(On Cable TV, June 2018) I have little patience for anything these days, so getting me to sit down for three-and-a-half-hours to watch a Russian novel turned into an epic movie, even a David Lean movie, is asking too much. It took me four days to get through Doctor Zhivago, and I kept going only because the film is of some historical interest. Even then, the journey was gruelling. It’s not that the film is 193 minutes long—it’s that even for that amount of time, not a lot actually happens. It is a generational romance set against the backdrop of early-twentieth-century Russia, and yet it feels uncomfortably small, with a handful of characters bouncing against each other even in a country as large as Russia. To be fair, Omar Sharif is fantastic as the titular Zhivago, and Julie Christie isn’t bad as the lead female character. This being said, the show is stolen by smaller roles: Rod Steiger is delightfully evil as a well-connected politician, while Tom Courtenay has a great arc as the initially meek Pasha. Still, much of Doctor Zhivago unfolds slowly, with characters having intimate conversations while the country goes up in flames somewhere in the background. For an epic, it feels curiously small-scale and focused on melodramatic plot threads. Reading about the film, its troubled production and the historical context of the original novel is more interesting than the film itself—as I was wondering how a Russian film could be produced by a big Hollywood studio in the middle of the Cold War, the film doesn’t exactly act as pro-Soviet propaganda … and adapting the novel was seen as a big gesture against the USSR given that it had banned the book. Still, the result is an often-exasperating experience as nothing happens for a very long time. The film’s high points (such as the moments immediately preceding its intermission) aren’t, quite enough to make up for the rest, including an even more punishing framing device that adds even more minutes to an already bloated result. But at last it’s done: I have watched Doctor Zhivago and don’t have to watch it ever again in order to say that I did.
(On Cable TV, March 2018) The best reason to see Funny Girl was and remains Barbra Streisand—for all of her diva reputation, here she is at the beginning of her career with the chance to play a few decades’ worth of a character through early success and later heartbreak. In taking on a star-making debut role loosely based on Fanny Brice’s life, Streisand gets to be funny and attractive, then increasingly embittered by a bad marriage even as her fame grows. Most of all, Streisand gets to sing in a musical that becomes a showcase for a broad range of talents, from light-hearted to dramatic. It’s quite a performance, and it should charm even though who have grown dubious of post-fame Streisand. The great Omar Sharif shows up in a key role as her no-good husband—the story here is rather standard, but Streisand’s performance elevates it. Funny Girl is also notable in that while it was made in the twilight years of the big Hollywood musical (and during the big upheaval that brought New Hollywood to the forefront), it doesn’t suffer all that much from the encroaching bitterness that killed off the genre in the 1970s—while the second half of the film is significantly less amusing than the first, the transition is accomplished gradually, and much of the first half is actually quite funny. William Wyler’s direction is fine—with some standout sequences such as the last scene of Act One. Still, this is Streisand’s show and she remains the single best reason to watch Funny Girl even today.