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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Surprisingly flat reviews of most classic films, June 15, 2009
This review is from: "Have You Seen . . . ?": A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films (Hardcover)
Here's a doorstop-sized book list that some moviegoers will read and argue over, and not necessarily for what Thomson leaves in or out of his survey of a thousand of his chosen must-see films.The reviews are one-a-page, so even the most casual moviegoer familiar with, say, "Jaws", will at least glance at it's opposite-page mate, "La Jetee", Chris Marker's 29-minute film about life after a Third World War.

Or maybe not. These essays are written in the newspaper style of film criticism -- with an assumption that the reader shares a common knowledge of, and admiration for, what goes on the screen, as well as behind it. Others less interested may find such details distracting in essays -- sketches, really -- that run only 750 words in length. And as might be expected, most of Thomson's list draws heavily from films before 1970.

Thomson reviews these films secure in the knowledge that he thinks they're great (and they undoubtedly are, most of them) but his enthusiasm for old Hollywood mostly misses the mark: as an introduction to movies, he tells us names and dates and stars (what makes the movies tick) but never really communicates what would make these films exciting to a first-time viewer. Young movie fans are missing in Thomson's book, unless they have an interest in exploring older films on their own. And without a younger audience of readers interested in movies, "Have You Seen ...?" loses is point, even as it tries to be entertaining.

That observation may sound uncharitable, but consider: Thomson begins his alphabetical list of reviews not with his original first choice, "Abe Lincoln in Illinois" but with "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein," so as not to open the book with a film that "would depress the ordinary heart." That's odd: the book is Thomson's personal introduction ... but he's talked into this choice by a Sony Pictures representative, who at least had the grace not to suggest one of his own company's films.

For a film buff such a marketing ploy throws the rest of Thomson's reasoning into a questionable realm. There are great choices in the book of course, but the sheer number of titles dilutes the power of truly great films deserving to be seen (Murnau's "Sunrise") and elevating some that are less than mediocre ("The Incredible Shrinking Man"). Thomson takes aim (repeatedly) at some directors whose reputations are secure at this late date: Kubrick ("strange," "straining," "pretentious") and David Lean (in "Lawrence of Arabia," "the sun shines over the shell of an empty film") are just two examples, and John Ford ("How Green Was My Valley") receives several backhanded slaps apparently for not attempting to be a better director than Carol Reed ("The Stars Look Down").

Since the Kubrick, Lean and Ford movies are included in the book anyway as worth seeing, Thomson's judgements seem awkward and arbitrary, and the reviews don't achieve any critical depth. As with any book of lists, the reader is free to agree or disagree with Thomson's broad generalities employing one's own standard of disbelief.

It's doubtful Thomson's book will spark any serious debate; it's not scholarly, and it's meant to be an introduction to movies that, by far, are not even making the rounds of art houses any more. More than likely it will be a handy, hefty guide next time you're rearranging your Netflix queue on a lazy Saturday afternoon.
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