Sep 091901
 

This site reviews the best in genre film (where genre is taken very broadly). Reviews are grouped into lists so you can compare films with similar subjects.

Foster on Film has three parts:

  • The Important Films: Here I will look at the films that changed the art form and our society. I have selected my favorite genres and picked the films that are required viewing to understand those genres.
  • The Great Films: My look at the masterpieces of cinema. Here you’ll find lists of the top films by the greatest directors and actors. This is also the home of my Foscar project, where I attempt to fix the Oscar’s Best Picture awards.
  • Film Review Lists: Reviews of films grouped by genre and sub-genre; a guide to anyone who gets into one of the “what are the 10 best X films” discussions. These are reviews, not critiques, so aimed more toward “is it good?” than “why is it good?”
  • Rankings/Lists: A collection of all my other lists of the best films.
Mar 112023
  March 11, 2023

[I’m not covering the shorts or documentaries, and I never do sound as I don’t trust my viewing environments. I’ve seen everything I’m voting on except Avatar: The Way of Water (so I’m going to treat it as Avatar I) and Andrea Riseborough in Leslie, but then that’s been the story of this award season; nobody has]

 

CINEMATOGRAPHY

ELVIS (Mandy Walker)

[I wouldn’t have called ELVIS the best of the year (why isn’t Babylon here?), but it is best of the nominees. BARDO: FALSE CHRONICLE OF A HANDFUL OF TRUTHS has some wonderful moments, but many others where I’d call the cinematography good, but nothing special. TÁR comes in third, doing all that is needed for the story, but nothing more. I think EMPIRE OF LIGHT is only here to note Roger Deakins’ lifetime work. And ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT was very good, but for what they were doing, it needed to be better still].

 

VISUAL EFFECTS

AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER

[OK, completely unfair, but as the original would win in this category by a mile, I’m confident in giving it to this sequel.]

 

COSTUME DESIGN

BABYLON (Mary Zophres)

[Huh. A category with a whole lot of deserving nominees. That’s weird this year. BABYLON was not a great movie, but it was a beautiful one, and part of that was the never ending string of amazing costumes. Still, this is a close call with BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER, and I wouldn’t be upset if that won. Both ELVIS and EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE have costumes that advance the plot, and the plot kinda is the costumes for MRS. HARRIS GOES TO PARIS, though I did find that the weakest nominee.]

 

PRODUCTION DESIGN

BABYLON (Florencia Martin; Anthony Carlino)

[Again, BABYLON is a great looking one. ELVIS’s design is good, but BABYLON just tops it.]

 

MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER (Camille Friend and Joel Harlow)

[Some good choices here, with both THE WHALE and THE BATMAN as standouts in makeup. And the work in ELVIS and ALL QUIET is good too, but the variety of ingenious work in WAKANDA FOREVER takes the award.]

 

FILM EDITING

EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (Paul Rogers)

[This one is easy. Editing this, with worlds changing many times in a scene, must have been insane. The editing in THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN, ELVIS, and TÁR varied between fair and poor, leaving only MAVERICK as competition, and while it’s editing is good (anything being good in that film is a rarity), it is a distant second.]

 

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SCORE)

BABYLON (Justin Hurwitz)

[This was a lightweight year for scores. BABYLON’s does the most to define the picture. The others, with one exception, were OK, though none had that magic I look for in a great score. The exception is ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, where the score was poorly conceived and is distracting.]

 

MUSIC (ORIGINAL SONG)

NAATU NAATU (from RRR; M.M. Keeravaani/Chandrabose)

[It’s a shame that just the song is nominated. It’s the dance that is overwhelming, but the song is good, and is part of an amazing scene. And all of the other nominees are terrible, songs I never want to hear again.]

 

ANIMATED FEATURE FILM

GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO

[The stop-motion animation here must be rewarded. This is absolute masterwork in animation. Most of the rest is good enough (the songs are a weak spot) not to detract from that animation. THE SEA BEAST is a strong second, with excellent animation, and even better script and voice work. PUSS IN BOOTS: THE LAST WISH is also worthy, making this one of the better categories. The final two aren’t in the running, TURNING RED is generally poorer and condescending, while MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON is as if the goal was to make the MOST Indie film ever, with every indie film trope turned up to 11.]

 

WRITING (ADAPTED SCREENPLAY)

LIVING (Kazuo Ishiguro)

[Not a great category, but LIVING hits the right notes when needed. GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY has a reasonable number of clever lines, so slips into second. For the rest: TOP GUN: MAVERICK’s script is absolute trash and its nomination is absurd; WOMEN TALKING has the screenplay of a stageplay, and not a good one, with far too many repetitions; ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT is a particularly poor adaptation of the novel.]

 

WRITING (ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY)

EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (The Daniels)

[A better category than adapted screenplay. The winner takes it due to wit and twists. Of the rest, TRIANGLE OF SADNESS’s screenplay has some issues, but the others show a skilled hand.]

 

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

KE HUY QUAN (Everything Everywhere All at Once)

[This is considered a lock, and I agree it should be. BRENDAN GLEESON is good enough in The Banshees of Inisherin while I found BARRY KEOGHAN annoying in the same film. JUDD HIRSCH wouldn’t make my top 2 for supporting actor in The Fabelmans. BRIAN HENRY (Causeway) is my 2nd place choice, but he doesn’t have a chance.]

 

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

JAMIE LEE CURTIS (Everything Everywhere All at Once)

[A category with no embarrassing choices. None are better than CURTIS, so I’ll let my desire for her to get an Oscar decide it. HONG CHAU (The Whale) would be an equally good choice. KERRY CONDON (The Banshees of Inisherin) gives the best performance of that film, and ANGELA BASSETT (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever) is always good and she only lags behind because she seems less her character and more just ANGELA BASSETT. STEPHANIE HSU (Everything Everywhere All at Once) would be my last choice.]

 

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

AUSTIN BUTLER (Elvis)

[This is a three-way for me, between BUTLER, BRENDAN FRASER (The Whale), and BILL NIGHY (Living). FRASER is just turned up a notch higher than I’d like, and BUTLER has more to do than NIGHY, but all three are reasonable choices. COLIN FARRELL’s role is a bit too easy, and PAUL MESCAL’s performance seems to be more about the editing. All that said, I hope FRASER wins.]

 

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

MICHELLE YEOH (Everything Everywhere All at Once)

[This is a two way race, YEOH or CATE BLANCHETT (Tár), and both are excellent, but Yeoh does more. ANA DE ARMAS (Blonde) and MICHELLE WILLIAMS (The Fabelmans) are both quite good, but they’re footnotes.]

 

DIRECTING

EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert

[This is rough, choosing between The Daniels and Steven Spielberg for THE FABELMANS, but when it’s hard to choose, I’ve got to go with the better result. The directing for THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN and TÁR is fine, and that of TRIANGLE OF SADNESS is a little less than fine.]

 

BEST PICTURE

EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE

[Nothing else is close. Nothing else would be in my top 10 for the year. THE FABELMANS is the most skillfully made film of the year, so it’s not an embarrassment as a nomination. ELVIS, TÁR, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT,

WOMEN TALKING, and TRIANGLE OF SADNESS are need reedits, and the last two need radical rewrites. THE BANSHEES OF INISHERIN is OK, and TOP GUN: MAVERICK is garbage (and it is a complete embarrassment to our country that this thing is in the same list as ALL QUIET – makes Americans look like war-mongering assholes). And it is just so stupid.]

Overall, not a great year or a great group of nominees, but the right winners could make this a feel good year.

Mar 102023
  March 10, 2023

Why must artists create autobiographies? They put themselves into all their work. Why must they be so literal about it? I knew everything I ever wanted to know about Steven Spielberg from Jurassic Park and Close Encounters and Raiders. I don’t need to see him, or any artist, masturbating. [Note: I’d also appreciate it if novelists would quite writing about novelists and filmmakers would quite making films about filmmaking.]

So, is THE FABELMANS well directed? Yes. Of course it is. I knew that before I watched it. Yes, there are moments of emotional impact. Yes, it looks great. The acting is excellent. The colors are rich and help tell the story, and yes, yes, all of that and more I knew before I watched it. He’s Goddamned Steven Spielberg. And if I was Goddamned Steven Spielberg, I’d really try and make something that wasn’t two and a half hours of yelling “Hey everyone, look at me. ME! ME! ME!” Firstly, because everyone would already be looking at me.

I suppose you don’t get to be this great a filmmaker without being arrogant. (Erase “I suppose” – there’s no supposing here.) That arrogance is on display in his many better films. And that’s OK. It’s more than OK. I just want it turned down enough that a great director can focus on stories that needed to be told, or it would be nice if they were told, or anything other than “Now you will all see where my greatness came from.”

Sigh. Yeah, this thing should not have been made. It is a waste of talent. Yet it is still one of the best nominees this year. As far as applied skill, it might be the best. TRIANGLE OF SADNESS, WOMEN TALKING, TÁR, and particularly TOP GUN: MAVERICK look like they were made by hacks or first year film school students by comparison. TÁR is more interesting, but it doesn’t display the mastery of the art form. But I think being interesting matters, and THE FABELMANS is not interesting.

I just wish I had his talent.

Mar 102023
  March 10, 2023

Or is it? I generally ignore the source material and closeness of adaptation, but in this case it’s hard. I thought the first German adaptation of a German book in a setting of vital importance to Germany would be closer to the novel then a 1930s American version. But this is hardly All Quiet On the Western Front. I’d call it inspired by the novel, but I might as well say inspired by World War I.

The changes start with almost all characterization. In the book, Paul was a person, with plans and desires. Here is a blank slate, an everyman. This film also is missing what I consider to be the two most important sections of the book – the boys’ indoctrination and Paul’s return to his hometown. Those were the heart of the story. Changed too is Paul’s death (OK, all the deaths are changed), now being used to make a statement about the evils yet to come instead of one of the pointlessness of it all. And then there is the addition, a subplot of the signing of the armistice, which feels out of place and harmed the tone and pacing. Well, the director was concerned about looking ahead to a time the book knew nothing about.

Alright, so as an adaptation of All Quiet On The Western Front, I didn’t think much of it. How is it as a movie? It’s not bad. It is successful in painting the bleakness of war, and all of the battle scenes are powerful. But without characters, it’s hard to feel anything except depression. And since it’s not saying anything new or unexpected, two and a half hours are unnecessary. Add in the subplot and the music that draws attention to itself, instead of to the story (the nomination for score is ridiculous) and we end up with a film that makes its point, but which I’ll never go back to. And yeah, Paul’s death here isn’t just different, it’s horrible.

No, this one shouldn’t win Best Picture.

Also, why is the default on Netflix the English dub. At least they had the original, but I’d have made that the default and had people switch away from it if they so desired.

Mar 082023
  March 8, 2023

Currently the film with the third best odds to win Best Picture, Tár is an interesting film, constructed to be unsatisfying for everyone. It’s precisely (at times delicately) made, with superb performances, particularly by Blanchett, but I can’t say I enjoyed it and have a hard time figuring why anyone would.

And the one line descriptions, of “justice comes to an abusive lesbian director” are completely off the mark.

Lydia Tár is a prickly character, who might be—probably is—very cruel and manipulative. Or maybe not. Those around her might be victims, or might not be, and certainly are not acting out of the best of motives more often than not. What happens to Tár is partly her fault, but partly isn’t, and nothing that happens to anyone is fair. Plot-wise, enough happens for about 30 minutes. This film is about character in service of theme. It does fine with character (though it intentionally obscures a great deal), but theme is where things get rocky. I felt like I was in the middle of the worst kind of Twitter argument, with people using the film to support diametrically opposed ideas: It’s been called the ultimate anti-woke movie and a powerful #metoo statement and yes, it’s easy to take it to be either, but harder to take it as both. With such lack of clarity, and so little satisfaction, I’d have liked to have spent less than two and a half hours with these people.

I suppose I’ll rank it as one of the better nominees, but also as one of the least enjoyable.

Mar 052023
  March 5, 2023

And today it is another of the Academy Awards Best Picture nominees. 2022 was the year of the “Eat the Rich” combined with “modern culture is empty” satires, and strangely also of surrounding them with water. The other two films that spring immediately to mind are Glass Onion and The Menu. None of them have any concept of subtlety, which isn’t necessarily a problem. Not necessarily… Triangle of Sadness stands out as the one that has no concept of editing.

There’s enough here to make a good movie, but only if you started post-production from scratch. The first hour should be no longer than 20 minutes and the first two sections need a completely different construction. Since I don’t like anyone, and everything being said is not only clear, but hammered over and over, Triangle of Sadness becomes tedious rapidly.

Sure, this is a better film than Maverick, but I got more enjoyment from watching, and making fun of, that silly film.

Mar 042023
  March 4, 2023

Have some Oscar nominations to catch up on, and tonight’s was Elvis, or as it should be titled, “Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis,” as he Baz Luhrmann’s all over it. The thing is, that’s why I like it. The more Luhrmann it is, the better, and it’s very Luhrmann. I couldn’t care less about the real Elvis Presley. He’s not on my list of the top 1000 subjects of bio pics I want to see, should I ever make such a list, which is fine as Luhrmann isn’t all that interested in the real Presley either. And that lack of accuracy (including not focusing on important elements of the man’s life) isn’t a problem since, unlike the lying Bohemian Rhapsody which had little connection to Freddie Mercury but was presented as the truth, Elvis is presented as the ravings and twisted statements of Col Parker, who is clearly an unreliable narrator.

So, we’ve got a skillfully directed (depending on what we count as the job of the director), beautifully filmed, and wonderfully acted picture. Austin Butler deservers his Best Lead Actor nomination just as Mandy Walker’s cinematography nom is reasonable. And I wouldn’t have been upset if Luhrmann got a directing nom (he did not). But it shouldn’t have landed a Best Pictures nomination. OK, in a world where Maverick got one, sure, as it is vastly superior to that, but setting a more reasonable bar, it’s just not great. Good, but not great. Script and editing are the weak spots, and they’re pretty weak. There’s whole sections that should have been rewritten, and hundreds of minor nips and tucks would have helped, along with some major slices, and probably a few additions.

Well, “good” isn’t a bad place for a movie to land.

Apr 242022
 
two reels

In a world of stunted emotions, a strung-out, emo Batman (Robert Patterson) is called in by Lt. James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) to help solve the gruesome murder of the mayor by a new costumed vigilantly, The Riddler (Paul Dano). The Riddler is a BDSM gimp merged with an insel, who somehow is very effective at killing people. To solve the crime, Batman—there is no Bruce Wayne, only Batman—with the help of his Butler Alfred (Andy Serkis) must confront the gangsters Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and the Penguin (Colin Farrell), and dig into his own past. He also encounters Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), who he uses for his investigation, but then she sticks around in the movie for no reason and the two kinda-sorta have a romance because the script tells them to (really, there is no other reason).

My god it never ends! Some movies are 3 hours because they have 3 hours of story to tell. And sometimes, rarely because studios know better, a movie is 3 hours because the director is unwilling or incapable of editing his film. This is the second case. Scene after scene is too long; each says all it has to say, and then says it again. And again.

But the length points to a second problem, which is this isn’t a movie; it’s two movies that don’t belong anywhere near each other, squished together. One of those is a gritty, intense, crime movie, where an off-putting private detective works with a hostile police force to find a serial killer in a very corrupt city. This is the good part of The Batman, which would have been much better if it wasn’t a Batman film. There’s no need for Batman to be in this movie. It would be more suited to Benedict Cumberbatch‘s Sherlock Holmes, but a new quirky detective would have probably been better. Everything Batman-like doesn’t fit and Patterson showing up wearing little ears is just silly. Focus on the mystery and make it a hard-R, and we’ve got a good thriller.

Then there’s the second movie; it’s a children’s, action, superhero origin story where an immortal being with variable powers takes mind-bogglingly stupid actions and laughs-off death over and over (oh god the bomb in the face was ridiculous) on his way to learning that vengeance is morally (or strategically) wrong. This movie was always going to be weak, but the real problem is how unnaturally it fits with the crime section. In this section, no one acts in any sensible way, physics doesn’t work, and nothing matters:

  • Machine gun to the chest. No problem.
  • Semitrucks exploding. No big deal.
  • Bomb in the face. Minor inconvenience.

And it all ends in a big explosion-filled climax because that’s what superhero origin movies do.

Even saying all that, there are additional problems with the main character. Our Batman shows little emotion besides moping and rarely speaks in anything outside of a monotone. He also has boots heavy enough for Frankenstein’s Monster to suggest he go buy something lighter (it’s just funny; he can be heard long before he shows up in scenes, clomping along). And he has an unnecessary voice-over that blends in to his stereotypical 1950s teen girl diary. Yes, Batman keeps a diary. It adds nothing and turns the film into a comedy. And like many bad narrations, it vanishes for most of the film, only to return at the end when the filmmakers didn’t trust their images.

What bugs me with The Batman over other failed DC projects is that there’s a really good movie here. Even now if they cut it down to 90 minutes and trashed the action set pieces, you’d have something worth seeing. But director Matt Reeves and company had no concept of restraint or control, producing a mess.

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Jan 092022
 
three reels

Callie (Carrie Coon) brings her teenage son Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and awkward, precocious daughter Phoebe (McKenna Grace) to live on her recently deceased father’s ramshackle farm. Phoebe quickly discovers a connection to the Ghostbusters and with the aid of her teacher (Paul Rudd) and new friend (Logan Kim), sets out to solve the mystery of the farm and the nearby mountain.

I don’t recall a sequel going so far from the mark. Ghostbusters was an original, zany comedy that fired on 12 cylinders with improve-like jokes flooding every moment between over-the-top slapstick. Ghostbusters Afterlife is a semi-serious, sentimental (very, very sentimental) light family picture that from time to time drifts into drama and then veers into straightforward comedy. It’s laid out like a children’s movie, but it isn’t one. This isn’t for kids and it isn’t about mining new comedy. This is a pure nostalgia trip. It target is the middle-aged who grew up with the 1984 movie and have forgotten what it was and why it was funny, but instead treat it like holy writ. It’s for those who take Ghostbusters as part of their identity and demand respect. It’s pandering of the highest order to those yearning for childhoods that were nothing like what they now falsely remember.

The mass of sentiment increases until at the end of the movie we are tossed into a black hole of nostalgia.

In short, the concept of Ghostbusters Afterlife is terrible.

And yet, it’s not a bad film. It may be supercharged schmaltz, but it’s executed with professional hands and a watchful eye. When it tries for humor, it usually manages it, and when it goes for emotion, it succeeds far beyond what it has any right to. I could see all the gears in motion, and still those gears turned and pulled just the way they were meant to. It’s easy to criticize the film in general, but there’s little to complain about once you get to the specifics.

The kids are surprisingly likable, particularly Phoebe who is supposed to be uncharismatic while the young actress playing her, McKenna Grace, positively shines. The on-the-nose silly kid, Podcast, avoids becoming annoying. And Paul Rudd brings all the charm that is Paul Rudd in the unenviable role of sidekick to children.

The movie goes to all the places it has to fill in all the dots for its faux children’s plot, but knows to get out quickly on the details that normally would be a drag: The older teenagers, adjusting to the new town, not being believed by the adults. It does what it must, but then dashes on to more rewarding material. In fact it is always moving.

It would be a better world if there were no call for films like this. But as there are, this is how you do it. I may have hated the idea of what I was watching, but I was entertained.

May 062021
 

Yes PicIt’s time for another list that no one cares about. With films and gaming, I’ve got cred. Music… Well, this is just what I like. And what I like is Yes.

Yes started as a psychedelic band, but moved quickly into art rock, creating works of stunning complexity and beauty. They were something new and no one has matched them. It took only three albums for them to reach full mastery of the form, but such perfection lasted only 6 years and 6 albums. They fell apart in the middle of making Tormato in 1978, and while the band has existed in numerous forms up to the present day, it has never came close to what it once was. Unfortunately, I first saw them in 1983, during the horror of what was the 90125 tour.

A top 10 is really wrong for Yes, but hey, I don’t make up the rules. I could easily make this a top 20 – without adding additional albums. My 9th and 10th spots are really ties with a bunch of other songs, which I’ll give honorable mentions to: Perpetual Change (The Yes Album), Long Distance Runaround and Heart of the Sunrise (both from Fragile), Siberian Khatu (Close to the Edge), and The Revealing Science of God (sides 1 of Tales from Topographic Oceans).

Yes could be excellent live, but I’ve found them at their finest on studio recordings, so my embedded videos only include one live performance, and one fake live performance.


#10 – Ritual {Nous Somme du Soleil} (Tales From Topographic Oceans)

After four (glorious) sides of psychedelic new age jazz, Ritual drops us into the gentle and easy to grasp Nous Somme du Soleil, and it is like all the tension of the world has been released. I admit to giving this a slight boost to get another album in the top 10, which is equally true of #9.

 


#9 – Roundabout (Fragile)

It seems a statement of what prog rock would be, and when I heard it (edited for radio) in 1971, there was nothing like it. It’s Howe and Anderson, playing off each other, with that unrelenting bass pounding everything into submission.


#8 – The Gates of Delirium (Relayer)

Out went Wakeman, in came Patrick Moraz, and with him, a bit of jazz to add even greater complexity. It’s about war and conflict and the extent that a band could push the limits of rock.


#7 – Yours Is No Disgrace (The Yes Album)

In case you forgot these guys could rock, here’s your reminder. I’ve tried to make sense of the lyrics. Don’t. Just go with the flow.


#6 – Wondrous Stories (Going For The One)

Something different on this list, Wondrous Stories is short, gentle, and straightforward. It’s also beautiful.


#5 – I’ve Seen All Good People (The Yes Album)

It’s half pastoral and half country rock.


#4 – Awaken (Going For The One)

Out went short-timer Moraz (pushed) to allow room for Wakeman’s return, which he used to play the organ bits in a cathedral over a phone line as the rest of the band played in the studio. Yes never did anything the easy way.


#3 – Starship Trooper (The Yes Album)

Yes nails down who they were with this multi-part, multi-layered song cycle. It leaps all over the place and does it majestically.


#2 – Close To The Edge (Close To The Edge)

A masterpiece on their greatest masterpiece album, Close To The Edge takes up a full album side, and it could have gone on for another hour.


#1 – And You and I (Close To The Edge)

It doesn’t get better than Close To The Edge, so #1 goes to another song off that album. It’s complex as well, and goes in strange directions. It also has a melody of strange beauty.

Dec 022020
  December 2, 2020

Just released, a collection of my 109 reviews of 1930s horror films.

A collection of my 109 reviews of 1930s horror films.


Here you’ll find a complete guide to the horror films of the 1930s. There are 109 surviving horror movies from the decade and this book examines each one. It discusses the good and bad, and places them within the three legs of Hollywood horror: Classic Horror, Poverty Row, and Old Dark House films, before switching to Britain for Quota Quickies and then investigating what Germany, Mexico, China, and the rest of the world had to offer.

The Birth of Monsters covers the social changes, people, and important events that influenced the creation of horror cinema. It discusses how Universal and Carl Laemmle Jr. led the way, and the rest of the Big 5 and Little 3 studios followed grudgingly. And then Joseph Breen brought it all tumbling down. It’s filled with details and stories that make the movies even more enjoyable and places them in the context of the times. Which film was a scam? Which promoted quack science? Which picture got around the Production Code, and what was the first movie made from the work of a Black playwright?

But this isn’t a history book. The Birth of Monsters is about the films themselves: the themes, plots, and characters. Which films are masterpieces that changed popular culture and which are best forgotten? It is a book of reviews, 109 of them. If you want to know which Golden Age, horror films to seek out, The Birth of Monsters will point the way.

Come join Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Hjalmar Poelzig, Ewin Drood, Richard III, Ygor, Svengali, King Kong, Fu Manchu, Dr. Jekyll, Count Zaroff, The Bat, Dr. Moreau, Alraune, The Golem, Murder Legendre and his zombies, Death, Sherlock Holmes, and Sweeney Todd, as well as Boris Karloff, Dwight Frye, Fay Wray, Tod Browning, Vincent Price, James Whale, Myrna Loy, Humprey Bogart, Ginger Rogers, Cantinflas, Basil Rathbone, Charles Laughton, Claude Rains, Max Steiner, Gloria Stuart, and Bela Lugosi.

Oct 262020
 

michael-powellMy bio for Michael Powell is a bit longer then usual as people who don’t breath cinema don’t seem to know him.

Powell has been called the greatest British director by those more knowledgeable than I, and I wouldn’t argue the point. His films wrap me into other realities. More than any other director on my Great Director’s Lists, his films stand apart—no one makes films that look like his. He was a perfectionist, and a fiend in demanding things be his way, yet he was open to the ideas of his casts and crews, or sometimes just let them work it out, and shared power and tasks with his producing partner Emeric Pressburger.

Powell’s films are symbolic and surreal. Mundane reality had little interest for him, though he would merge documentary style filmmaking with his narrative strangeness. His themes often involve obsession, particularly for art, as well as the suffering that caused. He would compare our normal society to something outside it, something more fundamental. That otherness was “better” but also more dangerous. It was beyond our understanding, and so likely to destroy us.

His creed was “All art is one.” Film was the best form because it could encompass all the others. He sought to integrate theater and dance and song and painting, and he succeeded.

He learned his craft turning out Quota Quickies in the 1930s. In 1939 Alexander Korda teamed Powell with screenwriter Pressburger and the two got along so well they formed a production partnership that lasted nearly twenty years during which they credited directing, writing, and producing under the name The Archers. Since Powell did a majority of the directing, and this is a list for directors, I’m calling it a Michael Powell list, although most of the films belong to both of them equally.

The Archers spent the next 8 years making a combination of B&W wartime propaganda films and existential epics. Given a nearly free hand by the Rank organization, these later films were like nothing else. What really stood out was their incredible use of color (often in collaboration with cinematographer Jack Cardiff). It upset the Technicolor technicians greatly as Powell refused to do things the normal way. These include some of the finest films ever made, and unquestionably the most beautiful.

The Archers era of color extravaganzas ended when J. Arthur Rank decided The Red Shoes would be a flop (he was wrong), so severed relations with the Archers, sending them back to Korda, and less freedom and less money. The results were mixed, and when that relationship soured, The Archers found themselves without backing, and eventually dissolved the company.

On his own, Powell directed Peeping Tom, a voyeuristic psycho-killer film that is now greatly revered, but in 1960 shocked and disgusted both critics and audiences and was pulled from theaters, mostly ending his career in England. He made a few more films in Germany and Australia, and re-teamed with Pressburger on one of those and a final children’s movie.

It’s tempting to switch from my normal top 8 to a top 10 or 12 for Powell, but I’ll just include a few extra honorable mentions

The first goes to The Phantom Light (1935), an enjoyable Quota Quickie Old Dark House movie, set in a lighthouse (My review). And an honorable mention to Contraband {aka Blackout} (1940), the second of two wartime pictures staring Valerie Hobson and Condrad Veidt (the first is below). It’s a mix of propaganda and Hitchcockian spy thriller. Next a pair of honorable mentions to The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946), the first two of The Archers’ series of spectacularly beautiful color films.

Finally two more honorable mentions to films I was sure were going to make the top 8 when I started this. The Battle of the River Plate {Pursuit of the Graf Spee} (1956) is an unusual war picture. The first half has all the combat, but the picture really takes off when the ships are sitting still and politics and trickery take over. 49th Parallel (1941) is propaganda raised to art. It makes the Nazi survivors of a doomed U-boat human, which makes them more dangerous.

And a pair of dishonorable mentions to two ill-considered British/American collaborations arranged by Korda, where the Hollywood moguls forced casting choices that didn’t fit or were against the wishes of the actors (who then sabotaged production), fought everything The Archers were doing, didn’t keep up their side of the financial agreements, and mangled the final product for American release. To be fair, The Archers don’t get away without blame as they knew what they were getting into (or should have known) yet refused to adjust to the situations when clearly they should have. The first of these is Gone to Earth (1950) made in “cooperation” with David O. Selznick, who massively cut the film and inserted new scenes for the US and released it as The Wild Heart. (And yes, Selznick’s wife, Jennifer Jones, was gorgeous in the lead, but also easily a decade too old), The other is The Elusive Pimpernel (1950), this time made with the “support” of Samuel Goldwyn (My Review).

So, onto the best of the best:

#8 – The Spy in Black (1939) — This is the first of the Hobson/Veidt films. This time Veidt is a German submarine captain with nefarious plans in the UK and Hobson is his spy contact. There are crosses and double-crosses. It’s more serious than their next outing would be, though nearly as much fun and overall a bit smarter. This and Contraband would rank higher, as they are both entertaining and high quality, but they use only The Archers’ skill, not their idiosyncratic view of the world.

#7 – The Edge of the World (1937) — After 21 films, Powell finally had the freedom to make what he wanted. It tells the story of the hardships and abandonment of an island in the Outer Hebrides. It is the precursor of what would come after as it’s all here: themes of tradition vs the modern world, man vs nature, the mystical vs the mundane, outsiders vs society, life vs death, and grief. It contains a general feeling that the universe is beyond our understanding. It has beautiful cinematography as well as sometimes a documentary feel. The ending of the plot is weak, but the story isn’t the plot. This is one of two non-Archers film on this list.

#6 – The Red Shoes (1948) — Probably The Archers’ most famous work, I suspect some fans might find my rating a bit low. It is, after all, stunning from the first frame. One can spend the entire length of the film gazing, gap-mouthed, at the colors that shouldn’t be possible. The Red Shoes Ballet portion is enough to get this on any list of the great films. But the script lacks subtlety and the actors, mostly chosen for their dance skills, overplay their parts, so 6th is about right.

#5 – The Small Back Room {Hour of Glory} (1949) — Leaving The Rank Organization meant The Archers didn’t have money for huge, beautiful, Technicolor marvels, so they made an intimate, beautiful, B&W marvel. The plot follows a bitter, alcoholic bomb specialist as he investigates a new German device during WWII, but the story deals with his psychological trials and failings. The film reunites David Farrar and Kathleen Byron from Black Narcissus. It’s tense and thoughtful, taking some shots at British politics and society between the more personal moments.

#4 – Bluebeard’s Castle {Herzog Blaubarts Burg} (1963) — Seldom seen, this is an amazing, colorful, and compelling film opera. The Archers’ longtime production designer Hein Heckroth called Powell to come to Germany and make this film for TV. It’s the second of two non-Archers films on this list. (My full review)

#3 – The Tales of Hoffmann (1951) — This is the ultimate example of Powell’s “composed cinema,” where the film is put together from separately created pieces—and as they are separate, they can be the best in their specific areas. It’s a combination of ballet, opera, theater, poetry, architecture & design, and painting, encompassed in the tricks of a motion picture. This is art in pure form. (My full review)

#2 – I Know Where I’m Going! (1945) — A magical realist fable that’s pure Archers. Wendy Hiller stars as an obscenely practical yet somehow likeable woman who travels out of her normal world to marry for money and power, but the universe gets in the way.

#1 – Black Narcissus (1947) — The most beautiful film ever made, and one of the best, Black Narcissus is a masterpiece of amorous color. Five nuns are sent into the Himalayas to turn an ex-pleasure palace into a nunnery, and it’s a character drama, a commentary on British society and/or colonialism, an erotic tale, and a horror movie. (My full review)

Aug 292020
 
four reels

Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) have reached middle age without having written the song that will create utopia. They have no song, no band, no jobs, no prospects, and even their marriages to the princesses Joanna (Jayma Mays) and Elizabeth (Erinn Hayes) are fraying. One bright spot is their daughters, Thea (Samara Weaving) who is the second most adorable person ever born, and Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine) who is the most adorable person ever born. That’s not specified in the story, but it’s a great truth: they are unbelievably adorable. Things get worse for Bill and Ted when they are summoned into the future by Rufus’s daughter Kelly (Kristen Schaal) where they are told if they don’t find the song within the day, reality will come apart. With no inspiration, the pair travel through time to meet their older selves to try and learn the song from themselves while their daughters seek the finest musicians of all time to make the band they think their fathers’ need.

This is the greatest movie ever made.

Am I over praising it? Absolutely. But this is the movie we need now. This is its time. If there’s ever been a more perfect fit for a film with reality, I don’t know it. Perhaps it won’t end up as the best film of the year, but it will be THE film of the year.

In this miserable time, filled with hate and doom and surrounded by loneliness, there’s been no cinema for nearly six months. Nothing. A huge gaping void to go with the huge gaping void which has been life, and Bill and Ted come along to fill it.

Let’s see if this sounds familiar. The world is falling apart. Life isn’t what one thought it would be. There’s anger and despair and everything seems pointless. Dreams have been lost. Seems a lot like 2020. But there is an solution. It’s really simple while being as deep as philosophy gets. But here’s where Face the Music diverges from our reality: In the film it’s clear they are going to adopt that solution. I’m not so hopeful for reality. But for 90 minutes, I can join Bill & Ted & Thea & Billie and live in that solution, and wow, did I need that. We all need that.

biilted3Outside of that, you know what you’re getting with Face the Music. It’s funny and fast-paced, with reasonable production values. That is, it’s a good sequel, and very much like its two predecessors, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991). It has a lot of call-backs to the earlier films, but they are all welcome and nothing is over done. It’s shifted only slightly in that the first two films were mildly heartwarming where this one might have you hugging your loved ones as your heart grows two sizes.

Reeves can still manage being Ted while encompassing change and disappointment. Winter is even better as Bill—so much the same, but aged, and with a twinkle that’s missing from his companion (and they play with that). But the standouts are Weaving and Lundy-Paine. I was perfectly happy to spend time with Bill and Ted, but Thea and Billie were even more delightful. Spin them off into their own feature and I’m there. They felt not only like the future of the “franchise,” but like the future itself.

If our dismal civilization is going to make it, it will be due to Thea and Billie.

Removed from this place in history, Face the Music is a light and airy concoction. It’s silly, with no interest in treading new ground. It’s unlikely to spawn catch-phrases as the first did, nor win Academy awards. It’s a sweet, almost gentle picture, that wants nothing more than to remind you that love is good, things don’t have to be terrible, and maybe we should all just try being excellent to each other. In ten years this will be a likable enough film. But it isn’t ten years in the future. It’s now. And now, I love this movie.