types of movies. There is nothing easy about the work that Lawrence does on film. She has so much going on as a performer that at some point, I don’t really care where the story is going. I just like watching her in this world. She is difficult. She is unwilling to do things “right.” She frequently can’t even deal with her friends, much less her enemies. Katniss feels real, and Lawrence is setting the bar for films like this. She is no cookie-cutter Disney princess or Buffy clone. She has made Katniss something else, something that is all hers, and part of that is the character Collins wrote, and part of it is that Lawrence seems incapable of being phony.

Anyone who worries that this will look like the first film in terms of how action is show shouldn’t. I felt like Ross was all about making you feel like it was happening to you, of making it feel confusing and close-up and scary. Francis Lawrence has a much more traditional sense of action geography, and cinematographer Jo Willems does probably his best work so far in terms of blending the largely artificial world of the Capitol with the jungle arena, shot on location in Hawaii. This Panem feels like a more lived in and realistic world, but the film maintains a high sense of style nonetheless. “The Hunger Games: Catching FIre” is very technically accomplished, but almost invisibly so. One other thing I like about Francis Lawrence is that he doesn’t seem to be determined to show you how clever he is. He’s a strong shooter with a great sense of composition, and he stages these scenes not so he can show off, but to best tell this story. It seems like an obvious thing to say, but that is an increasingly rare skill in today’s big-studio filmmaking ranks. I’d say this is his best film overall, and I am greatly encouraged knowing that this series is in his hands from now until the end. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” more than makes the case for this as a franchise that’s going to get better as it goes, and I am genuinely excited to see how they wrap it up. What more could you ask of a middle movie?

“The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” opens November 22, 2013.