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"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" 3stars

Once again, the makers of "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" do right by the lovers of the books, who fueled sales of 50 million copies of Suzanne Collins' trilogy and made the first movie a global sensation.

This sequel returns moviegoers to the ruins of North America in what is now called Panem, with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) back in District 12 but haunted by her actions during the Hunger Games.

To save her little sister's life, she volunteered for the diabolical contest in which tweens and teens had to kill or be killed. She also had to exaggerate the depth of her affection for fellow tribute and neighbor Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) in order to survive and triumph.

Now, unrest is in the air at every turn for Katniss. Her relationship with best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) hasn't been the same since the games, and President Snow (a leonine Donald Sutherland) blames her for sowing seeds of defiance and threatens the lives of those she holds dear. When she and Peeta embark, with heavy hearts, on the customary Victors Tour, it's obvious that rebellion is brewing and being met with violence.

Snow tells new head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) that Katniss has become a beacon of hope and, therefore, must be eliminated. In the end, Katniss will be forced to return to the arena in a savage version of an all-star competition,

"Catching Fire," directed by Francis Lawrence ("Constantine," "I Am Legend," "Water for Elephants"), is bigger but less thrilling and darker than its predecessor, and it ends with a figurative "To be continued."

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language.

Extras include commentary and deleted scenes. Also, on Blu-ray: a nine-part, feature-length "Surviving the Game" making-of documentary.

It comes out Friday.

-- Post-Gazette

"12 Years A Slave"  4stars

Solomon Northup's story is not only harrowing but also true.

Northup (portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor) is living as a free black man in 1841 Saratoga, N.Y., with his wife and children when he is lured to Washington, D.C., under false pretenses.

He is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery, waking up in the darkness of a slave pen to the sound and shock of the ponderous chains shackling his legs and arms. He has no written proof of his identity, no allies, no power and no way to defend himself when he is denounced as a Georgia runaway and beaten with such force that the wood splits against his back.

When he finds himself with slaves being transported by boat to New Orleans, he is warned to tell no one he can read and write unless he wants to die.

"12 Years" follows Northup from one plantation and owner to another, with the most notable the cruel and callous Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). He believes the Bible gives him permission to whip his slaves, he shows no mercy for those who cannot pick enough cotton to satisfy him and he lusts after a young woman, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), who can pick 500 pounds of cotton a day and whose very existence coldly enrages Epps' spiteful wife (Sarah Paulson).

Northup tries to counsel others, conceal his education, and weigh any possibility of escape or avenue to freedom, but he faces punishment and peril at every turn.

British-born director Steve McQueen spares the moviegoer nothing, from the hangings to the mistress to the sight and sounds of a slave whipped with such fury that blood and flesh fly from her back.

John Ridley wrote the screenplay based on Northup's landmark memoir also called "Twelve Years a Slave." This is not "Django Unchained." This is not "Lee Daniels' The Butler" despite a large cast that also includes Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Adepero Oduye, Paul Giamatti, Garret Dillahunt, Scoot McNairy and Alfre Woodard. "12 Years" may be the toughest movie of the year to watch, no matter your ethnicity.

Rated R for violence, cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality.

DVD extras are two making-of featurettes, "The Team" (McQueen and his creative partners) and "The Score" (with composer Hans Zimmer). Also, on Blu-ray, "A Historical Portrait" documentary about how the film was conceived and the book that inspired it, featuring readings by Mr. Ejiofor.

-- Post-Gazette

"Hours"

Paul Walker, in one of his last films, portrays a frantic new father in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In his quiet, workmanlike way, he creates a stirring portrait of paternal devotion. When the New Orleans hospital staff and all other patients are evacuated, Nolan Hayes (Walker) struggles to keep his newborn daughter alive after he is left alone to tend to her malfunctioning ventilator. The baby's mother (Genesis Rodriguez), who has died in childbirth, appears in flashbacks and as a ghostly apparition. Nolan also rushes around the abandoned building looking for medical supplies, growing increasingly desperate as time passes.

As it does, Walker's performance -- along with the film -- gets more and more engrossing.

Rated PG-13 for brief violence, drug abuse, mild sensuality, some crude language and mature thematic material.

Extras include Safran's "All I Feel Is You" music video and a public-service appeal for Walker's charity, Reach Out World Wide, with footage of relief efforts in Chile and Haiti (after earthquakes), Alabama (tornado) and the Philippines (typhoon).

-- Washington Post

ALSO THIS WEEK: 

 "Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor": Threat to the universe brings multiple Doctors together.

"Breaking Amish: Season 1": Amish experience the outside world.

"The Last Days on Mars": Liev Schreiber stars in this tale of what explorers to the red planet find.

"The Agony and The Ecstasy": Charlton Heston film is now on Blu-ray.

"Comet Encounter": Documentary on comet that hurtled toward the sun in 2013.

"Cold Comes the Night": Crime drama starring Brian Cranston.

"Noah and the Great Ark": Three documentaries examine the legend.

"Teen Titans Go!: Mission To Misbehave, Season 1, Part 1": Exploits of Robin, Cyborg, Starfire, Raven and Beast Boy.

"NOVA: Alien Planets Revealed": A look at more than 750 planets.

"Super Bowl XLVIII Champions Seattle Seahawks": Recap and interviews.

"Ms. 45": The 1981 release is a cult favorite.

"Rawhide: The Seventh Season, Volume One and Volume Two": Both volumes feature 15 hours of digitally remastered episodes.

"Nature: The Funkiest Monkeys": Crested black macaque.

"The Venture Bros. Season Five": Animated series starring the Venture family.

"Bloodlust: Wealthy hunter meets his new prey when two couples dock their boat on his private island.

-- Rick Bentley, The Fresno Bee


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