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'Catching Fire' burns brightly

There's a very simple formula to how drama works. In Act I, you introduce the characters and the problem. In Act II, the problem grows and envelops the characters -- stifling any chance of victory. Then, in Act III, the good guys usually win.

That basic outline is the structure almost all stories follow. My personal favorite is Act II. When things get darkest, you get to see who the characters really are or what they can really do.

When it comes to trilogies, I find that I almost always like the second movie the most. "The Empire Strikes Back," "The Two Towers" and "The Dark Knight" are my favorite installments of their respective franchises. Reassuringly, "Catching Fire" is shaping up to be part of that mighty company.

Before writing this article, I reread my review of the first "Hunger Games" movie, and I'm inclined to think I was a little generous. I liked "The Hunger Games," but I was far from awed.

My biggest problem was the distance between the main characters and the overtones of the world at large. By virtue of its place as an Act II story and its cinematic execution, "Catching Fire" tells a more tightly woven tale.

"Catching Fire" not only made me believe in the world I was seeing, but it also made that world grand in scale and intimate in heart.

The story of Batman fighting gangs of thugs while single-handedly saving Gotham is ultimately secondary to the story of an emotionally broken Bruce Wayne turning his inner demons on the society that spawned them. Similarly, "Catching Fire" succeeds where "The Hunger Games" failed in that the heart of the story is a young girl finding herself the unwilling symbol of a revolution instead of a kid being thrown into a ring with a bow and a love triangle.

"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" should be a crowd pleaser any way you slice it. While it's certainly not a varsity member of the "Empire Strikes Back"/"Two Towers"/"Dark Knight" team, it can very comfortably play first string on the junior varsity team.

5 of 6 stars

James Gerstner works at Fort Hays State University Foundation. james.gerstner@gmail.com