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‘Hunger Games’ second installment a home run

Movie: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire; Director: Francis Lawrence; Studio: Lionsgate Films; Rating: PG-13; My finding: 4 out of 5 stars.

There’s something different going on here.

The second installment of “The Hunger Games” saga, “Catching Fire,” has taken the series to new heights and has shown that Hollywood is capable of making something more out of a franchise that is supposedly for children.

That is, if a story defined in the most basic way as children murdering children in an arena for the amusement of the elite in a two-class nation named Panem can be said to be a children’s tale.

I’ll admit that I read all three books in the series over the course of a single weekend in early 2012 and enjoyed them thoroughly. Sure, there were problems that kept the books from being great literature, but in the end they were just so much fun and sparked my imagination.

And, in ways, this second installment, adapted by Michael Arndt and Simon Beaufoy from Suzanne Collins’ novel, is much truer to the source material as I remember it than the first film was. This is darker, much more urgent, and painted in gray light when the cameras seek out the common folk in the Districts.

There are 12 distinct districts in Panem. Katniss Everdeen is from District 12, which, if one reads the books, is obviously based in the Appalachian region encompassing the U.S. state of West Virginia. It’s a downtrodden and extremely poor district, perhaps challenged only by District 11, a farming district obviously set in the American south.

And, as Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence is perfect. She has settled into the role well and the second installment, which adds a bit of existential crisis to the mix that is much more important than the physical violence, adds a depth I wasn’t expecting in a film adaptation.

The crisis is that, as always, the rich Capitol (probably in the ruins of Denver or that area) has lied once again to the Districts. This year is the 75th year of The Hunger Games, or the third “quarter-quell,” an event every 25 years to keep the games fresh in excitement and purpose for each new generation.

In the second quarter-quell – the one that Haymitch Abernathy (an unbelievably good Woody Harrelson) won – there were four tributes from each of the districts, doubling the usual event. But this time the districts’ “tributes” will be reaped only from previous victors.

And, as District 7’s female tribute, Johanna Mason (Jena Malone) points out, profanely, the whole point of surviving the games in the first place is that you would never have to go back. Malone, like almost everyone else in secondary roles in this film, is outstanding and creates a particularly memorable introduction scene.

But back they go, for there is unrest in the nation. The Capitol, long comforted by great excess and no discomfort, is now threatened by the fact that Katniss has instilled hope in the population in the districts that they can do better, that they can fight back and gain basic humanity.

President Snow (Donald Sutherland), though, has different ideas.

When an old man in District 11 raises a three-finger salute in solidarity with Katniss and in memory of their fallen tributes, including the very sweet and young Rue from the first film, the “Peacemakers,” or cops with only a sense of punishment, grab him from the audience and shoot him, execution-style, in front of everyone.

Cue Plutarch Heavensby, played dryly by Philip Seymour Hoffman to contrast poetically with the excess of his garish Capitol peers, who has different ideas about how to quell rebellion. They have to ruin Katniss’ image and then, just maybe, once her fire has gone out, the people will kill her themselves.

Overall I couldn’t have been more pleased with this

second installment. The set is gorgeous and the Districts feel well-populated and pulsing with life. This is a dystopian film that will open a child’s imagination and may even instill a true sense of freedom in them. But there is more than enough to make even the most cynical adult enjoy their time.

The cast is outstanding and the attention paid to detail is nearly overwhelming as there is so much to look at and take in. But, perhaps the filmmakers knew this because sometimes it feels like it drags in its own splendor. But just as soon as you notice a drag, it’s back on again and you’re drawn into a fully realized world.

(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. His movie reviews appear in Thursday’s Arts &?Entertainment section.)