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Watch The Hunger Games 2 Catching Fire Online But the dictator’s ploy backfires. Departing from the script, the glumly defiant Katniss proves a beacon of resistance for the country’s subjugated population, prompting Snow to hatch a new scheme to snuff out any rebellious flames – a so-called Quarter Quell that will pit 24 previous victors against each other in another fight to the death.

Just as there is a new gamemaker in charge of the ensuing bloodfest – Philip Seymour Hoffman’s slyly Machiavellian Plutarch Huckerbee – so there is a new director at the helm of Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

Replacing Gary Ross, Austrian-born music-video veteran Francis Lawrence faces a similar problem to Plutarch: how to engage returning viewers and stop the games turning into a rehash of the previous contest. He brings to the task a keen eye for spectacle and a bigger budget ($130million as opposed to the first film’s $78million), and gets a lift from a gallery of fresh faces, principally Katniss’s new rivals, of whom hunky Sam Claflin, ferocious Jena Malone and wily Jeffery Wright and Amanda Plummer make the biggest impression.

Katniss and Peeta return to The Hunger Games after she has become a symbol of proletarian revolution. I did not have high expectations, but I was pleasantly surprised. The first film was an uneven combination of "The Most Dangerous Game" and "The Lottery" with a political and economic plot attached to the film like a tumor, but in Catching Fire the film's cohesion is much stronger, and as a result the film seems more original. The reveals at the end and Katniss's victory tour tie the political plot with The Hunger Games, which before bordered on violence-porn. The love triangle and Katniss's relationship with Peeta still don't do much for me. Less sacrificial than in the first film, Katniss's personality is bland in this film, and Peeta's love-sick staring is devoid of earnestness and intelligence. They're not compelling characters by themselves, but the plot is strong enough to carry their weight. Strong supporting performances by Woody Harrelson and Jena Malone steal the show.

Overall, Catching Fire did the impossible: it made me look forward to the next film.The thrust of the new movie is that mean, old President Snow (Donald Sutherland) fears how much the Panemanians identify with Katniss, who took the place of her younger sister in the 74th games. Maybe she could start a revolution that topples the Capitol. In one of the most strangely loaded scenes I've seen in any movie all year, Katniss offers her condolences to the families of the two black tributes. When she's done, one old man raises his arm and extends three fingers. It's Collins's salute of revolution. But here it has an unmistakable black power tinge. The Capitol's military storm troopers promptly blow his brains out. Later, they lock Katniss's strapping white boyfriend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), to a whipping post and lash him. The easy use of oppression iconography is disturbing without being sensationalistic or egregious. It helps that, in some theaters, 12 Years a Slave will be playing in the house next door, lessening the likelihood that what happened to Gale will be mistaken for science fiction.

In any case, to further punish Katniss and calm the people, President Snow calls for a very special Hunger Games: the third Quarter Quell. Two of each district's previous winners lose their promised immunity and are thrown into a new round of killing. For a lot of the movie, President Snow, bearded, maned, and gray (he looks like the stone lion that's stationed outside important buildings), sits around with Plutarch Heavensbee, the flagrantly named new game designer played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. These two are cartoon villains who don't know they're cartoons. So, as they plot how to discredit Katniss, if not destroy her outright, you can feel your blood boil. They hate her. We hate them.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge that these movies aren’t startling in using this kind of framework and parallel dystopian world to make a greater point. Face it, folks, this is not a unique case of a pop-culture movie having a deeper agenda — though you might think so if you read some of the gush. That said, the first sections of Catching Fire are very well done in building the sense of oppression. (It really needed an R rating, but within that self-imposed, box-office concession limitation, it works.)

Most of the characters are better drawn this time (of course, they still have all those dopey names) and a lot of the dialogue is surprisingly sharp (as long as hunky lunkhead Liam Hemsworth doesn’t say anything). Some of the scenes are quite striking. (Thank you, whoever ditched shaky-cam Gary Ross for the more professionally inclined director, Francis Lawrence.) The growing unsettled nature of the populace as Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (John Hutcherson) undertake their “victory tour” is beautifully structured. The sequence in the capitol where Katniss dances with game designer Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is not only nicely staged, but their dialogue and its delivery is spot-on.

It's fair to show up for the second of these Hunger Games movies and feel confused. Girls are shrieking — for scrappy Peeta and hunky Gale and the recently arrived pretty boy, Finnick; for every kiss Katniss Everdeen plants on one of them; for the scene in which a brazen new Hunger Games contestant, played by Jena Malone, enters an elevator, strips naked, arrives at her floor, then exits. It's an amusingly frisky encounter, and it happens only hours before 24 people are dropped, by the government, into an artificial war zone and expected to slay each other for the nation's entertainment. So it's confusing. How can a movie be this good when it brings George Orwell so close to Aaron Spelling? Because it brings George Orwell this close to Aaron Spelling, that's how.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is based on the middle entry in Suzanne Collins's trio of dystopic novels. And it isn't the threat of camp that makes this second movie an improvement over its interesting but stultifying 2012 predecessor. It's the threat of insurgency and reprisal. This new movie makes you believe that it's building toward something explosive and that whatever it is (revolution, apocalypse, consummation) matters for the movie's characters. This is Empire Strikes Back stuff. It has that second Star Wars movie's kick of confidence. In fact, the final image made me consider doing something I've never wanted to do with any of these franchise series: start standing in line for the next two. (Yes, Lionsgate is on-trend; the final book has been split in half.)

However, it’s also in this part of the film that there’s an exchange between Katniss and her (and Peeta’s) trainer, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), in which he tells her that she could never be worthy of Peeta’s love for her. Right then, something that had been niggling at me through both films came into focus — he’s right. There’s just not much to the Katniss character. I’m sure I’ve just committed some kind of heresy with that statement, but really, without Jennifer Lawrence in the role, Katniss would be pretty unbearable. Even with her, she’s still incredibly oblivious to just about everything. She’s largely self-centered — at least self-absorbed — and always greets the fallout from anything she does with utter astonishment. Even when she has a crise de conscience about Peeta, she remains blissfully unaware of what’s going on around her. She didn’t realize that her mockingjay-gown transformation would play badly for the safety of its creator, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz)? Seriously?

Perhaps former Hunger Games victor Haymitch Abernathy says it best in the sequel "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" when he advises District 12 victor Katniss Everdeen that there are no winners in the death match known as the Hunger Games, only survivors.

And so as the well-paced and sturdy sequel to 2012's big-screen adaptation of Suzanne Collins' best-selling dystopian trilogy begins, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are learning there's no such thing as a win-win in Panem. Sure the pair may be embarking on a state-directed Victory Tour, but the guarantee they'd never have to enter the lethal arena again proves false. And now a quick refresher: Panem, its gleaming, governing, decadent Capitol; and outlying "districts" are all that remain of the United States after cataclysmic years of war.

At the end of “The Hunger Games,” Katniss and fellow District 12 tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, vaguely more assertive this time) have cheated the system and both emerged as champions. Now they’re forced to travel the ravaged country on a victory tour, an uncomfortable mix of propaganda-filled celebration and sorrowful remembrance of the fallen. At each stop, Katniss must pretend to be in love with Peeta to please the suspicious President Snow (a chilling Donald Sutherland), although her heart belongs back home with her hunky childhood best friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth, little-used aside from one powerful scene).

Along for the ride, as always, is the duo’s unflappably upbeat escort, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), who strains to keep them on message even as revolution rears its head wherever they go. Banks once again gets to wear a colorful array of truly inspired and garish costumes, but she also gets to show some humanity and complex emotions, as her true loyalties to Katniss and Peeta begin to shine through. Also accompanying them is the last Hunger Games winner from District 12, the perpetually inebriated but resourceful Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, who’s also afforded more shadings this time in the script from Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt).

Like its predecessor, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is surprisingly slack when the plot turns to the literal action of the titular lethal contest; but it's very powerful when the focus is on the sometimes doomed characters and on the bleak future they inhabit, which offers a critique of America's current economic disparity alongside echoes of Nazi Germany and the Roman Empire. (At a lavish high fashion-meets-high fascism presidential party in the decadent Capitol, guests are offered flavored emetics so they can vomit and eat more food -- this, in a nation where many of the citizens are starving, as the title of the games suggests.)

In Collins's novel, the United States as we know it has been obliterated. The new country, called Panem, is now comprised of a dozen districts of varying poverty ruled by the Capitol, a bastion of excess, opulence, technological advancement, and cruelty nestled, we're told, amid the Rocky Mountains. As punishment for a long-ago uprising, the Capitol instituted the annual Hunger Games, in which every district drafts two tweens or teens (they're called tributes) to fight to the death on live television. There can be only one victor, except in the first movie, in which there were two. Catching Fire begins with the winners — Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) — visiting the towns of the young players they vanquished. It's the Tribute to the Tributes eulogy tour.