Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

I will preface this post with a disclaimer: I am a huge fan of The Hunger Games trilogy. I was introduced to the series back in 2010, a bit before the trilogy concluded with the third novel, Mockingjay, and a while before the first film went into production. I love how strong and flawed Katniss is, the themes of sacrifice and love, the political and social commentary-drenched plot, and of course, Team Peeta. Like so many others, I was thrilled when Lionsgate announced its plans to adapt the series, and was even more ecstatic at the fact that they did a great job with the first film.

But I have been waiting a very long time for its sequel to make it to the big screen. Catching Fire was always my favourite book in the trilogy, mainly because of how author Suzanne Collins twisted the plot to (spoiler alert) take the reader back into the games, but also because of Katniss’ character development and the intensity of the developing rebellion. To me, it had all of the elements to make a great film.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire will finally be out in theatres across North America this Friday, November 22nd, with a few advance screenings taking place tonight, but I was lucky enough to get the chance to watch the film during its Canadian premiere at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto this past Tuesday (scroll ahead to see a small gallery of photos from the premiere), courtesy of eOne Films. Now that I have seen it, I can  confirm that those elements that made Catching Fire so good translated well onto the big screen, even making the film better than its predecessor, and should please both fans of the books and the movies.

Warning: Light spoilers ahead, heavy spoilers where indicated. Skip ahead to the bottom for a condensed, spoiler-free summary of my thoughts.

On a hunt for a mini version of this poster.

On a hunt for a mini version of this poster.

The Plot
Catching Fire finds Katniss and Peeta back in District 12, endowed with a new, wealthier lifestyle but suffering with the memories of the games. As champions they are required to embark on a “Victory Tour”, a series of visits and celebrations to every district in Panem to acknowledge the sacrifices their representatives made during The Hunger Games. Katniss witnesses the beginnings of a rebellion over the course of the tour, the consequences of which fall on her shoulders to bear, and the Capitol to control. In order to maintain his hold on Panem, President Snow prepares the 75th annual Hunger Games, a tournament that will change the fate of Panem forever.

What I Loved
One of the most important sticking points for any fan of a book being adapted into a film is how well it is actually adapted. YA book adaptations specifically tend to fail to string together plot points in a way that makes sense for viewers who are not familiar with the source material. Academy Award-winning screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, with the assistance of author Suzanne Collins, impressively strike a balance between respecting the source material in their screenplay and developing a story that is fluid and cohesive without isolating audience members.

Part of the reason why the first film was so successful was because of how appealing and accessible the plot was to people who had not read the books. Beaufoy, Arndt, and Collins replicate this achievement and in many ways improve the efforts made in the first film because they figured out ways to include more plot points from the book without dragging the story down by the details. For example, they inserted a number of scenes between President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymor-Hoffman) to explain the justification for certain actions, ideas which were only guessed by Katniss in the books. These types of moves are necessary when you do not have the same narrative voice guiding you like you do in the book.

It helps that they have a stellar cast that can guide the audience through the story as well. While they all did a good job in the first film, there is a significant improvement in all their performances, partially due to scripting, but also because of the subtleties in their physical performances. I really enjoyed the fact that in some way or another, both major and minor characters demonstrated some understanding that things have really changed since Katniss and Peeta’s defiant berry act at the end of the first movie, impressing the weight of these consequences onto the audience. You particularly felt them when you watched Effie Trinket painfully walk across the reaping stage or reaching out to Katniss and Peeta, allowing actress Elizabeth Banks to add more depth to the character whose role is otherwise restricted to one of comic-relief.

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It’s also worth noting what a difference it makes when an actor really becomes comfortable with the character they are playing. This is the case with Josh Hutcherson’s portrayal of Peeta Mellark. In the first film I thought Peeta was just…meh. I found some of his “romantic” gestures to be a little cringe-worthy at times and I didn’t feel as if there was much about the character to care about (like I did while reading the books.) This time around, however, Hutcherson managed to bring a maturity and a strength to Peeta which made you feel more invested in the character. His chemistry with Jennifer Lawrence has improved tremendously as well, and I found myself rooting for the pair more than I did during the first movie.

On the note of Ms.Lawrence, you can expect the same level of quality in her performance. That’s a good thing, because she really has Katniss down. She does get a chance to play around with a wider range of emotions this time, and pretty much nails it. I found that any growth in her performance is primarily attributed to her physicality. There is this one great scene between her and Sam Claflin (a newcomer to the cast who plays fan favourite Finnick Odair) in the jungle where you can literally read Katniss’ uncertainty and distrust just by Jennifer simply cocking her head to the side. It’s through this and other similar movements that Lawrence really increases the brevity and complexity of Katniss as a character. Although J.Law absolutely shines in her scenes with Claflin, who sets up Odair as an extremely attractive but also very layered, traumatized character, and though she fares well with Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch, it’s nice to see her go up against Jena Malone in many scenes. Malone’s take on the cheeky, confident, and often gutsy Johanna Mason serves up a worthy female lead companion to Lawrence’s Katniss, and is a great addition to the cast.

Of course, none of this means anything without me explaining what a difference director Francis Lawrence makes by being on this film, replacing The Hunger Games director Gary Ross. Gone are the days of shaky cameras, replaced with steady wide and medium angle shots that capture the precise physical movements of the various characters, particularly in the **SPOILER ALERT** new arena with a group of experienced, lethal Hunger Games participants whose actions deserve to be shown off in such a way **END SPOILER ALERT**. Furthermore, Francis Lawrence, whose previous credits include Constantine and I Am Legend, nailed the CGI for the sci-fi laden jungle concept, one which I was particularly excited to see executed on the big screen. I was happy to see that he was not afraid to jump into the plot, themes, and characterization found in Catching Fire immediately, and also tied these elements to keep the narrative consistently clear. I am very much looking forward to Mockingjay Part I and II simply because of his grasp on well-paced plots and continuity, but I also think he has the chops to handle the action that Mockingjay brings with it.

What I Didn’t Love
With so much praise, it’s hard to imagine that I would have any criticism for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, but there were a few things that bothered me a bit while I was watching the film. While the characters do deliver several indications of potential impending doom, thereby demonstrating the impact of the games we experienced in the first film, I wish there was more time spent on the actual emotional trauma that Katniss and Peeta experience from the Games themselves. Yes, we know that they carry the consequences of their actions, but we don’t really get to see much of them going through the psychological effects, save for a few moments in the first half hour. If they spent more time on this, I think the audience would have experienced a different set of reasons demonstrating why the system in Panem is so flawed.

You may notice that I keep mentioning Katniss and Peeta throughout this review, but nothing about Gale (Liam Hemsworth.) That’s because once again, Gale is nowhere to be found for a great deal of the movie. While I think the entire production team really honed in the plot and only put across what was absolutely necessary to maintain the momentum of the story, they also accidentally push the audience towards Peeta and Katniss rather than giving the other angle in this love story much support at all. Although Gale’s presence in the film is critical to portraying some of the political and socioeconomic undertones to the plot, it would have been great to see more characterization, and probably would justify all of the promotion for the love triangle in this series.

The same goes for Haymitch, who has a very interesting background discussed in the books but fades back into the mentor role very quickly in this film. I understand that, besides continuity, focusing on one character’s story rather than several others is more marketable, but it would have been nice for the audience to gather more insight into his character so that he wouldn’t be so easily cast aside. Woody Harrelson, despite that awful wig of his, is so accurate in his portrayal of Haymitch, and I wish he could get more to demonstrate his range.

Finally, I just don’t understand how you can go two films that prominently feature a mockingjay image without explaining what a mockingjay actually is in The Hunger Games world. They just keep skipping over it and use the symbol strictly based on aesthetic appearance. It won’t complicate matters completely if there is no explanation, but it would add another layer to the symbol, and probably increase its importance.

I am obsessed with the costume and make-up work in this film.

I am obsessed with the costume and make-up work in this film.

Little Detail Nitpicking (Good and Bad) (BIG SPOILER ALERT)
The Good: The grey, blue and white film filtering during the Victory Tour is absolutely gorgeous work. I also really appreciated that these colours translated into Jennifer Lawrence’s costumes. Did I mention that I loved the costume and make-up work in Catching Fire? So much so that after seeing the film I just kept reading many, many articles on it. I know I did not discuss this in depth, but I wanted to mention that Philip Seymor-Hoffman is an excellent addition to the cast. I am really looking forward to his role expanding in the last two films.

The So-So: A common piece of criticism that I’ve read online is that there is not enough of the arena in the movie. On one hand I agree, because I think a lot of people expect that everything this story expresses sort of culminates in the brutal conditions of the arena. This arena in particular has such a cool concept, very much worthy of more screen time. On the other hand, the length of time spent in the arena is very true to the book. I reread most of Catching Fire before seeing the film, only to rediscover that the Quarter Quell is only the last third of the book. I was really surprised by this because I remembered it being much longer, but it wasn’t.

The Bad: Introducing the pregnancy plot point without ever bringing it up again is pretty silly. Mentioning District 13 just a two or three times is also silly, given it’s importance in the future.

In Conclusion

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire falls into the rarely used category of sequels being better than its predecessor. The action is bigger, the plot is fast-paced but well-developed, and the actors really drive their characters to new places which increases the audience’s investment in the story. Although there are some elements that are really underplayed and, if enhanced, could have emphasized certain plot points better, I think that this film is cohesive, has a straight forward narrative, and sets up the plot and action in the final two films very well.

PS: I am still obsessed with Coldplay’s Atlas and Sia, The Weeknd, and Diplo’s collaboration on “Elastic Heart“, both of which are from the Catching Fire OST. So great.

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Take n’ Bake: Low Carb/Gluten Free Banana Bread

I’ve got this thing against fruit-filled products. Think of, say, yogurt with fruit pieces, jams, cobblers and pies – yes, sorry to say, but even apple pie falls into this category. I know, it’s weird, and it’s even more weird when I try to explain the rational behind my distaste for them. I think it largely has to do with the texture of softened fruit, but I’m still trying to figure it out.

For a long time banana bread was on this list, up until a few years ago when my taste buds started to mature a little bit. I am still not a huge fan of many of the items I listed above, but I’m trying to break out, experience new things, etc. That’s what your 20s are for, right?

Besides, when life gives you ripened bananas, you better make some banana bread.
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I used this coconut flour-based banana bread recipe from Comfy Belly. This site has tons of great recipes for paleo/low carb/gluten free fans. I was really happy that unlike most coconut flour recipes, using honey/maple syrup was not an absolute necessity. In fact, I avoided adding any sweetener at all.

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I added 3/4 teaspoon of cinnamon. I also added walnuts into the mix, but I think I overestimated how much was required in proportion to the actual size of the loaf. It was somewhere between a half cup to a three quarter cup of crushed walnuts, making the bread pretttyyyyy nutty. Yikes!

I think this is the first time since I’ve started baking with coconut flour where the batter did not seize up but actually maintained a more liquid consistency. Unfortunately the amount of batter that I had was not enough for the loaf pan I was using, resulting in a very short loaf.

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That being said, this loaf came out pretty great!  The bread was moist and light, and goes great with a nice cup of coffee. It could have been a little bit sweeter. When I had tasted the mashed bananas I thought that they were sweet enough and relied on their flavour instead of adding any sweetener. I suppose it’s always a bit of a gamble, but I would rather it be less than overly sweet. Next time I may double the batter for a thicker loaf. I would also consider adding a few chocolate chips for an added layer of enjoyment.

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Give this recipe a shot this weekend and let me know if you like it as much as I do. Happy Friday!

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Take n’ Bake: Low Carb/Gluten Free Chocolate Coconut Walnut Cookies

I usually plan ahead when I want to bake. I am not really one of those people who just randomly whips up something, mainly because I do not usually have the ingredients on hand like a lot of baking aficionados out there. I am also a far cry from a baking genius who can just throw something together and end up with a creative baked good that is actually edible.

But, like most rules, there are always exceptions. Over the past few days I had an inner cookie monster dying to come out for noms. Last night I decided to finally satisfy the cravings, especially since I already had most of the ingredients that tend to go into cookie recipes in my pantry cupboard because of last week’s venture into donut territory. I just needed the right coconut flour recipe to tie them all together.

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I used this Coconut Flour Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe from Emma’s Baking Addiction. The only substitute that I made was erythritol for the sugar, but I also added more coconut flakes and roughly a quarter cup of crushed walnuts into the batter.

The original recipe yields about twenty cookies; mine yielded seventeen in total. Based on the images Emma posted on her blog, the cookies should look more flat and buttery, but because my batter was so thick, my cookies turned out to be denser and larger than hers. It was a little challenging to pack the batter together as mine was a little crumbly, but I managed to get fairly rounded shapes onto the baking pan.

I loved these cookies. They may not be the prettiest, but they taste hella good. They were chewy, moist and just sweet enough for my preferences. The only real issue that I had was that my ratio of walnuts to chocolate chips to coconut flakes was a bit off. Next time I will add more walnuts for a crunchier texture. Other than that, I highly recommend this recipe for a quick fix, and will keep it on hand for future baking sessions.

Take n’ Bake: Low Carb/Gluten Free Donuts

Like many other Canadians, I love my Tim Hortons.  My memories of my childhood are filled with plenty of trips to the coffee shop chain for a cup of hot chocolate on a Saturday afternoon and sharing boxes of timbits with my classmates. In high school it was a good go-to for hanging out and it became a beacon of hope during many late nights studying while I was away at university. And though I’ve gone through my phases of loving their cookies, cinnamon buns and coffees, the ultimate treat has always been their donuts.

These days I’ve been opting for a simple plain donut instead of anything glazed, cream-filled, or sprinkled when I visit Tim’s, but those too are extremely addictive. Since I already had a giant 2kg bag of coconut flour sitting in my pantry ($8 from Costco, a total steal), I thought I would fulfill my cravings by making a batch of donuts at home. Although the end product just did not compare to any Tim Hortons donut, it was still fairly enjoyable.

Coconut flour is pretty temperamental. It absorbs liquid fast so it needs a lot of moisture, and many coconut flour recipes depend on eggs and honey to do the job. These ingredients tend to be problematic for me. A lot of the time the finished good tastes too eggy and given the fact that my mother is diabetic, I can’t use honey as it may have an adverse effect on her blood sugar levels. This was also the case in the donut recipe I used, which required a few tweaks.

Instead of six eggs, I used five and made up for the needed moisture with a half cup of unsweetened almond milk. In place of the honey, I used a half cup of erythritol. Unfortunately the coconut flour still absorbed the liquid very quickly, making the batter less fluid and much, much more thicker, similar to cookie batter. I had to pack in the batter by hand instead of just spooning it in.

Since this is the first time I have ever made donuts, I thought I would make three different types. I made plain, cinnamon sugar, and chocolate chip donuts, and was pretty happy with the end result of all three of them. While the texture of the donuts were quite dense and more on the dry side, the flavour was great. The plain donuts were a little more on the savoury than sweet side, but the addition of the cinnamon-erythritol mixture and 71% cocoa chocolate chips in the other donuts were just the ticket to making them a real treat. I wasn’t sure if my mom would enjoy them since she is just as addicted to Timmy’s plain donuts as I am, but I was really happy to see her snacking on them in the days that followed.

Next time, I’m going to try using sugar-free maple syrup to see how the thick consistency of the ingredient affects both the texture and taste of the donuts. I’m also really keen on adding cocoa powder and making a double chocolate donut.

Review: Dallas Buyers Club

I recently had the opportunity to check out an early screening of Dallas Buyers Club, which is out today across North America. I had heard of the film right before this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where it received its world premiere. I unfortunately did not get a chance to take in a screening of it at the festival, but I was very excited to hear all of the positive feedback and reviews it received and looked forward to its wide release. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner and Jared Leto and directed by Canadian Jean-Marc Valée, Dallas Buyers Club is a film you need to see, if not for its intriguing story then definitely for its outstanding performances.

Based on a true story, Dallas Buyers Club centers around Ron Woodroof, a promiscuous, homophobic Dallas cowboy who is diagnosed with HIV in the 1980s. He is initially prescribed a treatment of AZT, a drug used to treat cancer patients but begins to be promoted as a treatment of HIV/AIDS, despite being barely tried on patients with the illness. After a near-death experience due to AZT, Ron seeks alternative medicinal treatments from across the world to extend his life. When his [illegal] self-medication works, he turns his processes into a full-out business, selling memberships in exchange for treatment, to help others afflicted by HIV/AIDS, fighting the FDA and pharmaceutical companies along the way.

Matthew McConaughey’s portrayal of Ron Woodroof is quite startling, both physically and characteristically. McConaughey lost 47lbs for the role, leaving him with a sunken face and a fragile frame, a stark contrast to the chiseled features and muscular body we are so used to seeing in his romantic comedies. Pair this with the rude, insulting, non-stop cussing tendencies of Woodroof, and it takes a really long time to get used to and even try to like McConaughey in this role. He’s a jerk for more than half the film.

DALLAS-BUYERS-CLUBBut as the story progresses and as he starts to impart change on a community, you begin to find this version of McConaughey endearing because he is daring and unapologetic for his methodology. Helping him develop his character arch is Rayon, a transgendered drug addict who also has AIDS, played by 30 Seconds to Mars’ frontman Jared Leto. When Rayon and Ron first meet, Ron is not exactly a gentleman. He shudders at being touched by a transgendered individual and spits out all sorts of derogatory language. They eventually form a partnership over the Dallas Buyers Club. Over the course of the film they develop this kinship which is initially rooted in the business, but grows to be this willingness to understand and accept one another as is, which really is the ticket to any change that we see their characters go through.

It’s Leto’s first film role in six years, but he really knocks it out of the park and almost makes you wish he’d give up music for an acting career. He too lost around 40lbs for the role, and according to this interview, completely embodied the character throughout filming. His persistence translates well on screen, making Rayon much more than a “sidekick” character, but actually the individual that humanizes Ron. I will be shocked if Leto does not make it to the final round of Supporting Actor nominations at the Academy Awards.

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While I do agree with the critics in saying that McConnaughey does a tremendous job in his role as Woodroof, I think he has a lot of competition coming up in this year’s Oscar race and would not be surprised if he is not nominated. That being said, I think this is certainly a turning point in his career and will give him a whole lot more credibility than being just a pretty boy (though, to be fair, I have only seen him in roles post-Wedding Planner, so it is entirely possible that he had an acting golden era much earlier on).

I love that movies like these expose me to movements that I was never aware of to begin with. Apparently buyers clubs became popular in the 1980s around the United States and it’s definitely a topic I am interested to learn more about. Furthermore, these types of tales really remind you about the power of an individual and the command they have for autonomy, especially within a highly criticized system that many argue do not benefit the people who operate within it. This is highlighted at one point in the film where Woodroof asks why the government gets to decide how he can treat his own body. I’m sure many viewers will leave the theatre pondering this idea.

Dallas Buyers Club also brings up the issue of the role of the corporation in government, as pharmaceutical companies are known to have a certain influence given their lucrative profit margins and role in the economy.  Jennifer Garner sort of works as our moral compass in this respect of the plot, and although she does a fine job at it, her performance pales in comparison to her male costars. That being said, she’s always possessed this sort of gentleness to her expressions while executing a fierceness in her movements and delivery, which is the case once more in this film, particularly in one boardroom scene which had the audience cheering and giggling away.

I suppose my only issue with this film is that the story felt a little inconclusive, but maybe that is because I am used to film adaptations of these types of stories ending in a neat package. As we all know, that rarely happens in life, but we can still enjoy the ride.