Needed to buy three books this week, and they are Embassytown and Kraken by China Miéville, and Purity by Jonathan Franzen.
At the movies: Though the eponymous Jason Bourne film brings director Paul Greengrass and star Matt Damon back together again, they can't recapture the excitement of Supremacy (especially) and Ultimatum. The film fundamentally doesn't seem to know what made the Bourne franchise tick, and that's the character doing badass fights and stunts, improvising with what was at hand. Uncovering yet more secrets behind the program that made him, a CIA control room full of computer screens, traumatic flashbacks, all of that I felt had been resolved with Ultimatum and need not have been a part of this film. Considering the new revelations aren't particularly engaging and seem to be on repeat (as does the city to city action), it felt like a dead end, or worse, like padding. On the other side of that equation, I didn't get a whole lot of what I WANTED from a Bourne film. There were no stand-out fights, and the stunts were uncharacteristically for Greengrass, not well choreographed. Maybe I've gotten too used the Greengrassian shaky cam, but it felt mechanical this time around, as shots stopped shaking long enough for me to notice I was being pointed to plot points. There's still an interesting dynamic between Bourne and an up-and-coming agent played by Alicia Vikander (whose accent is odd and distracting in this picture, unfortunately), and the larger plot about NSA-style hypersurveillance had potential. Not uninteresting, but I left the theater with a shrug if anything.
DVD: It's Olympic time, but all the Olympic movies I like, or want to see, are for the Winter Games. Oh well, let's do this anyway. Eddie the Eagle is the OTHER crazy story about amateurs in the 1988 Calgary Olympics (the other is, of course, Cool Runnings) before they were pushed out of the games entirely by the next round's new rules. Because if there's one thing these films show, it's that the Olympics are sports for snobs. The true story of unlikely ski jumper Eddie Edwards is one of working class heroism and exemplifies the Olympic spirit no matter his results. It's sports movie formula at its best, and it knows it, presenting its subject with a wink and a twinkle, playing corny inspirational music, and by George, getting you fer-klempt in the climax, admit it. We've finally got the perfect movie to put in that Cool Runnings double feature.
The only time The Conjuring loses me is when people start being Poltergeisted around the room and I become very aware of the wires. Otherwise, this is a master class in creating a creepy atmosphere and in building tension between scares. Though it seems to pull all its tropes from haunted house movies + The Exorcist, the twist is that these are actually the case files of real world ghostbusters. Believe it or not, we're in biopic territory here! Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga make for leads I would gladly let into my living room again, but their characters' lives can seem distracting from the focus of the film, the cursed family facing demonic possession. Is the demon connected to that creepy doll in the investigators' home the same as the evil spirit in the house? I don't think it's clear. Nevertheless, these scenes help create a world, one that, depending on your opinion of the supernatural, may or may not be our own. We spend most of our time with the family anyway, and both the parents and their five daughters are well-developed characters we want to see saved. Perhaps because this isn't a "movie story" but a "real" one, it doesn't really focus on a single phenomenon, no, and it can come off as baroque, but I think there's so much atmosphere, it's easy to forgive the film's vagaries. The DVD includes an 8-minute featurette on creating that atmosphere.
Netflix: While films like The Big Short and Margin Call looked at the corporate side of the 2008 housing market crash, 99 Homes takes it down to street level. Andrew Garfield gives a full performance as a down-on-his-luck builder who sees himself and his family evicted from their family home (as harrowing a scene as if this were a documentary) and he's then forced to sell his soul and work for a ruthless real estate guy (the excellent Michael Shannon) and learn to exploit the system itself. It's an eye opener as to how real estate works and can be used to screw the little people, and the film seems to use a LOT of non actors who seem to be in the same dire straights as their "characters", a sad cross-section of lower middle-class America. Beyond the real world drama is the protagonist's ethical journey, which may make him tip completely into the dark side, Shannon as great a "Sith Lord" as you might imagine.
Brick Mansions is a disappointing action flick set in the near-future, starring Paul Walker as cop who must go into a fenced ghetto to retrieve a neutron bomb stolen by the RZA, with the help of Parkour founder David Belle. I can't even believe I typed those words all in a row. Well, the main action of the film IS parkour, and very well done too - already overused by the time this movie came out, at least you've got its master in the film - and crashing cars into things (which is kind of icky now when you think about it). Of course, it's not an acting showcase, nor should you expect one. But the villain's final turn kind of required more than was available to the principals, and seems contrived even by this flick's standards. But then it heads into even more contrived elements in the epilogue... I don't know that District 13, the French original, is any better, but Brick Mansions is never more than simply watchable.
Don't Trust the B---- in Apartment 23 is a short-lived black comedy (2 seasons, 26 episodes in all) that takes the Odd Couple in delightfully twisted directions, co-starring Krysten Ritter as the bad roommate (and indeed, caricature of a terrible person, which she seems to play as jacked-up most times) and Dreama Walker as the goody-two-shoes just arrived to New York from the Midwest (who may just save Ritter soul unless she gets dragged down to hell with her), with TV's James Van Der Beek as conceited actor James Van Der Beek bringing up the rear, hilariously. I tried the show based on Ritter's presence and the subversive title, and stayed for the varied cast of lunatics, outrageous shenanigans, and the sharp demented comedy that hit my soft spots. To my annoyance, the episodes aren't in the correct order, with the characters' fortunes going back and forth, which you'd think would be easy to fix if anyone cared. At 26 only 26 episodes, I would gladly have watched more, but am also willing to accept I got out before the joke got old.
The Overnight has a couple from Seattle (Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) moving into a Los Angeles neighborhood and soon invited to a rich libertine couple's house (these played by Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godrèche) for an "expanding" dinner party. Just like the hosts aren't what the couple expects, this film isn't the awkward screwball comedy you think YOU'LL get as it eventually turns into an unpredictably honest sexual drama, with well drawn characters that defy typification. (And still some awkward screwball comedy, I want to stress.) I try to keep spoilers to a strict minimum in my reviews, especially if I think a film is worthy of your attention, but even without giving details, I feel like simply putting these words to keyboard, I'm ruining some of the surprise. Then again, I can see such a film get flack for not delivering what it seems to advertise, maybe I'm doing you (and it) a favor.
After Oculus, director Mike Flanagan offers Hush, a tight thriller about a deaf writer, working on her novel's ending, besieged by a masked serial killer in her country house. It's an intriguing idea, and the third act delivers on the theme of finding a good ending, but at times, the movie is so relentless dark, lighting-wise, that its action is obscured, and I felt like I was staring at black abstracts. I can't decide if it's meant to take away one of our senses the way the main character can't access sound, or what, but given that the film is necessarily light on dialog as well, there was too much sensory deprivation. The sound design is mostly for our benefit, of course, but I would have liked more soundless moments to put us into the character's head than we did, if only to see how much tension could have been gleaned from fleeting, silent movement in the frame. Beyond the stylistic choices, the story is rather thin, the villain especially. I really wanted to like this picture after the likable opening scenes, but alas, I got lost in the murk.
Books: Three Moments of an Explosion is China Miéville's 2015 collect of 28 short stories which, for all their variety in length, style and subject matter, are really all about people struggling with the strangeness of the universe and its unknowability. Bizarre cards appearing in poker games with strange effects attached. Oil platform walking on land like great beasts. Coded information found on someone's bones. Icebergs floating over London. Fantasy, sci-fi and the surreal blend in a cocktail Kirkus Reviews (back cover copy) correctly identifies as Bradbury, Borges and Lovecraft, the underlying metaphors sometimes escaping the reader unfortunately, but overall, forming a whole that's full of intrigue and wonder. Among the longer pieces, there are shorter works that really do take from Borges (one of my favorite writers ever), including the title story, which I found particularly inspiring for my own fiction work. Only a couple of stories left me cold, and sure, by the time some of them get going, you kind of want them expanded into novels (Miéville's best format, surely), but I'm happy to feast at a rich buffet of ideas without sitting down to eat whole meals.