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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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1


Liam Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence get serious.

Liam Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence get serious.

(2014) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Jeffrey Wright, Woody Harrelson, Jena Malone, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Sam Claflin, Willow Shields, Mahershala Ali, Paula Malcomson, Natalie Dormer, Evan Ross, Stef Dawson, Sarita Choudhury. Directed by Francis Lawrence

It has become something of a habit now for Hollywood to take the final book in a young adult franchise based on a book and split it in two; this has been done for the Harry Potter series, Twilight and now The Hunger Games with the same fate planned for the Divergent series. This is a blatant cash grab that cynical studios use to squeeze every last penny that they can out of a successful franchise. As for the Potter series, the first part was the weakest movie of the eight-film franchise (although the second part turned out to be one of the strongest). In the Twilight series Lionsgate both movies were poor and the final entry the worst of the entire series.

In this penultimate film, the events of Catching Fire have led to the complete carpet bombing and destruction of District 12, home of Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) who has been taken to the previously-thought abandoned District 13. However her love Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson) had been left behind and was captured by the men of President Snow (Sutherland) and brought back to the Capital. There he is used as a pawn, with interviews conducted by the smarmy Caesar Flickerman (Tucci) which essentially are propaganda pieces.

District 13 president Alma Coin (Moore) is wary of using Katniss for the same purpose; clearly Katniss is shell-shocked and not in an emotional state where she is able to be a spokesman for the revolution that is sweeping Panem. However uber-patient ex-boyfriend Gale Hawthorne (Hemsworth) is on hand to help Katniss make it through; old friends Haymitch (Harrelson), Effie Trinket (Banks) and Finnick (Claflin) are there to support Katniss. Rescued from the rubble of District 12 are Kat’s sister Primrose (Shields) and mom (Malcomson).

Pulling the strings in District 13 is Plutarch (Hoffman) a cynical but brilliant marketing man who is selling the revolution to the people of Panem whereas President Snow is selling safety and security while providing neither. A villain of the first order, he callously orders the bombing of a hospital in order to set an example of what happens to people when they allow a visit from the Girl on Fire who is now referred to as the Mockingjay. This pisses Katniss off enough to pull out of her funk temporarily – until the callow Peeta makes another plea for peace. Who knew the face of revolution would be so emotional?

And so after that atrocity the rebels are finally moved to push into an offensive against the Capital, giving them the opportunity to rescue Peeta and the other Victors held captive by the President, including Finnick’s girlfriend Anna (Dawson). However, they don’t begin to see the depth of the game being played by President Snow – and how far he is willing to go to win it.

As any fan of the series will tell you, it’s all about Katniss and thus it’s all about Jennifer Lawrence. Normally I’d say that’s a pretty safe bet; after all, she has become one of the hottest actresses in the world, with Oscar wins as well as starring in one of the biggest franchises in Hollywood today. However, I can’t say as I like what is happening to her character here.

Now I’ll admit that it should be taken into account that I’m not a teenage girl nor have I ever been one – nor am I likely to ever be one. I may be getting this all wrong but I feel cheated a little bit by what Katniss has become in this movie. I had always viewed her as a good role model for young girls; strong, independent, able to defend herself and those around her and with a strong moral compass. I’m not sure what the author’s intentions were  but I saw the same thing happen to Bella Swan in Twilight as well. Both series were written by women but I’m not sure if they were saying it’s okay to be ruled by your emotions to the point where you become virtually immobilized by them, or if they’re saying that’s part of being female.

I don’t know about that part. How is it role model material for your strong, independent heroine to be literally whining “It’s not fair!” while pining away for her boyfriend to the point that she’s willing to let all sorts of people – including her sister and mom – be killed because she’s too emotional to act to prevent it. That kind of self-centeredness may be part of modern culture but it seems out of place for a movie heroine. Of course, my perceptions of what a role model should be may be hopelessly outdated but I do like to think that there are some things that are fairly basic and timeless.

Lawrence is a terrific actress but she seems curiously lifeless here. Even so, she still manages to dominate the screen and while this isn’t her best work, it certainly is enough to carry the movie. She gets some able support, particularly from the late Hoffman whom the film is dedicated to. Mostly though this is a lot of people going through the motions for a paycheck and Moore, also a fine actress, looks distinctly uncomfortable in an unfortunate wig.

There’s just not a lot of energy and life to this movie even though the visuals are well shot and there are some pleasant moments in idyllic forests. Most of the movie takes place in District 13’s underground bunker and is perpetually underlit. Even without 3D this movie is dark and dingy-looking most of the time. You have to admit though it does set a certain kind of bleak mood.

There is subtext here about image-making and its use in manipulating opinion, and while that is a fascinating subject, the filmmakers tend to thunk us over the head with a shillelagh rather than skewer us with a rapier which would be much more preferable. There isn’t a lot of subtlety here but then again, I get the sense that the filmmakers don’t respect their target audience a whole lot. Certainly the kind of girls that identify with Katniss are capable of understanding subtlety.

This is a big disappointment for me. Thus far I’ve actually enjoyed the series and was looking forward to seeing this one. Although it is reasonably entertaining to earn a feeble recommendation, I was hoping for so much more. With any luck,  the finale next Thanksgiving will pull out all the stops and let the series end on a high note rather than a whimper or a whine which is where it seems to be going. Prove me wrong. Please.

REASONS TO GO: Some pleasing eye-candy. Lawrence is terrific even when she’s subpar.
REASONS TO STAY: Turgid and boring. Lacks any kind of spark. Katniss, a strong and courageous soul, is reduced to a weepy teen pining for her boyfriend and feeling sorry for herself.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some intense violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hoffman passed away a week before filming concluded; rather than recasting the part, the filmmakers did some rewrites so that the portions Hoffman didn’t film could be incorporated in different ways.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Divergent
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Daybreakers

Getaway


This is Ethan Hawke's career going up in flames.

This is Ethan Hawke’s career going up in flames.

(2013) Action (Warner Brothers) Ethan Hawke, Selena Gomez, Jon Voight, Rebecca Budig, Bruce Payne, Paul Freeman, Ivailo Geraskov, Dimo Alexiev, Slavi Pavlov, Deyan Angelov, Kaloian Vodenicharov, Danko Jordanov, Velizar Peev, Peewee Piemonte, Esteban Cueto, Kiril Todarov, Georgi Dimitrov, Lena Milan, Silvia Ranguelova, Maria Bobeva. Directed by Courtney Solomon

Some filmmakers accept their limitations and try to work within them. There are directors who specialize in certain types of movies and seem fairly content to making those sorts of films year after year, churning out films that are right in their wheelhouse. Others prefer to challenge themselves.

I’m not sure which kind of director Courtney Solomon is. What he has delivered to us here is basically a 90 minute car chase through the streets of downtown Sofia, Bulgaria with little thought given to plot or logic. The reason for that may be that Solomon is good and filming car stunts – or perhaps he isn’t and wants to get better at it.

Either way. Here we witness Brent Magra (Hawke), a former race car driver now living in Bulgaria after his career went belly-up and he’d turned briefly to a life of crime. Now married to a Good Woman (Budig) with whom he can start over in Eastern Europe, he is working a legit job. It’s Christmastime. What could go wrong?

Well, a lot. He comes home and finds his apartment trashed and blood on the floor. He receives a call on his cell from a guy with a German accent (Voight) who informs him that they have his wife. Just for good measure, pictures are sent to prove they mean business. Brent is to steal a car – a tricked out Shelby Mustang with all the latest gadgets including surveillance equipment inside and out, armor plating and a hands-free phone. It even comes with its irate owner, a Kid (Gomez) who is the daughter of a bank executive who happens to be a brilliant computer hacker and happens to have a gun. Brent is ordered to take her along and drive throughout downtown Sofia causing all manners of mayhem, like driving through a crowded park and ramming police cars.

Soon the entire Bulgarian police force is after him and the Kid and Brent need to figure out what the Voice wants; it’s clear to both of them that once the real deed is achieved the many and various thugs will kill Brent, the Kid, his Wife and a small village in Bosnia. Think of the Voice as a walking talking Monsanto.

It’s hard to know where to begin here. The acting is wooden and Gomez is horribly miscast. I get that she wants to scuttle her Disney Channel reputation and move on to more adult roles but she is about as convincing as a street-wise punk as De Niro would be as Tinker Bell. Hawke, who has done some fine work in the past, seems to be distracted throughout; maybe he’s thinking about how to invest his paycheck.

The big crime here is not the one being committed by the Voice and his gang but by the writers. There are incredible lapses in logic and continuity that are simply beyond amateur. For example, one of the tasks Brent and the Kid are given to do is to blow up a power plant by uploading a virus that overloads the system, causing a shower of sparks. We see the lights go out in Sofia. Cut to the very next scene and all the lights are on. Every. Last. One. When was the last time that your power went out and your lights came on within five minutes? Exactly.

Brent is chased by the cops and the thugs and none of them can shoot very well. Apparently there’s bullet proof glass in the car, but they are seen rolling down the windows on several occasions. Not with bullet proof glass you can’t. The Shelby is smashed and bashed by multiple collisions yet all the delicate electronics continue to work. Even given the armor plating, isn’t it likely a wire or two might be jarred loose?

I could go on and on but frankly this isn’t worth it. Those of you who think Hal Needham was too highbrow for your tastes might be happy as a pig in slop with this mess. For the rest of us, move along. Nothing here to see.

REASONS TO GO: Some decent car stunts.

REASONS TO STAY: Gomez is miscast. One trick pony.  Severe lapses in logic.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of action and general mayhem throughout, a few choice words here and there and a few rude gestures to go along with them.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: 130 cars were wrecked in the making of the movie; the wrecked cars were stored in an on-set junkyard.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/24/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 2% positive reviews. Metacritic: 22/100

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Transporter

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Kick-Ass 2