How many fingers can you see?

How many fingers can you see?

Far better than the unwatchable Twilight saga and more substantial than Harry Potter (deal with it), The Hunger Games is the canned cat food of YA literature. Thanks to the success of the first film, the sequel –Catching Fire– has twice the budget, two Oscar winners in the cast and enough freedom to tackle the least savory aspects of the book.

We reencounter Katniss Everdeen (the reliable Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (a surprisingly solid Josh Hutcherson) back in District 12. Their triumph has translated into more comfortable accommodations, but also a number of unpleasant responsibilities, like spreading President Snow’s propaganda.

They do a pretty terrible job: By the end of their victory tour, most districts are threatening to rise against the regime. Katniss is now a symbol of rebellion. In a desperate attempt to rein back the defiant population, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and new game master Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman) concoct an all-stars version of the Hunger Games to get rid of Katniss, Peeta and all the tributes, too iconic for their own good.

Much like its predecessor, Catching Fire it’s at its best portraying a dystopian society in which twelve impoverished regions work for the benefit of a central authority. The film is particularly subversive by pointing at television as the medium of choice to keep the population stunned (this is a Hollywood product, self-criticism is unusual). The games themselves are still the weakest link, but this time around they make sense. The threats are real, far cry from the crappy CGI dogs from last time.

The responsible for the massive improvement over the first movie is helmer Francis Lawrence. The director of forgettable flicks like Constantine and Water for Elephants is a perfect match for Suzanne Collins’ saga, as he approaches the material in workman-like fashion (he doesn’t have a style of his own). Granted, Lawrence had the assistance of two of the most expensive screenwriters today at work: Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3).

The story itself has a few holes: I fail to see the reason why everybody seems willing to sacrifice their lives for Peeta, a very bland character. At some point it just becomes laughable. Also, for a dictator as dastardly as Snow, some of his ideas to gain the hearts and minds of the population are pretty terrible. And the least said of his vetting process, the better.

The acting is uniformly solid, including new additions Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jena Malone. Unlike everyone else, Hoffman rocks a pretty standard haircut. There are limits to selling out, it seems. Three and a half Flatus Caninus.