Catching Fire is a sequel that is as good as its predecessor. Although this time directed by Francis Lawrence instead of Gary Ross, the only telling difference of a change in style is the camerawork. Gone is the hectic hand-held running-through-the-jungle-and-not-getting-a-glimpse-of-what-is-around-them cinematography and in its place is a more streamlined look that most blockbusters seem to share. Not that there was anything wrong with the first film's visual style (I didn't find it as disorienting as others), but with the scope of the story getting bigger it seems we are now being treated to wide frames full of layers of action instead of jarring close-ups.
Story-wise, Catching Fire is a typical middle chapter. The story moves forward and as someone who is only vaguely familiar with the books, I'm quite impressed at the number of moving pieces that the narrative features. Ultimately, the plot remains with its lead character, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). Not to say the other actors (in particular Josh Hutcherson's great understated performance as Peeta) feel underused, but the film follows Katniss and every so often we are treated to the interior workings of the other characters she comes across. Lawrence carries her part with a sense of haunted responsibility that Katniss feels towards her people and she's proven with her past couple of roles that she can carry a movie as naturally as any other popular lead performer that graces widely released films.
Actors whose performances from the first film I enjoyed have returned such as Donald Sutherland and Woody Harrelson while new characters played by actors such as the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, and Sam Claflin emerge and as a newer fan of this material, I'm incredibly impressed with what quirks the actors show off in their roles.
Still, it feels (like some lesser middle chapters of sagas) that the film is holding back because the eventual finale is coming. Katniss and Peeta's burgeoning relationship is put on hold for the sake of this year's new Hunger Games competition and even in the other supporting parts, there feels as if no new dimensions are added to the lives of these characters. Although I'm impressed by the narrative's scope, nothing all that shocking happens with the end result of the plot feeling sustained. I'm fascinated by how this series is exploring our pop-culture anxieties (reality television, feminism, etc.), but this film feels a little too much like a placeholder. At least it's a highly entertaining one.