I couldn't help but feel like one of the many teen fans of the "Hunger Games" books while watching the movie sequel, considering the number of times that something happened on-screen to which my mind generated the universal rating of teen approval: That was awesome.
Did I say it out loud? Maybe.
"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is the second cinematic installment in this young-adult book franchise, which looks like it will resemble the quality of the "Harry Potter" franchise in successfully turning a book phenomenon into equally outstanding movies.
It doesn't hurt that these films, which can only be as good as the young woman portraying the heroine who is the heart and soul of these tales, feature the most talented young actress in the world in the role of Katniss Everdeen.
Last year's megahit "The Hunger Games" turned Jennifer Lawrence into an international star. With "Catching Fire," the 23-year-old returns as the reigning Academy Award winner for best actress ("Silver Linings Playbook"), and her performance here is, well ... This girl is on fire.
The books by Suzanne Collins feature a heady mix of dystopian science-fiction society, doomed romances, intense action-adventure and moralistic drama. The film remarkably delivers on all of these fronts in a deeply satisfying manner.
These complex themes are developed with a vitality that is surprising, because this is a 146-minute motion picture that doesn't feel that long because its pace is measured when it needs to be and breathless the rest of the time.
Katniss returns to her poverty-stricken, coal-mining community after the events of "The Hunger Games," in which the unnerving kids-killing-kids competition ended with (SPOILER ALERT for those who haven't seen the first film) both Katniss and her District 12 neighbor Peeta Mellark named co-victors -- but only after Katniss commits a defiant act that forces the dictatorial President Snow's hand in allowing these "lovers" to both live, to the delight of TV audiences throughout Panem.
The coupling between Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) was a made-for-TV performance, but Snow (Donald Sutherland, with snowy-white facial hair and a glare that are both equally creepy) intends to make the couple convince the world of their love for one another -- or else.
Katniss is easily convinced that Snow will kill everyone close to her if she doesn't give the performance of a lifetime during her and Peeta's "Hunger Games Victory Tour" of the dozen districts.
The tour reveals that her symbolic defiance in the Games was enough to spark uprisings in other beaten-down, Capitol-ruled districts -- That girl was brave enough to fight back, people figured, and we should, too.
Now our heroine must make a decision: Will she help Snow extinguish the spirit of hope among the people that is building -- or "catching fire" -- or will she become the face of a revolution?
The innocence-lost ideals of "The Hunger Games" mature with grace into the theme of "Catching Fire" -- Katniss proved she can fight to survive; now that she's aware of the political agendas at play, can she fight the Capitol? The gamesmanship between Katniss and Snow is fantastic.
For every time that hope is a possibility, the Capitol is there to crush it on a grand scale, such as in one of the book's key set pieces. When Katniss' closest friend and male companion, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), is lashed in the town square of District 12, for those gathered and a TV audience to witness, it is a reminder that the people are little more than slaves of the rich, privileged Capitol.
The movie is a solid example of "the book on film" in spirit, and Lawrence is brilliant in a performance far beyond blockbuster-level acting.
Katniss is a young woman under an incredible amount of pressure. She appears close to a nervous breakdown at times, and Lawrence can pull off such emotions without saying a word. While the novel offers lines like "The sun persists in rising, so I make myself stand," Lawrence can get this embattled emotion across to the audience with her expressive face and then will herself to a new level of strength.
She is an inspiration, and so is the adaptation of Collins' book by a pair of Oscar-winners, Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, working in combination with director Francis Lawrence ("I Am Legend"), who takes over from "Hunger Games" director Gary Ross and advances every element seamlessly.
Katniss is more mature (and she is more cosmetically made-up, appropriate for a now-wealthy "victor" of the games). Peeta is bitter that the woman he loves can only act out such emotion. Gale is a budding freedom fighter.
Stanley Tucci's "Games"-show host from hell is an insane combination of Ryan Seacrest, Eddie Izzard and executioner, gleefully playing to his live and TV audiences while interviewing participants about to meet their deaths in the arena.
Tucci is electric and eccentric, as is Elizabeth Banks as victors' liaison Effie Trinket, who's discovering her voice and her conscience in her expanded role.
The pair's kooky stylings, along with a killer wedding-dress creation by Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), amps up the fashion-statements-of-the-future quotient for this edition. Don't try most of these at home.
It's obvious that this film's much-larger budget has paid for improved special effects that are most evident in the arena, which finds Katniss and Peeta returned to the Hunger Games against past victors.
Although these are impressive, it is the arena portion of the film that does not measure up to the first film's excellence. It's not a match in staging or choreography, and there is no signature moment to match the original's sentiment, such as Katniss singing a lullaby to a fallen little-girl competitor.
Lawrence is the star of this show, and it means that neither Peeta nor Gale get quality screen time as they make room for a growing ensemble cast. But both are effective in their reduced appearances.
This is more difficult to say of Philip Seymour Hoffman as the new head gamesmaker or of Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as Beetee and Wiress, the curious past "Hunger Games" victors who come off more as odd than as odd and brilliant as they are depicted in the book.
The new star here would be Sam Claflin as fan-favorite Finnick, the preening peacock and former victor. Claflin doesn't have much substantive to say here, but between his fighting (cool trident), his flexing (shirtless often) and his flashing of mischievous grins, he ensures that Finnick will be a movie favorite, too.
This film marks two of the trilogy's books now on film, but we're only halfway through at the cinema -- book No. 3 "Mockingjay" is being split into two films.
If they are as enjoyable and as exceptional as "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" at capturing intimate moments and emotions while never feeling like anything less than an "event" movie, the odds are in our favor that we have something special to look forward to the next couple of years.
'THE HUNGER GAMES: CATCHING FIRE'
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Sam Claflin, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci
Theaters: (IMAX) Cinemark Tulsa, AMC Southroads 20; also at Cinemark Broken Arrow, Starworld 20, RiverWalk, Owasso, Eton Square, Sand Springs
Running time: 2 hours, 26 minutes
Rated: PG-13 (intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language)
Quality: 3.5 Stars (on a scale of zero to four stars)
Michael Smith 918-581-8479
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