The Hunger Games: Catching Fire ups the ante for all involved, and delivers with a rare sequel that markedly improves on its predecessor. In the have and have-not country of Panem, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson have just won the 74th Hunger games, but uneasy lies their crown—especially since Katniss has inspired devotion in the poorer districts.
President Snow (a marvelously malevolent Donald Sutherland) has visited Katniss to force her into continuing the charade that she and Peeta are a love match celebrating the state—or else she and all her loved ones face extermination. As those who are familiar with the previous film (or the Suzanne Collins bestsellers on which the movies are based) know, this is easier said than done, since her heart currently belongs to sturdy, burly Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Under the tutelage of former winner Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and fashion plate from Hell, Effie (Elizabeth Banks), the two winners make it through the tour, but only after some close—and costly–calls with the Peacekeepers. Threatened by Katniss’ soaring popularity, President Snow and his new game master Plutarch Heavensbee (a menacingly enigmatic Philip Seymour Hoffman) decide to institute a very special Hunger Games—christened the Quarter Quell–one in which previous champions must fight to the death.
Under the sure hand of director Francis Lawrence, working from a script by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, Catching Fire is absorbing, exciting filmmaking. Whereas the first film had its share of longueurs on its way to the Games payoff, this latest installment (the second in the series) is crisp and compelling from beginning to end. There is a little something for everyone: unrequited love, social satire, political drama, and pulse-pounding action adventure. In addition, the viewer knows most of the major players, but more importantly, the major players in the film know each other—or know enough to be wary of each other. Snow’s veiled (and not-so-veiled) threats cause Katniss to emotionally run for cover; Katniss tries to maintain an emotional distance from a devoted but frustrated Peeta; for his part, Peeta silently loves Katniss while both resent the forced camaraderie and good will of the Tour—and the fact that they’re being manipulated into endorsing the Games. Although the Games themselves don’t begin until well over an hour into the film, the opening sections are filled with tension and ironic humor—as well as wrenching outbursts of violence: a rousing speech gives way to brutal reprisals; a defense of an old lady leads into a very public whipping.
Once the Quarter Quell begins, the players have more to fear than each other, in the way of the manipulation of the elements, as well as some very nasty, frightening animal intrusions. These sequences are harrowing and well-paced, allowing both the participants and the audience to take a slight breather before the next calamity. As befitting this kind of film, everyone is working at the top of their game: while Harrelson, Sutherland, Tucci and newcomer Hoffman stand out among the supporting players, Hutcherson nicely conveys Peeta’s growing inner strength, while Banks finds some humanity within Effie. Lenny Kravitz, Amanda Plummer and Geoffrey Wright also make welcome contributions, but when all is said and done, this is Jennifer Lawrence’s film. She can communicate so much while saying so little-in many of her major scenes the camera is content to focus on her in the face of threats and recriminations. Watch how she takes it all in, how her expressions convey multitudes of meaning. In Lawrence’s hands, Katniss is all too human, yet still the closest thing to a superhero at your local cinema.
Another hero is having problems, not only on Earth, but also in the mythical realm of Asgard, as our favorite hammer-wielder returns for the aptly titled sequel Thor: The Dark World. It is a dark world indeed as Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has to maintain order among the Nine Realms while facing an imminent threat from the Convergence, a rare alignment that will lead to the unleashing of some dormant enemies, and nothing but havoc for this world—and all the others. But there’s also another dark world—the one within Thor as he deals with the void in his heart caused by the difficulties of a long-distance romance between him and earthly scientist Natalie Portman. Worlds do collide when intrepid Natalie stumbles onto the sight of the convergence and becomes not only the recipient of some unwelcome party gifts (such as an influx of unearthly energy) but also the target of Thor’s arch nemesis Malekith (Christopher Eccleston).
If you enjoyed the first Thor…you may like Thor: The Dark World even more. The action sequences are well-staged, a little tighter–and even occasionally humorous–under the direction of Alan Taylor. Anthony Hopkins gets to chew the scenery—albeit in a magisterial manner—as Thor’s kingly, proud father. Chris Hemsworth makes an engaging, suitably heroic, occasionally self-deprecating Thor; unfortunately Natalie Portman is only adequate as Thor’s one and only love—there is very little in the way of sparks, and virtually nothing to suggest why he should be so smitten. The best scenes involve Thor and his adoptive brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as they become wary allies as they journey to the Dark World for motives of peace and revenge, respectively. Their witty, caustic exchanges, laced with lingering resentments and an undercurrent of regret, provide the best moments in an enjoyable, but ultimately disposable blockbuster.