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Thread: REBUILDING PARADISE (Ron Howard 2020)

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    REBUILDING PARADISE (Ron Howard 2020)



    An upbeat movie about a terrible event and its positive aftermath

    This National Geographic documentary film directed by the Academy Award winner Ron Howard goes for uplift. This is powerful material, and Ron and his editor and staff show quiet mastery in melding it into meaningful, emotionally coherent shape that is moving but informs more than it manipulates. There is the global warming story, the ecological story, and also the story of the complex bureaucratic, environmental, and psychological issues involved in the great fire that destroyed 95% of the northern California town of Paradise, and the effort to put it back together. But those are other stories, not the ones Ron wants to tell.

    The film begins the morning of Nov. 8, 2018 with nine minutes of inferno, the fire, using actual footage of a whole town being destroyed in a day. It's terrifying, and is accompanied by voices of the citizens of Paradise filled with fear and confusion. "Are we going to die?" a young voice, wrenchingly, asks. And then an aerial view shows the town, looking as if all the houses are gone and it's become like a diagram of the many dwellings that used to be there. This was part of a great California fire called the Camp Fire, which was the most destructive wildfire in California history, and destroyed much and raged for weeks, but only destroyed this one whole town. This is all before the opening title, Rebuilding Paradise.

    That's Ron's subject: the rebuilding. But that itself is a kind of miracle, still ongoing, and we see only a little of it. Wisely, the film focuses on a few key and representative figures. What emerges quickly is that though there were over twenty-six thousand souls, it felt smaller, intimate, friendly, worthy of its name. It was there for more than a hundred years, and generations had lived there. Many had lived their whole lives there. Some spoke of a "pioneering spirit," and this may have been what motivated so many to come back and start again.

    But it takes a while to get there. We've seen the cars struggling to make it through walls of fire. Some didn't make it. A man in a wheelchair died trying to escape, in his back garden. Others were incinerated in their cars. Eighty-five died, when all were counted. Firemen explain the fire in many ways. The main issue was no real rain: in the past there was always rain before "trick-or-treat time." Now there no longer is, and here it was November. Embers from a fire eight miles off flew into the trees. And the trees: Paradise sat in a forest. Then - we'll never hear the end of this - there was PG&E, the power company, which left a system of external wires going back to the the early 1920's, and which promised to shut off the power before the fire and didn't. Major fire lines were seen giving off sparks. "There were multiple fires going for a week." This was the end of a five-year drought.

    "Cal fire fighters are living climate change every day," says Ken Pimlott, retired Cal Fire Director. "A perfect storm," says one of the firemen.

    The people who didn't go far away were housed in public spaces. Later some of them lived in FEMA housing built some distance away, or in tents.

    Mostly, from here on, Ron shows us Paradise people who talk to us and tell their stories as they unfold. There are high school kids, who become important. There is the Superintendent of Schools, Michelle John, important too. There were nine schools. Eight were damaged and four destroyed. Michelle says that they've got to get the schools going again. Otherwise there's no life. More than that, the whole school system has to work so the people don't lose their jobs and have to leave. Michelle and her husband Phil, a former military man, are perhaps the two main characters of the human story Ron tells.

    But an almost equally major figure is the police chief, Matt Gates, who is "trying to maintain control over what's left." He does not go away, nor does Michelle. But the events take a toll on their lives, as we shall see. There'ls also the Mayor, Jody Jones; and former mayors, including one, who came to Paradise when young, became the town drunk, then recovered, and a couple of decades later became the mayor. There's the assemblymen, the firemen, and the young high school counselor, Carly Ingersoll. She has her work cut out for her, since everybody who stays his PTSD, including her, because she was trapped in her car and almost died. Her house was spared, but not the ones around it, so now she goes jogging with her dog, with no neighbors.

    The film takes us in at three months from the fire, six months from the fire, and a year later. The main event is the restoration of the high school, and the graduation. The high school stands, but has no electricity, and you can't drink the water. The senior class wants to graduate in Om Wraith Field, because that's where it always happens. FEMA says no, because there are a thousand trees that are toxic and must be removed. Somehow, Jody, the mayor, works this out. Celebration of Paridise's high school graduation is the town's way of saying: "We''re alive. We will go on." It's the film's great symbolic event.

    A few key male high school seniors are notable voices too.(There are no African Americans seen in the film.) Senior Brandon Burke, speaking one year later, says he loves Paradise. The view from behind his house, once peaceful, with a running stream, is desolate now. But he firmly declares his plans to come back and raise kids here.

    The overwhelming sense of Rebuilding Paradise is that this was a pleasant, friendly place, that it's ruined and ugly now, but the spirit remains. There was a terrible toll, and there's a lot of weeping. A few days after the high school graduation, Phil, Michelle's husband, has a heart attack after a forty-mile bike ride and dies. She says he should have had a stress test. Eventually, she announces she will retire, and moves out of the house. It means nothing without the one she loves. Later it emerges that Police Chief Matt Gates and his wife are divorcing. Too many thirteen-hour days with no days off. It appears he and his ex-wife are going to move away to separately raise their two young boys in a place that's better for kids.

    We may wonder about the kids, but see plenty of them playing. We also follow Woody Cullebon, former mayor, who builds a new house on the site of the old one. He is one of the first to rebuild.

    Leslie Felperin pointed out in her Sundance review for Hollywood Reporter that this film was meant mainly for TV and that its "surging soundtrack" by Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe marks him as a "mainstream filmmaker" of "uplifting propaganda," a kind of "Franc Capra for the digital age." But this isn't Frank Capra; it's a documentary. The material is obviously selective, but it's not distorted. David Erlich's Sundance review on IndieWire says Ron Howard " tries to split the difference between Werner Herzog and Frederick Wiseman." I'm not sure what that means but I do understand him when he says Wiseman would have "a field day" with the "Kafkaesque headache" of the tangled FEMA bureaucratic obstacles in the way of building back. These are only touched on by Ron Howard's documentary. Frederick Wiseman is ninety now, a little old for a major disaster. I can't, as Erlich does, lay out a list of suggestions as to how Ron could have done a fuller, more honest job. The hope is there. He goes for it and finds it. The rebuilding of Paradise is a miracle. We would do well to study what happens in this town in future, and make more films about it. Meanwhile, in the pandemic, a message of determination and hope is welcome. The image of how community leaders can save a place be stepping up and remaining is instructive.

    Produced by Brian Grazer, Howard, Xan Parker, Sara Bernstein and Justin Wilkes; executive produced by Michael Rosenberg, Louisa Velis, Carolyn Bernstein and Ryan Harrington; co-produced by Lizz Morhaim, with cinematography by Lincoln Else; editing by M. Watanabe Milmore; and a score, as mentioned, by Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe.

    Rebuilding Paradise, 95 mins., debuted at Sundance 2020 and was included in AFI Docs and Edinburgh (both June 2020, both virtual). Opening digitally and in select theaters on July 31, 2020.

    Watch theEdinburgh virtual Q&A with Ron, Woody,and Michelle.

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Sep 2002
    Ottawa Canada
    Interesting shift for Ron Howard.
    He was pilloried (unjustly) for his Star Wars film SOLO, which I loved.

    I'll look for "Rebuilding Paradise".
    Thanks again for your in-depth reviews.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area
    It is a shift for him. See the Edinburgh Q&A linked to above - he's a decent and articulate man - where he says doing a doc where you don't know what's going to happen and you have to play it as it lays has changed how he approaches scripted narratives now.

    For sites where it says you can see the movie:
    This is a full website for giving help and learning more as well.


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