Rebuilding Paradise


Paradise lost.

(2020) Documentary (National GeographicWoody Culleton, Matt Gates, Michelle John, Erin Brockovich-Ellis, Zach Boston, Brendan Burke, Justin Cox, Mike Ramsey, Ken Pinlok, Alejandro Saise, Kayla Cox, James Gallagher, Phil John, Mike Zucolillo, Melissa Schuster, Tammy Hillis, Zeke Lunder, Calli Jane DeAnda, Aaron Johnson, Carly Ingersoll, Tenille Gates. Directed by Ron Howard

 

We have become inured to disaster. Each one seems to be greeted with numb compassion; thoughts and prayers, and all that. We feel for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. We feel for the victims of the tornados that swept through Alabama. We feel for the victims of the explosion in Beirut which happened less than 24 hours ago as I write this. But we also feel numb, as if it’s just one more thing in the load of regret that we carry around with us like a backpack full of bricks.

Oscar-winning director Ron Howard is surely aware of this. As we cope with a deadly virus that has cost 160,000 lives (and rising), protests (sometimes violent) over racial injustice, an increasingly divided country that can’t even agree on whether we should wear masks during a pandemic, it feels like we have lost our ability to feel compassion or horror. All we feel is nothing.

This is a documentary that aims to change that. The first ten minutes are maybe the most terrifying ten minutes you’ll experience this year. We see the footage of the 2018 Camp Fire, which on November 8, 2018, fanned by Santa Ana winds, fueled by years of drought and years of a lack of forest clearing, went from being a small fire to travelling nine miles in a matter of hours, roaring through the town of Paradise, California like a pyroclastic cloud, leveling the town of 26,000 in a matter of hours and leaving 86 dead – the deadliest wildfire in the history of the California.

But what happens then? Howard isn’t interested so much in the disaster itself but in the aftermath. He follows several residents of Paradise – police officer Matt Gates, school board member Michelle John, and former mayor Woody Culleton (and the self-admitted former town drunk) – as they cope with the trauma, the loss of life, the loss of property, the feeling of rootlessness. Everything they knew and loved was gone. Of course, they want to rebuild.

But the nagging question is, should they? The conditions that created the Camp Fire aren’t going to go away anytime soon, and with climate change growing more and more of an issue, there is a very real chance that if they rebuild the town, it could burn once again. While the sparks that started the fire came from the nearly century-old equipment of Pacific Gas and Electric, a town meeting in which Aaron Johnson, an executive for the power company, maintains that while PG&E intends to “do right” by the town, it will take a minimum of five years to convert the power lines to underground lines. With the rains that normally soak the woods of the town, located about 85 miles north of Sacramento in Butte County, not arriving until after Thanksgiving (after previously arriving before Halloween), it’s a very scary situation for those who call Paradise home.

One of the things the documentary does well is show how interdependent a town is. Michelle John tells us that if the kids all move away, there’s no point in reopening the schools; if the schools don’t open, there’s no reason for people to stay. It’s a Catch-22 that also exists for businesses and services as well.

The unassailable thing that we can’t get away from is that home is home; there’s something about a place that gets under our skin, that gives us a sense of belonging. This is particularly true of small towns, although big cities can have this as well. There are places where we don’t just want to live there; we want to die there too.

=Dealing with the bureaucracy that is FEMA is almost as traumatic as the fire itself. Getting the funds and permits to get homes rebuilt requires the residents to jump through hoops. Many of them can’t afford to move somewhere else even if they wanted to – and some really don’t want to, whether it’s due to an attachment to the life they once lived there, or because the place calls to them.

The three main subjects – John, Gates and Culleton – are all interesting. Gates is the kind of model police officer that give police forces a good name; he is dedicated to his community and heroic in evacuating his town, even as he notices his own home is burning. John works tirelessly for the kids that she serves, trying not only to get kids placed in area schools, but also to clear the area around the football field at the high school so that the senior class can hold their graduation ceremony. Culleton is the straight-shooter, who at 74 decides that relocation is out of the question; “Where the hell am I going to go?” he says crossly, when discussing the matter.

The movie is inspirational, and there are some moments – such as one where a tough man is reduced to tears when the rebuilding of his home begins. Family members discuss the last moments of loved ones who died in the fire, and a loving husband tells his wife to make sure she takes care of herself in her zeal to get things back to normal for her town.

The spirit of these townspeople is indominable; you can’t help but admire they’re strength. Many of the town’s residents will never return. Bringing the town back to what it was before is the work not of months and not even years but decades. Some critics sniped that the film doesn’t truly examine whether Paradise should be rebuilt but to be honest, who is anyone to tell a person where they should live? People live in tornado alley, on the coast where hurricanes land, in earthquake zones, near volcanos, and near rivers that flood. There are few places on the planet that are exempt from natural disasters. It’s what we do after them that define us as people.

REASONS TO SEE: Packs an emotional wallop. Uplifting in the truest sense of the word. The footage of the fire and the aftermath are breathtaking and sobering. Puts the people at the center of the story. Illustrates how interdependent a community is.
REASONS TO AVOID: In the stressful environment we live in currently, some might find it too much.
FAMILY VALUES: The footage of people escaping the fire may be too intense for the impressionable; there is also some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The year following the fire, the Paradise High School Bobcats football team went undefeated; virtually the entire town that remains would attend their home games.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/5/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews, Metacritic: 70/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cajun Navy
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Marley

Moneyball


Moneyball

Brad Pitt hopes his latest draws bigger crowds than this.

(2011) True Sports Drama (Columbia) Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright, Chris Pratt, Kathryn Morris, Stephen Bishop, Kerris Dorsey, Bobby Kotick, Brent Jennings, Nick Porrazzo, Jack McGee, Glenn Morshower, Casey Bond, Tammy Blanchard. Directed by Bennett Miller

In Major League Baseball, as in most anything else, there are the haves and the have-nots. Some ballclubs have enough money to afford anything and anybody, others have to watch their budget carefully.

The Oakland A’s are a have-not ballclub. As General Manager Billy Beane (Pitt) puts it, there’s the rich clubs and the poor clubs. Then there’s fifty feet of crap…and then there’s Oakland. Owner Stephen Schott (Kotick) doesn’t have the money to compete with a New York Yankees, for example. After the A’s lose in the divisional championship to the hated Yanks, the A’s are gutted by free agency going into the 2002 season; All-Star First Baseman has been signed by the Yankees, Johnny Damon by the Red Sox and Jason Isringhausen to the Cardinals.

Replacing players of that caliber from established ballclubs is nigh on impossible given the salary limitations that Oakland had. An attempt to get a decent player at a bargain basement price from the Cleveland Indians ends badly, but Beane notices that the Cleveland GM is listening to advice (indirectly) from someone in the room he doesn’t recognize. Beane eventually finds out that the non-entity is Peter Brand (Hill), a Yale economics graduate who has some pretty radical ideas on valuing players, mostly based on ideas from statistician Bill James who is persona non grata in baseball.

Brand gives Beane the idea of bringing ballplayers into the organization based on On-Base Percentage (OBP) as opposed to traditional baseball philosophy which takes into account home runs, fielding, RBIs and hitting. The team’s scouts and baseball brain trust are appalled as Brand seems to be recommending players who under traditional rules of thought are marginalized, players like Scott Hatteberg (Pratt), a catcher whose arm has been blown out and is facing the end of his career until Beane signs him up as a first baseman; Dave Justice (Bishop), a former star in the twilight of his career and Chad Bradford (Bond), a relief pitcher with an unorthodox delivery.

A’s manager Art Howe (Hoffman) also has some severe objections, exacerbated by a contract dispute. Howe and Beane butt heads constantly, Howe playing his line-up according to his point of view and Beane frustrated that the players he’s acquired aren’t being utilized properly. As a result, the A’s begin to lose. Often.

Beane, whose daughter Casey (Dorsey) is hearing rumors of his imminent unemployment, has got to pull things together, but can it be done? Is Brand’s theory simply smoke and mirrors and more than a century worth of wisdom actually the best way possible?

This is a baseball movie for people who don’t like baseball movies, a sports underdog movie for those who don’t like sports. The script by Steve Zaillian (who won an Oscar for Schindler’s List) is smart and doesn’t talk down to audiences while at the same time explaining some of the concepts being put forth – not the overly complex ones mind you but just enough to make sense to the casual viewer.

Pitt is one of America’s biggest stars and that fact often causes him to be underrated as an actor and yet he has roles like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that are Oscar-nominated, and not because he won the nomination in a cereal box either – it was well earned. There are some whispers going around Hollywood that he might be being considered for another Oscar nomination for this role too.

Beane is a complex man and Pitt captures those complexities, from his kind heart to his competitive fires. He wants very badly to win the last game of the season (which is the World Series-clinching win) partially fueled by his own promising but ultimately disappointing on the field career which he gave up a scholarship to Stanford for.

Hill is somewhat the comic relief but not because he is doing a typical Jonah Hill part. Brand (a fictitious character by the way) is part genius, very shy and quite un-self confident. Brand gets laughs because he’s a bit of a novice at the game of baseball and so he doesn’t fit in very well. He’s a nerd working in a jock factory.

The filmmakers wisely shy away from re-creating baseball scenes, mostly relying on archival footage in which the faces of the actors are digitally inserted. That means the audience isn’t forced to sit through badly staged sports sequences with actors who are obviously not athletic pretending to be professional athletes.

There are a lot of flashbacks to Beane’s baseball career which are I suppose to show his motivation for wanting to win so badly as a General Manager. There are way too many of them and they only serve to slow down the film, which is slow enough at times. Keep in mind that this is a movie about the front office more than it is about the ball field. Much of the action takes place on phone calls and in conference rooms.

This is one of the surprises of the year. It’s a movie that far surpasses expectations and turns out to be a legitimate Oscar contender. Had this been released in November or December, there would be reams of copy praising Pitt as a potential Best Actor and the movie itself a possible Best Picture. I was sold on this movie from the first few minutes and completely locked in for the duration. This gets a very high recommendation.

REASONS TO GO: Brilliant performances and an amazing script. Need not be a baseball fan to love this movie.

REASONS TO STAY: The action moves slowly from time to time. Flashback scenes to Beane’s baseball career seemed unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director of Photography Wally Pfister was hired somewhat quickly after the original DP had been arrested on serious charges and was unable to do the film.

HOME OR THEATER: I’d go the home route on this one; nothing here really screams big screen.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: Wanted