Weekly Reviews: “Catching Fire” and “Special Topics in Calamity Physics”

This week I’m taking a look at one of the hottest blockbusters of the winter and the debut novel of Marisha Pessl. Both of them captured much of my imagination and attention over the last week.

Catching Fire

I touched upon Catching Fire a bit in last week’s news post and was able to see the movie twice, first on Thursday and then in 4K on Sunday. And I didn’t mind seeing it twice at all, as the second time around I was able to focus on tiny details such as the height difference between leads Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson and the attempts of the director to hide it.

The movie itself did not disappoint (otherwise I wouldn’t have watched it twice). It stays very true to the book with some understandable omissions. The cast, headlined by Ms. Lawrence, is fantastic and extremely well cast. Woody Harrelson, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Donald Sutherland have remarkable screen presence, while Elizabeth Banks and Lenny Kravitz shine in their roles as members of “Team Katniss”. The other tributes, especially Sam Claflin and Jena Malone, portray two of the most beloved characters, Finnick Odair and Johanna Mason, very much in line with the novel.

A big reason for the faithful adaptation is the inclusion of author Suzanne Collins as an executive producer. Director Francis Lawrence does a great job in the pacing of the movie. He gives important scenes in the build-up to the 75th Hunger Games enough time to develop and breathe. However, when the actions picks up in the second part of the film, it is gripping, frightening and dangerous.

The third novel, “Mockingjay”, will be split in two motion pictures (as seems to be normal now) with the first part arriving next November. If it reaches the quality of “Catching Fire”, the wait will be well worth it. Definitely catch the movie in cinemas if you’re able to.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

First off, Marisha Pessl is extremely talented. I adored her second book “Night Film” (mentioned in this post). We will be discussing it with the Uncanny Bookclub this Sunday at 5pm, so if you’ve read the book and are in the region of Zurich, feel free to stop by the Cabarat Voltaire!

The protagonist of “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” is Harvard undergrad Blue Van Meer, who starts to recount the events of her senior year in High School. After moving around a lot with her intellectual, Swiss-born father Gareth Van Meer, they settle in Stockton, North Carolina. In the little town, Blue, who lost her mother as a young child, catches the eye of the extravagant teacher Hannah Schneider. Blue is invited into a group of students, who meet with Hannah once a week and seem to adore her. But not everything with Ms. Schneider is as it seems. When she dies, inexplicably hanged, Blue tries to find out how and why it happened.

The book is not as accessible as it would seem and it takes a while to get used to the millions of references and footnotes Ms. Pessl includes in the novel. Readers and Movie buffs will find obscure references to movies and books long forgotten. Some of them are real and some are fictional.

Blue is a likeable, but ultimately very self-centered character with an interesting and annoying father. However, I found the intellectualism of her father to be tiring at times.Ms. Schneider and her group of students (Jade, Leulah, Milton, Nigel and Charles) are far more intriguing. Finding out their story drives the book forward until the death of mysterious Ms. Schneider. From there, the book focuses more on Blue and picks up its pace considerably, which I enjoyed a lot.

I had troubles getting into the book, due to the constant references and the difficulty to grasp the ideas of Blue’s strange father. But with every page I read, the more I got entranced with the story. The book is very gripping and very well put together. The highlight for me was how well it all unfolds in the end, which I’m not going to spoil here.

I believe her second book is more polished, but I can only recommend “Special Topics in Calamity Physics”, because it’s combines thriller and coming-of-age elements into a gripping story that manages to be both funny and sad.

These are my two reviews for the week. With December coming up next week, it’s time for my best of lists, starting with my favorite books of 2013 next Wednesday! My story “An Elusive Hero” returns on Friday with chapter 25. So if you’ve liked my writing so far, please like, share and subscribe!

Sincerely yours,
Albert

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Why Coming-of-Age Movies are the Best

On Monday, I saw “The Way, Way Back” at the Zurich Film Festival. The well-made and entertaining movie reminded me once again of why the genre of “Coming-of-Age” movies is my favorite.

According to the ever reliable Wikipedia, the term “Coming of Age” can refer to a young person’s transition from childhood to adulthood. This places the main protagonists of these movies in the age bracket between 15 and 25. In today’s post I’d like to highlight some of my favorite movies in the genre and show why I love this particular group of films.

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Zurich Film Festival Preview

This Monday is a big day for two reasons. Firstly, the new university semester has started and that means I’m back in school until around Christmas. The campus is full of wide-eyed first-year students clutching their cellphones nervously looking for the right rooms and trying to get a grip of our widespread university. Also, the beginning of the new semester is always similar to New Year’s Day as the gym was much fuller than during the holidays with many students trying to follow their resolutions for the school year. But my adventures at my university (I only had one class today) are not what I want to talk about today.

Instead I want to focus on the next event bringing glamour to the city I live in: The ninth Zurich International Film Festival running from September 26 to October 6. If you’re planning on catching a glimpse of Hollywood and other world-class filmmaking in Switzerland, you should definitely head over to the official website to find out which movies are playing and how to get tickets for them. What can you expect?

Photo source: Official Zurich Film Festival Press photos.

Photo: Official ZFF Festival Press Photos

Unfortunately, I’m not an expert on foreign and independent films, so I can only talk about the films I’ve either heard about or I’m going to try to catch during the two-week festival. But first, the logistics: The movies will be screened in various cinemas throughout the city, with the Corso at the Bellevue and the cinemas at the Sihl City taking prominent roles. Movies are split into various sections: International Feature Film, International Documentary Film, German Language Feature Film as well as Documentary Film Germany/Austria/Switzerland, Gala Premieres and Special Screenings. Finishing off the line-up are Brazilian movies, movies for kids and screenings of past classics.

Among the ten competitors for the International Feature Film category, the only film I’m familiar with is the drama “Fruitvale Station” whose main actor Michael B. Jordan received brilliant reviews in the American Press. The movies follows a fateful day in the life of 22-year old Oscar, whose resolutions to make himself a better man coincide with a homicide in Oakland’s Fruitvale Station. But reading through the descriptions, there are other films that seem interesting to me. “Parkland” follows the aftermath of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy exactly 50 years ago and features an impressive cast including Jacki Weaver, Paul Giamatti, Billy Bob Thornton and former Disney superstar Zac Efron. “Puppy Love” is a French movie about a shy teenage girl who finds an unlikely friend and might make my already extensive list of great coming-of-age movies even longer. “Traumland” on the other hand is a multicultural drama set in Zurich itself surrounding the 18-year old Mia, a Bulgarian prostitute trying to make ends meet in one of the most expensive cities on the planet. This year’s competition will be very intriguing and with some of the stars and directors making an appearance at the festival, you should have a look now.

The Gala Premieres feature all almost all of the movies I’ve been desperately waiting for. If you’ve followed my Twitter feed (which you should!), you would have seen how I’ve been longing for these movies to come to Switzerland all summer long. The most prominent movie is probably “Don Jon”, the first movie written and directed by Hollywood A-Lister Joseph Gordon-Levitt and starring him with Scarlett Johansson as the female lead. The comedy about a young man finding the one while battling this porn addiction is intriguing to say the least. “The Way, Way back” has some high profile actors such as Steve Carell billed, but it is a sweet coming-of-age story similar to the vein of “Adventureland” starring Jesse Eisenberg and pre-Twilight Kristen Stewart. Instead of the theme park, the location is the local swimming pool.

The Spectacular Now movie poster Photo: IMDB

The Spectacular Now movie poster
Photo: IMDB

But the movie I’m most excited about is “The Spectacular Now”. The movie is (what else?) a coming-of-age story about high school golden boy Sutter trying to get his life on track after being dumped by his girlfriend and with graduation looming. It is written by the immensely talented Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter, the creative minds behind the wonderful romantic comedy”500 days of summer” (starring the aforementioned Joseph Gordon-Levitt) Both of them are also responsible for the screenplay of one of my favorite books “The Fault in Our Stars“, so naturally I’m eager to follow all of their work. Reviews for “The Spectacular Now” have been, well, spectacular with the movie having a 91% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

But maybe I’m the only one really excited about those movies. For everyone else, there are some higher profile movies showing for the first time in Switzerland. “Diana” attempts to portray the life of the iconic British princess (and according to reviews fails). “Gravity”, the new Alfonso Cuaron picture, impressed with some breathtaking trailers from outer space and features George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. Other movies featuring prominent Academy Award Winners include “The Immigrant” (Marion Cotillard), “Liberace” (Michael Douglas, Matt Damon) and “The Railway Man” (Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman).

Hugh Jackman Photo: Official ZFF Press Photos

Hugh Jackman
Photo: Official ZFF Press Photos

A special mention also goes out to “Prisoners” starring Hugh Jackman. The actor best known for his portrayal of Wolverine is the biggest name at the festival and will be in Zurich on September 28 to receive the Golden Icon Award for this year. He is sure to draw a big crowd, but if you’re lucky and show up early enough, you might catch a glimpse of one of Hollywood’s most charismatic stars. The Career Achievement Award goes to producers from the British Working Title Films, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, responsible for films such as Notting Hill, The Big Lebowski, Les Miserables or Rush (premiering at the ZFF).

I hope I was able to give you a short preview of the festival. If you want to know more about the films in general, head over to their website and check it out for a more comprehensive overview! Let me know if you have any other recommendations for me!

As always, please like, share and subscribe!

Sincerely yours,
Albert

The Joy of going to the Cinema

I’ve written in-depth blog posts about books and video games a few times in this spot, so it’s time to take a look at the next fantastic form of entertainment: Movies and more specifically, watching them in a cinema. Summer is a weird time for movie fans. On the one hand, Hollywood normally goes all-in and releases their summer blockbusters with gigantic marketing budgets and a whole lot of name recognition. On the other hand, the weather outside is so beautiful that sitting in a dark room staring at an admittedly large screen doesn’t seem so attractive. With clouds making their first appearance in Switzerland after two weeks of clear sky, my friends and I took the opportunity to watch the heist movie “Now You See Me”.

I’m glad to say the quality of the movie experience in Switzerland has improved in the last few years, with ticket prices becoming slightly more affordable. Watching the well thought out illusions and tricks the magicians / bank robbers pulled off in the film on the big screen, made think about my appreciation of seeing movies at the cinema. The atmosphere of the surroundings is an important part of how I perceive and rate a movie after seeing it.

Star Wars – Episode 1 in 3D didn’t suddenly turn JarJar Binks into a less annoying character, but the big screen brought Anakin’s race to a whole new level compared to watching it on TV. With the special effects becoming more spectacular and complex with every passing year, movie theaters still are the best stages for movies to work their magic. The spectacular superhero movies, some of which I loved (Avengers, Iron Man, Batman by Nolan) and some of which I found rather poor (Man of Steel, Toby Maguire’s Spiderman), are still best viewed in the darkness of movie theaters including their bombastic sound environments.

Of course, it is not only the technical advantage which make going to the cinema one of my favorite pastimes. The habit of getting friends together, ready to see what kind of story the director and writers have planned out and how the actors will bring their characters to life, already gives the build-up to the movie a sense of excitement and wonder. And then, as soon as I’m sitting in my comfortable (depending on the theater) seat, the ad and previews commence. The trailers are one of the most important part of my cinema experience. They get me into the right mind set and show me a glimpse of what’s yet to come. It also signals the time to turn off your cellphone, making the cinema one of the only places nowadays where people actually are disconnected for 90 – 120 minutes. After the movie ends, it continues with discussions about the movie, especially if it was either spectacular or spectacularly bad and looking up actors and actresses on IMDB, making the movie stick with me for longer. I still remember the worst movie I saw in the cinema, while I couldn’t say which one was the worst I’ve seen on TV.

Unfortunately, living in a small country with a tiny movie market also means some of the smaller independent movies don’t make it here. Mostly this concerns coming-of-age movies or dramedys, which are loved by critics at Sundance. However, these films also transfer best to the small screen and are not the movies most of my friends enjoy. So I guess I can just wait for the DVD or iTunes release. Four of the top five movies I’m most looking forward to this year belong in this category: Don Jon, Joseph Gorden-Levitts directional debut; Short Term 12, with the stunning Brie Larson as the lead; The Way Way Back and The Spectacular Now, two coming-of-age films capturing the imagery I enjoy so much best. The only blockbuster I’m still waiting to come out is Thor 2, which will hopefully add another entertaining milestone to the Avengers movie universe.

How about you? Do you prefer watching movies at home or at the movies? Which movies are looking forward to? Let me know in the comments and don’t forget to like, subscribe and share!

Sincerely yours,
Albert