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"Catching Fire" builds "Hunger Games" momentum (Blu-ray review)

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson

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After winning last year's Hunger Games - an annual battle to the death between children from 12 districts of a dystopian nation known as Panem - Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) have become both heroes and involuntary leaders of a bubbling revolution against the corrupt Capitol government. Upon returning home, Katniss and Peeta must embark on a nationwide victory tour, visiting the districts of their slain competitors. The purpose of the tour is to build confidence in the Capitol, but, with each visit, the tour seems to be having the opposite effect, angering citizens of Panem and building momentum for an impending uprising. Sensing trouble, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) alter the plans for the upcoming 75th edition of the Hunger Games, forcing the tributes to be selected from the remaining pool of previous winners. It's an extermination, essentially, of the living victors, with Katniss Everdeen standing front and center. Yet again, Katniss; Peeta; and their alcoholic mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Harrelson), must hatch a plan in an effort to fight back at the Capitol and, ideally, to get one of them out alive.

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The Breakdown:

Based on the ultra-popular book of the same name, "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" follows the story outlined in the novel very well. While there were several notable discrepancies between the first book and the first movie, those familiar with the paperback trilogy won't have quite as much to whine about with the second film, which feels much more faithful to the book. (But, of course, nit-pickers can always find some reason to complain.) On a related note, the biggest knock on the movie is that it's incredibly long and sometimes a little slow-moving because of the amount of exposition that needs to take place for the story to be meaningful. In order to avoid discrepancies and include as much information from the books as possible, the movie takes about an hour and a half to explain the far-reaching consequences of the controversial 75th Hunger Games, known as the "Quarter Quell," but then, once they get to the battle, the pace picks back up, which is nice. While government-regulated murder is never the most pleasant of topics, one nice thing about the Quarter Quell is that there are less minors involved and, also, many of the Tributes resent the fact that they are being put back in the arena and do not look forward to having to kill off their competition. Thus, this edition of the violent competition seems a bit less barbaric and blood-thirsty. Take that for what it's worth. Because "Catching Fire" is largely a bridge to the final book, the plot is much more intriguing than the first book, from its rebellious beginning to its cliffhanger ending. The addition of new characters is welcome, with Finnick (Sam Claflin) and Beetee (Jeffrey Wright) both putting on captivating performances. Stanley Tucci, who reprises his role as the over-the-top, perfectly cheesy host of the Hunger Games interviews, steals several scenes, as well. Despite being played by America's sweetheart, Jennifer Lawrence, Katniss re-establishes herself as the whiny, overly-dependent, two-timing lovebird that she is in the books, and often comes off as irritating and unlikable. (In the film, even Haymitch comments, "You are a strangely dislikable person.") As far as special effects are concerned, the Games portion of the movie stands out, beautifully transitioning from widescreen to full-screen (using IMAX cameras) as Katniss is raised into the arena. From CGI monkeys and nasty-looking boils to force fields and spaceships, the final hour of the movie is pretty action-packed and full speed ahead. The Blu-ray disc also provides around two hours of behind-the-scenes featurettes, which are good for people like the Salt Lake DVD Examiner who are actually curious about those types of things.

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The Verdict:

"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" is a notch better than its predecessor in practically every aspect. It's not that the first film was bad, but the second installment is just better and more enjoyable. The violence is less brutal than the first, but it definitely deserves its PG-13 rating and probably isn't great to watch with young, impressionable children.. However, for more mature audiences, it's an exciting ride that builds a lot of momentum going into the two-part "Mockingjay" finale, which will hit theaters in 2014 and 2015. If you're a fan of the books or if you enjoyed the first "Hunger Games" movie, "Catching Fire" is a show you'll want to check out.

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Similar movies: "The Hunger Games" (2012), "Ender's Game" (2013), "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1" (2010)

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Blu-ray bonus features:

- Audio in English, Spanish, English Descriptive Audio

- Subtitles in English, Spanish

- A sneak peek at the upcoming movie, "Divergent"

- Optional audio commentary with director Francis Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson

- "Surviving the Game: Making The Hunger Games: Catching Fire": Eight featurettes documenting aspects of the film-making process. Topics include the story, special effects, casting, make-up and hair, stunts and weapons, and on-location production in Atlanta and Hawaii. Over two hours of bonus footage, if you have the time. Features cast and crew members with all of the major stars from the film, including the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman.

- Several deleted scenes, including some that are less than 30 seconds long and virtually pointless.

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Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Studio: Lionsgate Films

Running time: 146 minutes

MPAA rating: PG-13 for "intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation, and language," including violence by and against women, two censored uses of the F-word (as if they were bleeped in a TV broadcast, uses for laughs), and heavy subject matter surrounding death and murder.

Costars Donald Sutherland, Sam Claflin, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Jeffrey Wright

Blu-ray release date: March 7, 2014

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