The Galapagos Affair: Satan Comes to Eden


A family portrait of the Wittmers.

A family portrait of the Wittmers.

(2010) Documentary (Zeitgeist) Cate Blanchett (voice), Sebastian Koch (voice), Thomas Kretschmann (voice), Diane Kruger (voice), Connie Nielsen (voice), Josh Radnor (voice), Gustaf Skarsgärd,  Octavio Latorre, Fritz Hieber, Steve Divine, Teppy Angermeyer, Jacqueline De Roy, Gil De Roy, Jacob Lundh, Carmen Angermeyer, Daniel Fitter, Rolf Wittmer. Directed by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller

Late in the film, one of the interview subjects proclaims “Paradise is not a place; it’s a condition.” However, in the 1930s, the Galapagos Islands off the coast of South America must have seemed a paradise to Europeans who were already feeling the winds of war blowing. Full of tropical beauty and lush vegetation, it must have seemed an ideal place to get away from civilization and lead productive lives.

=Friedrich Ritter (Kretschmann) was a devoted follower of Nietzsche who had a devoted follower of his own in Dore Strauch (Blanchett). Scandalous even in Wiemar Germany, she left her husband and took up with Ritter; the two left Germany to make a life for themselves in the Galapagos, where Friedrich would be freed of the troubles and cares of civilization so he could write the philosophical treatise that he had been longing to (but had been unable to make time to) write. Of the islands, they settle on one called Floreana.

However, things don’t go the way he envisioned them. Strauch, who had multiple sclerosis, is unable to meet the physical demands of living on their own on a tropical island and Ritter, rather than being the understanding lover, seems to embrace the misogyny of his mentor and berates her constantly about her shortcomings.

Things don’t get any better when another German couple, Heinz Wittmer (Koch) and his pregnant wife Margret (Kruger) arrive having heard of Dr. Ritter’s experiment and decide to make their own homestead. The two families are somewhat antagonistic towards each other, Ritter and Strauch viewing them as interlopers while the Wittmers see the other couple as standoffish and arrogant.

However things go from bad to worse to terrible with the arrival of Baroness Eloise von Wagner (Nielsen) from Austria who is loud, brash and sexually forward for her time. She is accompanied by Robert Philippson and Rudolf Lorentz whom she identifies as her architect and partner but are in fact her lovers. She has plans to build a luxury hotel on the island but seems somewhat cash-poor. She immediately locks horns with both families who are united in their distaste of her.

The tension on the island reaches a boiling point and real fear begins to grip some of the people on the island. Then, when someone disappears off of the face of the earth, suspicion points in every direction. Who done it? And who was it done to? You’ll have to watch the movie to find out.

This isn’t an episode of Murder, She Wrote; these events actually happened and it was something of an international scandal back in 1933. What sets this documentary apart from a recreation of events is that the filmmakers use home movies taken by the actual participants, and the words you hear spoken in the voiceovers are from the letters and journals of those who were there and witnessed it – including the victims.

That lends a distinct air of poignancy and a little bit of creepiness; we’re literally hearing voices from beyond the grave and seeing apparitions of those long dead. Particularly chilling is a short silent film made on the island starring the Baroness as a kind of pirate queen. John Garth (Radnor), a scientist on board a vessel that made regular mail stops at Floreana, helped film the one-reel film and his observations of the effect the Baroness had on the tranquility of the island is quite telling.

What doesn’t work is the plethora of modern day interviews – some of the descendents of those on Floreana including the son born to Margret Wittmer on the island who was in his 70s when interviewed as well as other residents of neighboring islands. Few of them give much more than analysis of the environment and observations of island life and quite frankly, their contributions are neither illuminating nor entertaining. The movie could have done without them.

But there are some interesting points. The ruins of the Hacienda and of the Baroness’ compound are chilling. The presence of the famous tortoises of the Galapagos not only ground the movie in location but make a nice allegory for the passing of time – some of the tortoises on the island were there when these events happened. That certainly gives one pause.

This really had a dynamite premise and all the ingredients to make a great documentary but that’s not what we got. Instead we got a movie that is a bit frustrating for we have this amazing footage, a great voice cast reading the words of the actual participants and then we break off to hear some inane commentary from someone who once had coffee with the son of someone who knew someone who was related to someone else. I would much rather this have been a much shorter film than padded out with unnecessary analysis.

WHY RENT THIS: What a fascinating subject!  Archival footage is priceless.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Modern-day talking head interviews offer more analysis than exposition and are of little value. .
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes and some gruesome images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nearly all of the survivors of the events on the island wrote books on the subject which were contradictory but all were consulted by the filmmakers.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Footage of the filmmakers during their Q&A at the Telluride Film Festival.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $247,159 on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ten Little Indians
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: They Will Have to Kill Us First

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The Notebook (2004)


What could be more romantic than a couple reuniting in the rain?

What could be more romantic than a couple reuniting in the rain?

 

(2004) Romance (New Line) James Garner, Gena Rowlands, Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams, Kevin Connolly, Sam Shepard, Joan Allen, James Marsden, Starletta DuPois, Heather Wahlquist, Ed Grady, Jennifer Echols, Andrew Schaff, David Thornton, Tim O’Brien, Meredith O’Brien, Cullen Moss, Kweli Leapart, Jamie Anne Allman, Traci Dinwiddie, Lindy Newton. Directed by Nick Cassavetes

CINEMAOFTHEHEART-4

Love has a tendency to transcend all the obstacles laid before it, even if it takes years. Love has a patience that most people don’t possess these days.

Duke (Garner) visits an elderly woman (Rowlands) in a nursing homes. She has a form of dementia (Alzheimer’s? It’s never made clear) that makes her a handful. She seems to be calmed down when Duke reads to her from a fading handwritten journal.

The story that unfolds is that of Noah (Gosling), a smirking self-confident boy from the wrong side of the tracks, and Allie (McAdams), a girl from a life of privilege and wealth. He asks her out. She says no. He persists until finally she says yes. It takes just one date before she realizes that she’s in love with him.

Her parents (Shepard, Allen) are aghast. This is not what they raised their daughter for. Stubborn, Allie defies them. They send her off to college. Noah goes off to war. Noah writes her every day but the letters are intercepted by the mom. Disheartened, each one believing the other has moved on, they at last both go their separate ways, Allie into the arms of Lon Hammond (Marsden) who her parents definitely approve of.

Noah doesn’t really move on though. He buys the broken-down house that he was going to buy for Allie and she at last realizes that he truly loves her. Her mom, crestfallen, shows Allie the letters that for whatever reason she kept. Now Allie is faced with a choice – love or duty. Which shall she choose?

Author Nicholas Sparks is a Southerner so the lines between the two can be somewhat blurred. While this wasn’t the first of his novels adapted for the screen, it is the best-loved of them to date. There are plenty of folks who look to this as a touchstone for romantic movies; it is the favorite of many. I’m not one of them, but I do find this to be the least maudlin of his efforts.

Part of the appeal here is the performances of McAdams and Gosling. There is legitimate chemistry between the two and they make one of the most appealing screen couples of the 21st century. Cassavetes, showing himself a chip off the old block, utilizes the beautiful cinematography of Robert Fraisse and strong performances from the entire cast to create an atmosphere. While the story itself is no great shakes and lends itself to all sorts of emotional manipulation, Cassavetes prevents the film from descending into treacle by allowing his performers to create realistic personalities. Oftentimes in Nicholas Sparks adaptations the characters are of the cookie cutter variety but here these are interesting people you’d actually like to spend time with.

While the “twist” ending is one that you should be able to figure out before it is sprung upon you, that doesn’t lessen the emotional impact. In fact, this is the kind of movie that will bring tears to the eyes of all but the most hard-hearted viewer. Ladies, if your boyfriend doesn’t get misty-eyed at a minimum at least once during the course of this movie, dump him immediately. You’ve gotta like a Valentine’s Day movie that can act as a litmus test as to whether your boyfriend is in touch with his emotions or not.

WHY RENT THIS: Inspiring performances from Gosling and McAdams. Terrific atmosphere and supporting cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you don’t like Nicholas Sparks, you won’t like this.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a little bit of sexuality and some violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The kitchen table depicted in the movie was actually built by Gosling when he was preparing for the role, living in Charleston for two months and rowing the Ashley river each morning and building furniture the rest of the day.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is a featurette on author Nicholas Sparks on the DVD version while the Collector’s Edition Gift Set Blu-Ray features a look at director Cassavetes and his film pedigree. The Ultimate Collector’s Edition also includes a heart-shaped locket, a notebook (how appropriate!) and five photo cards from the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $115.6M on a $29M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Evening

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Cinema of the Heart concludes!

Dear John


Dear John

Sharing a kiss in a southern summer rain.

(2010) Romantic Drama (Screen Gems) Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Richard Jenkins, Henry Thomas, Keith Robinson, Scott Porter, Braeden Reed, D.J. Cotrona, Cullen Moss, Leslea Fisher. Directed by Lasse Halstrom

Nicholas Sparks is a novelist, many of whose works have been turned into movies (all based in his native South Carolina at least to some degree) including The Notebook, A Walk to Remember and The Last Song. There are many who adore his novels and although I haven’t read them, I’m sure he’s a decent enough writer. In all honesty while I liked the adaptation of The Notebook, I have not been felt the magic in his other adaptations.

So when noted director Lasse Halstrom (Cider House Rules, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Shipping News) was attached to it, I had some hopes that this movie might actually be the second Nicholas Sparks movie to move me.

No such luck. John Tyree (Tatum) is a soldier on leave who must return to Germany in a few days in the summer of 2001. When young Savannah Curtis (Seyfried) accidentally knocks her purse into the water off of a pier, John dives in to its rescue, forever earning her gratitude. Yes, it’s yet another case of a sodden accessory leading to romance. Happens all the time.

There before our eyes young love blossoms. We know it does because there are montages of late summer South Carolina and soulful music. But then he has to return to his post in Germany. But they’ll write….he’ll send her all his love every day in a letter….sealed with a kiss. Hey, they had to say goodbye for the summer after all.

Of course, September arrives and we all know what happened in September 2001. His enlistment nearly over, John winds up with a choice – either love or duty. This being a Nicholas Sparks movie, he chooses duty. Savannah understands but she winds up falling in love with someone else while he’s gone; hence the double entendre title. Clever, this Nicholas Sparks fellow.

I neglected to mention the autism factor here. Sparks’ son suffers from a mild form of autism and so that becomes a major theme here. Savannah has a neighbor (Thomas) whose son (Reed) is autistic. John’s dad (Jenkins) is mildly autistic, or at least so Savannah thinks – this leads to a fairly major argument between John and Savannah.

Halstrom is a gifted director who has a habit of choosing material that is overly maudlin. Sparks is pretty much the poster boy for maudlin, 21st century style. That’s why the pairing of the two makes much more sense than it at first appears. Like with most Sparks works, there is a palpable sense of melancholy that suffuses the mellow golds and oranges of the half-light of a South Carolina sunset. It lends a certain nostalgic air, particularly with the scene, pictured above, in which the lovers kiss in an idyllic summer shower. Yes, it’s very cliché but it’s also very effective.

Seyfried is a very charming actress but sadly in my opinion, she has a much smaller role than you would think. It is Tatum who must carry the load, and quite frankly it’s a little beyond him at this point. He is not one of the most emotionally open of actors, which in a situation where the audience needs to strongly identify with the lead, can be a deal-killer. Tatum is good looking and when given roles in his emotional wheelhouse can bat them out of the park, but this one is not one of those.

A quick word about Richard Jenkins. Ever since winning an Oscar nomination for The Visitor Jenkins has performed in a series of roles that have played to his strengths. This is actually a little bit different than we usually see from him; he is pushed in the role of the coin-collecting dad who cooks lasagna every Sunday (my kind of dad) and has a bit of the obsessive-compulsive to him. Jenkins lends the role dignity and compassion and makes it the most interesting and human of all the characters here.

Dear John isn’t going to boost me on to the Nicholas Sparks bandwagon; for me, he is an acquired taste that I have failed to acquire. I realize that there are some who think he is the bee’s knees, and that’s fine – there is nothing wrong with a good bittersweet romance. I would just like to see a little variation in the storyline and until then, his first movie that I had contact with – The Notebook – remains the one that I will hold up as the bar to judge all his adaptations against and unfortunately, Dear John falls short of that bar.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice chemistry between Tatum and Seyfried. Jenkins as always puts in a memorable performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The Nicholas Sparks formula holds true. Seyfried’s character disappears for a good chunk of the movie and when she reappears near the end, the movie loses a lot of its steam.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence and a little bit of sensuality but not so much as to alienate family audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the movie that dethroned Avatar from the #1 spot in the box office which it had held since its debut in December 2009.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a moving featurette on Braeden Reed, the actor who has autism in real life and plays the autistic Alan here.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $115M on a $25M budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: When in Rome