First off, the casting was really pretty spot on. Everyone returning from the first movie was lovely, of course (with some real growth shown by Elizabeth Banks's fantastic portrayal of Effie Trinket, and Willow Shields as Prim has really come into her own in a way that illuminates her character in her brief few moments on screen), but it was the new additions to book two that really delighted. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the mysterious ambiguity of new head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee with his trademark simplicity and believability. Sam Claflin is great as the cocky and deceptively complex Finnick Odair, bringing the character right out of the pages. I admit I was skeptical about Jena Malone as Joanna Mason, but was pleasantly surprised by her haughty, sharp-edged performance. And Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer are perfect as Beetee and Wiress - quirky and quick and just who they were supposed to be. And I fell immediately in love with Lynn Cohen's sweet portrayal of Finnick's mentor Mags.
Director Francis Lawrence and writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt do a great job of structuring the narrative of the film. Building slowly at first, the pace fits Katniss's experience as the reality of her situation slowly dawns on her. But once the games begin (and really, this begins well before they enter the arena), the sensation of gathering momentum feels dangerous - as if we're tumbling with the characters down a precipice, and neither they nor we have any control over what happens next. I've read the books - a few times - and knew what was coming from moment to moment, but I still found myself holding my breath or shedding a tear or wanting to yell or cheer or stomp my feet. The stakes are high, the story well told, and there is a palpable loyalty to the viewers who were also readers of the books first. All in all, I think they did an excellent job, and I will wait impatiently for the next installment (I reserve judgment on whether or not I think splitting the third book into two movies will prove to be a good idea).
Oh - but the animation of the mockingjay that concludes the film was downright cheesy, and completely took the air out of an otherwise powerful and entertaining afternoon.