CONTAINS SOME MAJOR SPOILERS
I really wasn't a huge fan of the first Hunger Games: a combination of sappy teen romance, children trying to murder each other, badly shot combat sequences, tacky TV shows, wonderfully absurd production design and some stuff about the rich/poor divide. But the central ideas had too many holes and it wasn't particularly well done, so it's a thrill to report than the first sequel is a massive improvement that feels as though it is heading somewhere far more interesting. It's not perfect, sure: for one thing it's far too long at 146 minutes (the first one was 142), and the Hunger Games themselves are actually the least interesting scenes in the film, though they're far better shot this time around.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire kicks off with Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), joint winners of last year's Games, forced by President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to continuing their fake relationship for the benefit of the cameras, as a colourful distraction from the grinding poverty and violence outside the Capitol. Of course, it's purely a ruse, to discredit Katniss' stature as a reluctant, even unknowing symbol of the growing rebellion against the fascistic State. But it's not enough and the new Games Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman) conceives a special Champion Of Champions edition of the Games, in which Katniss and Peeta are not up against randomly selected kids from impoverished villages but previous victors....
Catching Fire is way better than the original: it doesn't have that underlying problem of children killing children, it dispenses with Peeta's rather impractical special skill of laboriously painting himself into the background, and the combat and action sequences are much more impressive, as they don't have that cheap smeary video look to them any more. The film's best scenes, though, are the ones highlighting the appalling chasm between the Capitol's pampered, empty Elite and the Districts' miserable peasants toiling in the mines and scrabbling for food. Not just because of the insane costumes and hair that the likes of Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks have to wear (though it's a lot of visual fun) but details such as the free emetics handed out at the lavish banquets so that guests can continue eating. Set against the poverty and bleak, cold despair of District 12, it's hardly surprising that revolution is in the offing. It's not that "it can't be a very good system if it can be threatened by a handful of berries" (the poisonous Nightlock berries from the climax to the first film), it's that a system that is threatened by a handful of berries doesn't deserve to survive.
As with all serial adaptations these days, the last book is being chopped into two so they can milk more cash out of it, so the saga isn't going to finish for another two years. I'm actually getting a little annoyed at this habit of needlessly extending these things: they did it with Harry Potter, they did it with Twilight. According to the Wikipedia pages, Mockingjay is actually a page shorter than Catching Fire so why it needs to be twice as long on film is anyone's guess (except for the studio accountants; they know why it needs to be twice as long). In the meantime, Catching Fire is fine, particularly in the Capitol scenes and anything with Donald Sutherland. Well worth seeing.