REBUILDING PARADISE (2020, doc)

July 30, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s November 8, 2018 and the film opens with the daily weather report. For the residents of Paradise, California, this will forever be their worst nightmare: ‘Camp Fire’, the deadliest and most destructive fire in the state’s history. The first 9 minutes of film shows harrowing footage captured by dash cam, helmet cam, smart phones, news footage, and drones. As it begins, one resident says, “Honey, there’s stuff falling out of the sky.” Soon after, we hear a firefighter state “we are 100% surrounded by fire”, and as we ride in the car with a frantic family trying to escape, we hear their relief in the “clear skies” they finally glimpse.

This is a National Geographic production and it’s directed by 2-time Oscar winner Ron Howard. Mr. Howard is best known for his popular films like CINDERELLA MAN (2005), APOLLO 13 (1995), and yes, BACKDRAFT (1991). In the past few years, he’s directed documentaries on Luciano Pavarotti and The Beatles, but as best I can tell, REBUILDING PARADISE is his first step into Cinema Verite – letting the moments of reality unfold while capturing it with mostly handheld cameras.

By 11:38 am, the only light in the skies of Paradise is coming from the glow of the massive and intense fire. The aftermath can only be described as total destruction. Paradise is in ashes. We see the desperate attempt by first responders to ensure that all citizens are evacuated, and then we witness the search for bodies. Camp Fire killed 85 people and displaced 50,000 people, including all of Paradise (80 miles north of Sacramento). The challenges included finding shelter for residents, keeping folks out of town while the fire smolders, and figuring out what the next steps might be.

Director Howard structures the film with visits every 3 months, and to make it personal, a handful of folks are selected. These include Woody Culleton, a man who rose from self-professed town drunk to town mayor (now ex-Mayor), Police Officer Matt Gates, School Superintendent Michelle John, and School Psychologist Carly Ingersoll. Each of these people have their own personal struggles due to the fire, but they are also focused on assisting others, and helping the town of Paradise plan for the future.

It’s a full month before residents are allowed back to salvage anything possible from the ashes. At three months, activist Erin Brockovich gives a speech about the possible liability of PG&E and their equipment from 1921, while a logjam of dump trucks is used to clear debris from town. At six months, the high school seniors are given a graduation ceremony they will never forget, and at 9 months, healing and rebuilding is underway. We gain some insight into the struggles with FEMA and city government, and yet mostly what we witness is a community dedicated to remaining a community.

Mr. Howard chooses to end the movie with clips and warnings about global climate change, which may fit in a larger discussion, but here, the most effective segments are moments with folks simply trying to put their lives back together. That’s more powerful than anything else we can witness.

National Geographic is releasing this in Virtual Cinema and Digital on July 31, 2020

watch the trailer:


SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018)

May 24, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The second feature film directed by STAR WARS creator George Lucas was AMERICAN GRAFFITI in 1973. It starred a fresh-faced 19 year-old (mostly) TV actor named Ron Howard. Now 45 years later, Mr. Howard directs a prequel in the STAR WARS universe designed to fill in the gaps on the background of the beloved iconic character Han Solo – a role made famous, of course, by Harrison Ford.

Alden Ehrenreich stars as young Han Solo, and like most everything in this film, he is fine. Some will recognize Mr. Ehrenreich from his two starring roles in 2016 – the Coen Brothers 2016 film HAIL, CAESAR! and Warren Beatty’s RULES DON’T APPLY. He was also fine in both of those. His boyish Han Solo is wide-eyed and already sarcastic, though the familiar grizzled cynicism of Ford’s version has yet to emerge.

Since the film’s purpose is to fill in the gaps, here is what we learn (the questions only, no answers provided here):

What did Han do before the Rebellion?

How exactly did he win the (shiny) Millennium Falcon in a card game?

What is the origin of his name?

How did he first become linked with Chewbacca?

How strong are Wookies?

How exactly did he make the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs?

Each of these questions is answered in the film, and of course will not revealed here

When we first meet Han, he is basically a Juvenile Delinquent plotting an indentured labor escape with his girlfriend Qi’ra (played by Emilia Clarke, who is fine). Qi’ra evolves the most of any character in the film, but it’s still just fine, not surprising or revolutionary. The film starts slowly but there is a minor spark once Han meets rebels Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton). What follows is an extravagant and jaw-dropping train heist – the kickoff of many set pieces of which the filmmakers are quite proud and eager to show off.

The supporting cast consists of Joonas Suotamo (taking over for Peter Mayhew who is physically unable to play the role) as Chewbacca, rising star Phoebe Waller-Bridge as L3-37, and Paul Bettany as bad guy Dryden Vos. There is also voice work from Jon Favreau and Linda Hunt, and quick but fun scenes with Warwick Davis (STAR WARS regular beginning with 1983 STAR WARS: EPISODE VI: THE RETURN OF THE JEDI) and of course, Ron Howard’s good luck charm, his brother Clint Howard. The real gem of the film is Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian – a less than honorable gambler in the game of Sabacc.

The film is co-written by the father-son team of Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan. Given the pre-production issues – original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were let go over “creative differences” – the film stands just fine on its own. The timelines will likely be debated by STAR WARS aficionados, but the fun action sequences and dazzling special effects make it entertaining enough after that slow start.

watch the trailer:


NASH (2014, doc)

December 4, 2014

nash Greetings again from the darkness. In the way that Steve Nash is a different kind of professional athlete, this is a different kind of documentary about a professional athlete. Despite the film’s subject being a 7-time NBA All-Star and 2-time League MVP, there are only a few game clips and highlights. Instead co-directors Michael Hamilton and Corey Ogilvie focus their attention on something much more interesting … Steve Nash, the man.

The celebrity talking heads offering insight into Nash include not just the expected hoopsters like Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki, but surprise commentary from folks such as actor Owen Wilson, Todd Marinovich (former football prodigy), director Ron Howard, and even President Obama. We soon enough understand why the list of Nash fans is so varied and extensive.

The film shows Nash as a very talented Canadian high schooler whom most doubted could play Division 1 ball. Nash never doubted. A few years later, most scouts doubted that the skinny Santa Clara point guard had an NBA future. Nash never doubted. After being selected 15th overall in the 1996 draft, most doubted he would ever be a starting player. Nash never doubted. After leading the Canadian Olympic basketball team to a strong finish, Nash came back as one of the best players in the league in 2001. Later, as a free agent, he went through a nasty contract battle between Mark Cuban (Dallas Mavericks owner) and the Phoenix Suns. Nash became a very rich man, and no doubters remained.

That’s the stuff that most basketball fans know. The off-the-court Steve Nash is a family man who loves his 3 kids – even signing with the Lakers to be close to them. This Steve Nash has a foundation that builds hospitals and helps underprivileged kids. This Steve Nash started a film production company that produced the award-winning documentary Into the Wind on Canadian hero Tony Fox. This Steve Nash is the guy that when things don’t go his way says “That’s life”, and he just keeps moving forward.

One segment of the film contrasts the hype of a player like Lebron James coming out of high school versus the underdog, little noticed player like Nash. It’s a reminder of the celebrity society we live in, and how a few seem to be able to avoid the spotlight and live a productive life. So while most know Steve Nash as one of only 3 point guards to win the NBA MVP (Magic Johnson, Bob Cousy), this film introduces us to the Steve Nash that we would really like to know … the skateboarding guy doing good things for our world.

watch the trailer:

 


RUSH (2013)

September 28, 2013

rush1 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan are back in their wheelhouse with a film based on real people. Their previous collaboration was Frost/Nixon, and they also had separate “true stories”: Howard with Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man, and Morgan with The Queen and The Last King of Scotland. Here they tackle personality opposites and fierce Formula One competitors James Hunt and Niki Lauda.

The two lead actors are perfectly cast. Chris Hemsworth (Thor) slips seamlessly into the swashbuckling, rebellious playboy that was Great Britain’s James Hunt. Daniel Bruhl (Inglourious Basterds, Goodbye Lenin!) becomes the focused, determined, meticulous Spanish-German Niki Lauda (and could get mentioned come Oscar nomination time). You might think of Hunt as an X-Games type who thrives on publicity and fun, while Lauda is more scientist or engineer driven by the quest for perfection. Both were World Champions and their rivalry brought out the best rush2in each.

Do not think for a second that you need be a Formula One expert or even know the backstory of Hunt and Lauda to enjoy this movie. It is extremely entertaining and exciting. Morgan’s script might hover a bit more on the oh-so-photogenic Hunt/Hemsworth character, but it also does a nice job of preventing the not-so-likable Lauda from being a bad guy. In fact, it demonstrates that champions are not all alike.

The look of the film is exemplary. Beautifully photographed by DP Anthony Dod Mantle (Oscar winner for Slumdog Millionaire), the colors and grainy texture make this look like it was filmed in the 1970’s, not just based then. While the racing scenes are stunning, it is actually an intimate look at this world and the men of this era. Without dwelling on it, we get a realistic feel for the fiery crash that caused Lauda’s horrific injuries and his extraordinary fight to recovery while in the hospital.

rush jh nl We also get a peek at the very different marriages of these two men. Hunt’s short lived bond with model Suzy Miller (played by Olivia Wilde) ended when her affair with Richard Burton caused the final split between Burton and Liz Taylor. Lauda’s relationship with his wife (Alexandria Maria Lara) occurred without the whirlwind, but in a very real and organic manner. Both are an additional touch of realism to a quite real story.  The photo to the left shows the real Niki Lauda and James Hunt.

There have been no shortage of racing movies over the years. Some good: Le Mans (Steve McQueen) and Grand Prix (James Garner). Some not so good: Days of Thunder (Tom Cruise) and Driven (Sylvester Stallone). Ron Howard’s latest clearly finishes near the top at the finish line.

**NOTE: James Hunt died from a heart attack at age 45 in 1993.  Niki Lauda is 64 years old and has owned and run small airlines and remained involved with racing through management and commentary.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are after an entertaining and exciting movie based on two real life adversaries

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for serious insight into the Formula One world

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LmLvpSOh1QA


THE DILEMMA

January 15, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. On average, I see two new releases per week. Selections are based on subject matter, cast, director, and most often, the trailer. My two most recent viewings were BLUE VALENTINE and SOMEWHERE, both somber to say the least. So a light-hearted buddy flick with Vince Vaughn and Kevin James, and directed by Ron Howard, seemed like just the right change of pace.

Unfortunately, the actual film has little resemblance to the film advertised in the trailer. Sure the comedy scenes from the trailer are present: Vince gives an acidic toast, Kevin James does his fat-man dance, and Channing Tatum plays an off-center tattooed boy toy with a loaded gun and dead fish. Where the fraud comes in is with the rest of the film. This is a pretty dark, weighty relationship movie that poses quite the moral dilemma (hence the title) for Vince. Should he tell his best friend and business partner that his wife is cheating on him?

Rather than a few rounds of funny scenes with Vaughn trying to get it right, we get “deep” emotional wrangling of a poor guy who just doesn’t know the best solution. Along the way he hurts many people he likes, and a few he doesn’t. Please don’t take this wrong, I am fully onboard with dramas being mixed with comedy. In fact, Ron Howard has provided us with one of the best examples of this … PARENTHOOD. However, this is nowhere near that level, and in fact, misses the mark in both comedy and drama.

I spent much of the movie trying to decide who was most frightening, Winona Ryder or Karen Carpenter. What?? Oh wait, I meant Winona Ryder or Jennifer Connelly. Too soon? Come on, she died in 1983. The point is Ms. Ryder carries forth with her BLACK SWAN look and Ms. Connelly evidently hasn’t had solid food for at least a dozen years. Queen Latifah does her best to bring some energy to the film, but her character only has about 3-4 scenes. It’s always nice to see how Ron Howard works in his brother Clint and his father Rance … thereby keeping their actor’s guild cards current.

 There really was a good idea here, but the comedy and drama just weren’t meshed well. And Kevin James as a genius engineer? Seems a stretch from Mall Cop! Ron Howard has some classic movies to his name. Some funny ones like NIGHT SHIFT, and some dramatic ones like A BEAUTIFUL MIND and APOLLO 13. Unfortunately, this one falls flat and really provides little entertainment.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: umm … sorry, I’ve got nothing … just watch the trailer and save your money.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a slapstick comedy with Vince Vaughn, Kevin James and Queen Latifah.