If reviews are any indication, the "Hunger Games" film franchise need not fear the sophomore slump. Building on the success of the 2012 film, the sequel "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is earning excellent reviews. Many critics are praising director Francis Lawrence, who took over the series from Gary Ross, and star Jennifer Lawrence (no relation), reprising her role as the heroine and reluctant revolutionary Katniss Everdeen.
The Times' Kenneth Turan calls "Catching Fire" "an effective piece of melodramatic popular entertainment that savvily builds on the foundation established by the first "Hunger Games" movie." With regard to Francis Lawrence, Turan writes, "the expansion in size and scope this project's larger budget allows proves well within his power."
That said, the film is anchored by its star: "Lawrence's intertwined strength and vulnerability as Katniss were the sine qua non of the first film, and she is the sequel's biggest asset as well. Now an Oscar winner for 'Silver Linings Playbook,' Lawrence has clearly taken this role very much to heart, throwing herself into it to such an extent that she creates genuine emotion from what is essentially pulpy material."
The New York Times' Manohla Dargis says the film is "largely satisfying as far as screen adventures go, and comes fully loaded with special effects and action scenes, and embellished with the usual brand-name character actors." Dargis also agrees that Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss is the film's greatest asset: "A thrillingly atypical heroine, Katniss is the heart, soul and bloodied embodiment of the series and the primary reason that both the book and screen versions soar above the usual adventure-fiction slag heap."
Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal deems "Catching Fire" "exceptional entertainment, a spectacle with a good mind and a pounding heart. Francis Lawrence directed, expertly, from a sharp, lucid screenplay by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn. The cinematography, by Jo Willems, is especially spectacular in IMAX."
Once again, it all comes back to Jennifer Lawrence: "none of it would work — not the action, the adventure, the political subtext or the humor — without the strength and beauty that Ms. Lawrence brings to the central role. … It's hard to believe how far this young star has come in the three years since her breakout role in 'Winter's Bone,' but she's an archer in her own right. Everything she does flies straight and true.
The Boston Globe's Ty Burr calls "Catching Fire" "a muscular, engrossing, unexpectedly bleak epic of oppression and insurrection, directed with dramatic urgency and a skilled eye." (It's also better than the book, he says.) "Everything about the sequel feels bigger, more charged with import, and seen with greater resolve." Burr adds that "the core cast performs ably," and as for Jennifer Lawrence, "any blockbuster series would be lucky to have her."
Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post says that "fans of 'The Hunger Games' should find 'Catching Fire' a superlative advancement of the franchise. Director Francis Lawrence … smoothly steers the characters through their latest course of depredations and abuse, allowing plenty of moments to simply sit back and groove on the eye candy." At nearly two and a half hours, though, the film "may well strike non-'Games' players as insufferably sluggish."
As for the film's heroine, Hornaday says, "the engine of the entire operation is Jennifer Lawrence, who in Katniss has found a character that chimes perfectly with her own persona as an earthy, blunt-speaking ingenue suddenly thrust into a world of celebrity and media-fueled idol worship."
And the San Francisco Chronicle's Mick LaSalle writes that the film "doesn't settle for halfhearted gestures." He continues: "Jennifer Lawrence does not act like someone in an action movie but like someone in a life-and-death drama that happens to have lots of running and jumping. Director Francis Lawrence makes sure that not a single performance is tossed off. Every effort is made to portray this awful future world as something real and to have the actors react with the right sense of terror and entrapment."
Those elements "take the movie far," LaSalle says, but the problem is that the film "is based on the middle book in a trilogy, and that means that it doesn't really end. Instead it stops just as it's getting interesting."
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