It's really this simple: Jennifer Lawrence was meant to play Katniss Everdeen. It seems silly to say because it's as obvious as the makeup on Effie Trinket's face.
I can write about the marvelous direction of "Hunger Games" newcomer Francis Lawrence, or Jo Willems' gorgeous cinematography, the design and scope of Panem and Katniss' home, District 12. But it's Lawrence's face - full of antipathy, distrust, pain and love - that pulls you in and never lets go.
In "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), as victors of the most recent Hunger Games, are about to embark on the traditional victor's tour of the districts, but before they step on the train, Katniss is visited by Panem's dictator, President Snow (Donald Sutherland). As we saw at the end of "The Hunger Games," Katniss' insolence has begun to inspire the masses. In a delicious exchange, Snow - keenly aware that Katniss and Peeta were faking their romantic relationship - acknowledges that Katniss has become a beacon of hope for the people but admonishes her to become a better actor, or deal with the death of her family, and likely District 12.
Our heroine decides it will be best for everyone if she sticks to the script, visits the districts and acts as though she loves Peeta. That plan quickly comes apart during their first stop: District 11, the home of Katniss' dead friends Rue and Thresh, who saved her life in "The Hunger Games." This is Lawrence at her best, connecting with the audience in a moving scene during which she meets the people of District 11, and Rue and Thresh's families. Her heartfelt words inspire an elderly man to thrust his arm in the air and whistle, mimicking Katniss' famous Mockingjay signal. It incites a riot.
Katniss can't help but be the inspiration she is, and there's not much Snow can do about it: if he has her killed, it would surely lead to a further uprising. Enter Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Plutarch Heavensbee, the new Gamemaker. Heavensbee and Snow decided that the 75th anniversary of the Hunger Games will be unlike any games they've had. This time, they'll reap (select) the tributes from the living pool of past Hunger Games victors, forcing Katniss back into the arena, and quite possibly Peeta, too. The plan, of course, is that they don't survive.
Stanley Tucci, who returns as Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman, is even more enjoyable than he was in the first film. The same goes for everything about "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" - which is saying a lot, given how high the first film set the bar. Director Lawrence's vision of this dystopian world is more consuming, too, making it easy to get lost in this two-hour, 26-minute wave of emotion that you just don't want to end. This is that rare instance when the movie is better than the book, and the second movie is better than the first.
Four-and-a-half out of five stars.