Monday, April 21, 2014

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, Dancing in Jaffa, Bears

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden
Dancing in Jaffa

Bears (my rating)

Bears (Big Scruffy and Little Scruffy's rating)

Capsule reviews of three new documentaries:

Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine have made two of my favorite documentaries: the 1994 Stanford slice-of-life "Frosh: Nine Months in a Freshman Dorm" and the exquisite and inspiring 2005 "Ballets Russes." It's a shame, then, that they've managed to tree themselves so thoroughly with the potentially fascinating true-life saga "The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden." In the early 1930s, Friedrich Ritter, a brooding Berlin physician and wannabe philosopher in the Nietzschean mold, and his mistress, the free-thinking Dore Strauch, left their spouses to start a new life devoid of human interaction on the small Galapagos island of Floreana. Their letters home were intercepted and published in the German media, which dubbed them a modern-day Adam and Eve. The publicity attracted a second couple, Heinz and Margret Wittmer, who wished to raise their son in such a seemingly paradisaical space. Then, by way of Vienna, followed the boisterous, gun-toting self-styled Baroness von Wagner, with two servile boy toys in tow. 

An American research scientist, Captain Allan Hancock, and his crew debarked soon after; the Baroness put him to work filming a grade-Z silent movie (starring herself and one of her lovers) and pitched him on the resort hotel she planned for what she now called "her" island. That Floreana wasn't big enough for the three households is obvious to all, and most of the players ended up dead under circumstances that have remained a mystery ever since - and still do. With even secondary figures long passed away, Geller and Goldfine offer little more than speculation, musty newspaper headlines, and a confusing string of interviews with current Galapagos residents whose connections to the story are tenuous at best, totally unclear at worst. And, to read the writings and correspondence, they've hired a voice crew who cough up Bavarian accents worthy of Franz Liebkind and emote with abandon. (Josh Radnor is so over-enthusiastic as one of Hancock's men I wondered whether he was being fellated at the time.)

Hilla Medalia's simple and sweet documentary "Dancing in Jaffa" follows the four-time ballroom dancing world champion Pierra Doulaine to the city of his birth, Jaffa, from which his family was forced to evacuate upon the birth of the nation of Israel in 1948. He plans, over ten weeks, to teach the children at five schools to dance. Overcoming the boys' and girls' antsy unease with each other is one thing, but when Pierre informs them that for the culminating competition, Palestinian-Israelis will be paired with Jewish-Israelis, things get really tricky. Medalia focuses mildly on three children: Alaa, a Palestinian boy with a constant megawatt smile, who works on his father's fishing boat and shares a small shack with half a dozen siblings; the Jewish girl Lois, whose mother conceived her at a sperm bank, and who practices her merengue and rhumba all day and night; and the Palestinian girl Noor, shunned by her mostly Jewish classmates, who takes to dance like a fish to water and, under Pierre's tutelage, goes from a "closed flower" to a young woman in full blossom. I like that Medalia doesn't underline the message of Jews and Palestinians coming together; it's there in the joy on the children's faces, the new friendships formed, the parents sitting together to cheer on their favorite contestants. "Dancing in Jaffa" isn't a great work of art, but the charming and quietly insistent Dulaine and his program have the power to effect real change.

The best of the weekend is the Disney nature documentary "Bears," about Sky, a mama brown bear, and her two newborn cubs, Amber and Scout. We watch as their winter of hibernation ends and the family sets out across snow-covered mountains in search of the bodies of water that contain clams, mussels, rock eels, and their main source of sustenance, salmon. (Sky must eat enough to store the belly fat that will get her cubs through the next winter.) "Bears" shows just what a perilous existence these adorable creatures lead, threatened by avalanche, drowning, starvation, larger and predatory male bears, and wolves, who engage the cubs in an effort to get them away from their mother. While adults will marvel at their toughness and resilience, very small children will likely be frightened, as each member of the bear family faces genuine danger of dying during this, the cubs' first year of life. In this regard, it's a good thing that directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey have recruited John C. Reilly to provide the voice-over narration, his regular-guy humor a welcome antidote to the stentorian tones of Morgan Freeman. Some have criticized the film for anthropomorphizing the bears, giving them names and attributing human qualities to them, but let's just say I don't have a problem with that; rather, it allows children to identify types of behaviors specific to each species as well as those that apply across the animal kingdom. The choice to cover one year is also a wise one, as it's the defining measure of time in the bears' existence. Fothergill, Scholey and their crew have captured some breathtaking views of Alaska that further enhance the grandeur and majesty of "Bears."

As for the Scruffies, if they picked the winners, "Bears" would take home all the Oscars. A full four paws out of four from them.


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