Casting JonBenet


A gaggle of beauty queens await their call.

(2017) Documentary (Netflix) Amy Dowd, Laura Lee, Jay Benedict Brown, Blake Curton, Jerry Cortese, Kit Thompson, Hannah Cagwin, Teresa Cocas, Gary Foster, Taylor Hollenbeck, Lynne Jordan, Dixon White, William Tidwell, Gary J. Neuger, Deb Hultgren, Ronda Belser, Tamara Hutchins, Marian Rothschild, Suzanne Yazzie, Dorinda Dercar. Directed by Kitty Green

 

The murder of JonBenet Ramsey has captured the attention of the American public for more than 20 years now. The six-year-old beauty pageant entrant was found missing on Christmas Eve 1996 with a four-page ransom note found on the staircase; hours later on Christmas Day her body was found in the basement wrapped in a blanket, her head savagely bludgeoned and then strangled by the neck. It is possible that she was sexually assaulted in her last minutes on earth.

The Ramsey family of Boulder, Colorado came under intense media scrutiny; stories didn’t add up and accusations were flung, some fairly ludicrous. Her mother Patsy, her father John and her brother Burke were all at one time or another suspects of the police investigation, which became notorious for its incompetence.

Documentarian Kitty Green took a unique tactic looking at the JonBenet murder. While we have seen plenty of newsmagazine crime show segments and similarly-themed documentaries looking at the murder, Green chose instead to film over 15 months in Boulder, interviewing local actors who were ostensibly auditioning for a movie about the murder.

Boulder being a small college town, it’s unsurprising that some of the actors (some of whom were professional, some not) had personal connections to the Ramsey family; one had a girlfriend at the time of the murder who was John Ramsey’s personal assistant. Another had an aunt who lived in the neighborhood. Another gave vocal lessons to JonBenet herself. All of them who had lived in Boulder in ’96 had opinions of who did it.

We get some of the facts of the case through re-enactments and through anecdotes but if you’re looking for a police procedural or a historical examination of the events that took place, look elsewhere. Green’s aim is not to present an examination of the murder from a typical sense but to see how the murder affected not only the people of Boulder but by extension, the rest of us in America.

As the movie goes on, the camera becomes kind of a confessional and the Ramsey case triggers memories of personal tragedies. One man relates to John Ramsey because he himself was accused of murdering a loved one (he was found innocent and the investigation into him was dropped); another actress remembers the murder of a sibling and how it tore apart her household.

Some of the women empathized with Patsy Ramsey, breaking into tears at the thought of their own child being found alone in a cellar, wrapped in a blanket after being brutally murdered. Those are the moments that the movie works best, giving the viewer an anchor to latch onto. When Green goes the more esoteric route (such as a tracking shot near the end in which the actors act out a variety of the many theories about the murder) the film is less successful.

It has been said about the case that nobody knows the truth but everyone has an opinion. Possibly that’s the message that Green was trying to send but her intentions are a little vague. There aren’t any experts in the facts of the case being interviewed so what we are mostly getting are amateur opinions and you may or may not have any use for those.

Still it makes for compelling viewing into human nature; along with the Lindbergh baby, the assassination of JFK and the OJ Simpson case, the JonBenet Ramsey murder captured the public attention like few other crimes in the 20th century. That it remains unsolved to this day is perhaps part of the attraction; that we’ll likely never know what happened in that basement Christmas Eve adds to the tragedy.

REASONS TO GO: There are some moments that pack a powerful emotional punch. This is an at times fascinating take on a story everyone knows generally but not in detail.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s more of a social experiment than a documentary. I’m not entirely sure what the point was in making this.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual innuendo and disturbing content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2017 edition of Sundance.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kate Plays Christine
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Post

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The Millionaires’ Unit


Few aviators today truly know the joy of flying as they did when airplanes were new.

(2015) Documentary (Humanus) Bruce Dern (narrator), Marc Wortman, Michael Gates-Fleming, Henry P. Davison II, Gaddis Smith, Adele Quartley Brown, Hill Goodspeed, Erl Gould Parnell, Daniel P. Davison, Geoffrey Rossano, William MacLeish, John Lehman, Gene DeMarco, Malcolm P. Davison, Javier Arango, Sunny Toulmin. Directed by Darroch Greer and Ron King

 

Those folks who studied the history of the First World War are likely aware of the “Flying Aces,” daring pilots who engaged in dogfights with enemy pilots, shooting down their foes, gallant knights of the sky who were dashing romantic figures both then and now. America, late into the war, didn’t have much of an air force when they entered the war in 1916. In fact, they had none. The army had their own air corps to which heroes like Eddie Rickenbacker belonged. However there were also pilots working for the navy.

What’s extraordinary about the Naval Air Corps was that their genesis came from a civilian air club based at Yale University. There, an underclassman named F. Trubee Davison was sure that the United States would eventually be drawn into the conflict raging in Europe. He was so sure that airmen were going to be crucial to the war effort that he founded the Yale Air Club with the intention of training young men to be pilots so that when Uncle Sam called for pilots there would be some ready to go.

One has to remember that only 13 years had passed since the Wright Brothers had made their historic flight just south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Although they may not have been aware of it at the time, the life expectancy of new pilots entering the war was just 20 minutes; typically pilots only survived several weeks even well-trained. The casualties among the knights of the air were truly terrifying.

The members of the Air Club were born of privilege and wealth. The father of Trubee Davison was J.P. Morgan’s right hand man, a banker of considerable importance who visited Europe in the days before the war to help France secure loans to pay for their war effort. Trubee was very much affected by that trip and resolved to take part in defending what he termed our most sacred rights.

Although the Navy was at first resistant to having a civilian air corps (this was during peacetime remember), it wasn’t until war was declared that the idea of using airplanes to bomb enemy U-Boats became an idea embraced by Naval brass. Impressed by Trubee’s enthusiasm and resolve, they enlisted every member of the Yale Air Club into the Navy and sent them to Florida to train.

These boys were willing to put their lives on the line for what they believed, something that many don’t associate with the children of wealth. It was a different era however, one in which the belief was largely “to those to whom much is given, much is expected.” In other words, those who had more to lose should be expected to be willing to pay more to retain what they have. These days the examples of wealth and privilege is a whole lot less flattering.

Not all of the Yale Air Club returned home alive but those that did went on to success in life. Yale has always been a pipeline for Washington policy makers and several of the boys portrayed here would later, as men, be high-level officials in both the military and government while others went on to success in business and in the arts.

The film here is buttressed with excerpts from the letters and diaries of the men involved, recollections of their descendants, commentary by historians and best of all, archival film footage as well as vintage photographs of the men, their training and of the war. To a history buff like myself this is meat and potatoes but understandably those who are less fascinated by history will find this much less compelling.

Also at two hours the movie can be a bit of a slog. Although the stories are fascinating at times they get a little too detail-oriented on such minutiae as why the Sopwith Camel was a superior flying machine as well as its drawbacks, or details on the social mores of the time. Either this should have been a miniseries on something like the History Channel, or some of the more detailed descriptions cut. One suffers from informational overkill after the first hour

In any case history buffs – particularly those into military history – will find this compelling. Those who sat through history class with a blank stare and frequent glances at the clock may be less enthusiastic about this. Although I would have personally rated this a bit higher, I did bring the star rating down a bit to accommodate those who would not find this interesting; I can see how this would appeal to a niche audience but the material is definitely more than compelling.

This has been available on Blu-Ray for a while but is just now become available for streaming. Although only currently carried by one service (see below), the website promises wider availability in the near future.

REASONS TO GO: The story is absolutely a fascinating one and is well-augmented by vintage photographs and archival footage.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary is a bit on the long side and might have made a better mini-series on The History Channel.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some war violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dern is the grand-nephew of Kenneth MacLeish who was one of the men profiled in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Living in the Age of Airplanes
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Boy Downstairs

Kangaroo: A Love/Hate Story


“I’m a kangaroo; how do you do?”

(2017) Documentary (Abramorama) Terri Irwin, Diane Smith, Greg Keightly, Philip Wollen, Peter Singer, Tim Flannery, Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison, Rex Devantier, Terrence Dawson, Dror Ben-Ami, Chris “Brolga” Barnes, Barry O’Sullivan, John Kelly, Stephen Tully, Peter Chen, Daniel Ramp, Paul Borrud, Jennifer Fearing, Lee Rhiannon, Mark Pearson, Lyn Gynther, Lauren Ornelas. Directed by Kate McIntyre Clere and Michael McIntyre

 

The kangaroo is somewhat emblematic of Australia. It appears on the tail fin of their national airline; many Aussie companies also use the animal as a logo.. Sports teams are named after the beast and one would think that the national symbol of Australia would be as beloved there as the bald eagle is here.

That is not the case by any stretch of the imagination. While there are those who love the kangaroo, the farmers, sheepherders and ranchers of Australia look at ‘roos as little more than vermin, pests who decimate the pasture land that they need for their cattle and sheep to graze on. That segment of Australia claims – and government agencies back them up – that the kangaroo population has exploded and they now outnumber humans on the continent. The problem is so bad that an entire industry has sprung up around the controlled extermination of kangaroos, despite the strange fact that the animals enjoy a protected status in Australia. That protection is very much in name only.

The dark underbelly of the issue is that kangaroos are being slaughtered in a perfectly legal fashion at a terrifying rate which animal activists have labeled the biggest slaughter of a single animal species going on in the world today. Thousands of kangaroos are being hunted by gun-toting kangaroo hunters and killed every night. Property owner Diane Smith and her partner Greg Keightly have taken to documenting the incursion of these hunters onto their property to engage in the extermination of kangaroos which live in the wild there. On occasion the two have nearly been shot themselves.

Their videos have shown unimaginable brutality. Although the government exceptions require that the kangaroos be dispatched humanely, the hunters often miss the clean head shots leaving the kangaroos to die in agony, sometimes lingering for weeks. Joeys (the baby kangaroos) are ripped from the pouches of their dad mothers and rather than having a bullet wasted on them are swung into the fender of the jeeps, sometimes several times in order to bash their brains in. It’s a disgusting spectacle.

The husband and wife documentarian team interview several politicians and ranchers who rationally explain that the controlled extermination of the kangaroos is a necessity to keep the cattle and sheep industry thriving and that without this herd culling the country would be facing an ecological disaster. However, it is clear that their sympathies lie with the activists like Smith and Keightly who are actively fighting for the kangaroos.

The cinematography is beautiful – Australia is a beautiful country and the kangaroos are very cute creatures. The slaughter footage, much of it taken at night, is graphic and disturbing – small children are likely to be upset by it. On a technical note, the graphics that the filmmakers use to augment their film often flash on the screen too quickly to read completely. Another two or three seconds per graphic would have been greatly appreciated.

There are also lots and lots and lots of talking head interviews and while the movie presents a great deal of information, those who are annoyed by those sorts of interviews are likely to be annoyed by this film. The movie is a bit on the long side as it attacks every aspect of the kangaroo industry, from the use of leather on soccer cleats (David Beckham has famously gone over to shoes that don’t use kangaroo skin) to even the safety of the meat taken from the kangaroo carcasses; animal activist and politician Mark Pearson asserts that the meat is butchered in unsanitary conditions out in the bush and is transported long distances without proper refrigeration. He claims that kangaroo meat is potentially loaded with e.coli, salmonella and other harmful bacteria although no statistics are given on whether this has been detected or not.

In many ways the slaughter of kangaroos is a modern range war taking place as we speak. It is disturbing that the overpopulation of the animals can’t really be properly documented and government estimates are based on a highly suspect mathematical formula that seems arbitrary and greatly favors those advocating for the extermination of kangaroos. The movie does make some effort to present both sides of the conflict although it is clear that they are firmly on Team Kangaroo. The documentary is certainly flawed but it sheds light on a subject that I and I’m sure many non-Australians didn’t even realize was a thing that in and of itself makes this worth checking out.

REASONS TO GO: This is a searing indictment of the kangaroo industry. The animals are beautiful and a joy to watch and the beauty of Australia is without peer.
REASONS TO STAY: There are way too many talking heads. The graphics go by a little too quickly.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of animal cruelty, violence done to defenseless creatures, adult themes and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although this is an Australian-made film, it is actually opening in Oz nearly two months after it opens here which is unusual in that generally most films open in their own country of origin first.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Cove
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Warning: This Drug May Kill You


A heartbroken mother comforts her heroin-addicted daughter.

(2017) Documentary (HBO) Kathy Kelly, Stephany Gay, Britt Doyle, Preston Doyle, Britt Doyle Jr., Harry Doyle, Gail Cole, Brian Cole, David Cayce, Judy Cayce Enseki. Directed by Perri Peltz

 

We are told that the current opioid crisis is the worst drug addiction crisis in American history. Even as the debate for stricter gun control rages in the forefront of the American consciousness, the opioid crisis remains in the background despite the fact that it is responsible for more American deaths than are taken by guns.

This HBO documentary tries to take the epidemic out of the background and bring it into the light of day. It presents four families directly affected by the opioid epidemic in an attempt to put a human face on drug addiction. It begins by showing cell phone footage of addicts keeling over, barely conscious; of paramedics trying to revive them. In one heartbreaking moment, a mother is collapsed in the toy aisle of a grocery store while her toddler wails disconsolately beside her. Then, we cut to a Purdue Pharmaceutical advertisement from the 1990s in which Dr. Alan Spanos blithely advises doctors that opioids such as Dilaudid, Percoset and OxyContin were perfectly safe to prescribe for chronic pain patients and that the addictive properties of those drugs had been overstated.

Of course, we all know that’s hogwash and what’s more, we know that Purdue knew that it was a lie. They were fined millions of dollars for their misdirection but the damage was done; the company made billions of dollars as the rate of prescriptions went up 800 times what it had been before the ads and even today doctors continue to prescribe these very seriously addicting drugs for nearly every medical – and even dental – procedure. Many patients were never really informed as to just how dangerous these drugs could be.

Stephany Gay had issues with kidney stones as a teen and was given OxyContin and Vicodin for the pain. She began to get addicted to the feeling of well-being that the drugs gave her and she began to take them well above the recommended dosage. Her sister Ashley began experimenting with the pills but when it proved to be a more expensive habit than they could afford they switched to heroin. At first they were snorting it and both girls swore up and down to their mother Kathy Kelly that they would never use needles but eventually both did and at length Ashley died from an overdose. Stephany weeps in recounting those horrible events but now she has a daughter and is clean. Then we are informed that she relapsed six weeks after those interviews were filmed.

The Britt Doyle talks about his wife who was prescribed opioids following a C-section and turned from being a beautiful, vivacious and outgoing woman to a shell of her former self. Her young sons would find her dead after an overdose. Gail and Brian Cole visit their son’s grave; he was prescribed drugs following the removal of a cyst and became addicted and yes, died.

These are all white, middle class and upper class American families being affected; studies show that poorer class Americans aren’t prescribed opioids nearly as often mainly because the drugs are so expensive. Still in all these are stories of dealing with grief as well as dealing with drug abuse and they are emotionally powerful to be sure. But there is almost no context here and we are left to wonder why without any answers forthcoming do doctors continue to prescribe these drugs so commonly despite knowing the damage they are doing – more than 180,000 Americans have died between 2000 and 2016 due to the aggressive marketing and prescribing of opioid painkillers.

The sense is given that there are few resources available for prescription painkiller abusers, although Stephany entered a state-sponsored rehab program following her relapse, although she walked away from it four days after checking in. We may know anecdotally that heroin is a nearly impossible habit to break but we aren’t told why and that’s a question that Peltz doesn’t ask during the just under one hour documentary.

There really isn’t a lot of media coverage of the opioid epidemic and documentaries like this should be applauded for even being on the front lines of the issue but they also should be encouraged to dig deeper and this one simply doesn’t. Peltz seems to be content with displaying the grief of the families that survived the victims rather than explaining how the medical environment changed that allowed these tragedies to happen, nor does she talk about those who are beginning to take on Big Pharma to hold them accountable for the deaths that continue to climb. From watching this, you get the sense that this is a problem for which nothing is being done and that’s far from the case.

REASONS TO GO: The stories of the families depicted are indeed heart-wrenching. The movie puts a human face on the opioid epidemic. The story has gotten little coverage except in generalizations; more documentaries like this are needed.
REASONS TO STAY: The documentary feels incomplete with little context. It’s somewhat “Documentary 101” in form.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, depictions of drug overdoses, references to prescription drug abuse and other adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Deaths from opioid overdose now exceed gun violence and car accidents as a leading cause of death in the United States.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, HBO Go, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: How to Make Money Selling Drugs
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Thor: Ragnarok

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power


Al Gore checking out the effects of climate change directly in the Philippines.

(2017) Documentary (Paramount) Al Gore, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Donald Trump, John Kerry, Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin, Marco Krapels, Tom Rielly. Directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk

 

Climate change has been a hot button topic in this country ever since Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth brought his slideshow to the mainstream back in 2006. Now, more than a decade after the fact, the follow-up looks at what has been done to combat the crisis and in a lot of cases the answer is “Not a lot.”

We see Gore giving speeches and preaching largely to the choir; some folks on the other side of the aisle listen indulgently but really facts and figures aren’t making much headway with them. Gore shows himself to be a tireless worker for the cause; there is no denying his commitment to change nor his willingness to go wherever needed and do whatever needs doing. It’s good to know that there are people like Gore in the planet’s corner.

On the other hand, there are some terrifying images; Gore on a glacier that is melting away, wading in high tide waters in the streets of Miami with fish swimming placidly by. Filmed largely during the 2015 Paris Climate Change Summit where the historic accords were signed and through the 2016 election, we see Gore’s optimism at the signing of the Accords turn to dust when Trump, who is heard early on outlining his belief that climate change is a boondoggle meant to bilk American industry and the American government out of billions of dollars. Knowing that every other nation on the planet has adopted the Accords and we remain the naughty children who actually want coal for Christmas may be depressing as hell to left-leaning viewers. However no matter what side of the aisle your politics are you can certainly appreciate how extraordinary it was to get so many industrial nations to agree on one thing as they did at the Accords.

Right-leaning viewers – if they even bother to view this at all – may look at it as propaganda and in a very real sense it is. There is no doubt what the point of view of the film is or its opinions regarding the subject but while this could easily be a depressing “state of the planet” address (and parts of it are just that) there is a lot of hopefulness here. The filmmakers take great pains to describe how all of us can take action right now and still have a major effect on our planet’s health. However, there is no doubt that the federal government will continue to be part of the problem so long as those who favor profit over survival are in power.

REASONS TO GO: There is no doubt that Gore is committed and passionate on the subject of climate change. Rather than just presenting terrifying facts, the film gives some real world ways in which the crisis can be addressed. Some of the images are absolutely stunning.
REASONS TO STAY: Climate change deniers will likely find this offensive.
FAMILY VALUES: Children may find the themes and some of the images frightening.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival where it received two standing ovations.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Paramount Movies, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chasing Ice
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Hitman’s Bodyguard

Agnelli


The Prince of Italy surveys his kingdom.

(2017) Documentary (HBO) Gianni Agnelli, Maria Sole Agnelli, Henry Kissinger, Lee Radziwill, Jackie Rogers, Vendeline von Bredow, Anna Mucci, Nicolo Caracciolo, Cristiana Brandolini,,Gianni Riotta., Valentino, Diane von Furstenberg, Jennifer Clark, Reinaldo Herrera, Isabella Ratazzi, Giorgio Garuzzo, Alain Elkann, Valerio Castronovo, Taki Theodoracopulos, Ginerva Elkann. Directed by Nick Hooker

 

Certain people come along in life who by force of personality become symbols for both good and ill. Our current President, for example, is a symbol of things that depending on your political persuasion may either fill you with hope or with disgust. Malala Yousafzai has become a symbol of extraordinary courage and for women’s rights. Jackie Kennedy, in her day, became a symbol of elegance and grace.

Gianni Agnelli from the late 1950s onward acted as a symbol for the Italian people. Known affectionately by his nickname “L’Avvocato” (the advocate), he was the grandson of the founder of Fiat Motors, which at one time employed 3% of the Italian workforce. He was groomed to become the CEO and helped revitalize postwar Italian industry in a time when Italy was in ruins. He also stood up to Red Brigade terrorists who in the 1970s kidnapped and assassinated the Italian Prime Minister as well as one of his own executives at Fiat.

During the 1950s and 1960s Agnelli was the symbol of Italian sophistication and glamour. It was an era immortalized in films like La Dolce Vita and Agnelli certainly was symbolic of that epoch. He threw fabulous parties, hung out with glamorous people (including Jackie, designers Valentino and Diane von Furstenberg, diplomat Henry Kissinger and actress Anita Ekberg). He liked to drive fast; while he drove a Fiat, it was equipped with a Ferrari engine (Fiat purchased Ferrari in order to keep it out of the hands of an American automaker).

Agnelli was a great believer in the American system as was his grandfather, who took many of the ideas Henry Ford used to make Ford Motors more efficient and used them to modernize his own. Agnelli saw America in it’s splendid postwar prosperity and knew that was the route Italy had to follow. However, the road wasn’t without bumps; his grandfather was forced out of Fiat after being falsely accused of collaborating with the fascists; even though he was exonerated the ordeal essentially killed him. During the 70s, Italy had a strong communist movement going on, spawning the Red Brigade; Agnelli saw this as potentially catastrophic to Italy in the same way fascism had been. He remained a strong proponent for capitalism and democracy during that time, even though it painted quite the target on his own back.

The documentary is a bit on the long side, dividing the life of Gianni Agnelli into five distinct periods. Most of the focus is devoted to the La Dolce Vita years during which time Agnelli was a fashion icon as well as a notorious ladies man (there were rumors he had an affair with Jackie Kennedy between the death of President Kennedy and her marriage to Aristotle Onasis). In many ways that was a fascinating period in his life but in many ways it’s more of a People magazine portion of the film rather than a Wall Street Journal portion which comes later. We get a lot of the glitz and glamour but what we don’t get is a lot of context. He is clearly revered in Italy and particularly in Turin, not only for refusing to lay off workers when his company was hemorrhaging money but also for owning the Juventus soccer club which is only slightly less important a religion in Turin as Roman Catholicism.

There are a lot of interviews with relatives (two sisters, several nieces and nephews), staff (his personal assistant as well as the groundskeeper and chef on his Italian estate) as well as friends both famous and not. While some of the interviews give us insight into the man, a lot of them cover the same ground. The adage “women wanted to be with him, men wanted to be him” is used both directly and indirectly dozens of times during the film. We get it.

I did like the archival footage, some of which are compelling historical documents; that seemed to work better for me than the endless interviews. There is no doubt that Gianni Agnelli led a fascinating life and was an important person in the 20th century particularly in Italy but the filmmakers don’t seem very inclined to get beneath the surface of the man who was clearly intelligent and forceful and get into the things that motivated him to make some of the decisions he made. This is one of those documentaries that could have used a lot less fluff and a lot more meat.

REASONS TO GO: Agnelli was the personification of Italian glamour at the zenith of La Dolce Vita. There are interesting insights to Italy’s postwar political history.
REASONS TO STAY: There are way too many talking heads. As interesting as it is, the film runs far too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some 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: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No Score Yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Men Who Built America
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Murder on the Cape

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
NEXT:
Voyeur