‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’ – entertaining, energized middle movie

By Eleanor Ringel Cater 

This “Hunger Games” sequel takes a while to, well, catch fire.

But as Shakespeare said, the past is prologue, and director Francis Lawrence, to his credit, is concerned that no one feels left out, even if they didn’t see the first movie.

So there is a lot of early exposition artfully woven into events that lead up to a kind of Survivors All-Star, by which President Snow (Donald Sutherland) hopes to rid himself of the troublesome Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, now a bonafide Oscar winner).

She and co-winner Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are forced to fake their way through a tour as the games newest winners (and adorable romantic couple…not). But Katniss just won’t get with the program and her presence in the different Districts of Panem portends what the government fears most: revolution.

Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks are all back in their respective roles as booze-hound former winner, smarmy TV emcee and cupie-doll-ish true believer (she’s the perfect audience for “Dancing with the Stars” and its ilk).  

Newcomers include Philip Seymour Hoffman as the new Master of Games and Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer (Christopher’s daughter) as past winners now obliged to risk their lives all over again.

Admittedly, “Catching Fire” can’t recreate the freshness of the first movie (especially for us who haven’t read the books). That said, it’s still a hugely entertaining movie, especially for one of those middle-movies that have to keep the franchise energized without delivering its own slam-bang ending.

Fortunately, the entire cast seems energized, oozing spunk, heroism, stupidity or malice, depending on what’s needed. Lawrence is even better here than in the original. Even her make-up is better (well, more memorable). As designed by Lenny Kravitz’s fashion guru (in the film), her eyes are just like Elizabeth Taylor’s in “Cleopatra.”

If you’re wondering how Atlanta — where much of the movie was shot — fares, well, I did recognize the Goat Farm and an immensely CGI’d Swan House.

But don’t worry about that.  Just go have yourself a helluva time. They are.

Here are a few DVD suggestions if you’d like to see other work by…

Donald Sutherland

Impersonating a general in “The Dirty Dozen,” he inspects the troops and says to an officer, “Colonel, very pretty.  But can they fight?”

His breakthrough role was as Hawkeye Pierce in Robert Altman’s movie, “M*A*S*H.” It’s the role Alan Alda took over and owned for the TV series. Sutherland then played the titular detective in “Klute,” opposite Jane Fonda as a hooker in trouble.

However, one of my favorites is a gonzo farce/spoof, “Start the Revolution Without Me,” in which he and Gene Wilder play two sets of twins (it’s complicated; they were switched at birth…) fighting on different sides during the French Revolution. It’s also worth checking out for a late-era Orson Welles, massive and stentorian.

Woody Harrelson

He got his start in “Cheers,” then crossed over to a successful and wildly eclectic movie career. He’s played everything from a “Natural Born Killer” in Oliver Stone’s movie to porn-king, Larry Flynt in “The People vs. Larry Flynt” (opposite Courtney Love).

Two of my favorite Harrelson performances are as a wild-eyed G.I. in David Mamet’s savvy and cynical “Wag the Dog,” and one of the few human survivors on the run from zombies in “Zombieland” (shot — where else, but in the home of “The Walking Dead?” — in Atlanta).

Stanley Tucci

Because he tends to play supporting roles, Tucci’s filmography is huge. Want proof?  He’s in five movies released this year.

That means there are a zillion performances from which to choose.  I liked him lots in both “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Margin Call” (it barely got a release, but anyone interested in bid’ness must see this; it’s about a meltdown at a brokerage firm).

However, let me steer you to a rare star turn. In “Big Night,” he and Tony Shalhoub (yep, “Monk” himself) play brothers, Italian brothers who open a small, elegantly authentic restaurant in early ‘50s New Jersey.

The chef (Shalhoub) is a culinary genius, an artist who refuses to sell out to his customers’ idea of Italian, i.e., checkered tablecloths and spaghetti.  Tucci is the businessman of the pair, who admires his sibling’s work, but worries his perfectionism will mean bankruptcy.

The title refers to a make-it-or-break-it evening when they could turn things around if Big Band celeb, Louis Prima, likes their place.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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