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

Miscellaneous News about Gaming, TV and Movies

Today’s post will touch upon some of the news in the entertainment industry that have excited me in the last few days and weeks.

We’ll start off with the important gaming news:

Warlords of Draenor announced

My favorite MMORPG, World of Warcraft, just announced its next expansion: Warlords of Draenor. Without wanting to spoil too much, the story will feature an element of time travel and bring back some of the most interesting characters of the Warcraft Universe, with arcs going back to Warcraft 2 being revisited and maybe altered forever. Added to the new story and the new continent to be discovered, there will be modernized character models and a raised level cap. I’m looking forward to the new expansion, because Blizzard has an excellent track record of adapting its games and it has breathed new life into the almost 10-year old MMO.

Next Gen is here… well almost

The Next Generation consoles have launched in North America and will soon be spreading to Europe and also Switzerland. I have no plans on getting a new console for the moment because they’re still extremely expensive and bound to be plagued by bugs at the start. Also, the set of games are not yet that appealing to me. It will be interesting to see how many of the multimedia function the XBox One offers in the US will make it over the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, I’m doubtful that any of it will make its way into European living rooms until late 2014. The Playstation 4 is cheaper and as an owner of its predecessor, I might give a shot as soon as the first PS4-only hits have come out.

Doctor Who Anniversary

This Saturday, BBC is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its cult show “Doctor Who” with the day of the doctor, a special episode featuring some very interesting special guests. While I have only seen one season of the Doctor, the series is an integral part of today’s pop culture and has influenced so many shows and books out there. Being on air for 50 years (with one or the other break) is a major accomplishment and will be rightfully celebrated. It runs on BBC One and BBC One HD at 20:50 CET

Catching Fire

Also happening this week is the Switzerland release of the second Hunger Games movie: Catching Fire. I missed the hype the first time around, but after reading the book over the summer (my review), I’m excited this time around. The stunning Jennifer Lawrence will reprise her role as Katniss Everdeen and is joined by an all-star cast including (but not limited to) one of my teenage favorites in Jena Malone (Donnie Darko), Academy Award Winner Philip Seymour Hoffman and Woody Harrelson. I hope the movies lives up to its role models.

There are other interesting movies set to be released in the next week, with the new Woody Allen movie “Blue Jasmine” opening in Switzerland tomorrow as well. “The Hobbit – Desolation of Smaug” is only three weeks away as well. Winter is a great time for the movies, even though the summer blockbuster season is more important for the studios.

Don Jon

And to end the post, a short recap of Joseph Gordon-Levitts wonderfully funny movie, Don Jon. I saw the movie a week ago after waiting for it for much of the calendar year and it didn’t disappoint. Being a big fan of its writer, director and star, I walked in with high expectations. Don Jon is a movie about a New Jersey playboy with a porn addiction, who falls for a perfect 10 (played by Scarlett Johannson). Of course, his problem doesn’t sit well with the dream girl. Mr. Gordon-Levitt delivers an unpredictable story with wonderful shots, interesting characters and funny dialogue. Scarlett Johannson looks amazing and plays an amazingly superficial character, while Tony Danza and Brie Larson shine as members of Don Jon’s family. The appearance of Julianne Moore leads the movie on the right track to its fitting ending. All in all, the movie is definitely among my favorites this year.

Okay, that’s it from me for the week. Back this Friday with the overdue 24th chapter of “An Elusive Hero”. Have a great Wednesday and please like, share and subscribe!

Sincerely yours,
Albert

The Hunger Games Trilogy

In the week before the new semester started, I took my time to devour as many books as possible, knowing I wouldn’t have that much time with school duties looming on the horizon. After putting off seeing the movie until I read the book, it was finally time for me to jump on the Hunger Games hype train and see what it’s all about. I read all three books over the weekend and I wasn’t disappointed at all. It is a fantastic, breathtaking trilogy.

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In the first book, North America has been turned into a state with an all-controlling and tyrannical Capitol with twelve districts surrounding it. In a bloody civil war, the thirteenth district was obliterated and the twelve districts forced to cater to the wishes of the capital city. As a punishment, every district is forced to send a boy and a girl to participate in “Hunger Games”, a winner-takes-it-all killing competition for the entertainment of the ruling class. In the poor mining District 12, 16-year old Katniss Everdeen, the narrator of the story, volunteers in place of her younger sister. The teenager is a rebellious, troubled, headstrong and intelligent girl with a terrific will to live. She leaves the closed-off district to hunt with her best friend, Gale. Chosen as a tribute with her is the baker’s son Peeta, who has harbored a lifelong crush on Katniss. The first part of the book does very well in establishing the world and the character and relationships of the teenage girl. It then takes off when the two arrive in the Capitol and the games actually begin. You’ll have to read the books or watch the movie to find out what exactly happens next. The first movie was released a year ago and Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence will reprise her iconic role as Katniss this November in “Catching Fire”.

I don’t want to spoil any of the events in books two or three, so I’ll instead talk about some of the points I really enjoyed about the trilogy. The supporting characters were very diverse and interesting.  At first it is very hard to gauge (for Katniss and the reader) if the characters are trustworthy or not. But each of them has their own interesting ways and is fascinating to read about. Personally, in the first book I loved Cinna, the stylist during the Games and Haymitch, Katniss’ and Peeta’s mentor. In the second and third book, Finnick and Boggs were personalities who enriched the story in many ways.

Ms Collins attempts to show many issues in her book and it carries a strong anti-war message. She shows how the oppressed can turn into oppressors as soon as the table turns. The books also are a very extreme version of how reality TV could look in the future. Regular viewers will notice scenes resembling the scripted scenes of today.

Of course, a central in the books is the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale, which has led to much discussion among the young (female) fans of the series. I must say I very much enjoyed the portrayal of her conundrum, even though I felt it got a touch repetitive in the second book. I personally liked the resolution of the triangle in the third book, but it did feel a bit rushed.

All in all, the Hunger Games Trilogy is a fantastic series and should be read by any fan of Young Adult Fiction, dystopian and fantasy novels, as it is imaginative, fast-paced and suspenseful. After Chaos Walking, it’s the second-best trilogy I read this year.

What do you think about the Hunger Games? Have you read and enjoyed the books or movies? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter!

Sincerely yours,
Albert