Tag Archives: B+

JANE

Producer: Brett Morgen, Bryan Burk, James Smith and Tony Gerber
Director: Brett Morgen
Writer: Brett Miorgen
Stars: Jane Goodall
Studio: National Geographic

B+

Much has been written about the extraordinary career of Jane Goodall, whose decades observing the chimpanzees of Tanzania have revealed how much they and humans have in common (and point to differences as well), and whose efforts on behalf of wildlife preservation have earned her renown and admiration. Nor has there been a lack of films and television programs about her, or in which she has been interviewed.

Still, one must welcome Brett Morgen’s exceptional documentary, which amounts to a virtual autobiography in which, in new interviews, the octogenarian Goodall, certainly the world’s best-known primatologist, narrates—and comments upon—the events of her life, summing things up by admitting that while personal effort and determination played a great part, so too did sheer luck. What else could explain how, as a young woman who always dreamed of studying animals, she was selected by Louis Leakey to undertake her African project in 1960 (her lack of a university education considered a point in her favor, since it would preclude any “professional” preconceptions)? Or that, at the very moment when the original project was reaching a threatened close, she observed one of the chimpanzees using a stick to extract ants from a mound for food—a finding that challenged the common belief that man’s ability to use tools distinguished him from all other animal species, and led to funding that allowed her work to continue?

Goodall’s observations alone would make the film worthwhile, but “Jane” possesses an equally important element in its employment of more than a hundred hours of footage of the young Goodall shot by Hugo van Lawick, who was sent by National Geographic to record the progress of her work in 1962 and would go on to win recognition for the remarkable footage he would compile during years in the Serengeti (as well as become Goodall’s husband in 1964, their courtship wryly recounted here). Morgen uses this treasure-trove, long presumed lost, to fashion a narrative to complement Goodall’s recollections, adding to it excerpts from news footage and earlier interviews, as well as animated graphics.

The resultant mixture has been smoothly edited by Joe Besenkovsky, aided by Morgen and Will Zndaric, into a fascinating portrait, made all the more hypnotic by Philip Glass’s typically insistent, throbbing music score. One of the most intriguing elements is certainly the comparison that Goodall herself draws between her own pregnancy, which resulted in the birth of her and van Lawick’s son Grub, and the birth of a male chimpanzee, which she christened Flint, to Flo, one of the community’s females. She says that she learned a good deal about maternal conduct from watching Flo and Flint, perhaps as much as from her own experiences as a mother.

The bond between chimpanzee mother and son, however, takes a turn that adds a dark shadow to the narrative—proving that profound grief is not an emotion exclusive to humans. There are other sequences—one showing that the animals are also prone to violence (what Goodall describes as a primitive form of war), and another involving an outbreak of illness among the chimpanzees—that are, on the one hand, grim and, on the other, poignant. By contrast Goodall’s reminiscences about the eventual breakup of her marriage (though she and her husband remained friends) and the upbringing of Grub have an analytical, matter-of-fact air that only occasionally allows glimpses of how deeply she feels about then.

“Jane” shows that in a very real sense Goodall has anthropomorphized the chimpanzee—by demonstrating through her long, patient observation of their lives how much we humans share with them, a reality explained by the process of evolution itself. It also reminds us how our appreciation of other species has evolved over the last century, due in large measure to the work of dedicated people like her in educating the rest of us—and encouraging the world to take the conservationist actions required to save her subjects and others like them. The outcries that occur today when rare or protected animals are killed for sport are evidence of how far her work has brought us, but also of how far we have yet to go.

This is an engrossing, beautifully made documentary about a truly remarkable woman, and a fitting tribute to her contribution to the work of wildlife preservation.

THOR: RAGNAROK

Producer: Kevin Feige
Director: Taika Waititi
Writer: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher L. Yost
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Bl;anchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Mark Ruffalo, Karl Urban, Anthony Hopkins, Benedict Cumberbatch, Taika Waititi, Rachel House, Clancy Brown, Tadanobu Asano, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi and Sam Neill
Studio: Walt Disney Studios

B+

If we must have more installments in the Marvel series of superhero movies, one can only hope that they’ll all be as much silly fun as “Thor: Ragnarok,” which, under the cheerfully irreverent direction of Kiwi director Taika Waititi (“Hunt for the Wilderpeople”), refuses to take the hammer-wielding son of Odin at all seriously. Waititi not only bypasses the more stentorian tone of Alan Taylor’s “Thor: The Dark World” (2013) by returning to the lighter treatment of Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor” (2011), but goes much further than Branagh did, giving the new movie a comic spin even in the action scenes.

Thor has never been the brightest bulb on the comic-book block, of course, but here he’s depicted as a likable piece of lunkheaded beefcake constantly getting zapped, bonked and imprisoned—he even has to submit to having his golden tresses cut off against his will (and by a trembling old coot fans will recognize). And he always needs the help of others in getting out of the scrapes he’s stumbled into. This Thor might not be especially godly, but he’s an engaging lug, especially as played by Chris Hemsworth, who makes him determinedly obtuse.

In fact, when Thor is first encountered in “Ragnarok,” he’s in a cage, and is soon discussing his fate with a big CGI villain who plans to annihilate Asgard, in the process explaining—fortunately for those viewers unacquainted with the mythology—what “Ragnarok” means (the final destruction of the realm). Thor defeats the gigantic fellow, of course, and returns his crown—the source of his power—to Asgard for safekeeping.

What he finds there, however, is disquieting. His mischievously malevolent brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who’s not dead after all, has exiled Odin (Anthony Hopkins) to earth and taken over the realm by posing as him. The two go to earth—Loki reluctantly—to find their father, and after a brief encounter with Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)—in which, of course, Thor fares none too well—they find him. But Odin is ready to die, and not only because his daughter Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death whom her brothers knew nothing about, is returning from banishment to claim Asgard for herself as Odin’s first-born. The level of sibling rivalry increases astronomically, and Hela’s powers prove too great to overcome.

That leads to Thor and Loki being thrust into the vastness of space. While Hela systematically takes over their home realm using a minion named Skurge (Karl Urban) as her unwilling enforcer, they separately wind up on the junkyard planet of Sakaar, where an effete ruler called the Grandmaster (played with goofy glee by Jeff Goldblum) conducts an intergalactic gladiatorial combat not unlike Mad Max’s Thunderdome, but on a much bigger scale.

Whom should Thor be pitted against in combat but his erstwhile comrade-in-green-arms The Hulk, aka Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo)? After their protracted bout, they will join forces to escape, along with butt-kicking ex-Asgardian Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), now a bounty hunter who captured Thor in the first place, and sympathetic rock-man Korg (Waititi via motion-capture). Along with the ever-untrustworthy Loki, they return to Asgard to confront Hela, where they find the sentinel Heimdall (Idris Elba) shepherding as many of the populace as possible to safety.

All this sounds typically heroic, and after a fashion it is, of course. But it’s also played with a light touch, and lots of humorous asides. Ruffalo makes Banner’s anxiety a source of fun, Hiddleston oozes cheeky sleaze as Loki, Thompson gives Valkyrie a touch of a dissolute Wonder Woman, and even Blanchett and Hopkins send up their characters as if doing loony Shakespearean riffs. It’s Goldblum, however, who seals the deal with a wonderful hammy turn delivered with perfect deadpan timing, which he continues into one of the inevitable tags during the final credits.

Of course “Ragnarok” doesn’t stint on big CGI-laden chases and battles; this is a Marvel Universe movie, after all. They’re all handled well by the usual army of special effects artists. The more ordinary sets are imaginatively fabricated by able production designers Dan Hennah and Ra Vincent, and the costumes designed by Mayes C. Rubeo are appropriately outlandish (Goldblum seems to delight in his flowing robes, while Blanchett must have been poured into her dominatrix outfit). Editors Joel Negron and Zene Baker are in tune with Waititi’s sprightly vision, while Mark Mothersbaugh contributes a score less bombastic than what often loads down such fare, supplemented at a few important moments by some pop-rock tunes.

“Thor: Ragnarok” is no masterpiece: it’s still a comic-book superhero movie, after all, and a Marvel product at that. But in a genre that often seems more intent on pummeling you into submission than giving you a good time, its light, breezy approach is a breath of fresh air.