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

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Terminator Genisys


I just want to set the world on fire...

I just want to set the world on fire…

(2015) Science Fiction (Paramount) Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Jai Courtney, Emilia Clarke, J.K. Simmons, Dayo Okeniyi, Matthew Smith, Courtney B. Vance, Byung-hun Lee, Michael Gladis, Sandrine Holt, Wayne Bastrup, Gregory Alan Williams, Otto Sanchez, Matty Ferraro, Griff Furst, Ian Etheridge, Nolan Gross, Seth Meriwether, Afemo Omilami, Teri Wyble. Directed by Alan Taylor

Some franchises seem to need little encouragement to be creative. Some tell a single story over the course of several films. Others essentially make the same movie over and over again.

The War Against the Machines is reaching it’s end; John Connor (J.Clarke) and his troops are storming an L.A. prison camp which hides Skynet’s secret weapon even as another brigade is storming the main server complex in Colorado. Complete victory is within their grasp; except that Skynet has sent a Terminator (Schwarzenegger) back in time to assassinate Sarah Connor (E. Clarke), his mother, before he can be born. John sends his right hand man, Kyle Reese (Courtney) back in time to stop the unstoppable cyborg.

Sounds familiar right? But this isn’t a reboot. When Reese gets there he discovers the Terminator has already been dispatched – by another Terminator, reprogrammed and sent back further in time to save Sarah – and now to save all of them from a liquid metal T-1000 (Lee) that is nearly impossible to destroy, but clever Sarah manages to find a way.

Now, they have a chance to stop Judgment Day itself but something is wrong with the timeline. Reese saw John getting attacked just before he was sent back in time and now Judgment Day isn’t in 1997 but in 2017. And the means that the nuclear holocaust will be achieved is through a new operating system, Genisys, that will link up everybody and everything – including the nukes. With the aging Terminator whom Sarah calls Pops – as he keeps insisting, he’s old not obsolete – the two will try to save the world from Skynet one last time but Skynet has an ace up it’s sleeve that nobody foresaw – except those who saw Paramount’s second trailer for the movie that spoils one of the biggest and unexpected twists that could have been this summer.

The Terminator franchise has seen better days. The first two films in the franchise were box office smashes and are beloved of science fiction and action film fans alike. The last two have done decent financial numbers but both critics and fans alike have excoriated both of them. Where in that demarcation does this one fall?

The latter, unfortunately. Critics have given this a spanking as you can see by the numbers below and fans have been essentially unimpressed. To be honest, I can’t say that this is one of the better movies in the series but it isn’t the worst either – Terminator Salvation gets that dubious honor – and quite frankly I think it holds up pretty well, despite the critical lambasting it has taken.

]Schwarzenegger, who essentially just made cameos during the last two films which were both filmed during his gubernatorial days but is fully back here and he steals the show. Arnold has never been the greatest of actors (though he has improved) but he’s always had a load of charisma. He manages to play the sympathetic Terminator nicely with genuinely horrifying attempts at a human smile, and a few unintentionally funny quips.

Too bad Arnold as a robot is more lifelike than the human characters. Jason Clarke has shown himself to be a capable lead actor in Life on Mars and in other films, but here he seems terribly lost. I’m not sure if he just required better direction, or any direction but I get the sense that he’s not sure how to play this messianic character and so plays him without much to recommend him by. At least he does a better job than Christian Bale did.

Courtney, who has been a villain in the Hunger Games movies does a mite better, but again seems a bit over his head. The same could be said for Emilia Clarke who has turned heads in Game of Thrones but seems strident and unlikable here instead of tough. Makes one wish her colleague in Thrones, Lena Headey, would have been the one asked to take the role here. She did a far better job in The Sarah Connor Chronicles.

The action sequences are better than average and the special effects likewise. Where the movie really falls down is in the story; it’s so convoluted, with parallel timelines and all sorts of techno babble which ends up slowing the momentum of the movie down at key moments (in one incredible sequence, four different characters try explain a plot point four times to a disbelieving character which is just beyond comprehension why anyone writing a major summer movie would do that. I think they should have simplified things a little or just didn’t explain anything and let the audience just go with it. They would have been better off in the long run. However, fans of the series might be interested to know that there will be at least two more movies made; Paramount has already greenlit them because the rights to the franchise revoke back to James Cameron in 2019 so the studio intends to get as much return from their investment as possible. I hope that the audience does, too.

REASONS TO GO: Some fine summer entertainment and eye candy. Schwarzenegger is clearly having fun.
REASONS TO STAY: Convoluted plot. A little too much like previous entries in the franchise.
FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of sci-fi violence and gun fighting, some partial nudity and a few choice words here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jason Clarke is the fifth actor to play John Connor. Rusty Griswold of the Vacation series has also had five actors in the same role, the only characters known to have that many different actors playing them.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I, Robot
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Desire for Beauty

Still Alice


Julianne Moore may have Oscar's pulse.

Julianne Moore may have Oscar’s pulse.

(2014) Drama (Sony Classics) Julianne Moore, Kristen Stewart, Alec Baldwin, Kate Bosworth, Shane McRae, Hunter Parrish, Seth Gilliam, Stephen Kunken, Erin Drake, Daniel Gerroll, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Maxine Prescott, Orlagh Cassidy, Rosa Arredondo, Zillah Glory, Caridad Montanez, Caleb Freundlich, Charlotte Robson, Jean Burns, Erin Drake. Directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland

Some movies benefit from strong storylines, great special effects or subject matter that is timely. Still others benefit from perfect or near-perfect casting, with a performance that elevates the movie from merely ordinary into something else.

Dr. Alice Howland (Moore) is a brilliant linguist, a respected professor at Columbia University and an author of what is pretty much the definitive textbook on the subject. She lives in a beautiful Manhattan apartment with her husband John (Baldwin), himself a talented and in-demand research physician. Their three adult kids are Tom (Parrish), a promising med school student, Anna (Bosworth) who is married to Charlie (McRae) and who is trying to get pregnant, and the black sheep Lydia (Stewart) who alone lives in Los Angeles (the others are all clustered near New York) and is trying to get an acting career started, although her mother nags her to go to college because she considers acting a waste of Lydia’s intellect.

But then she begins to forget words and names, forget where she put her keys. All signs, her husband assures her, of growing older; the memory is one of the first things to go. But then she goes for a run around Columbia and stops suddenly, terrified; she doesn’t recognize a thing, it’s a completely alien place, even though she has been teaching on this very campus for 20 years. She goes to see a neurologist (Kunken), privately. No tumors. Nothing to really explain what is causing these memory lapses. Then comes the MRI and the news couldn’t be worse; early onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

Alice is devastated As an academic, she has built a career and a life based around the power of her mind. Now that is to all be stripped away from her. Alice is a fighter however; she uses memory techniques to keep hold of the important things. Her family rallies around her, although John longs for escape and is seriously considering a position at the Mayo Clinic which would be great for his career but would rob him of a year with his wife, possibly her last year as herself. The sort of Alzheimer’s that Alice has is genetic, which means her kids might be carriers. This gives Alice an enormous sense of guilt when one of them turns out to be positive for the disease as well.

Alice can’t imagine life as essentially a vegetable and as we watch her deteriorate and her frustration grows, we see those around her change as well. The devastation her disease creates not just to Alice which is observable, is heart-breaking. Still, being who she is, she has devised a way out, to spare her family the worst of her disease. Will she be able to take it?

Based on the novel by Susan Genova, the movie is a bit rote in terms of how it follows movies of similar coping with disease themes; small symptoms, easily dismissed, leading to larger symptoms, not so easily dismissed, followed by the diagnosis which is excruciating in its own right followed by the repercussions of the disease itself. I suppose most diseases follow the same timeline in reality but there is nothing particularly adventurous in the way the movie handles the subject.

What works here is Moore’s performance. She’s already won the Golden Globe for her work here, along with every significant acting award with only the Jewel in the Crown, the Oscar, waiting in the wings and she’s the odds-on favorite for adding it to her collection. This is absolutely scintillating work, as we watch the terrible progression of the disease. Moore humanizes the character; you feel for her but she doesn’t make Alice pitiable but rather as strong as anyone can be in the face of a disease that robs you of who you are. This is easily one of the best performances of the year and certainly worth the accolades she has received and should she win the Oscar, I don’t think anyone can really argue with it.

Baldwin actually does a pretty good job himself. He tends to play characters who are much more smarmy than this one, but this is a little bit out of his comfort zone in a lot of ways. There is a scene where John breaks down with Lydia, which summarizes the hardship this has been on him, caring for his wife and watching her slip away from him. It’s a heartbreaking moment and one of the worthier moments of the film because it is arrived at honestly. Not all the moments in the film are like that.

Stewart still remains an actress I have trouble connecting to. It’s not just because of her Twilight connection either; it’s just that there is a wall between her and me – maybe not for everyone in the audience, but for whatever reason I can’t seem to penetrate it. There is a disingenuous vibe about her that just makes me feel like she’s acting rather than creating a personality. Maybe it’s just me being unfair to her and I will cop to the possibility that it’s true, but she has yet to truly inspire me in any role she’s played to date.

I can’t say that this is a great film but it is a decent film that is elevated by the performance of its star. Without Moore, this would be just passable, worth the time only if you’re either interested in the subject matter or have seen most of the other items that are in theaters at that moment. With Moore, this is powerful in places and dominated by an actress who’s at the very top of her game. See this for Moore; it’s one of those sorts of performances that you won’t soon forget.

REASONS TO GO: Oscar-worthy performance by Moore. Baldwin provides strong support.
REASONS TO STAY: Occasionally wanders into the land of treacle.
FAMILY VALUES: The overall theme is pretty adult. There is some occasional profanity as well as a sexual reference.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Co-director Richard Glatzer suffers from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and is unable to speak; he used a text-to-speech app on his iPad to communicate with cast and crew.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Folks!
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Project Almanac

Unknown


Unknown

Diane Krueger has the unpleasant task of informing Liam Neeson that the grunge look is dead.

(2011) Suspense (Warner Brothers) Liam Neeson, Diane Krueger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz, Frank Langella, Sebastian Koch, Olivier Schneider, Stipe Erceg, Mido Hamada, Clint Dyer, Karl Markovics, Eva Lobau, Rainer Bock. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Who are we really? Are we who we are because we say who we are? And what if we are told that is not who we are, that someone else is who we thought we were? Would the sales of Excedrin go through the roof if that were true?

Dr. Martin Harris (Neeson) is a mild-mannered botanist speaking at a biotechnology conference in Berlin, accompanied by his beautiful, icy blonde wife Liz (Jones). It is snowing and the weather is awful when they arrive. In the haste to get into a warm cab, Martin leaves his briefcase behind at the airport. This briefcase contains his passport and all his other important documents, so he turns around at the posh Hotel Adlon and boards another cab to get back to the airport to retrieve it.

Unfortunately, as they say, the best-laid plans of mice and men…a dreadful accident sends the taxi plunging off a bridge and into the icy waters of the river. Gina (Krueger), the plucky driver, rescues an unconscious Martin (who had hit his head against the window) from the sinking car and while the paramedics work on the stricken man, slips quietly away.

Four days later, Martin wakes up in the hospital with fractured memories of not only what happened to him but his entire wife. The sympathetic doctor (Markovics) tells him he has a head injury which can be tricky when it comes to memory, but the more Martin remembers the more frantic he gets regarding his wife, who has no idea what happened to him and must be going out of her mind by now. However, when he finally checks himself out of the hospital (against doctor’s orders) and heads back to the Adlon, Liz doesn’t remember him. Not only that, she is with another man (Quinn) whom she calls her husband and who seems to be…him.

This is awfully distressing to Martin. He is desperate to prove that he is him, but has no documentation, and very little cash. He visits a colleague, Dr. Bressler (Koch) who invited him to the conference only to find the other Dr. Harris there, who not only has proper documents but also family photographs. This so disturbs Martin that he faints.

The next thing he knows he is getting an MRI but when he comes out of it, an assassin (Schneider) has murdered his doctor and an even more sympathetic nurse (Lobau) and to Martin, that means that maybe he isn’t crazy. He goes to see Jurgen (Ganz), an ex-Stasi agent who the lately murdered nurse had recommended he sees. This sets into a chain of events involving the reluctantly recruited Gina, a Saudi prince (Hamada) and a covert team of murderers for hire.

Collet-Serra is better known for horror films and indeed, the movie is produced by Dark Castle, which specializes in horror but this is more Hitchcock than horror. It has a lot of the elements of a Hitchcock film – an ordinary man drawn into international intrigue that he doesn’t understand; a beautiful, icy-cold blonde, and an unlikely ally – also blonde.

Neeson has assumed the mantle, in his mid-50s, of an everyman action hero, one which Harrison Ford wore in the late 80s and 90s. Neeson’s perpetually gentle puppy dog aura can change into a ferocious fighter at a moment’s notice, and does so upon occasion here. He is so likable that he immediately resonates with the audience, and that’s half the battle in a movie like this.

Jones, who made her reputation in “Mad Men,” is given little more to do than look beautiful and, occasionally, sexy. Having seen her in a number of different roles, I believe she is one good part from being a major leading lady in Hollywood, but that hasn’t happened yet and this film doesn’t really provide her one. Still, she is very good at what she does.

Part of the problem here is that the movie relies on implausibility – considering the importance of what was in the original briefcase (which is more than the passports and is a critical plot point that I won’t reveal here) it’s hard to believe that Martin would leave it on the curb in a luggage cart, no matter how bad the weather. From the way his character is developed in flashback, it seems unlikely that he would let that particular bag leave his grasp but its disappearance is the fulcrum around which the plot is driven.

While based on a novel written by a French writer named Didier Van Caulweleart in 2003, there is a Cold War feel to the movie that would have been better served to be set in the same city but in 1963, with the Wall up and tensions high. As thrillers go, it’s a little bit on the old-fashioned side and some of the twists and turns are a bit predictable.

Still, there is a marvelous car chase, even though it seems a bit ludicrous that a botanist can drive a car like Remy Julienne, the famous French stunt driver although that is explained more or less by proxy by the film’s denouement. There are also some marvelous German actors in the film, not the least of which is Krueger (Inglourious Basterds) and Ganz (one of Rainier Werner Fassbinder’s mainstays and best known here for his work in Wings of Desire, as well as Bock, an unctuous security chief here but better as the schoolteacher in The White Ribbon.

What we have here is a moderately serviceable thriller that owes much of its appeal to its rather heavy-handed nods to the master, Alfred Hitchcock and much of the rest of it to its star, Liam Neeson. This isn’t going to re-write the book on the genre by any stretch of the imagination, but if you liked Neeson in Taken and loved basically anything the Master of Suspense directed with Jimmy Stewart in it, you’re going to enjoy Unknown very much.

REASONS TO GO: Neeson elevates the material. The car chase scene is nifty and the tension is elevated nicely throughout.

REASONS TO STAY: Much of the plot relies on implausibility and one gets the feel that this film would have been better served being set in the Cold War era.

FAMILY VALUES: As you probably figured out from the trailer, there is plenty of violence here but there’s also a little bit of sex as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Bridge that the taxi takes its plunge from is the Oberbaumbrucke in Berlin.  

HOME OR THEATER: Not a lot of really big screen-type of cinematography here; it will work just as well on your own home screen.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Stolen