woensdag 1 april 2015

My last year's favorite reads & sees - part 3 (series)

Okay guys, this is the last part of my ‘2014 favorites’ blogpost series. If you missed out on the books or the movies, go check them out to see if there’s anything you might like! Today it’s time for the series…so all you fellow serie-junkies: settle down for a moment with a hot cuppa, and don’t forget to leave your own recommendations behind in the comments!


This series was just perfect for us to watch last year, at the end of 2014: it takes place in the beautiful area around Queenstown, the city where we spent our first week in New Zealand (and lived only about an hour away from for the subsequent 4 months). The director of this series did an absolutely fabulous job in capturing these breathtaking surroundings (because they dó take your breath away, believe me!), and turning them into the mysteriously serene backdrops for a not-so serene event: the disappearance of a pregnant 12-year old girl named Tui. 

Main character Robin Griffin is called in to investigate the case. Coming back to the area where she grew up, she quickly finds herself submerged in the secrets of a tight-knit community, while at the same time some ghosts of her own past start showing up. Elisabeth Moss, who plays her, definitely knows how to act and gives her character exactly the right amount of guts and fragility. She’s not your average perfect photo model actress (enhanced by the fact that Robin is not really a make-up kind of girl), which I always find refreshing, often adding to a series' (or movie's) credibility. 

Another storyline that’s neatly woven in, is that of the women at Paradise (a small place at the ‘top of the lake’ Wakatipu), under the seemingly unaffected guidance of GJ (another female role that's played só well in this series!). These broken women, searching for love and direction in their lives, add a bit of humour to the dark story. They have the weirdest backgrounds and often reminded me of a big bunch of helpless, lost and slightly dumb sheep. But beware, looks might mislead…

All in all, I highly enjoyed the six long episodes of this miniseries, it was almost like watching six good thrillers. I discovered it got some critique as being too feministic, but I never actually noticed that while watching it. I'm not sure if I just ignorantly missed a feminist agenda here, so I just asked Mark: he must have missed it too then. Yes, there are some very nasty male characters...but then there are good ones too (I absolutely loved Johnno, for example (not an unpleasant actor to look at neither ;)), and the series just deals with a couple of issues that unfortunately are a reality in current society, mainly seen through the eyes of the (female) main character. I don't know if I would call that 'feministic'... Either way; every episode’s ending had me expectantly waiting for the next, looking forward to seeing more of the mystery unravel in such eye-pleasing surroundings. Wonderful, really! 

Mark and I watched all 5 seasons of this series in the second half of 2014, starting just after we arrived in New Zealand. I can still remember the first episode, in our tiny bedroom in a hostel in Queenstown…we were hooked from that very start!

Breaking Bad has been a very popular series over the last couple of years, and scored high critiques all over the world. I’m not gonna say too much about it, chances are high you saw it already anyway :) But, in case you haven’t: go give it a try! I always was a bit afraid it might be more of a men’s series, a bit of action and crime and drugs, male main characters…you know, all the standard presumptions. Nothing turned out to be less true though, the characters are all very human, real and vulnerable in their own ways. The series is full of universal themes, emotions and different types of motives. It doesn’t exactly promote drugs either, if that’s what you’re worried about…it just takes a bizarre situation as its starting point (a chemistry teacher starting to produce and sell meth after being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer) and then, very intricately, shows the viewer all the complex consequences on smaller and bigger scales. All the while  excellent insights in the temptations of money, of power and of escape are provided; different motives that are all somehow woven together, sustaining each other. 

See? Not just plain stupid men’s series shit :P Walter's wife Skyler actually has quite a prominent role in the series. Anna Gunn, who plays her, definitely earns her spot in the list of all the female actresses I’m raving about in this blogpost with her powerful performance in Breaking Bad. A lioness, that’s what she kept reminding me off throughout the series. Oh, and did I already mention that I really liked the setting of the Breaking Bad? It takes place in New Mexico, with excellent screenshots of this dry, stifling area. Maybe not America’s most beautiful place, but definitely unique in its own way. 

The mobile 'Meth lab', under NM's beautiful wide skies.

I love how series can open your eyes for new things (like a geographical place, in this case).
Breaking Bad came to its glorious end and is sadly over (at the right moment though, admittedly), but…we just found out that the annoyingly optimistic lawyer in Breaking Bad: Saul Goodman, got his own spin-off: Better Call Saul. We haven’t watched any episodes yet, but will surely give it a try! I'm always a bit afraid of bad rip-offs with these kind of things…but who knows: maybe it’s actually worth watching, Vince Gilligan surely proved his talent for making a highly enjoyable series before!

I must honestly admit that this series is on the verge of what’s really too bizarre for me. I started watching Hannibal because I loved ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ and the other Hannibal movies when I was younger, and because I find Mads Mikkelsen terrific, fascinating actor (okay…and I don’t really mind looking at Hugh Dancy for 50 minutes at a time *grin*). But where the movies were a bit disturbing already, the series take this ‘disturbingness’ to a whole new level. Which, at the same time, probably also secures the series' tension and shocking effect that keeps me coming back after each previous episode. 

‘Hannibal’ the series takes place somewhere before 'Red Dragon', and explores the growing relationship between forensic profiler Will Graham and his psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter. Both of them have a brilliant mind, but the conflicted Will is being more and more haunted by his imagination and his ability to emphasize with serial killers. In his vulnerability and confusion he forms the perfect prey for Dr. Lecter's subtle manipulation. Hannibal's methods are sophisticated and misleadingly elegant, but oh-so dark, slowly bringing Will deeper and deeper under his control and leading him into the shadows of mental torment. 

The series could probably best be called 'psychological horror'. It has it's fair amount of gory scenes, but personally I find the twisted, perfectly hidden ways in which Hannibal abuses Will's mental instability more unnerving than all the gore, and I believe that the relationship between them is where the real horror aspect of the series takes place. But no matter how you put it, you have to like this kind of stuff to enjoy the series. If you don't, I can relate to that too...I sometimes even wonder myself why I'm fascinated by a tv series that can be so distorting at times.

One last thing: if you liked the movies and maybe even read the books, and are afraid this series will somehow be a poor rip-off: don't be. Besides the fact that the series don't really follow the continuity of the books or movies and has some (un?)pleasant surprises in store for its viewers, the directors also did an exceptional job with the casting. Even the biggest Anthony Hopkins fan will - maybe reluctantly - admit that Mads Mikkelsen has taken our era's most notorious monster killer to a whole new level.

I can’t believe I actually had the guts to put this one on the list (I’m a little bit ashamed) but yes…I really do like it, despite every single episode being complete and utter nonsense. Anger Management is the series Mark and I watch when we’re not in the mood for anything serious or complicated (come on, you have a favorite series for those kind of moments too, admit it!). 

No one can beat Charlie Sheen, and his little anger therapy group consists of some hilariously stereotypical personalities. I must say I do miss Kate a bit, I love Selma Blair as an actress anyway, and the chemistry between her and Charlie was quite good. However, her successor Jordan (a recovering alcoholic and also a therapist) does not a bad job at all. So yeah, not too proud of this one, but it deserves its place in the list.

I know, I’m terribly late with this one. This series ended, what, five years ago? It’s all my bestie Eef’s fault really, she started watching Lost back in 2013 (only just thréé years after it finished :P ) , and kept on telling me how good it was and all that. In the end, I had not much of a choice but to see it for myself…and of course she was right. 

I think I began watching 'Lost' myself around the beginning of 2014, and came to halfway season 4. In that period, our big trip came closer, and preparations took over…leaving me with not much time for more Lost episodes. When I finally wanted to pick it up again in New Zealand, I realized I had completely 'lost' (sorry, bad joke) its storyline! So I developed a strategy to trick Mark into starting the series as well (just like Eef did with me). It really seemed like the perfect solution: shared fun = double fun, and by starting again at episode 1 (which I absolutely didn’t mind…did I already tell you I really like Lost?), I would pick up on the storyline once again, hopefully with even more attention to all the wonderful layers and details.

Getting Mark into watching Lost costed some effort, he didn’t think he would like it. And I must admit, I can’t blame him…if you’re surfing channels and end up in the middle of a random epidsode of Lost, chanches are it might make no sense at all and will look kind of weird and unrealistic. But, I managed to make Mark promise to give at least the first season a try, and if he didn’t like it, I wouldn’t push him any further. We’re almost at the end of season 4 now :) 

Some of the strongest points of Lost are, in my opinion, the characters, and how incredibly realistically and well they are worked out. No matter what type of person you are, you’re bound to recognize yourself in at least one, but probably more of the ‘islanders’. Sometimes (or maybe often…) fictional characters stay quite stereotypical and flat, lacking the complexity that would make them human…but not in Lost, I find. Enhanced by the flashbacks and later the flash-forwards you will feel like you get to know the main characters – such a diverse group of people – quite well. They could be real. And that’s probably exactly why all the mystery and weird stuff and not-really possible things the series is indeed full of, are very easily accepted (in contrast to when you accidentally happen to see a random episode and didn't got to know any of the characters at all). 

I hope this doesn’t sound like I don’t really like that sci-fi, mystery aspect of the series though…because I do, tremendously even! I’m just blown away by the balance between science-fiction and reality, by how perfectly they complement each other. One adds to the credibility, the other to the suspense and enchantment.

Since I haven’t seen more then four seasons just yet, I can’t really say anything about the whole series… All I can say is that if you haven’t watched it already (read: if you’ve been living under a stone for the last decade, just like me :P ), go give it a try! It’s not out-dated, nor will it be for another long time I think, the themes are just tóó universal and timeless. As is surviving on an island, for that matter… I must say that some of our own adventures in New Zealand made me vaguely feel like an ‘islander’ myself, does that sound silly? We hiked for 10 days through the bush, slept in a handmade driftwood hut on the beach…I’m just glad we can get off this island though (if we would ever want to ;)). 

This can by no means be an official Lost photo and must be some kind of
fan art...but I thought it's quite hilarious either way.

If you’re a bit of a pop-culture fanatic and like analysing the storylines and episodes of your favourite series: Lost can be taken to that next level and will offer you plenty of food for thought. There is só much going on in this series in terms of hidden references, philosophy, easter eggs and symbolism, you’d probably have to watch it at least 5 times to notice it all. The makers really put a huge effort in this aspect of the series, hence the impressive amount of online discussions, blogs, groups and websites dedicated to it. I myself found it quite a shame to let all that stuff go unnoticed, so I recently purchased the book ‘Lost – Humanity’ for my Kindle, to guide me through these hidden gems. I can’t wait to explore more, and to ultimately find out how the whole Lost-story will end!

Okay, this one’s my guilty pleasure. It’s very girlish, might be lacking some real depth and Miss Hart can be quite annoying at times. But I just need one series like this in my life, a little escape when I need some simple, feminine distraction :) I already wrote a review about the first season of Heart of Dixie a little while ago, you can read that one if you’re unfamiliar with it. 

I’m in the third season now, still enjoying it despites its flaws (or maybe not flaws, just despite the fact that it’s quite different from the other stuff I like to watch). I just can’t believe how much more I came to like Lemon during the second and third season! And another silly thing: it took me a little while to connect the dots and recognize Dr. Breeland’s girlfriend Shelby as Charlie’s therapist colleague Jordan in Anger Management. I must admit: this girl (Laura Bell Bundy's her name) doesn’t get to play the smartest, most world wise girls…but she definitely pulls off her ‘blondie’ characters with flair!

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!)

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