Baron Dave Romm (barondave) wrote,
Baron Dave Romm

The Moscow Connection: Dr. Zhivago and Get Smart

This keeps happening to me. Two otherwise unrelated movies happen to come together in my Netflix queue that have some major relationship. In this case, both these have long segments that take place in Moscow. Nearly a century apart, cinema time, but hey. Might as well stop and do a quick review.

I spent months reading Dr. Zhivago and didn't like the book. I still haven't read the poetry at the end (though I tried). The plot is episodic at best, and characters pop up, disappear and pop up again throughout. The book is best when describing the conditions of Zhivago and the former elite during the Russian Revolution and its aftermath.

The movie is more linear, and I think it succeeds as a movie better than the book works as a novel. The first scene and much of the last section are cinematic additions and serve to establish the characters far better than the book. The ending of the movie is far clearer, even as it leaves out most of the end segment of the print version.

The DVD claims the film is 3 hours and 20 minutes, requiring both sides of the disk. The novel is long and rambling, and the film tries to capture the feel if not all the details. The movie is excellently directed by David Lean: Gorgeous scenery, long panoramas. The editing is very poor, as reaction shots are mismatched.

Omar Sharif as Zhivago does really well in some aspects, and falls down in others. Zhivago is a poet, an observer. Life washes over him and rarely takes action and when he does it gets him into trouble. Sharif's eyes marvelously glint as he absorbs the world. Sometimes you can feel the poetry seeping in. But I couldn't see the poetry coming out. In the book, he has children by three women; in the movie, two. I never quite got why he and Lara were such a hot love story, or where his passion lay.

In the book, everyone is Russian, with a connection to Paris. In the movie, everyone has a British accent, with the occasional American popping up. I suppose that worked well in David Lean's England, where "British" accent translates to "no" accent, but to my ears the wrong foreigners were speaking. I couldn't feel the crushed Russian soul when I kept hearing upper crust Brits.

I tried to listen to the commentary track, but three hours was too much. I probably listened for about an hour of it. It's actually two separate commentaries. One by Sharif and the wife of the late David Lean. Both had interesting things to say, then started repeating themselves. With pauses. In some of the pauses was commentary by Rod Steiger, who was having enormous fun remembering the antics of forty years earlier.

General Comment: Unless you're into Russian novels as a genre and/or want to explore the social structures of the Russian Revolution, you can skip the book. It was banned in the Soviet Union for its unflattering portrayal of the events surrounding the Revolution and seems to be one of the reasons why the West embraced it. As I said above, the movie is a better movie than the novel works as a novel, which isn't quite the same thing as saying the movie is better than the book. Frankly, I wasn't that impressed with the movie. If you see it, for heaven sake watch on a wide screen tv.

Get Smart wasn't immediately after Dr. Zhivago in my Netflix queue, but it took me several viewings to make it all the way through, so happened to be what I watched right after. I have somewhat mixed feelings. No, it's not a particularly good movie, but large swaths of it work.

Get Smart the tv series worked (if it worked for you) because Max Smart was a buffoon who everybody took seriously. It was a delicious send-up of James Bond-type spy thrillers. The movie Get Smart is, in many ways, the opposite: a super-competent Max Smart is not taken seriously by anybody, especially the buffoons around him, and has to prove himself.

The first third of Get Smart is boring... but tightly written set-up that pays off later. About a third of the way through, it starts to get funny, as 99 spends all her time rescuing Max. The last third is even funnier, as Max spends much of his time rescuing 99 (and the president).

Get Smart doesn't have a commentary track, but does have a fun feature where the DVD will pause to allow you to see alternate takes and the occasional deleted scene. I enjoyed that a lot. You can see where the actors were encouraged to ad lib, and how the director chose which ad libs to use. Sometimes, later in the film, an actor will do something that refers to a bit of business which didn't make it to the final cut. The film flows pretty well, and the choices were made intelligently and with consistency.

Viewed strictly as an exercise in editing, Get Smart is far superior to Dr. Zhivago.

The nods to the tv show were pretty good. They got in most of the famous lines, and even the little red car Max drove. Bernie Kopell (the original Siegfried) has a brief cameo. Bill Murray has a good cameo (and one of the better deleted scenes). James Caan is hilarious playing George W. very broadly (and even more in the deleted scenes).

While it's ridiculous to directly compare the two movies, I must say that I enjoyed Get Smart much better, especially the second time through where I could see how carefully they set up all the bits of business later in the film. It's very tightly written. Dr. Zhivago is more linear than the book, but wanders all over the place and I never really felt for any of the characters. Indeed, I felt I understood the two major bad guys more than any of the good guys.

Oh well.
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