vrijdag 20 maart 2015

My last year's favorite reads & sees - part 2 (movies)

So, part 2 of my 2014 favorites list...it's time for the movies! Did you miss part 1, with the books? No worries, you can read it back here :)


My favorite type of movies these days seem to be thrillers with a touch of mystery and suspense. I don’t really need a big amount of action and all that, a well-thought storyline and some interesting, unexpected plot twists will do to keep me gripped. 

The best movie I saw last year in this specific category was definitely 'Gone Girl', although the fact that our viewing of this movie was also our first visit to the awesome Cinema Paradiso (Wanaka) might have helped a little bit…their couches are só comfy, and the homemade cookies (warm out of the oven during the break!) só delicious, it would even make watching bad movies still a good experience.

In Gone Girl, Nick Dunne’s wife goes missing on their wedding anniversary. Amy Dunne (quite excellently played by Rossamund Pike, who manages to give her character something very unsettling and mysterious) seems like the perfect wife at first sight, but as the story unfolds, some dirty little secrets are uncovered about both Amy as well as Nick, who ends up being suspected of murdering his wife.

You’ll be put on the wrong track multiple times while watching this movie, until you start doubting even your own judgment. I think this is exactly what made it so enjoyable for me. I believe the way the movie ends evoked quite some online discussions, but that fact alone probably speaks for itself: it’s undoubtedly interesting.

One thing I’ve been wondering about: would reading the book still be any good, now I’ve already seen its movie adaptation? Usually I like it the other way around (first the book, then the movie), but since I liked Gone Girl so much, it might be worth giving a try? Let me know if you have read it: recommended, or not?

Oh, two other noteworthy movies of the same category I saw in 2014 were 'Prisoners (2013)' and 'The Keeper of Lost Causes (2013)'If you happen to know any similar titles not yet mentioned, I hereby command you to leave a comment ;)

'La Migliore Offerta' (or ‘The Best Offer’) was probably the movie with the most original storyline I saw in 2014. I guess it could fall into the category ‘drama’, ‘romance’ and ‘mystery’…but even Mark (who deeply hates romantic drama’s) really enjoyed this one. It’s just…different. It stuck with me afterwards for quite a while actually! It’s just one of those stories that are told very subtly and elegantly, with an ending that leaves you a bit speechless, and an after-effect that’s unusually strong.

La Migliore Offerta tells the story of Virgil Oldman, an intelligent, quite eccentric and successful art auctioneer. He is contacted by a woman named Claire, the heiress of an impressive art collection that she wants auctioned. Virgil quickly finds out that Claire is not quite like his usual clients: she suffers from extreme agoraphobia and doesn’t even want to be seen by Virgil. They communicate by telephone, and through the door of the chamber she locks herself in, in the stunningly beautiful old manor she inherited as well. This all makes Virgil’s job quite complicated, but he can’t help but find himself slowly becoming more intrigued by this mysterious young woman, as well as in the curious parts of some kind of ‘automata’ he keeps finding throughout her house.

I’m not gonna give away any more of the story, you should just go watch for yourself how this psychological drama unfolds. Enjoy the beautiful cinematography, all the works of art and the excellent capturing of a very suspenseful atmosphere. Very original and highly recommended!

Les Femmes du 6e Étage (2010)

This is the only movie on this list that I didn’t watch together with Mark. He might have actually found it okay…but I guess it will be the most ‘women-aimed’ movie of the list (which doesn’t mean you should skip it if you’re a man, it’s just a heartwarming little movie without much action or stuff like that going on).

In ‘Les Femmes du 6ème Étage’ (or 'The Women on the 6th Floor’), stockbroker Jean Louis Joubert leads a successful, but kinda boring existence in the early French 1960’s. He’s married to the snobby, stiff Suzanne, and together they got 2 (quite spoilt and annoying) sons, who are at boarding school. In the period this story takes place in, it became more and more common for French upper class families to employ Spanish housemaids, who immigrated to France in search of a better life. 

The Joubert family forms no exception on this new habit, and we see the Spanish Maria arriving as their latest help. Maria is quite something…wearing her heart on her sleeves, not letting anyone run over her even though she’s just a ‘maid’, and - of course - being a real Spanish beauty. It doesn’t take long before the bored Jean Louis becomes intrigued by this passionate woman, and they develop some kind of friendship.

The house Jean Louis lives in forms one floor of a large building he owns. Another one of its floors is completely occupied by all the housemaids of the neighborhood - a lively community of vivid Spanish women, supporting each other in trying to survive a foreign culture and its not always easy conditions for immigrant maids. Maria introduces Jean Louis to this new world, one he previously was completely unaware of. He is astounded by some of the circumstances the women have to live under, but also by the passion with which they tackle their problems and approach life in general.

The friendship between Maria and Jean Louis slowly expands itself to the other housemaids as well, until ‘Monsieur Joubert’ becomes a kind of hero among them…resulting in some quite hilarious situations (I mean, really? An upper class French stockbroker and a bunch of passionate, giggling senoritas?!). You’re probably already guessing the direction the story will take, but it never becomes too sugary sweet. I also really like the historic impression it gives of that specific period, in that specific place, with two different cultures becoming entangled. Quite interesting! I’d recommend this lovely little movie as the perfect watch on a rainy Sunday afternoon…maybe when the boyfriend or hubby has other stuff to do ;)

Indie Game: The Movie (2012)

In the category of documentaries, 'Indie Game' stands out as my definite favorite of 2014. I love watching documentaries with Mark, we're both interested in a broad range of topics. Docu's are not for evenings though, we usually end up watching them in the morning, after having a sleep-in on Saturday or Sunday. I truly love these lazy mornings, spent in bed with many cups of coffee and something interesting to watch :)

In 'Indie Game', a couple of independent game developers are followed during their process of developing a new game. In contrast to big gaming companies, where a whole team - supported by a huge budget - works on a game, indie developers usually work on their own or sometimes with just one partner, dedicating (literally!) all their time and often sparse funds on a project they heartily believe in.

The games are very personal pieces of work (they definitely deserve to be called a form of art), often carrying some kind of emotional message; an idea or story the developer wants to convey. In some cases, you could even regard it as an attempt to communicate...something the average indie game developer (at least the  ones portrayed in this documentary) doesn't seem to be very good at in the 'real' world. And that's exactly what makes this movie so heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. You will find yourself cheering these guys on almost aloud, nearing the release date of their brainchild, barely able to handle all the pressure that comes with it. And then the tears will fill your eyes when they achieved huge success, but aren't able to enjoy it because the audience likes the game for the wrong reasons, they didn't grasp the underlying idea, and communication failed...once again.

Even if you're not into games, this documentary portrays such a fascinating and insightful picture of a very talented (but also very vulnerable) group of people, you're bound to finish watching it with a smile and a tear :)

I have this strong feeling that all the movies of The Hunger Games series will end up appearing in my annual favorite lists. The third one's no exception in any case!

I understand that the decision to split the third book's ('Mockingjay') screen adaptation up in two movies received quite some critique, but I certainly didn't find the first part of it boring or slow. I love how close it stays to the book, and that there's a bit more space now for the characters and different layers to be worked out (as opposed to one movie filled with action and highlights following each other up in great speed). What I also found especially interesting about Mockingjay part 1, is how it shows the behind-the-scene propaganda during war; it gives an impression of how a fascist system could possibly work.

I love Jennifer Lawrence as an actress, I just thinks she does a great job as Katniss. I recently saw her in another movie ('Silver Linings Playbook' (2012), nice one by the way!), and was very impressed by how she managed to play a more mature (and kinda disturbed) personality, she pulled it off effortlessly! Lots have been said and written about the Hunger Games series already, it’s not like my little review will add much…so I’ll keep this one short. The cliffhanger at the ending keeps me anxiously waiting for the grand finale; the second half of the last book was my favorite part of the whole series! (Anyone else who thinks that the apocalyptic surroundings of Katniss' (and her team's) final mission in the Capitol form a fantastic opportunity for some kind of video game?)

Alright, that's 5 movies! Now I have a problem...because I kinda want to mention 2 more movies that I found really good, too good not to tell you about them. But the plan was to make up a list of 15 items: 5 books, 5 movies and 5 series! Oh well... I will probably never be able to write short blog posts anyway, so here we go ;)

I don’t think Wes Anderson's movies will ever be criticized of having standard plots (although, what can I say…I only watched this one and Moonrise Kingdom, so pardon me if I make a big generalization here!). Don’t pick one of his productions if you’re in the mood for a good ol’ action thriller or something like that….however, if you’re up for something very unique and eye-pleasing: give it a go!

So, a not-so-standard plot, what does that mean? The storyline, following the curious adventures of Gustav H. (concierge of the legendary Grand Budapest Hotel), and his friend and protégé Zero (the Lobby Boy) is at times quite bizarre, to put it mildly. Full of strange moments, dark humor, brilliantly weird conversations and completely unexpected plot twists, this story might leave you behind a bit flabbergasted. In a good way though!

Take the setting of the story, for example: the (imaginary) former East European 'Republic of Zubrowka'. A setting that Anderson manages to bring to life with his magical cinematographic touch.  All his trademark elements are present: bright colors, a magnificent eye for detail and perfection (literally every little detail in the dreamy world Anderson created here is perfect, you have to watch it multiple times to fully appreciate it!), the peculiar use of symmetry, quirky one-liners and oh, the nostalgia... This is the very definition of eye-candy!

When one of the regular female guests of the Hotel (whom Gustav serves in évery need...) dies and Zero and Gustav are invited for the reading of her will, they find out that she left Gustav a very valuable painting: 'Boy with Apple'. The woman's son is not particularly happy with this arrangement, leaving Gustav and his friend no choice but to steal the painting, setting off a series of events that will take the viewer on a visual rollercoaster only Anderson can present you with. A work of art, in the truest sense of the word, really!

Housebound (2014)

I couldn't resist putting this one on the list as well, because, well...it's a New Zealand production! And let me tell you, the resourceful Kiwi's seem to be knowing a thing or two about making a good movie. Just because it's not a Hollywood production and therefore probably got a lot less attention, doesn't mean that this über cool horror-comedy isn't worth watching.

Yes, horror-comedy. That sounds like a weird combination, doesn't it? I for one wasn't too sure about what to expect...it seemed impossible to pull off such kind of thing without giving in something on the horror part, or (or worse: ánd!) the comedy part. And then when both elements don't really succeed, the movie would just be sloppy, you know? But, I have to admit: 'Housebound' is really a creepily scary ánd funny movie! I would like to add 'heartwarming' to that as well :)

In 'Housebound' we see Kylie Bucknell returning to her childhood home, where she's put on home detention by the court. Kylie is not exactly delighted about having to live again together with her mom, a sweet but superstitious blabbermouth who believes the house is haunted. Her daughter dismisses this as complete crap and behaves like a grumpy teenager, until she starts experiencing some weird things herself. Is her bored mind just playing tricks on her, or is there really some truth in her mom's convictions?

One thing I love about good horror movies are those 'jump-one-meter-into-the-air' moments. 'Housebound' has them - Mark always has a good laugh at me on those moments. One thing I hate about horror movies though is unrealistic crap, which often seems to take all the scariness out of it (the more realistic it is, the more creepy it is, right?!). Oh, and I hate predictability as well...you know, those movies in which you already know in the first scene who's going to die and who will survive? Aargh... I'm not gonna spoil too much here, but let me just tell you that you don't have to worry about these things with 'Housebound'. You wíll jump up in the air at least one meter (or maybe just on the inside, if you're one of those cool, chilled-out guys...but admit it, you wére scared!!), and you will laugh as well. Maybe not so much rolling-on-the-floor laughing, the laughs this movie will evoke are probably a bit more of the smiling-kind. You will be fascinated by the interesting plot, and the quite unexpected ending, leaving you behind with a whole lot more appreciation for the Kiwi film industry. A true little gem!

(On my to-watch list is also 'What we do in the shadows' (2014), another New Zealand production (and another horror-comedy!) I now have high expectations of!)

zaterdag 14 maart 2015

My last year's favorite reads & sees - part 1 (books)

One of my very favorite blogposts to read are the ones covering the writer’s personal recommendations regarding books, series and movies. In my humble, maybe slightly nerdy opinion, you can never have enough must-reads on your to-read list, or must-sees on your to-watch list. I love reading (and writing, for that part! :D) reviews, but lists are even better. I just can’t seem to get enough of them, probably because there always seems to be at least one title I haven’t seen or read before that really appeals to me. Oh, the excitement!

So, this nice little idea formed in my head to write my own list of favourite reads and sees in 2014 (even though we’re already well into 2015), and maybe make it an annually returning thing. To contribute a bit to the excitement of fellow book-worms and serie-junkies, perhaps. I must admit that the amount of things I read and watched in 2014 isn’t very impressive, probably because I was just really busy preparing (and subsequently living out) our big trip. However, as soon as we moved into our campervan back in November last year, stopped working and started traveling around, my reading pace increased almost exponentially (and so did Mark’s). Really, we keep stopping at secondhand bookstores and book-exchange shops and libraries having a sale…we even have a real, decent bookshelf in our van! It sits above the front seats, our van is quite high. This particular piece of space was still unused when we ‘moved in’, and everyone who has ever lived in a van knows that unused space has no right of existence. So Mark filled it up with a book shelf barely a week after we started living in the vehicle. Of course :)

Our book shelf, right above the front seats :)

My ‘watching pace’ (regarding series and movies) stayed more or less the same though since we moved into the van. We watch something on many nights of the week, but we can only do that with the power of the second car battery, which is limited. Believe me, you can nót use the little fridge, charge your camera and phones, use the sewing machine and watch a movie at night on one charged car battery (and don’t get me started on when we don’t drive during the day….because that means no charged car battery at all!). So where I used to watch a lot of stuff while crafting for example, we try to limit our time on the laptops now, resulting in a slight shift towards more old-fashioned analogue reading and a bit less digital watching.

However, back to 2014, and my little list. Although, 'little'...? I started putting it together, and it wasn't long before I ended up with a huuuuge post (as usual, of course...sorry folks!). So I decided to split it up in three parts: books, series and movies. Here's the first part, the one about books. I hope you enjoy it and maybe find one or two titles that get you excited. And please, please let me know your favorites as well. You know what: why don’t you comment with the best book and/or movie and/or series you have seen in 2014?!


This book was SO good, it bumped right up to a high spot on my to-re-read list. I kept having aha! moments while reading it, and I’m pretty sure I forgot half of them, so next time when I’m reading this book my notebook will be lying next to me.

'Quiet' deals with introversion. Susan managed to give a very informative and easy-to-read overview of a large amount of scientific research that has been conducted on this specific trait over the last couple of decades (most times in combination with extraversion of course…did you know that the contradictive introvert/extravert groups are about the only personality traits that therapists and scientist all over the world agree on? Seemingly éveryone will fit more or less into one of both groups, no matter what country or culture you’re coming from, in contrast to the many many other personality categories professionals have come up with over the years). The research that Susan processed into her book is not limited to the psychological field; obviously there have been quite some studies going on about introversion/extraversion in relation to the work field (do you think open offices, teamwork and brainstorming really work as well as many people claim they do?), school, religion, etc., all with véry interesting results.

The book explains a bit about how we went from a society in which introversion was highly valued, to the nowadays world in which extraversion seems to be the norm; we are all expected to ‘sell’ ourselves, even if we don't have a job as a salesman or entertainer or whatsoever. Another fascinating part of the book deals with the contrast between the western world (more extraverts) and the Asian world (more introverts). Ever wondered how that happened? I for sure did!

‘Quiet’ is not a self-help book in the first place, it’s more of a study read, combined with a well argued plea to create more space and acceptance for introverts in the western world…something everyone might profit from, from single persons to complete businesses, from the fields of art to those of science. However, Susan does dedicate some chapters to tips and advice for introverts ánd extraverts, backed up by the studies she so thoroughly researched.

This book highly enraptured my curious and deeply introvert soul. No, I’m not shy, but yes, I’m definitely an introvert. And yes, I dó like socializing, but no, it doesn’t give me energy or recharges me, like it does for extraverts…in fact it decharges me! Like I said, the amount of aha! moments were countless, and to read such a well funded plea for a shift towards a more equal validation of both introverts and extraverts was simply heartwarming. Don’t hesitate to pick up this book though if you’re an extravert yourself: you won’t be punished (read that ‘equal validation’ bit in the previous sentence?! Both traits have their positive and negative sides!)...besides the fascinating information on this specific aspect of human psychology - which Susan delivers in her very well written, understandable way - you might actually find a new bit of useful insight in your own loved ones (you know, those quiet ones).

I’ve always had a thing for biographies and memoirs, a thing that seems to have only grown bigger over the years. Some people have just súch an interesting story to tell! Of all the books I read in this category in 2014, “Pastrix – the cranky, beautiful faith of a sinner & saint” was my definite favorite (although Rachel Held Evan’s ‘Evolving in Monkey Town’ was a great second one).

Pastrix tells the story of Nadia, who grew up in an Evangelicalist home. Church was about the only place she felt welcome and not laughed at, despite her weird looks (her eyes were protruding like an insect, due to some kind of thyroid disease). Still, Nadia developed what she calls a ‘bullshit radar’ (a talent to sense hypocrisy and other crap going on) at a fairly young age already, which made her leave church when she became a young adoloscent…even though that meant she also turned her back on that acceptance she so desperately craved.

From there on, her journey is a wild ride, involving alcohol addiction, drug abuse, casual sex, odd jobs and a whóle lot of sarcasm. She tries out other forms of communities, still longing for that sense of belonging: she hangs out with wiccans, tries as hard as she can to be a Unitarian (at which she miserably fails) and becomes a kind of stand-up comedian, having that huge talent for sarcasm. Her friends are society’s nobodies: drug and alcohol addicts, members of the LGBT community, the depressed and the oppressed ones that just don’t belong.

Along the way, she manages to sober up (she starts going to the AA-meetings more or less because ‘it would be nice to manage drinking without having the throw up the next morning all the time’) and even finds herself a nice guy, whom she will later marry.
When one of her very close friends (a fellow comedian and poker-club attendee) ends up killing himself, other friends ask Nadia to lead his memorial service. That’s the moment when she starts feeling like she is being called to become a ‘pastor’ for her people. A calling that she doesn’t like at all, and feels hopelessly inadadequate for as well. 

“I felt like I was on a path toward self-destruction and God pulled me off of it by the scruff of my collar, me hopelessly kicking and flailing and saying “Screw you, I’ll take destruction please!”. God looked at tiny little red-faced me and said: “That’s adorable” and then plunted me down on an entirely different path.”

She can’t shake off the feeling of that calling, and from that moment on, she – quite reluctantly – starts finding out what it exactly means to be that pastor (or, in the female form: a pastrix). Despite herself she finds a love that she can’t resist, one that she can’t help but share with her ‘nobodies’.

I am absolutely in love with the raw honesty of this book. Nadia is straight forward, talks like a sailor sometimes (if I gave you the idea that Nadia’s memoir is a bit floaty, full of vague ‘oh I found the light’ shit: it’s anything but! Nadia didn’t loose her talent for sarcasm, she often uses it in quite a humorous way), but has a very pure and honest heart. She tells you about her failing attempts and flawed motives, the things most of us like to keep hidden in darkness. Well, Nadia doesn’t do that, she brutally shoves it all into the light. With that kind of attitude, she manages to create a place where people who don’t belong can feel home, welcome, and pastored (is that even a word?!): The House for all Sinners and Saints. A place that almost bursts with its love for the depressed, the junkies, the addicts, the lesbians and the gays and the transgenders, the homeless and simply everyone who longs for acceptance and hope.

I find 'conversion books', about people like Nadia - people who seem to be the most ínadequate candidates for whatever kind of faith or spirituality, but who still find something despite themselves - incredibly fascinating. Besides the interesting psychology behind conversions, it somehow gives me a reason for hope. No matter what background you’re coming from; Christian or Jewish or Muslim or atheist or agnost or whatever: give this book a try. We áll know the universal longing to be accepted, and the need to have hope. Really, if I can let you read only one book of this list, let it be this one…you won’t regret it!

The Rosie Project – by Graeme Simsion

I liked this unique novel so much, that I already wrote a review on it, which you should definitely check out if you want to find out more about this heartwarming book. I also found the cutest desktop wallpaper (by Pop! Goes the Reader) inspired by it!

Recently I was very happily surprised when I found out that Graeme actually came up with a sequel a little while ago: The Rosie Effect (don’t you just love it when you unexpectedly discover that one of your favorite authors published a new book, or that one of your favorite books got turned into a movie? That feeling!). Of course the sequel is very high on my to-read list for 2015!

The Secret History – by Donna Tartt

I really like books that take place in a university setting. I don’t know why, but somehow it forms the perfect setting for a good story. The old buildings, the intellectuality, the growing-up, the social dynamics…the fresh blood that comes in every year, while so many traditions and conspiracies have been going on for centuries at the same time.  ‘The Secret History’ has all those ingredients and more: a couple of well worked-out main characters to carry a suspenseful story full of intrigues, coming of age and a double murder. Narrator and main character of the story is Richard Papen, a very ordinary boy from a lower class background, who tells the events from the moment he starts attending Hampden College. It is there that he finds himself deeply intrigued by a clique of five sophisticated young adults, who study Classics under the guidance of charismatic, eccentric professor Julian Morrow. To his own surprise, Richard is slowly accepted by the insular group. Flattered and delighted he tries to fit in as well as he can, unaware of the disastrous consequences their joint behavior will eventually result in. 

I found this mosaic inspired by 'The Secret History' on tumblr,
unfortunately I have no idea who to credit...but it captures the
book's atmosphere perfectly!

This is one of those books that completely sucks you into it’s stifling ambience (if you like that university setting just as much as I do), with its little group of eccentric characters that more or less separated themselves off society, or rather, as they like to think: rose up above it. Donna lets you taste that intoxication, that spell they’re all under. There’s not always a lot of action going on, but even those slower chapters contribute to the books sweltering atmosphere. Guilt and responsibility are the major psychological themes worked out in this novel, the first one I ever read of Donna Tartt. Some more works of her hand are on my to-read list for 2015!

The Silo Saga – by Hugh Howey

Another one that I already wrote a review on (check it out here). When I wrote that review, I had only just read the first book of the series though, while by now I have finished the complete trilogy…something I can definitely reccomend to anyone who likes a good, exciting read with a tiny bit of sci-fi, some suspense and a decent story line. A comparison with the Hunger Games is quickly made, although I’d really call the Silo Saga more mature. The second book is quite different from the first one, with a slower pace and lots of flashbacks. It dives deeper into the rise of that curious Silo world Hugh Howey created, and with that, it starts answering many questions risen after finishing the first book. This makes the second book a bit a less exciting, but at least as interesting a read. The third book will bring you back full on to the tension of book number one, while book number two left just enough questions unanswered to keep you wondering (and turning the pages!) till the very end. I can't wait for these books to be turned into movies...yes, film rights have been sold to 20th Century Fox, and the first movie 'Wool' should be released in 2015!

Okay, that's it for the books. Stay tuned for the series and the movies, and don't forget to comment with your own favorite ones!

Follow me!