(*homocinematically inclined)

Friday, September 12, 2014

Reverend’s Reviews: Death Becomes Them?

Suicide, sibling abandonment, adultery and pedophilia might seem like awfully heavy subjects for a movie starring Saturday Night Live vets Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig plus Modern Family’s Ty Burrell. Meet The Skeleton Twins, now playing in US theaters. Hader and Wiig play the title characters, whose actual names are Milo and Maggie Dean. Their adolescence damaged by their father’s suicide and Milo’s sexual abuse at the hands of one of their teachers, Maggie and Milo have spent ten years apart on opposite coasts basically giving each other the silent treatment.

After Milo (who is gay) attempts suicide, however, Maggie flies to LA and reunites with her brother. She invites him back to their hometown in upstate New York to live during his recovery with her and her devoted husband, Lance (the always likable Luke Wilson). It doesn’t take long for trouble to start brewing between Maggie and Milo again, especially once Milo resumes a sexual relationship with the disgraced instructor (Burrell) Milo considers his first love. But by film’s end, the twins come to a new appreciation of their ultimately unbreakable, warts-and-all bond.

The screenplay by Craig Johnson (who also directs) and Mark Heyman is generally sensitive and heartfelt. Those viewers who may be attracted to The Skeleton Twins expecting a load of laughs will be disappointed. Even I found it darker than expected with all its suicides and suicide attempts (there is another before the film is over), and this unfortunately prevented me from fully enjoying or loving it. I was impressed though by all the performances, especially Bill Hader’s. His unapologetically gay Milo is also nicely nuanced, especially when compared with the flamboyant, hilarious Stefan character Hader occasionally played on SNL. All in all, it is good to see this usually comedic cast do some truly dramatic work.

Agatha Christie couldn’t have concocted a more intriguing 1930’s-set murder mystery than the one spotlighted in Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller‘s The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden. Now available on DVD and VODfrom Zeitgeist Films, it is one of the best-made documentaries of the year as well as one of the most intriguing.

This stranger-than-fiction saga begins in 1929, when Dr. Friedrich Ritter and his mistress, Dore Strauch, abandoned their native Germany to begin life anew on the remote, initially uninhabited Galapagos island of Floreana. Fortified with little more than the clothes on their backs and inspired by the self-actualization theories of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the vegan pair carved out a decent life for themselves from their environment’s flora and fauna.

Paradise would too soon be lost, however, as word of this new “Adam and Eve” (and possible nudists to boot) got back to Europe. Other settlers arrived on Floreana and neighboring Santa Cruz, which was 60 miles away, within a few years. Some of them were fellow Germans fleeing Hitler and the impending World War II. The most colorful and contentious of Dr. Ritter and Dore’s new neighbors were Baroness Eloise von Wagner and her two attractive “servile gigolos,” Robert and Rudolf, both of whom she slept with at the same time. The baroness quickly declared the island her property and even starred in a movie made about her exploits, footage of which is included in the documentary.

In 1934, von Wagner and Robert inexplicably disappeared amidst Rudolf’s allegations that they were abusing him. Most suspected Rudolf of murdering the pair and disposing of their bodies. Rudolf subsequently left the island with a Norwegian sailor but they never reached their destination. Dr. Ritter himself fell ill and died soon after while Dore, afflicted with multiple sclerosis, returned to Europe.

The filmmakers’ use of archival footage is masterful, and is further brought to life through readings from the principal players’ journals by the starry likes of Cate Blanchett, Diane Kruger, Connie Nielsen, Thomas Kretschmann and Josh Radnor. Interviews with several still-living subjects as well as modern-day social anthropologists are also well employed. From these, we viewers gain such educational pearls as “you can’t leave civilization without being punished” and “Paradise is not a place; it’s a condition.” Richly observant (including of the unique wildlife that calls the Galapagos Islands home) and absolutely engrossing, The Galapagos Affair should not be missed.

Reverend’s Ratings:
The Skeleton Twins: B
The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden: A-

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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