Catching Fire soars by taking The Hunger Games to a deeper, darker level, says People's critic

By Alynda Wheat
Updated November 22, 2013 12:30 PM
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Jennifer Lawrence returns in the phenomenal Catching Fire, but that’s not the weekend’s only terrific offering, says PEOPLE’s critic.

From The Hunger Games to Philomena, here’s what to see and what to skip at the movies.

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Hope, as it happens, is contagious. So is rage. With their glorious win over 22 other contestants in the annual televised child murder known as The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) inspired their countrymen with their made-for-TV love. They also unwittingly lit a fuse of rebellion that begins to grow in this deeper, darker sequel that plays better on the screen than it often did in the pages of Suzanne Collins’s second entry in the trilogy.

Before the revolution gets anywhere close to being televised, though, President Snow (Donald Sutherland, as wily as ever) tries to stifle it by using the shell-shocked teens for political theater. First, he sends them on a dog-and-pony show through Panem’s districts, then throws them back in the Games arena with past victors for a 75th anniversary Quarter Quell. (And why not? It’s tough to stage a revolution when all of its symbols are dead.) While the details of who kills whom, and how, are intriguing, Catching Fire succeeds by deepening its already complex relationships and alliances.

Even as Katniss struggles with her feelings for longtime friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and the new ones for Peeta, Catching Fire never devolves into Team Guy A or Team Guy B silliness. Her ambivalence is meant more as a commentary on youth, loyalty and how time and experience change who we are and what we need.

That same ambiguity informs her relationships with new characters, like new Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who joins Katniss in condemning the excesses of the Capitol as they dance at a party, but turns around and devises a punishingly lethal Games arena in which she’s all but certain to die. Or Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), a gorgeous victor who seeks an alliance with our District 12 heroes, but warns Katniss that what he really deals in are secrets. And then there’s Johanna Mason, played with delicious verve by Jena Malone. She’s probably the most lethal victor, and Lord knows whose side she’s on.

The higher stakes and new players mean more money on the screen, and it shows. Games host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) glows a bit oranger, while escort Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) pirouettes about in butterfly dresses and gold hair, both actors delighting in the ridiculousness of their Capitol personas. The effects are also better, with more of the Capitol on display. Even the victors’ train, ferrying them through the districts looks cooler, somehow. Enjoy all this opulence and splendor now, the filmmakers seem to be saying. Because when the revolution does come, it’s all going up in flames.

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Judi Dench and Steve Coogan are funny, engaging and deeply affecting in this true-life British tale about a woman searching for the son taken from her 50 years earlier. As a young unmarried mother, Philomena (Dench) was sent to a Magdalene laundry, a convent where “wayward” girls toiled ceaselessly, many of whom had their children adopted against their will. As an adult, she teams with journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) to find her boy, a journey that will be as fraught as it is funny, taking them halfway around the world. I know, it’s an incredibly packed marquee at the movie theater right now, with tons of great options. But I promise, you will not regret making room for Philomena.

And If You’re in a Generous Mood, See This

Delivery Man
Vince Vaughn returns in his most subdued role yet as David Wozniak, a meat delivery man who’s about to be a dad – more than 500 times over. Not only is David’s sometime girlfriend, Emma (Cobie Smulders), pregnant, dozens of the 533 kids he fathered through a sperm bank have filed a lawsuit to unmask him. Best friend Brett (Chris Pratt) is on hand to provide legal advice, but David can’t help checking up on the kids and trying to make their lives better. Granted, Delivery Man (a remake of the French-Canadian film Starbuck) dwells in the land of schmaltz, but it does so with such decent intentions and an open heart, that you can’t help but let a chuckle or two escape.