Category Archives: Film reviews

Short reviews of films with a particular view to gaining insight into how the film was made and revealing useful ideas that can be applied to my own or others’ films.

Sugar Man is documentary filmmaking at its best

Sometimes, the film that deserves to win best doc at the Oscars actually does.

Turns out that the film is already having an impact on Rodriguez’s life: he’s scheduled to perform at Coachella in April. That would be something to see. The good news is you don’t have to travel to the festival to hear his amazing music. A soundtrack to the film has already been released and makes a fantastic background for editing, I’ve discovered.

CineLook FCPX plugin adds real film grain

On Dec. 6, Denver Riddle (Color Grading Central) released a promising plugin that attempted to deliver what he called “the holy grail” of grading within a single FCPX plugin: a filmic color grade, noise reduction, sharpening, tinting, and filmic grain. It even includes a 2.35:1 widescreen format crop from within the effect. All for $29 bucks.

I tried it out last week, and found the “add grain” feature to be seriously lacking. All it did was add nauseating digital noise to the shot. I shared my disappointment with Denver by email, and he immediately replied. He agreed that the grain was lackluster, and shared that he was considering on a solution to add REAL film grain instead. That sounded pretty cool – but I figured it would take months. And wouldn’t including real film grain push the product toward CineGrain’s $300 price point? And add a lot of complexity to the interface?

So this morning, exactly one week later, I’m delighted to discover that Denver has shipped an updated CineLook plugin that does EXACTLY what I want it to: add REAL film grain to my footage, either subtly or dramatically, without having to mess with compositing layers. And it remains simple, and affordable, although somewhat more expensive due to him partnering Gorilla Grain to provide the scans. The combined plugin now costs $99 bucks; $69 if you want the grain only as a stand-alone plugin.

I did a test this morning on some footage from the film I’m currently cutting. Check it out! It’s amazing. (Note, however, that you will need to download the uncompressed footage from Vimeo to see the subtle but huge difference – it really doesn’t show up well after the compression that Vimeo lays down. The link won’t work unless you have a Vimeo Pro account to download the original footage). If you don’t have time to download the original footage, just click on the screen grabs below to view them at full resolution).

Notice in particular how the Gorilla grain stays clear of the shadows. The orig. grain in the first release of CineLook added all kinds of noise in the shadows. Using real film grain solve this problem and restricts the grain where it belongs: in the mid tones and highlights. It doesn’t mimic film: it IS film.

Here’s a screenshot that illustrates why this is so cool (click to view at full resolution):

For adding film grain, this plugin is in a class by itself. The closest competitor, CineGrain, requires you to download footage, then manually composite it on a layer above your footage using Overlay, and you can make refinements from there. But that’s awkward in comparison with what CineLook allows you to do, and the looks are virtually identical (although CineGrain offers a wider range of options such as light leaks).

For comparison between CineGrain and CineLook, I’ve taken three frame grabs below, all from actual size 1920×1080 frame (there is a watermark visible on CineGrain frame, because I used sample footage as I haven’t purchased it). Click each frame to see full resolution:

Les plages d'Agnès | documentary 44 of 100

Watching this documentary is perhaps the closest thing possible to getting inside long-time French filmmaker Agnes Varda’s head without surgery. It’s a playful brain dump that skips through the memories of her long life in an avalanche of arty free association. “She has a way of never explaining very much,” wrote film critic Roger Ebert, “and yet somehow making it all clear.”

Synopsis: Agnes Varda, who at this time of this film was 80 years old, finds a way to tell her story that is as original and vivid as her own life. Constructed from family photos, snippets from her many films, and swept along by her irrepressible narrative, the bits of her story appear and vanish like bubbles in the sand. Old photos come to life in carefully reconstructions with young actresses, whom she sits beside, observing with a wry smile. The river of time flows deep through Varda’s live, pulling you along with it on a wild ride that encompasses many of the most significant events of the 20th Century.

Story structure: The film opens on the beach, where Varda is building a very artsy mirror assemblage, an apt visual metaphor for the film to come, in which Varda throws the pieces of her life into the kaleidascope of this film. After the loosely follows the path of her, chronicling major events such as her marriage to French filmmaker Jacques Demy. But equally resonant is the interior journey of the recollection itself, the inquiry leading her to surprising places in her mind, and like a tour guide, leading us, is Varda, sitting in a little sailboat, or walking shoeless on the beach. The story is told with her narration, in a train-of-consciousness style that allows her to wander freely to find connections that are real to her, and captivating to us.

Cinematography: The memorable scenes for me are the way still photographs were incorporated into the film. Varda, who was an accomplished photographer, uses pictures from her childhood layered with moving images to form moving, occasionally surreal and always stimulating visual juxtapositions. The opening mirror scene is also a keeper. The timelapse of suger cane cutters in Cuba is also memorable.

Editing: The stream of consciousness style of this film reminds me a little of “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control.” Only within one person’s head, not four.

Music and sound: The sound effects in the mural painting scene, such as pig snorting, registered.

Little Dieter Needs to Fly | Documentary 43 of 100

After watching another Herzog film, I’m struck by how clear it is that Herzog makes films about topics that not only interest him, but somehow ARE him. Dieter Dengler, the German-born Navy airman whose epic escape from behind enemy lines is the subject of this film, is the Herzog character in this film. In fact, it’s the only Herzog film I’ve seen in which Herzog allows the narration to switch seamlessly between Dengler and himself, and it’s momentarily disorienting because you’re not sure whose German accent you’re listening to.

Synopsis: During the Vietnam War, Dieter Dengler was shot down behind enemy lines, and this documentary recounts the story of his imprisonment and ultimate miraculous escape and rescue. Much of the film was made during a trip to Vietnam in which Herzog accompanied Dengler to the locations where key events happened, where he hired actors to partially recreate events. Dengler narrates most of the film, telling his own story with a deftness and sureness that is nothing short of extraordinary. No wonder Herzog later made a narrative feature film based on Dengler’s life after he died in 2001. It’s pure, unvarnished heroism, and anyone who watches the film is likely to be as captivated by Dengler as Herzog clearly was.

Story and Structure: The film opens with a Bible quote from the book of Revelations, then unfolds through 4 named acts: The Man, His Dream, Punishment, and Redemption. Herzog goes deep in the filmmaker’s tool kit on this one, using archival footage, military training film footage, recreations with actors filmed during a return visit to Vietnam, accompanied with his own narration, to tell the story. But mostly, the story depends on Dengler’s own words, which at times are so matter-of-fact in describing unspeakable horrors that it’s surreal.

Cinematography: The last scene in the main part of the film is very powerful (but something tells me, given the situation, could have been even stronger).  It begins with Dengler walking through the massive military aircraft graveyard at Davis Monthan Airforce Base near Tucson. Next we’re seeing him walk from an aerial shot, in which we leave him behind and pass row after row of decommissioned Vietnam-era planes. It’s a landscape of dreams, in a place where Dengler could sleep forever, and a fitting end to the film, as those willing to sit through the brief credits soon discover in the postscript, filmed at Arlington National Cemetery.

The film contains a scene early on that has become legendary in documentary filmmaking circles, in which Dengler arrives at his home and tries all the doors, opening and closing them, explaining that it’s a habit he’s gotten into since his escape to ensure that he can leave whenever he likes. Only, that piece of the story was one of Herzog’s moments of “ecstatic truth” shot not because it was real, but because it showed what it really felt like to be Dengler. And as long as Herzog is forthcoming and honest about his use of such techniques, which he has always been, I support his use of such fabrication. After all, all cinema is manipulation, and filmmakers are not, thank God, journalists.

Editing: Much is woven together in this film: family stills, interviews, news footage, dramatic recreations. And it all hangs – but without anything rising to the level of memorable editing, in my view. It just works, in a solid, journeyman, well-crafted kind of way.

Music and Sound: Herzog’s music tends to be symphonic, operatic, and epic, and this film is no exception. There’s even some Tibetan throat singers, also a recurring theme in Herzog films. This is where I find myself slightly critical of the film, on the one hand acknowledging the fact that his choices are definitely moving, while on the other wondering whether there might have been another way, perhaps a more original way.

The Bridge | documentary 42 of 100

Watching The Bridge is about as close to suicide as you can get without vaulting the guardrail of the San Francisco Bay Bridge yourself. That is to say: it’s a very unusual and thought-provoking film. I found myself awake at 4am the morning after screening it, wrestling with the host of disturbing images and questions raised by this film.

Synopsis: Staking out the Bay Bridge for a full year with nearly $100,000 in extremely long lenses, Eric Steel (who more recently was co-producer on Julia and Julia) and a team of camera operators hired off Craigslist films people walking across the bridge knowing that an average of two per month will choose to end their lives by jumping from the bridge. Sure enough, they manage to record quite a few of the 24 people who died in 2004. What makes the film interesting beyond the morbid curiosity of watching someone jump is that they followed up with friends and relatives of the jumpers, to find out why they did it.

Story Structure: The main character in this film is, of course, the San Francisco Bay Bridge. It’s presence is always felt from the stunning opening sequence which is timelapse of rushing fog through which we catch momentary glimpses of the bridge, until the fog melts away to reveal the bridge in all it’s majesty. After that it’s a non-linear voyage into the stories of people who both successfully and unsuccessfully tried to end their lives by leaping from the bridge. The structure used is basically this: Interviews with relatives provide voiceover to b-roll of bridge, including shot of person who is standing on bridge alone, looking out over the edge. The person then climbs over the railing, and either immediately vaults to their death, or stands on the precipice before doing so. Splash. Cut to another story. The tension comes from showing people who look like they might jump, and you wonder: which one of them is going to do it? There’s one particular guy, Gene, who we keep seeing many times throughout the film. It’s as if he’s having a really hard time deciding whether to jump. We hear from tons of his relatives all through the film, and the film’s climax seems to be leading up to his decision whether to jump or not. I won’t spoil it for you.

Tension builds from the opening of the film, in which we see someone jump, setting up what you’re going to see more of. Then it makes you wait, building the suspense, while we catch up with stories of some of the people from point of view of relatives.

Cinematography: I think I would have been ready to jump off the bridge myself after about a week of what must have been never-ending tedious camera operation. Can you imagine scanning the length of the Bay Bridge all fucking day long looking for people who might jump, then being ready, in an instant, to track them and keep them in the frame? That’s dedication.

The timelapse sequence  and b-roll of the bridge itself are absolutely stunning, and involve the use of extremely long lenses which compress everything (such as wires) mercilessly. There are wonderful visual methaphors everywhere: pelicans soaring and clouds billowing (symbolic of freedom – something the suicidal people perhaps long in choosing to end their lives);  massive and solid columns soaring into the clouds (symbolic of strength and stability – something the jumpers lack); inclusion of “emergency exit” sign in some stills, etc. Still photos are used with slow zooms into the faces. One particularly memorable timelapse is of a sailboat tacking frantically under the bridge in rough seas – a perfect metaphor for the lives of the jumpers.

There are a couple of scenes in which we dissolve through a lengthy series of shots to show time passing, which work OK but not extraordinarily well.

Editing: There are some random flash-transitions toward the end of the film that seemed a bit out of place, perhaps because they are not used consistently throughout, and their use didn’t seem particularly intentional.

Music and Sound: There’s a lot of bells, tones, and melancholy instrumentation that weaves a feeling of ominous foreboding well. Occasional happy music is juxtaposed. Music overall is understated in the film, disappearing into the background, until late in the film when we hear the first vocal track, “Since I lost you.” I think it could have been a better film with more carefully selected music of this kind. I’m guessing there was a fair bit of sound effects work on this film, because obviously the many sequences with people walking across bridge were not audio recorded in sync with the visuals due to the extreme distance of camera from subject.

I couldn’t wait to watch the extras after screening this film, because a film of this kind raises many questions. Why did Steel want to make it? How did he get permission from participants? Some of these questions are revealed, and others are not. In doing a bit of research, I learned that Steel wasn’t entirely forthcoming about the subject of the film when he applied for the permits to make it – he said it was a film about the bridge, rather than about suicide. And some reports suggest he also did not reveal to family members that their voiceover would be used with actual footage of their loved one jumping. I would have liked to have heard him be more forthcoming about those questions and his thought process.

A well-deserved win for some brave, inventive filmmakers

When The Cove had a short run in theaters in Seattle last summer, I skipped watching it because I didn’t think I could stomach watching people slaughter dolphins. But I changed my mind after continuing to hear great things about the film. Lara and I caught up with the film in Tacoma, where it was playing at The Grand several weeks after finishing its Seattle run.

The film rocked my world. Who knew a documentary could be so damned thrilling? The film reignited my belief that private citizens who are deeply committed to a cause can take on huge institutions, heck, whole countries, and make a difference. The film leaves you feeling elated, heroic, determined, rather than depressed.

The Cove winning an Oscar is a reminder that courageous filmmaking for a noble cause is alive and well. And it doesn’t always go unrecognized.

The Mystery of Picasso | documentary 40 of 100

Where does art come from? It’s a mystery, for sure. But one that can be recorded on film. French director Henri-Georges Clouzot captures Picasso’s process with what at the time may have been innovative techniques of time lapse, but that today seem a tad simplistic. But if you’re a Picasso fan, it’s enchanting.

Synopsis: Using a process that involves colors bleeding through paper to reveal pen strokes as they happen, the filmmakers join Picasso in his studio to observe how he puts ink and paint on canvas.

Story and Structure: The film is simply a visit to Picasso’s studio, in which he performs a series of paintings specifically for the camera, from beginning to end. A handful of brief interludes in which the director converses with Picasso add much-needed breaks from the tedium of watching paintings slowly emerge. It concludes with Picasso signing his name on a big canvas, and walking away.

Cinematography: The technique of ink bleeding through paper is interesting and a mystery for the first part of the film until it’s revealed when the director of the film inserts himself and his crew into the production in a conversation with Picasso. There’s a scene in the film, apparently inserted to add dramatic effect, in which the camera is about to run out of film, and we see the feet running out. But it seems fairly contrived. Lots of time lapse, which is kind of tired by the end.

Editing: The edit emphasizes the art, to the exclusion of Picasso himself.

Music: The music is frenetic, and all over the place. I’d have rather heard Picasso musing about his work in voiceover, instead of all that music and very little spoken words in the film. But the music does match the painting pretty well perfectly, complete with flourishes at end. A little too perfectly.

The director in this film seems a little high on himself. He dominates the conversation with Picasso, and smokes a pipe in Picasso’s studio. I was a little embarrassed for him.

The September Issue | documentary 39 of 100

I’ve been head’s down editing a commercial piece for Eton School over the past week, which I’ll be posting as soon as it’s approved and we clear the audio track. I came up for air last night long enough to screen The September Issue with my wife. It’s the first documentary film in this series of 100 that I intensely disliked.

Synopsis: A soulless behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of Vogue Magazine and it’s editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour. This film made no sense to me at all, until my wife told me that it was a response by Anna to critics who say she’s a militant bitch. It does little to improve her reputation, in my opinion, but at least this explains why it was made: it’s basically a feature-length PR stunt. Or to put it more simply, crap.

Story Structure: The film is structured around the 6-month-long process of producing Vogue’s largest issue, which is published each year in September. Unfortunately, the story train just isn’t interesting: of course they will meet their deadline (it’s Vogue, duh, did you have any doubt they would?) There’s some comedic relief in seeing the world of mostly cowering minions that Wintour has created for herself to live in, and the frustration on the part of her assistant editor who actually does the real heavy lifting to produce the magazine is palpable.

Cinematography: The quality of the video often was disappointing. Highlights were often blown out, and there was plenty of searching for focus happening. I got the sense it was shot with a crappy camera and included sloppy camera work so that it “looked” like a documentary, possibly because of some brisk decree issued from Anna Wintour to make it seem more believable.

Editing: There’s some nice cutting in this film, for example, the way in which we go very quickly from someone talking about a runway show straight into the show with just a few steps in between.

Sound and Music: The thing I liked most about this film was the music. The energy of the runway scenes brought the film to life with pulsing electronica. Of course, all warmth generated by said scenes was immediately drained when the camera inevitably settled on Anna Wintour.

After this, I’m looking forward to screening “Valentino: The Last Emporer” for another take on the fashion world.

Capturing Reality | documentary 38 of 100

Cinematographer Steven Bradford came over this evening and we screened Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary. It’s a 2-dvd set with a feature length doc on one, and nearly 4 hours of interviews with 38 documentary filmmakers on the second disc. The whole thing is produced by the National Film Board of Canada, an organization the supports Canadian filmmakers. When I was a kid growing up in Alberta, my dad would rent 16mm films from film lending libraries that the NFB made available in Calgary. He’d bring them home, and I’d play projectionist. That was movie night for our family.

The website for this film is the best documentary film site I’ve ever seen. It’s got part of the soundtrack playing, and you can roll over any of the 38 directors to play cuts of them talking about their approach to filmmaking.

Synopsis: Documentary filmmakers strive toward truth in one way or another, working with real lives and real events in the way that narrative filmmakers work with actors and costumes. But both approaches are manipulations. In interviews with 38 filmmakers, including Academy Award winner Errol Morris, Capturing Reality shows that there are as many approaches to making films as there are filmmakers.

Story Structure: This is an interview-driven film, a film that perhaps only filmmakers will really love. Intercut with the interviews are clips from many of the films being discussed. It’s thematically organized by major components of filmmaking, for example, Sound, Editing, Cinematography, Narration, Ethics. In particular, I loved the probing sections about what led them to become filmmakers, and how they decide on which ideas to turn into films.

Cinematography: Almost all of the interviews are shot and lit identically, in 3-light setups against black. I’m not sure that was the right choice, frankly – I would have liked to see something of each filmmaker’s environment if possible (although it’s possible the film was shot at a festival or something which would have made the environment meaningless). This approach DOES focus your attention exclusively on what the directors are saying, rather than their surroundings, which means content is king in this film. And the result is an treasure trove of ideas, tips, techniques and anecdotes, uncovered so rapidly that it begs for a second viewing. A nice touch at the beginning is catching the editors while they are putting their mics on, saying off-hand things. Sets the tone for what’s coming in the film.

Editing: The editor did a great job of in some places showing directors talking about their own films while at same time showing a clip from film, but often showing another director referencing another filmmaker’s film and showing that one. Or showing a clip that wasn’t specifically referenced by what’s being said, but works anyway. In many cases the directors say essentially opposite things, and the cuts show the diversity of opinion rather than attempting to enforce agreement in the edit, which felt true. In other places, directors nearly complete each other’s sentences, which really pulls the film forward.

Music and Audio: Great audio on the interviews, as one might expect from the controlled conditions they all were filmed under. The minimalist orchestral string-heavy music that runs under much of the film reminded me of Errol Morris’ recent films (but it’s not Philip Glass – although there are some clips of Glass from a documentary made about his life). One interesting audio fact: On “Touching the Void,” Kevin MacDonald’s sound guy came up with the sound used in the ice crevasses by slowing a leopard’s grown down 50 times. The result is an eerie, spooky sound that was perfect. Herzog had a great quote: “Music gives new insights – a different kind of vision.” By contrast, a couple of directors said they think music has no place in documentary. I side with Herzog.

This amazing film also turned me on to a whole bunch of films that I haven’t seen, which I can’t wait to get my eyes on: “Lessons of Darkness;” “The Peacekeepers;” “Salesman;” “The Scavengers;” “Metal and Melancholy;” “The Bomber’s Dream;” “Darwin’s Nightmare;” and directors like Scott Hicks, and Jessica Yu.

I’m not sure who said this, but it was one of the female directors in voiceover during a clip, and it’s the line: “The films that we make are our teachers.” But Velcrow Ripper got the last word: “The answer to life is becoming a documentary filmmaker.” Here here.

Manufactured Landscapes | documentary 37 of 100

Manufactured Landscapes is one smart documentary. Let me count the ways: it manages to take us from beginning to end without a single on-screen sit down interview. It’s got a haunting, techy, glitchy original soundtrack. It manages to make a huge political statement without being preachy or even taking an overt position. But most of all, it’s simply breathtakingly to look at. I saw Jennifer Baichwal’s latest film at SIFF Cinema last fall, Act of God, and it’s also a visual orgasm.

Synopsis: Canadian nature photographer Edward Burtynsky photographs the landscapes of the Earth that have been transformed by human activity to reveal a haunting picture of the modern world, and filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal weaves his pictures into a compelling visual poem.

Story Structure: A non-linear journey in which the filmmakers accompanied Burtynsky as he made his way around the world filming, from China to Bangladesh, intercut with current art exhibitions of photographs made on this trip. This overt playing with time combined with otherworldly soundtrack is like dreaming. The elements of story are provided without narration, with voiceover from the photographer who at no point is interviewed (although at one point is seen talking on stage explaining his work to an audience).

There’s also a rather strange sequence in the final third of the film in which a Shanghai real estate agent is essentially narrating the story of Shanghai. On balance, though, this is just brilliant filmmaking: eschewing traditional interviews in favor of endless, humongous images, in an open-ended meditation that leaves the viewer to draw her own conclusions.

Cinematography: In a word, HUGE. The opening sequence is an unforgettable 8-minute long tracking shot of a factory floor in China that assembles clothing irons. Reaching the end of the line the frame wipes to a still photo of the same factory floor, which then becomes the title of the film.

There’s a bunch of black and white footage in the film that was obviously shot by someone else – presumably they ran it in black and white to show that it was shot by someone other than the filmmakers. I did some googling and found out that another filmmaker, a rookie documentary filmmaker, had shot 80 hours of footage hoping to make a film, but Burtynsky wasn’t happy with the results, so he hooked up with Baichwal, who also hails from Canada.

There’s one dutch camera angle in the film that is a judicious use of the heavy-hammer technique: it’s used to show a container being lifted off a truck and hoisted onto a ship.

Editing: The way the editor linked the still photos to the moving pictures was sick. The first time this happens is with the shot of the workers lined up in front of the factory. It works like this: 1. shot of Burtynsky taking film out of his camera. 2. Still photo that results. 3. begin zooming out … and we realize that we’re in an art gallery as someone walks in front of the photo. All of this with J edits that had sound from one overlapping the next scene. Damn. That’s HOT.

In general Baichwal likes to use cuts that dissolve slowly into each other at different angles while the camera is traveling. For example, there’s a memorable dissolve between an angled tilt shot over a city scene from above, which is slowly dissolved into an oppositely angled tilt shot of a model city. She uses this type of edit a lot in Act of God, in which she’s tilting into treetops and cutting them together into a dreamy montage.

Music and Sound: Techy, glitchy, minimalist music is a perfectly discordant match for the pictures and images in the film. Some of it sounds like it was made from samples recorded at the scenes – jets of gas recur in music sounding like work on an assembly line. The way that found sounds creep into the edits is brilliant – for example, the “beep, beep” of the huge cranes at the port lifting containers off trucks and loading them onto container ships. You hear the beeping long before you see the crane making the sound, and I think it was in fact foly generated and then matched to the actual track because of background noise in the shot. Nicely done.

This film is an inspiration that I’ll be thinking about for a long time.