About Matt

Website: http://www.antinomyfilms.com
Matt has written 4 articles so far, you can find them below.

Under the Rug and On the Horizon: The Providence Effect Review

Directed by: Rollin Binzer
Length: 1 hour 32 minutes
Development to Distribution: 3 years
Shot on: Sony PDWF800

I wish I had good things to say about The Providence Effect. It’s so rare to see a doc that tackles the subject of education in America head-on, especially one that purports to hold answers to the system’s many woes. The private school the film focuses on, Providence St. Mel’s in Chicago’s beleaguered West Side neighborhood of East Garfield Park, fully lives up to the hype too. Beyond boasting a 100% college acceptance rate for graduating seniors, the communal aura of commitment to education that permeates the teachers, students, and parents is palpable. Then these same dedicated individuals transferred their teaching model in an attempt to recreate this wild success in the newly minted public Charter school Providence Englewood, thereby potentially shedding light on a winning strategy for public education at large. Considering this solid premise, how does The Providence Effect manage to so thoroughly fail?

It doesn’t help that the doc can’t hide its lack of inspiration in terms of its craftsmanship. Nothing about this film takes any risks whatsoever, never budging from the worn-in formula of show and tell. The film does a good job balancing time between all the various students and teachers and the major “subjects”, but there is really only one character. Only the school’s founder Paul Adams III is fleshed out enough for us to see what ultimately motivates him. Too bad his and every other interview is composed entirely of fielding softball questions. Even when the various subjects do grow animated during an interview, the static Mid-CU framing and banal, even lifeless soundtrack work to dull the effect.

The strongest and most cohesive point of the doc is that Providence St. Mels owes its success to the culture of hard work, commitment, and mutual accountability that has and continues to dominate the mindset of everyone that steps into that building. I believe this is a valuable lesson; I’m confident that such a holistic attitude will play a central role in the winning strategy for education reform, whatever that ends up being. Perhaps achieving and sustaining this culture “isn’t rocket science” at Providence St. Mels, but the film fails to show how their day to day strategies trump their public school counterparts that are in many cases equivalent if not identical. In 92 minutes the film manages to dole out precious few specifics concerning the Providence “effect”, but makes ample time for self-congratulatory pats on the back. Generalizations and warm, fuzzy platitudes fly left and right while the doc struggles to pin down what this school does so differently. “We have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to violence… and gang-related activity” the principle at one point remarks, but then never goes any deeper. So are we to believe that all of the other schools that struggle with violence have a “three-strike” policy? Is there really a High School out there that doesn’t emphasize discipline or dedication to studiousness?

Unfortunately this documentary has even graver problems to answer for beyond the limp inspiration and infomercial approach to penetrating the subject matter. The Providence Effect feels like the interlude between two other films that actually matter, the fluff that gives your brain a rest before diving back in. One the one end, the explanation for how Providence St. Mels was transformed by Paul Adams III from subpar to superstar is relegated in the film to his gloss-over explanation that essentially amounts to “Veni, Vidi, Vici”. How was he able to turn it around in “one or two” brief years? That sounds like the making of a great documentary, but apparently it wasn’t really worth diving into.

On the other end is the question of the success of Providence Englewood Charter School. Remarkably, this is never shown in any kind of thorough manner. If the conceit of the film amounts to the belief that Paul Adams III and Co. are on to something that everyone should take a hint from, isn’t the entire point then to gauge the possibility that their model could be successfully duplicated? How can the film be silent on these details and still maintain what, in this light, is the arrogant disposition of “it’s not rocket science”? What does it really matter to public education reformers if a private school in a rundown neighborhood excels, especially when it isn’t tethered to local property tax revenue?

Perhaps this huge gap in the film is simply a product of the very recent arrival of Providence Englewood Charter School, and it’s just too early to tell if it can achieve the same outstanding success of its forerunner. But then why not wait to make the doc until it is clear either way? As is, the resulting feeling upon seeing the credits roll is worse than that of the garden variety, lazily shaped doc: the entire thing just feels like a waste of time.

The Fruits of our Labor: Food Inc. Review

Directed by: Robert Kenner
Length: 1 hour 34 minutes
Development to Distribution: 6 years
Shot on: Panasonic HDX900 & HDX200

The most prevalent metaphor employed throughout the film is that of a veil: one fashioned by the food industry giants to be drawn between the consumer and the source of their food. But as Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) points out, at least once a month a news story emerges that allows a peek behind the veil. Food Inc. is an attempt to tear the veil down altogether, through a collection of poignant stories and factual insights into the dangers of our modern efficiency-driven food production machine. This is not to imply that the film simply contains a redundant collection of such news stories. Kenner and Co. have done their own investigating and applied a fresh analysis to both well-known and obscure phenomenon. In fact, he includes such a wide array of information damaging to the food mega-corporations that he must have had a whole squad of First Amendment attorneys peeking over his editor’s shoulder. The film’s second food conscience Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) bluntly notes that these companies have “legions” of lawyers and aren’t afraid to sue even when they know they can’t win, just to make an example out of you.

For those of you who’ve been living under a rock the past 40 years: cows, chickens, pigs, and other animals are already genetically mangled creatures at birth before they are subjected to various intensities of torture throughout their brief lives, only to be unceremoniously killed for the grocery and fast food joint alike. But the real value of Food Inc. lies in its more subtle points. Given the methods of standardization in breeding and processing cattle, the burger you eat can paradoxically contain the flesh of thousands of cows and yet still lack any meaningful diversity. In a wide high-angle shot of a supermarket, the same points is made about an astounding array of products. Do the tens of thousands of items contained in a single supermarket represent variety if so many rely on chemically re-constituted corn starches as a key ingredient? So while advertising depicts rolling fields and idle farm animals, the reality is increasingly a matter of new ideas envisioned in a lab then realized in filthy, crowded, mechanically controlled conditions. It’s too bad the film is almost bereft of representatives of the corporations driving food production in this direction, since one can sense Kenner doing his damndest to be as fair as possible. Then again, their intentional silence is the best evidence for his thesis of the “veil”.

The closest the film gets to representing the positives of corporate farming is summarized by one character: we can make a ton of food very cheaply and on very little land–what’s so bad about that? In addition to the gross abuse of animals, the agonizing stories of a mother who lost her only son to E-coli in his fast food burger helps answer the question. In another scene, a taped court deposition in a frivolous lawsuit shows a man beaten and broken by the invasive abuses of a corporate powerhouse. As he answers the plaintiff lawyer’s questions, the look of defeat on his face foreshadows his fate: he folds and ends up being put out of business. All of these human moments in the film feel very authentic and compete tightly for sympathy with the depicted animal suffering.

This gets at the richest insight of the film: business and economics drives everything. Capitalism is not going away, at least not quickly enough to affect the kind of change that desperately needs to happen now. The idea proffered by Food Inc. that every purchase is a vote for a candidate product is a powerful one, and will probably be the key to changing how food is produced in America. In one section a family is shown making a big order off the dollar menu at Burger King, then later shown at a supermarket lamenting their inability to afford any of the produce. I find this scene frustrating, because it’s true but not the whole truth. Sure, in a food to dollars ratio, cheap burgers may beat apples and oranges every time. But that doesn’t mean that fast food is your best option for eating cheap, even if you’re simply looking to maximize your calories. The implication of the scene leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

A doc that tries to tackle the problems with our food industry has arguably bitten off more than it can chew. Thankfully, Food Inc. chooses to gloss over or ignore many still important issues (“food deserts”, NAFTA, imported produce, etc.) so it can pay enough attention to those topics it decides to stick with. I wish the film was longer to offer more analysis, but still I think Kenner made the right decisions on what to focus on with one exception: the exact use of the term “organic” and its manipulation for marketing and advertising purposes. Although the film is awash with plenty of examples of the opposite of “organic”, it never tries to directly define what “organic” means. All the subtleties of the term’s meaning are left vague and obscure, and never is it mentioned that not all organics are created equal. Nor is it revealed that industrial machinery, some fertilizers, and even a few pesticides (albeit a very limited few) are still allowed on organically labeled foods. Finally, nothing is mentioned of how similar terms or logos that hint at organics (“free range”, “sustainably harvested”, the big “O” found on some Safeway brands, etc.) are not submitted to the same regulations and can easily be used to confuse and trick consumers. Considering the explicit attention given to individual consumers voting with their dollar, uncovering the specifics of the now ever-present term seems pretty crucial. Ultimately this essential gap in coverage is not enough to seriously compromise the message of the film though.

I’ve avoided discussing the craftsmanship of the film up to now because it seems so translucent. It’s simplicity is such that you are easily sucked in and soon forget that you’re staring at a screen. Aside from some inventive visuals at the beginning, most of the footage is straight verité. The modest use of motion graphics may not be too creative, but they do effectively express ideas and facts in visual terms. Although the film is explicitly broken up into topically labeled chapters, it still feels like it organically unfolds as one whole. It never struck me as awkward that certain characters are in every chapter while some are briefly in one. And despite the ubiquity of such key characters, the ideas about new ways of growing, consuming, and living are the stars here. And yet the film is rarely judgmental and never preachy, a rare trait for a film that attempts such a topic.

Sony’s DSR-300 vs. PD-170

If you’re a Doc student taking a production class beyond Doc I, you have two camera options: the Sony DSR-300 series and the PD-150/170. They are both rock solid cameras in their class, and deciding between the two isn’t always easy. I’ll gloss over the differences in each camera line since they are relatively minute in the grand scheme of functionality. Although these two camera series end up featuring many of the same capabilities, studying their differences will betray their roots: the DSR-300 was modeled around higher end DVCAM cameras (the DSR-500WS) and then stripped of abilities to lower the cost, while the PD-170 could be thought of as a beefed up consumer camera (ala the VX-1000) with most image parameter controls that a professional requires while still retaining remnants of its “point and shoot” ancestors.

Image Quality
Both Cameras produce fine quality, standard definition interlaced images recorded at a 4:3 aspect ratio at 60i onto mini-DV or DVCAM tapes, although it’s important to note that the 300 can accept the longer format DVCAM tapes. Forget about Sony’s marketing hoo-ha claiming “800 lines of TV resolution” on the 300. What you’re actually getting is 768×494, compared to the 720×476 on the PD-170. The relatively small difference is certainly not nominal, but it’s not too significant either: in a side-by-side comparison you may be able to tell the difference but over the course of an entire documentary the discrepancy is easily forgettable. Both utilize 3 CCD chips, but neither the 300’s ½ inch nor the 170’s 1/3 inch chips are arrayed for 16:9 aspect ratio. The 170’s widescreen is an anamorphic setting, so it squeezes the image horizontally so that when run through a digital signal processor it will display properly on widescreen TV’s in the right setting. The guide frame setting is something of a mystery to me: presumably it exists to help framing for cropping into 16:9 later in post while actually shooting in 4:3, but the box it creates is centered and does not actually encompass the full and exact aspect ratio. Perhaps it’s just there to tell you where the center of the frame is? I did not find it useful. The 170 claims to have a 30p setting, but this is sadly more marketing hoo-ha, and the camera is actually just pushing together 60 interlaced frames into 30 progressive frames (plus, this feature is unavailable in widescreen).

Image Control
Both cameras tout great color saturation even when using gain in low light conditions. The 300 edges out the 170 in low light performance (a minimum lux rating of .5 vs. 1, respectively), but both are obviously superb in this regard. This has much to do with their fantastic gain controls, where the 300 again beats the 170 with a max of 36 dB versus 18 dB. That said, the 170 can still keep pace with the 300 by producing noise free images all the way up to around 14 dB, where both start to falter. Both are capable of iris control to the tune of 12 f-stops between 1.6 and 11. Each has a passable auto exposure feature, but only the 300 is capable of programming and saving exposure settings, very useful for situations where, say, you need to follow a subject outdoors on the fly. The 170 is capable of shutter speeds between ¼th to 1/10,000th of a second while the 300 can only perform at 1/60th to 1/2,000th of a second. So while I wouldn’t count on being able to capture a bullet in mid-flight on either camera, the 170 gives you some more options if you want to incorporate blur effects. The 300 has four ND filters to the 170’s two, but both sets are quality and you should be fine in most settings with either camera (unless shooting in the Fortress of Solitude). Both have quick automatic white balancing (as well as a few pre-sets, in case you’re desperate), but only the 300 features manual adjustment of color temperature by degrees, for a mathematically precise exposure. In terms of tendency towards vertical smear, wherein lights or other reflecting objects create a vertical column of light that can run across the entire frame, the 300 wins by a hair, although most of the time it seems too close to call. Not everyone considers the ability to smear with a certain degree of control a bad thing, but neither camera really gives you the option anyways.

Physical Design and Layout
The 170 definitely provides a good selection of digital and analog connectors on its casing by featuring three RCA connectors, an S-Video, and 4-pin iLink. But, the 300 goes above and beyond the call of duty with: two RCA’s, S-Video, 6-pin Firewire, Genlock VBS input, a BNC output for monitors, a VTR/CCU for external device control, and multiple jacks for TC in/out. Both cameras have dedicated rings for focus and for their 12x zooms that are ridged for grip (though a knob mounted on the zoom would be nice on the 170). Both sets of rings have almost the perfect amount of drag, other than the 170’s slightly-too-tight focus. The 170’s auto-focus is exceptional for a camera of its class, and you will rarely see it noticeably focus hunt. The 300 does not have an auto-focus, but attaining a sharp focus is easy on its razor sharp, 23,000 pixel viewfinder, further aided in black and white for stark contrast. The eyepiece can be flipped up to expose the viewfinder and the entire mounting can be slid laterally to accommodate shooters of all shapes and sizes.

At 12.6 lbs fully loaded, the 300 is of average weight for shoulder mounted cameras, but if you’re not used to running and gunning for hours on end, it can weigh you down. However, it does feel very evenly balanced and it features a gel-pad shoulder rest. The zoom, VTR, and manual/auto iris can all be controlled with the right hand while holding the camera steady, freeing the left hand for a whole other host of controls clustered around each other for easy reach: ND filters, audio boost, gain, white balance, and zebra settings . Many of the rest of the controls are only accessible through the switches on the flip-out side panel that hides them, meaning that you’ll have to unhoist if you want to adjust them. For some reason Sony didn’t think it was necessary to include the battery life on the viewfinder, but other than that I was impressed overall. In general, the 300 feels very natural when having to juggle adjusting focus, zoom, framing etc. on the fly.

The 170 is a solid brick of a handheld camera at almost 4 lbs. fully loaded, making it almost as tiring to operate for hours on end off a tripod as the 300. This problem is slightly exacerbated since the placement of the handgrip is slightly behind the center of gravity. As a result the 170 is naturally front heavy, and this problem is worsened with the wide-angle lens attached. These relatively minor handling issues aside, the 170 is expertly designed for a hand-held operation or use on a monopod. Like the 300, most of the critical options for image control have their own buttons, but their location on the camera has been adapted around hand-held use, albeit with less success. Localizing the white balance, shutter speed, audio levels, gain, and AE shift around a central jog wheel is simple and effective, but I’d rather have some of those settings on the same side as the LCD screen up the body of the camera, like the iris and ND filter switches. As is, you must either crane your neck back or flip the camera down and lose the shot to adjust other settings. The auto/manual focus switch is in this easy to reach space though, including a push-auto button right underneath.

Learning Curve
I can’t think of a single critical image control without a dedicated button on the 300 (even the skin tone and viewfinder have their own switches and knobs). This is a plus since its menu system can be clumsy and counter intuitive thanks to mediocre organization and poor navigation with the jog wheel. Getting used to the menu intricacies contributes much to a pretty steep learning curve. Mastering the additional goodies also contribute considerably, such as the “free run” preset on a chosen master camera that designates a synched time code for all others connected to it. Or the system for indexing and marking scenes while shooting. Or the Edit Search function that will let you go straight to the end of the time code so that there are no gaps. These features, combined with the phenomenal life of almost 3 hours on its best battery and the capability to use the large format 184 minutes tapes, make the DSR-300 the easy winner for shooting multi-camera setups if you happen to be shooting an event, conference, or multi-subject dialogue.

On the other hand, the PD-170’s learning curve is noticeably easier, thanks to previously mentioned features (like autofocus), a more streamlined menu system, and a handful of additional automatic digital effects that, in my opinion, are not really suitable for professional use. To name a few: a fade out video transition, a ghosting trail effect, and a glitchy double-exposure mode, all of which could be accomplished with more precision in post. The 170 can also take still images and hold up to 988 of them on their 64 MB Memory Stick flash cards, but the image quality is a joke compared to even the cheapest consumer cameras or even phone cameras (a little over 1/3 megapixel). Still, I could see it being useful if you wanted save a shot composition on a medium that could immediately be transferred to a hard drive.

The audio control options and physical configuration for the 170 average out to be good but ultimately not impressive given the competition of not just the 300, but other dual XLR input equipped DV cameras that sample at 48k. In the end, it comes down to the fact that the breakout box isn’t as impressive as it sounds on paper. Having the channel controls for both audio lines up and removed from the rest of the camera body sounds great, but how often are you going to need to change between mic and line on the fly or switch on and off the phantom power? I’ve read other testimonials claiming that this design eliminates noise created by the motor drive of the tape deck, but I can’t think of a single time when I’ve noticed such a disturbance in cameras where the XLR inputs are housed close to the deck (like on the Panasonic DVX-100). The 170’s audio control might be above par if the adjustor for audio levels was moved from the back jog wheel and given a set of dedicated controls, preferably in an easy to reach place, like the breakout box. Having a microphone holder that will accept other shotgun mics than the included one is definitely a step up from a built-in microphone, but hopefully you won’t have to rely on a mic mounted on the camera at all, making this something of a moot point.

The audio support for the 300 is fantastic comparatively, everything that you’d want from a professional camera. There are three XLR inputs plus a mounted mic, but the camera can still only record onto 2 channels at once and the third input is at the front of the camera, whereas the other two are conveniently located at the very back of the camera. That said, the button for switching between lines is reasonably accessible and so I still count this as a valuable asset. More importantly, the level controls have a dedicated button for each channel and a general boost conveniently located in the front left cluster of controls on the camera.

These two cameras really are two different birds with two different personalities, although you may have trouble distinguishing between footage captured by either one. The 170’s no slouch, but the 300 has a clear, but perhaps trivial for some, edge in general perks and image control characteristics. These pro’s come at a cost though, and if you were thinking about purchasing either camera you can count on paying at least a few of hundred more for the 300’s (Sony has discontinued selling the 300’s and third party prices vary). The discrepancy of the sheer size of each camera will play a role in how much attention you want to attract while shooting in public, as well as how much shooting on sticks versus on the move you’re looking at. Whatever your preferences, both cameras deserve to be perused first if you’re not sure what is best for your next shoot.

Eye for an Eye

Since Larry Charles and Bill Maher’s new “documentary” about religion is so shamelessly polemical, I think it’s fitting for my review to match its pitiless contempt.  Make no mistake, Religulous is an ill-conceived, poorly crafted film through and through.  There are scenes when the film lives up to its promise of satisfying humor, but these are overshadowed by its vain attempts at cheap laughs.  Still, if you’d like an hour and a half of Bill Maher’s “Would you get a load of this guy?!” routine you’ll probably find it funny. 

Unfortunately the premise kills the film before it even begins: who in their right mind would think they can provide a careful critique of the three largest monotheistic religions in 100 minutes?  The film is better described as a series of contrived conversations between Maher-as-smug-asshole and subject-as-crazy-hysteric; Religulous does accomplish this one ambitious goal.  Various scenes of stock footage, news feeds, and clips from religious films are cut together with said interviews, presumably for ADD 10 year olds after their morning Cocoa Puffs.  And when Charles can’t keep the narrative flowing with interviews, he resorts to Maher’s stilted monologues. 

Religulous is a very confused film on many different levels.  It can’t seem to decide whether the critical problem with religion is its sprawling, corrupt bureaucracy or its loony ideas and traditions.  The film ends up leaning towards the latter, but I bet this was at least partially a matter of access (Maher gets thrown out of the Vatican, for instance).  If this is the center of critique, the entire films seems pointless; the vast majority of theists are simply not that nutty.  Too bad they don’t make for very entertaining subjects, so on to the next straw man!  This gets at the more problematic identity crisis of the film: is it going for laughs or thoughtful reflection?  I’m not saying you can’t have both, but in this setting the one frequently undercuts the other.  Time after time in interviews Maher will pass on the chance to dig deeper into a subject’s motivation or overarching rationale and content himself with another joke.  Maher’s last monologue (complete with a backlit low angle shot and nonsense like “grow up or die”) is so bombastically dramatic that at first pass it seems impossible that he is serious, but interviews with Maher say otherwise. 

The whole film is coated with a thick layer of irony, but it becomes smothering in those final scenes when Maher is concluding his rant on “what the real problem is”.  This is of course those “irrational” stories that people take to be true, but I have a counter-thesis: could it be that the real problem is arrogant, stubborn, uncompromising individuals?  Does it matter what stories you buy if you still see the world in such black and white terms as the rational atheists versus the irrational theists?  Is it possible that Maher’s insane hubris has so expertly disarmed his capacity for self-reflection that he is blind to the idea that he is not so very different from those he lampoons?  “Grow up or die” does not sound too different in tone from “Repent before the one true God” and hollow claims of championing doubt don’t let you sidestep  the fact that disbelief can have the same ring of certitude characteristic of fervent faith.  In one of my favorite scenes, Maher is speaking with a Jewish Rabbi who uses some of his own interview techniques against him: cutting him off, pontificating for long periods of time, speaking over him, etc.  Maher can’t take it; “never again” he mutters before walking off the interview.   

Ultimately, this undermining irony reaches to cover every corner of the film, from intent to execution.  Sure, being a priest can be self-serving, but what do you call spending 2.5 million dollars so that Larry Charles can live vicariously through Bill Maher as he travels from New Jersey to Jerusalem trying to squash the meaning that animates so many people’s lives?  And for what?  So Lionsgate can release a film that, if anything, probably further polarizes its viewers on such an important subject?  Religion’s got plenty of problems, but Maher and Co. definitely aren’t helping to solve them. 


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