A memorial media blow:
First off, I’m saddened to hear of Sydney Pollack passing. I only knew two of his films well enough to comment on them – The Firm and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? – but those two showed enough of his style to merit some acclaim.
Bridge of Birds: A grown-up fairy tale of the first caliber. The broad-backed village farmhand Number Ten Ox and an ancient scholar, Li Kao, set out on a quest to discover what plague afflicts the children of Ox’s village. In doing so, they discover swordfighting ghosts, limitless treasures, impervious tyrants, hermit sages, invisible monsters, lost cities and a dozen other wonders of Chinese folklore. Exciting, sweet and ironic all at the same time. Recommended without qualification.
The Defection of A.J. Lewinter: Back cover copy describes Lewinter as “the American LeCarre,” which I take as a deviously subtle insult toward America. The story of a missile tech’s defection to the Soviet Union may be set in the 1970s, but it reads like it’s from the 1870s. I had the hardest time placing the dialogue until I realized that it read like a modern translation of Dumas. The plot twists seem almost juvenile. For instance, the CIA agents who interview the defector’s friends and family in the States find out that someone has already been asking questions about him. It doesn’t occur to anyone except Our Brilliant Protagonist that maybe, just maybe, the other people asking questions are Russian agents. In a LeCarre novel, you’d take that for granted.
About halfway through, I stopped reading it as a straight spy thriller and started reading it as a sort of vulgar satire – like The President’s Analyst or The Taking of Pelham One Two Three – and had much more fun with it. You have bumbling spies on both sides of the Atlantic, making dire pronouncements based on threadbare speculation. This made the novel much more satisfying for me, especially at its conclusion.
The Confidential Agent: What a contrast, to turn from Littell to Greene. While Greene infuses his spy thrillers with a healthy spritz of melodrama, it still comes with a dry British wit and the dark heart of a world at war. If Raymond Chandler’s protagonists worked for OSS instead of a one-man detective firm, he would write these sort of novels. A bit fantastic, but that’s usually to its benefit.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: A little slapdash. Spielberg could have tightened the screws a little more: the pacing needed work, the dialogue felt rough and I had little investment in the new characters. But I wouldn’t demand a refund.
The first three movies had the virtue of solidly incorporating the theme into the action setpieces. In Raiders, Indy must choose between satiating his own curiosity about the Ark and blowing it up to keep the Nazis from using it. In Temple of Doom, Indy has to choose between “fortune and glory” and doing the right thing – freeing the kids, restoring the shiva stones, etc. And the tension between theme and action works at its best in Last Crusade, when Indy has to find the Grail in order to save the father he’d long ago written off. Compare those to Crystal Skull where, in the last 20 minutes, our heroes simply walk until they run out of space.
I did not have as hard a time with Shia LeBoeuf as I feared I might. I don’t know that he could play a tough guy, but he can definitely play a motorcycle punk greaser who thinks he’s a tough guy. Cate Blanchett frankly didn’t satisfy me as a villain: she doesn’t do anything typically villainous, like execute henchmen or torture civilians or conduct human sacrifices. And Harrison Ford can only recapture the trademark wry cynicism of Dr. Jones about fifty percent of the time; the rest of the time, he just looks tired.
The film discards about one third of its subplots and barely develops any of its characters. The third act plot twist barely counts as a twist – more of a Moebius strip half-twist, really. But the worst of the four Indiana Jones movies still ranks higher than the best of the Hellboy movies any day of the week, so I can’t complain.
(Also: is anyone disturbed by the remarkable similarities between Crystal Skull and this SomethingAwful parody page – the latter of which was published fifteen months ago, before anyone knew anything about this movie?)