Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets


If it looks like a duck…

(2017) Science Fiction (Europa/STX) Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Sam Spruell, Alain Chabat, Rutger Hauer, Peter Hudson, Xavier Giannoli, Louis Leterrier, Eric Rochant, Benoit Jacquot, Olivier Megaton, Gerald Krawczyk, Pierre Cachia, David Saada, Hippolyte Burkhart-Uhlen, Elizabeth Debicki (voice), Sasha Luss. Directed by Luc Besson

 

Luc Besson is often called a visionary filmmaker, mainly for his watershed 90s sci-fi epic The Fifth Element. Besson was heavily influenced by the French comic book Valerian and Laureline which also seems to have been influenced by the iconic French magazine Heavy Metal. He hasn’t attempted a sci-fi tale on the same grand scale up until now however.

Two agents – Valerian (DeHaan) and Laureline (Delevingne) – are hard at work in the gigantic multi-species space station/city known as Alpha (which began life as the International Space Station – try to keep up). This intergalactic symbol of peaceful co-existence is being destroyed from the inside out and seems to be linked to the destruction of a paradise-like planet centuries earlier. Valerian and Laureline who have a nascent romance going (mostly in Valerian’s head) must navigate a variety of exotic alien races and cultures along with a conspiracy of far-reaching dimensions in order to save Alpha and quite possibly the universe.

Sounds like a simple enough movie but trust me this is only a bare scratching of the surface. The plot is somewhat convoluted and is confusing as all get out until late in the game. Because this is a two hour-plus movie lots of frustrated viewers will have ceased caring much by the time things become clear.

At least there will be some breathtaking visuals to keep them entertained through the confusion. Besson has always been a particularly visual director and he is in his (fifth) element here. The mainly computer-generated images are massive in scope and detail. Those who have seen the trailers for this thing and ended up plunking their hard-earned dollars at the box office were no doubt taken as I was by the gorgeous visuals.

But in all honesty there really is little beyond that to recommend the film. There is almost zero chemistry between Delevingne and DeHaan and both seem to be terribly unsuited for their roles. The comic book this is based on has Valerian as a raven-haired badass while Laureline is a buxom beauty with flowing, flaming red hair. Certainly I’m not against a filmmaker eschewing slavish devotion to source material visuals but the whole scope of the characters change from four color printed page to celluloid and that seems to be kind of a waste of good material.

This was one of the biggest disappointments of the past summer for me, and that’s saying something considering how many underwhelming blockbusters there were this year. I had high hopes that Besson would be able to shepherd this largely unknown in the U.S. source material into a big time franchise but alas it was not to be. Clunky dialogue and weak performances doomed this with critics and the lack of big names doomed it with American audiences. The movie so badly under-performed that it caused a major executive shake-up at the studio that made it. Considering that Valerian and Laureline have influenced a lot of the big budget sci-fi films of the past fifty years (including the original Star Wars) it’s a shame that it didn’t get a better movie to represent it.

REASONS TO GO: The special effects are amazing. There is a great deal of imagination displayed throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: There is little chemistry between DeHaan and Delevingne. The movie is a bit too convoluted and a little too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity as well as plenty of sci-fi violence and even a bit of slightly suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With a budget of $210 million U.S. this is the most expensive film ever made in France – to date.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fifth Element
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Love and Saucers

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D-love


Elena Beuca wonders where it all went wrong.

(2017) Drama (Cranky Pants) Elena Beuca, Dave Rogers, Ditlev Darmakaya, Billy Howerdel, Christine Scott Bennett, Jessica Boss, Christine Fazzino, Jason Esposito, Alessio Di Giambattista, Michael Monks, Tracey Graves, Giorgio Di Vincenzo, Victoria Palma, Charley Rossman, Angel Villareal, Tim Astor, Ray Ionita, Kerry McGrath. Directed by Elena Beuca

 

It is not easy being married. It’s a lot of work and that’s just if things remain relatively stable. Throw in some personal tragedies – the death of loved ones for instance – and it becomes positively herculean.

Dave (Rogers) and Stefania (Beuca) are returning from a vacation holiday that was meant to rekindle the passion between them but had been woefully unsuccessful. Dave has been wallowing in an unemployed alcoholic haze for more than a year after both of his parents had died within a few months of one another. Stefania had also lost a loved one – her older brother before he had even turned 40 – and was supporting the couple at a job where her bitchy boss Annie (Fazzino) torments her and insults her in what would be an HR specialist’s nightmare. She also wants to have a child but the attempts so far had been unsuccessful although one has to wonder why anyone would want to bring in a child to an environment of constant bickering and belittling.

At the airport on the return home the couple is exhausted and annoyed. The luggage has been lost including Dave’s wallet which included the parking tag to go pick up their car. Stefania is on the far side of enough at this point when they are approached by a handsome long-haired Dane named Ditlev (Darmakaya) who asks for a ride “East.” It’s a little vague but he seems nice enough and Dave, over Stefania’s objections is inclined to give it to him.

When it turns out that there are no buses running to Sedona (where it turns out he wants to go – Burning Man, to be exact) until the next afternoon, Dave offers to let Ditlev crash overnight at their place. However, Dave is having a real hard time pronouncing the Dane’s name so he takes to calling him D-love, which in turn amuses the young Dane. In return, Ditlev gives Dave some yoga lessons and imparts his philosophy about living with love in the moment. He offers to help Dave do some home repair projects that Dave has been avoiding for some time and that Stefania has been nagging him to do. When Stefania comes home from another abusive day at work, she is shocked to find Ditlev still there – and the home repair projects almost all done. She is frightened of being robbed and/or murdered by the stranger but as time goes by she begins to at least accept his presence. In turn Dave is beginning to return to the man he was before his parents died. He has resumed cooking – something he delighted in doing with his dad but had given up on when his dad passed.

Dave is definitely coming out of his funk thanks to the hunky Danish hippie guest but Stefania is reaching a crisis. Things at work are going from bad to worse, and her doctor has discovered something that is absolutely heartbreaking. To make matters worse, the camera that was the last gift to Stefania from her late brother has disappeared and she suspects that D-love has stolen it. She is ready to give up on her life, and certainly on her marriage.

Rogers wrote the film based on events within his own real-life marriage to Beuca who directed the film and took super-8 footage in her native Romania to supplement the L.A.-shot majority of the film. Darmakaya really did approach them at LAX and stay with them briefly. Unlike the married couple, Darmakaya isn’t a professional actor and his performance is a bit wooden but that’s okay; he really is playing something of an archetype – the benevolent stranger. Two of them show up in the film.

There is an authentic feeling to the marital problems Stefania and Dave are experiencing which is no doubt a function of the ones they faced in real life. That helps the movie resonate much more than artificial marital crises in a variety of rom-coms ever could. While Ditlev’s new age-y pronouncements and advice sometimes feel a bit like the love child of an inspirational meme and a Stewart Smalley affirmation, one gets the sense that they are at least heartfelt albeit some might find them preachy.

Despite this being based on real life, the plot feels a bit predictable and the ending a trifle forced. I guess from a certain light it’s a bit comforting that life really does imitate the movies. Beuca and Rogers are actually fine actors although at times their emotional portrayals tend to be somewhat over-the-top. They could have done with a bit more subtlety in their performances.

This is just now getting a limited theatrical run starting at the Laemmle 7 in North Hollywood although the film has spent most of the year on the festival circuit where it has been very well-received, winning numerous awards. Keep an eye out for it at your local arthouse or possibly on your favorite streaming channel in the coming months.

REASONS TO GO: This is an accurate portrayal of a marriage falling apart. There are some really good moments here.
REASONS TO STAY: Emotionally, the movie is a little bit overwrought. The writing tends to be a bit on the preachy side.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of adult themes as well as some profanity and a scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Howerdel was a founding member of A Perfect Circle and composed the score for the film as well as playing Sean, Dave’s best friend.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Man Who Came to Dinner
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Valerian and the City of 1,000 Planets

A Different Set of Cards


Sometimes the game can get nasty.

(2016) Crime (108 Media) Adrian Linke, Jutta Dolle, Tim-Olrik Stoneberg, Guido Grollmann. Directed by Falko Jakobs

 

In the scheme of things the outcome of our lives often depends on circumstance. People who are born into poverty, for example, may not have the opportunities of those born into wealth and privilege. Turn over an unfriendly card and you’re a drug dealer; turn over a different card and you’re a police officer. So much of life falls on random chance.

In this low-budget German crime thriller, four people gather to play a game of poker. The narrator, Ben (Linke), watches the other three players like a hawk, trying to get a sense of their technique. One, a bearded badass (Stoneberg), is a trash talker who may slap you as soon as look at you. Another, a nervous bald man (Grollmann), is fearful and nervous; his game shows he can be easily rattled. Finally, a femme fatale (Dolle) is the wild card; Ben can’t really read her style at all.

These four players are actually playing a metaphorical card game; they are players in a drug dealer gone wrong. The badass is the buyer, who is strangely called The Salesman; the femme fatale is the seller, enigmatically called The Unknown. Ben himself is the buyer’s partner, only getting involved if things go south; he is The Accomplice. Finally, the nervous baldy is The Cop who is messing up the deal.

But Ben muses that this scenario could be a whole lot different if the players shifted roles. Ben becomes The Cop, the badass becomes The Unknown, the nervous bald guy becomes The Salesman and the femme fatale is The Accomplice. The outcome changes accordingly. And so it goes, as it turns out.

The concept is an interesting one and the same four actors keep the characters relatively intact even as their circumstances change. Jakobs, who co-wrote, edited, lensed and scored the film – I told you this was a low-budget affair – shows a remarkable confidence both as a writer and a director and manages to pull off what could have been a complete mess in less capable hands.

There is a distinctly film noir tone here – in fact the film was selected for a Los Angeles film noir festival earlier this year but with also a European flair. The use of light and shadow marks this very much as German as for whatever reason German filmmakers seem to be the most savvy filmmakers in the world generally in this aspect of filmmaking. The poker game segments are in black and white, adding to the noir feel.

Jakobs the writer wisely keeps the action to mainly two locations; a darkened room where the poker game takes place and a deserted warehouse where the drug deal segments happen. He also has only four actors in his cast; a lot of young filmmakers could learn a thing or two about putting together a great story in an affordable environment from Jakobs. What budget the film had seems to have been used wisely; the action sequences are well-staged and the gore is also done professionally without being too over-the-top.

Where the filmmaker falls a bit short is in the poker metaphor; it becomes a bit intrusive and feels forced the longer the movie goes on. I would have preferred more of the drug deal segments and less of the players sitting around the card table. However, there is a nice twist at the end which while not super original was at least unexpected and gave the movie what a lot of movies these days lack; a fitting ending.

I was only able to find one other review online for this so it hasn’t gotten a ton of press although it played the American film festival circuit somewhat extensively since its debut last year in Europe. It is widely available on VOD and while the jump cuts that Jakobs uses to distraction may mark this as a green filmmaker trying to establish a style, the things that work here work really well. Jakobs and his cast all have promising futures and I hope to see them all again sometime.

REASONS TO GO: The shifting roles is an interesting conceit. The film has a distinctly Germanic noir feel.
REASONS TO STAY: The poker metaphor gets old after awhile. There is a surfeit of jump cuts.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The English language version of the film was dubbed by the German actors, accents and all.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Memento
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
D-Love

A Ghost Story


When I’m left alone, there’s a ghost in the house.

(2017) Drama (A24) Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, McColm Cephas Jr., Kenneisha Thompson, Grover Coulson, Liz Cardenas Franke, Barlow Jacobs, Richard Krause, Dagger Salazar, Sonia Acevedo, Carlos Bermudez, Yasmina Gutierrez, Kimberly Fiddes, Daniel Escudero, Kesha Sebert, Jared Kopf, Afomia Hailemeskel, Will Oldham, Brea Grant, Augustine Frizzell. Directed by David Lowery

 

Life inevitably ends with death. It is a defining factor of our lives; most fear death as the ultimate unknown, the cessation of things familiar. Some, those in pain or those who have lived too long, welcome it. Either way, we all eventually experience it.

This masterpiece of a film starts with a young couple – Affleck and Mara – moving into a single story ranch house. He’s a musician; the two are quietly, deeply in love. There are some strange bumps in the night but they seem content enough. Their happiness in their new home is short-lived; he dies in a car accident just yards from his front door. She goes to the morgue to identify his body, then attendant and wife leave the room. The body sits straight up in a parody of horror film tropes. The ghost, resembling an imagination-challenged Halloween costume of a sheet with eye holes cut out, shuffles out of the hospital, pausing before a bright light and then shuffling on home.

There the ghost observes the grief of his wife, watching her numbly eat a pie a neighbor left, slumping on the floor, tears falling as she eats. Eventually, she leaves but the ghost remains through different owners, even past when the home is leveled and an office building put in. Future becomes past. Time circles in on itself.

And that is all the plot you need to know. This is an elegiac film, melancholy almost to the point of heartbreak. A gorgeous score heightens the feeling. Affleck after the first few minutes must act entirely with body language and one can sense the sadness and longing coming from him despite the fact we cannot see anything of his face or body, he contributes to the emotional tone. Mara gets to put on a more traditional performance and she’s excellent. Everything is filmed in a kind of gauzy sepia with the corners of the screen rounded, like an antique photograph.

Not everyone is going to like this or “get” this. When it debuted at Sundance earlier this year the audience was sharply divided. Among my friends there are those who loved this film and others who didn’t like it at all. Some of you are going to find it boring and confusing. Others are going to find insights that will keep you haunted by this film for a long time to come. It likely won’t make a lot of awards lists this year but even so it may very well be the best movie of 2017 and should be seen, even just to decide whether you love it or hate it.

REASONS TO GO: The movie is beautiful and melancholy. The score is lovely and atmospheric. Lowery lets the audience fill in the blanks. This is more of a cinematic poem than a traditional story.
REASONS TO STAY: The non-linear storytelling method may be confusing to some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as a single disturbing image.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lowery used profits from Pete’s Dragon to make this film. It was filmed in secret and the project not even announced until filming had already wrapped.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: If I Stay
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
A Different Set of Cards

New Releases for the Week of December 8, 2017


THE DISASTER ARTIST

(A24) Dave Franco, James Franco, Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor, Alison Brie, Jacki Weaver, Zac Efron, Josh Hutcherson, Megan Mullally, Sharon Stone  Directed by James Franco

Greg Sestero, an aspiring actor, meets an intense young man named Tommy Wiseau in an acting class. The two men determine to go to Hollywood and make movies; their magnum opus is The Room which some have called the best worst movie ever made. This has been getting some awards season buzz.

See the trailer, interviews and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Dramedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for language throughout and some sexuality/nudity)

Just Getting Started

(Broad Green) Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones, Rene Russo, Glenne Headley. A former Mob Lawyer now living in Witness Protection has it pretty good. The cock of the walk at the retirement home, he has all the ladies’ attention; that is, until a brash former FBI Agent shows up. When it turns out the Mob has figured out where their former counselor is and have ordered a hit, the two must put aside their petty differences in order to stay in the land of the living.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for language, suggestive material and brief violence)

My Friend Dahmer

(The Orchard) Ross Lynch, Alex Wolff, Anne Heche, Vincent Kartheiser. Before he was a notorious serial killer and a cannibal, Jeffrey Dahmer was a high school kid. As told by someone who knew him well at that time, this film is based on the graphic novel of the same name.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Biographical Drama
Now Playing: AMC Universal Cineplex

Rating: R (for disturbing images, language, teen drug use, drinking and sexual content, and for brief nudity)

November Criminals

(Vertical) Ansel Elgort, Chloë Grace Moretz, Catherine Keener, David Strathairn. When a classmate is brutally murdered, two college kids – unsatisfied with the progress police are making – decide to do the investigating themselves. It takes them deep into a world they have no experience with and puts the both of them in serious danger.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Crime
Now Playing: AMC Universal Cineplex

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic content including teen sexuality, drug material, brief violence and strong language)

Thelma

(The Orchard) Elli Harboe, Kaya Wilkins, Henrik Rafaelsen, Ellen Dorrit Petersen. A woman falling in love is a beautiful thing, but when Thelma does it, she discovers that she has strange and frightening powers. Sometimes the most terrifying discovery is who you really are.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: NR

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Black Clover
Fukrey Returns
Richie
Unexpectedly Yours

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI/FT. LAUDERDALE:

After You’re Gone
Fukrey Returns
Groove
Haldaa
The Light of the Moon
Lord, Give Me Patience
The Other Side of Hope

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA/ST. PETERSBURG:

Black Clover
Fukrey Returns
Malli Raava

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE/ST. AUGUSTINE:

Unexpectedly Yours

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

The Disaster Artist
Just Getting Started
The Light of the Moon

Voyeur (2017)


Gay Talese, dapper man about town.

(2017) Documentary (Netflix) Gay Talese, Gerald Foos, Nan Talese, Susan Morrison, Morgan Entrikan, Jackson Scholz, Anita Foos.  Directed by Myles Kane and Josh Koury

 

We are a society that loves to watch. We are obsessed with chronicling every aspect of our lives and looking in on the chronicles of others. We are a nation of voyeurs, titillated by both the sexual and the ordinary, able to leave our own lives while we glimpse at others, pursing our lips and waggling our fingers as if our own lives are above reproach.

Gay Talese is one of the last of his kind. A New York journalist back when that meant something, he has written some of the most compelling works of non-fiction of the last 60 years. His piece “Sinatra Has a Cold” for Esquire is one of the defining celebrity portraits ever written and it has influenced the genre ever since its publication. He’s written about crime families in Honor Thy Father and about the sexual mores of the 70s in Thy Neighbor’s Wife not just as an observer but admittedly as a participant. Talese has always had a certain swagger and a particular style. His trademark is immaculately tailored suits, often accompanied by Fedora and scarf. Emerging from his Manhattan brownstone, he cuts an urbane figure from a bygone era when such things mattered.

Kane and Koury are given access to the basement of the brownstone which was once used as a wine cellar but now is Talese’s archive and office, a kind of man-cave that is a tribute to a career which, truth be told, merits that kind of celebration. Quite frankly while Talese has garnered his share of controversy over the years, he has also done some incredible work.

Now 85, Talese is looking for one last book and one last story to cap off his career. He thought he had it in a story he had started working on 30 years earlier. Gerald Foos was the owner of a Colorado motel which he had outfitted with an observation platform which ran the length of the property. Through strategically placed ventilation louvers he could observe guests without being seen or heard.

Now this sounds creepy enough but given where society is at this moment in time this seems like a fairly timely documentary. Foos, something of a teddy bear of a man, cheerfully admits to his sexual arousal but insists that this was a research project and not a precursor to Pornhub. There’s an air of disingenuousness about Foos but Talese seems to take him at face value.

However, Foos is reluctant to have his name revealed so that puts a kibosh on any involvement by Talese. However, 30 years later Foos has a change of heart and Talese gets back on the case. Foos gives Talese his journal complete with charts facts and figures about his “research.” Some of the stories Foos has to tell are pretty fascinating. Others are grim – like the murder he claimed he witnessed. Talese knows he’s found the story he’s been looking for.

His editor at The New Yorker, Susan Morrison, is less enthused. She confesses that she thinks that Foos is a sociopathic pervert but agrees the story is a fascinating one. Talese submits it and the fact checkers get to work. Talese also signs a book deal to expand the article in the New Yorker into a full-length non-fiction book that’s sure to be a best seller.

However, the fact checkers turn out some disquieting discrepancies. After the book is published, a Washington Post reporter comes up with a devastating fact that threatens the book’s future and Talese’s reputation as a journalist. Much of what happened is of public record but I am being vague about it in case you didn’t follow the story when it happened because the way it unfolds here truly is blindsiding in a good way.

I think this is one of those documentary projects that began as one thing and then turned into another. This was supposed to be I think a piece on a regal lion making his last charge into the hunt and then morphed into a catfishing piece. I do think it took the filmmakers by surprise; while they give a fairly in-depth portrait of Talese (and Foos) early on, as the situation changes we don’t get a whole lot of commentary from the parties involved.

Talese comes off as a fastidious egocentric man who lives life on his own terms and doesn’t really tolerate much exception to his rules. I suppose he can afford to be choosy. Still, he seems to lead a fairly lonely life….makes me wonder if he didn’t pay too high a price to be Gay Talese. But that’s a question that only he can answer.

The directors made use of a miniature model of the motel in an innovative fashion rather than staging recreations of the incidents that Foos related to Talese. There are also virtually no talking head interviews; everything is essentially Talese and Foos with Foos’ enabling second wife lurking furtively on the edges of the film.

Foos remains a somewhat enigmatic figure. He comes off as quite reasonable and even eager to be liked but there’s a creepiness at his core that is off-putting. I don’t think he sees anything wrong in what he was doing; it’s like there’s a big gap where his conscience should have been. The filmmakers, to their credit, don’t editorialize much; they present the story and let the viewer draw their own conclusions.

At the same time though the movie feels like it’s missing context. I think a little bit of outside, objective opinions might have helped the film in the long run – that’s right, I’m advocating for more talking heads – can you believe it? But talking heads have their purpose and sometimes a little bit of that can actually help the viewer feel more informed. I still felt a bit like the viewer is flailing in the dark here.

The documentary has a fascinating quality – as I said there’s a little bit of voyeur in all of us. However, I felt curiously unsatisfied by the movie as if by the end that I hadn’t seen all of it. There is much more to the story I think than is on the screen here and it could be simply that the nature of the watchers is that they shy away from the spotlight when it is they that are being watched.

REASONS TO GO: Talese is one of the last great personalities in journalism. The movie is full of interesting twists (particularly if you know little about it to begin with).
REASONS TO STAY: There is a surprising lack of depth to the documentary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content, occasional profanity and partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Foos contacted Talese in 1980 after reading his tome on the sexual mores of the 1970s Thy Neighbor’s Wife.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Catfish
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
A Ghost Story

Big Time (2017)


Bjarke Ingels scans the New York City skyline that he intends to augment.

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama/Mongrel Media) Bjarke Ingels, David Zahle, Kar-Uwe Bergmann, Donald Durst, Charlie Rose, Seth Meyers, Patrik Gustavsson, Ulla Rottger, Larry A. Silverstein, Sheila Maini Søgaard, Alexander Durst, Daniel Libeskind, Ruth Otero. Directed by Kaspar Astrump Schrôder

 

Architecture is somewhat unique. It’s part inspiration, part imagination and a big part engineering. When most architects look at a project, they see function. Is it going to be an office building? If it’s going to be full of cubicles, it should be a big steel and glass square. Is it going to be a power plant? It should have smoke stacks and an industrial look to it so that nobody who sees it can mistake it for anything else.

However, cities want to forge their own identities and they do it largely through architecture that is unique. Chicago essentially made it a civic pursuit. Great architects give cities that identity, a unique skyline or look. How much of Sydney is invested in the Opera House, or San Francisco in the Golden Gate Bridge? How does Barcelona benefit from La Sagrada Familia, or Paris from the Eiffel Tower? These are structures that define a city.

Danish architect Bjarke Ingels has become one of the most important architects in the world. Through his firm BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group), he has changed the face of Copenhagen, putting in apartment buildings that resemble mountains and a power plant with a ski slope for a roof and that belches steam smoke rings every so often. He marries function, form and whimsy with almost uncanny skill. He is a genius and a dynamo of energy whose Chris Pratt-like smile and boundless energy inspire all those around him.

This documentary follows Ingels over a seven year period in which he attempts to branch out from Scandinavia to North America, opening a New York office and getting his biggest projects to date – the Via Apartment complex (utilizing a shape never before seen in a skyscraper) and even more importantly, World Trade Tower 2. He aims to add his own unique stamp to the world’s most famous skyline.

Ingels seems poised to make his mark on a bigger stage until a sports injury reveals a deeper health issue that he needs to deal with and which also interferes with his ability to work. As someone who has a chronic neurological issue that also affects my ability to work for long stretches at a time, I could truly relate to Ingels’ frustrations perhaps more than the average viewer will. Still, anyone who has tried to work through migraine headaches and other issues which Ingels must put up with will certainly be sympathetic.

Schrôder isn’t reinventing the wheel here and he takes a fairly safe approach to making the film. He utilizes some breathtaking architectural shots to make the film a visual treat but he often focuses on things like Ingels biking through the city or staring out of his window contemplatively. The film is at its best when Ingels is showing off his passion for making something unique and inspiring; those are the Howard Roark moments that might inspire some to take up the torch.

The film definitely has a European sensibility to it; Americans prefer to have their stories be concise while Europeans are content to let it meander a little bit. A dinner with Ingels and his parents in which old photo albums are leafed through may drive some Americans to check their watches but the dynamic is fascinating and gives some insight into how Ingels came to be the way he is.

What the film doesn’t do is really drill down into Ingels’ creative process. We see him come up with some whimsical ideas but those ideas are fully formed and already part of the plans for his buildings; what prompted them, what inspired them is rarely alluded to. We never get a sense of what fuels his creative fires. Considering the access that Schrôder apparently had, there should have been at least an inkling given.

This isn’t essential viewing but it is interesting viewing. You do get a bit of a look into where architecture is headed and what the future might hold. While Ingels is fairly unique among architects, I don’t think that his basic underlying philosophy is uncommon. I wouldn’t be surprised a bit if the buildings that Ingels is creating today become the norm in the cities of tomorrow.

REASONS TO GO: The creativity and intelligence of Ingels is fun to watch.
REASONS TO STAY: The film doesn’t really delve into the creative process as much as I would have liked.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ingels initially wanted to be a cartoonist before his parents filled out an application to an architecture school and made him sign it and submit it. To Bjerke’s surprise, he was accepted.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sketches of Frank Gehry
FINAL RATING: 6/10
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Voyeur