Review: The Power of Film Is an Engaging, Easygoing Miniseries About the Cycles of American Cinema

It's easy to forget that we all start somewhere. When I was 13, I discovered Yorgos Lanthimos's horrific fantasy-comedy The Lobster on Netflix and became, for better or for worse, completely obsessed with film and television when it was over. I became a primarily self-taught cinephile, and in the over half a decade that followed, I like to think I became pretty good at analyzing patterns in storytelling and filmmaking. When I started the first two episodes of The Power of Film, I was unsure of how I'd feel about it, but I was weirdly and suddenly nostalgic.

The Power of Film, created and hosted by UCLA film professor Howard Suber, is based on his identically titled book that acts as a summary of his decades of teaching. You could boil this down to a six-part film course and it wouldn't be inaccurate. Suber has a lot to say about the cycles of American cinema, and his interest in the subject shines through as he discusses it. (I have to get this warning out of the way: if you haven't seen a ton of big American movies, this series spoils a lot of them, and I'm saying this with only two episodes in mind. Just, you know, if those matter to you.)

If you're looking for an in-depth analysis course on the most obscure and disturbing art films, you're not going to find it here. This is a series for people who want to start learning about arguably the biggest (certainly the most profitable) art form, and from what I saw (two episodes), Suber is a good teacher. I would say episode one starts things off alright—I didn't know how to feel about the montage and introduction, but I quickly got into it as Suber began discussing recurring themes in great American works like greed and freedom. Episode two was even more consistent and enjoyable with its focus being on that idea of freedom and why it keeps popping up across cinema.

The nostalgia that the first episodes of The Power of Film made me feel came out of nowhere, I'll admit. When clips from films like Moonlight and Se7en come up in Suber's analysis, I'm reminded of when I saw them for the first time and tried to interpret why things in the film were the way they were. The analysis provided is easy to follow and the editing between footage of Suber, clips from the films, and the audio from both is seamlessly done. (Though the editing in some of the text-filled montages was a little too cheesy. That said, there are worse things to be!)

I hope my commentary about how this feels like a film course comes across in a positive way. It very much feels like the intention of The Power of Film given its source material, and it's nice to not go through learning something alone. I wouldn't claim there's anything here that blew my mind, but I found myself nodding along at several points with what Suber had to say. We really do all have to start somewhere, and considering that I liked what I saw, I feel comfortable endorsing The Power of Film as a starting point in film appreciation.

When I sat down to watch The Lobster over half a decade ago, I had no idea what I was getting into, and I came away from it thinking just a little differently about movies and why they are what they are. The world is full of insane, brilliant works of cinema that are well worth stumbling upon, and maybe Suber can help you find a couple. In fact, I think starting off here—if you're interested—is a great idea.

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Sam Layton

Sam Layton is a Chicago suburb native that's trying his best to make a career out of his (probably unhealthy) habit of watching too much television. When he's not working as the Third Coast Review's current sole TV reviewer, he's making his way through college or, shockingly, watching too much television.