The Hunger Games: Catching Fire</em>

It’s the prevailing wisdom that this rattling good second installment of the film version of Suzanne Collins’s preposterously engrossing young-adult dystopia novels far exceeds the first film, which was directed by Goleta-boy Gary Ross (a UCSB grad who still lives in that ’hood). While it’s true that Ross’s shaky camera earned him bad notices in places like the New Yorker, who else deserves credit for the true-to-the novel imagery? The daffy costumes, imaginative sets — from Panem’s dirt outback to its sparkly capital — are mostly Ross. And, given the hyper-anxiety of the novels — which millions worship — the quaking point-of-view close-ups and jittery exposition seemed a fine way to reproduce the novels’ tidal pull of fear. New director Francis Lawrence, whose previous career includes three stunning clunkers (I Am Legend, Constantine, and Water for Elephants), hasn’t vastly improved the imagery, though the ride is smoother and the fearful scenes more concentrated. When Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) returns to her reality-show killing fields, only one scene reflects her utter anguish. Maybe that’s enough. Francis Lawrence’s triumph is lubricating the blockbuster; he keeps things rolling through the two-and-a-half-hour runtime.

We glide across a complicated set of events. The tide turns in this episode as the districts begin to rebel against the Capitol and super-icy President Snow, whose proclivity for drinking blood is subtly signaled here. As Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) head into the new games site, they are confronted with a sudden shift in policy, too. Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, one of this film’s many brilliant casting coups) advises our heroes to make allies! When the meaning of all of this comes together, the timing is so perfect that even faithful readers will feel the plot twists.

Lawrence and his screenwriters, then, have improved a great movie franchise by hiding the machinery well; it’s smoother and deeper-feeling. But meanwhile, let’s not sell the local boy short. His choices — ranging from casting then-unknown JenLaw to the smarmy look of pony-tailed Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman — were hatched long ago somewhere near Hollister. Yet kudos: Francis Lawrence took the Ross interpretation of the Collins books and made Katniss even hotter.


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