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

The Grey


The Grey

Liam Neeson will know better than to fly economy next time.

(2012) Action Thriller (Open Road) Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, James Badge Dale, Nonso Anozie, Ben Hernandez Bray, Anne Openshaw, Peter Girges, Jacob Blair, Lani Gelera, Larissa Stadnichuk. Directed by Joe Carnahan

 

In the deep heart of the North, it is always cold, a block of unforgiving ice that will freeze all hope. Only the strong may roam freely there and even those know the harsh reality of life – that as strongas you are, there is always something stronger and more fierce.

John Ottway (Neeson) has that same cold place in his own heart. He is a contractor at an Alaskan oil pumping station, working with roughnecks in the middle of nowhere, far away from civilization. He is on the security detail, making sure that the men are protected from grey wolves and other Arctic predators. However, there is a predator inside him, one that has eaten him alive. His wife (Openshaw) has left him to his loneliness and that burden is one he can no longer carry.

He intends to kill himself, takes his high-powered rifle and puts it in his mouth, ready to pull the trigger. Instead, he heads back to his barracks and waits for his contract to be up so he can go home with the other roughnecks who have worked their contract.

They board a small plane, ready to fly to Anchorage and from there to points beyond but the plane never makes it there. It crashes in the wilderness, leaving a handful of survivors. The weather is freezing, with a blizzard making visibility nearly zero. There are many dead and dying, like Lewenden (Dale) who is frightened but eased into the abyss by Ottway.

It becomes clear they aren’t alone in the wilderness when Ottway spots one of the stewardesses whimpering in the underbrush. He goes to rescue her and realizes that she was being eaten by a wolf. Ottway believes that they’ve had the unfortunate luck to crash in the midst of the territory of the wolves who take exception to the intrusion.

Things get worse when Hernandez (Bray) who’s on watch is killed and partially eaten by a wolf. Knowing that they are exposed in the wreck with little means of defending themselves, Ottway believes their best chance is to head south and hopefully exit the territory of the predators. He also knows that nobody will be looking for them terribly hard.

As the men make their way through the unforgiving wilderness, they come to terms with their impending mortality, the existence (or non) of God, and the significance of their lives. As they fall to the cold, the terrain and to the wolves, soon it becomes clear that the cold heart of the North is a grey wasteland of death and redemption.

Carnahan, whose body of work includes Smokin’ Aces, does some of the best work of his career. This is not your ordinary wilderness survival film; these are no cardboard cutout characters with heroes and villains vying for control in the elements. These are hard men, worn down by hard lives whose tough fronts begin to crumble when faced with horrible death. There is an awful lot of that, from wolf attacks to falls to freezing to death.

Neeson has made a career transformation from an Oscar-caliber dramatic actor to an action star. Pushing 60, the rugged Neeson has become king of the beginning of the year action flicks, with success in both Taken and Unknown coming in the first two months of their respective years. As with those films, he lends The Grey gravitas, bringing the inner turmoil of John Ottway to the surface but only in a subtle way, one that doesn’t interrupt the flow of the film or ever ring false 

Carnahan also cast his film with mostly character actors who are largely not well known to the general public, although some might recognize Mulroney from My Best Friend’s Wedding – he is virtually unrecognizable here. Grillo and Roberts also deliver strong performances.

Part of the allure of The Grey is the cinematography. Masanobu Takayanagi brings the snow-covered landscape of British Columbia (standing in for Alaska) a kind of stark but majestic beauty. The cold is almost palpable through his fine work.

While there are some gruesome scenes of wolf attacks and of human remains, both from the plane crash and the attacks, the action here is almost more internal than external (not that the latter is lacking in any way shape or form). This is about the journey and not so much the destination. The movie is based on the short story “Ghost Walker” by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (who also wrote the first draft of the script) and if the movie’s Nietzschean themes are any indication, it might be worth checking out.  

The movie has been getting a fair amount of critical acclaim with a lot of folks surprised at how good it is. For my part, Carnahan has done some good work and has exceeded expectations here. Nobody should be surprised that Neeson delivers such a fine performance – while not Oscar worthy perhaps, it certainly sets the bar high for the rest of the year.

REASONS TO GO: A raw, unadulterated survival film. Neeson again gives a strong performance.

REASONS TO STAY: May be a bit too Nietzsche for some.  

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the images of the wolf attacks and their aftermath are awfully disturbing, and there’s plenty of bad language for all.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carnahan, Neeson and producers Tony and Ridley Scott previously worked together on The A-Team.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/31/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100. The reviews are solidly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Way Back

SNOW LOVERS: There is plenty of it on the ground and falling from the sky. This is as cold-looking a movie as you’re ever likely to see.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Garden

Zombie Strippers


Zombie Strippers

If this is what a zombie looks like then I don't want to be alive.

(2007) Horror Spoof (Triumph) Jenna Jameson, Robert Englund, John Hawkes, Roxy Saint, Penny Drake, Whitney Anderson, Jennifer Holland, Shamron Moore, Jeanette Sousa, Carmit Levite, Brad Milne, Jen Alex Gonzalez, Jessica Custodio. Directed by Jay Lee

Some movies are kind of hard to figure out from their titles. Others tell you right out of the gate what their intentions are. On rare occasions, you’ll get one of the latter that deliver something extra, to your surprise or dismay.

In the near future, George W. Bush is in his fourth term as president and has gotten us into more wars than we have soldiers to fight (that knucklehead!) so it is up to CheyneyCo to develop a chemical enhancement that reanimates dead soldiers so that they can return to the fray over and over again (the depressing thing is that I could see G.W. actually coming up with a strategy like that).

Of course, as such things always do in horror movies, the virus escapes the lab and makes its way into Rhino’s,  an underground strip club (in G.W.’s dystopian future, all strip clubs are illegal) and of course lead stripper Kat (Jameson) is the first to be infected. Ian (Englund), the club’s sleazy and greedy owner, is at first appalled but when Kat proves to be more popular than ever as an undead stripper, he quickly determines ways to keep his strippers dancing after death. This leads to the mother of all cat fights.

It’s not often you get a movie that mashes up zombie gore, softcore titillation, political commentary and philosophical undertones but Jay Lee does so here. This is a movie that references Eugene Ionesco unreservedly (England’s character is even named Ian Nessco and his club named for Ionesco’s most well-known absurdist play Rhinoceros) and has a wonderful moment when Kat is found reading Nitzsche post-zombification and exclaims “Now it all makes sense!”

The movie also delivers on the breasts and gore, surprisingly effectively in both departments which is a good reason why it got almost no release in the U.S. which has become effectively paranoid about both. Utilizing a number of adult film actresses, models and actual strippers, the dance scenes have at least some authenticity to them.

So what if the acting is ham-fisted and the story begins to peter out (no pun intended) towards the end? If you’re looking for more than that in a movie entitled Zombie Strippers you are clearly in the wrong aisle of your preferred rental venue, my friend.

WHY RENT THIS: Boobs and gore – the two staples of a horror fanboy’s diet.  At least makes an attempt to be a little different.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The acting is not so good and the movie runs out of steam by the end.

FAMILY VALUES: As you’d expect, there’s plenty of nudity, sexuality and gore not to mention filthy foul nasty language and a whole lot of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The bouncer at Rhino’s is played by MMA legend Tito Ortiz who was also Jameson’s boyfriend at the time of filming.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on all the nods to French existentialism and in particular the Eugene Ionesco play Rhinoceros (no, I’m not kidding). The Blu-Ray has a trivia track which is actually surprisingly better than most.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 4.5/10

TOMORROW: Saw V