Movie Review ~ Rebuilding Paradise

The Facts

Synopsis: A moving story of resilience in the face of tragedy, as the community of Paradise, California, a town in the Sierra Nevada foothills, ravaged by disaster comes together to recover what was lost in the devastating wildfires in 2018 and begin the important task of rebuilding.

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: As anyone that’s gone through a tragedy like a death of a loved one can tell you, the hardest part is often not while you are in the immediate stages of grief.  Yes, those first hours, days, weeks, when you’re living in the shock of the loss is painful and puts you through every kind of emotional ringer there is…but that’s just one part of the process.  The second wave comes when all those people that came to your side when the tragedy occurred go back to their lives and continue on where they left off.  You’re left broken and needing to find your way in a new normal and everyone else goes forward…seemingly unchanged in your eyes.

It can also be that way for major events like national disasters.  Hurricanes, floods, riots, school shootings, fires, you name it.  We watch these monumentally life-altering occurrences happen, often from the peacefulness of a comfortable safe distance, and send our prayers and good thoughts along with everyone else.   The news media covers the destruction and its immediate aftermath but rarely do they stick around to show what really happens to the individuals and communities at large that are left picking up the pieces of a life shattered.  New cycles of news take over and televisions are changed to new channels while webpages are updated with the latest celebrity gossip.

On November 8, 2018, the town of Paradise was overcome by the raging wildfire that resulted from faulty electrical work from power company PG&E (anyone familiar with Erin Brockovich should remember that infamous corporate magnate) and much of the community was lost.  A total of 85 people were killed, 50,000 residents were displaced, 100,000 acres of land were destroyed, and 18,000 structures in a town that had existed over a century were wiped out.  This was all broadcast for the world to see and the footage is as horrifying to watch today as it was two years ago.  Also paying attention was Hollywood director Ron Howard (Parenthood) who had a family connection to the town.

Partnering with his old friend producer Brian Grazer and National Geographic Documentaries, Howard had camera crews go into the town and pick-up where the news crews left off, capturing the efforts by the town to get back on its feet.  The resulting documentary Rebuilding Paradise is a strong, if occasionally rote and repetitive, testament to the strength of spirit represented in the town. What Howard and his crew captured over the course of a year isn’t your standard fix-all approach with an end result of complete reparation by the time the credits roll.   Instead you see the ups and downs of the townspeople as they work through their own personal turmoil and a series of frustrating roadblocks preventing them from returning to the town they loved.

If I’m being honest, it took a while to find a groove with the documentary and I wasn’t quite sure why.  The opening ten minutes are fairly spectacular viewing, even if they depict the terrifying real life Camp Fire that engulfed the city and destroyed the lives of its residents.  It’s no surprise the director of Backdraft was able to cut this sequence together to be an effective and breathless opener…but it sets a strange edge at the beginning the rest of the documentary struggles to contend with for the remainder.  Despite the occasional personal story that hit a chord (no spoilers but some truly unexpected events happen during the time the cameras filmed) the subjects chosen to be focal points don’t quite grab you.  Even the people being followed don’t seem to always like having someone tagging along with them – it’s an awkwardness that never goes away.

What I do applaud the documentary for (as well as Howard and the producers) is that is shines a light not just on the aftermath of this devastating event but on the importance of judicial follow-up on failure and exposing companies for less than honest dealings.  I imagine an entire documentary could be compiled on the PG&E section of the film alone, but Howard wisely keeps the heavier government business out of the mix and gets back to the more personal stories that have a greater impact on Rebuilding Paradise.  Though it starts to feel ever so padded as it comes up on the 90 minute mark, there’s enough goodwill built by the filmmakers to keep you engaged and eventually more than a little enraged when you realize how all of this could have possibly been avoided.

Movie Review ~ Free Solo

The Facts

Synopsis: Follow Alex Honnold as he becomes the first person to ever free solo climb Yosemite’s 3,000ft high El Capitan Wall. With no ropes or safety gear, he completed arguably the greatest feat in rock climbing history.

Stars: Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Jimmy Chin

Directors: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: One of the benefits of reviewing movies is we’re often sent screening links in advance of a film being released into theaters. Free Solo arrived in my inbox on a wave of positive reviews and good buzz coming out of the early festivals it played at. Around the same time a podcast I know and trust said the movie was best experienced on the big screen if at all possible so I opted to hold off on a home viewing in favor of a theatrical exhibition. So the link sat there and went unwatched until it expired. Ouch. And then I missed it when it was released in theaters! Double ouch.

Fortunately for me (and for you), the movie gods have smiled in our favor and saw fit to re-release Free Solo for one week in IMAX theaters and when you’re done reading this review I’d suggest you find the theater nearest you and get your butt in a seat pronto.

This documentary from National Geographic directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi is likely headed for an Oscar nomination and after witnessing the stunning work that went into capturing free soloist Alex Honnold’s landmark climb it’s not hard to see why. Famous for his rapid ascents on some of the world’s largest rock formations, Honnold was already a superstar in the climbing world but his 2017 journey 3,000 feet up El Captain in Yosemite National Park made him a legend.

A free soloist works without the aid of ropes or other protective equipment. Rising far above a safe distance, any wrong move would likely mean death so it’s totally on the strength (mental and physical) of the climber to navigate a route that will keep them alive. For the armchair adventurist, this is right up there with swimming with sharks without a cage or skydiving out of a plane while trying to put your parachute on. Any mistake and you’re a goner.

Honnold is one of the most fascinating subjects for a documentary I’ve seen in some time because his seeming ambivalence to his own mortality is strikingly bold. A lone wolf that lives in a van even though he’s made a considerable amount of money off of endorsements and sales of his book, he lives to climb and seeks out every opportunity to push himself further and further. Some may say he has a death wish but he’s actually looking to challenge himself in new ways that just happen to have a considerable amount of risk to it. How many of us are that willing to go such a great distance?

The film follows Honnold as he prepares for the climb he’s long dreamed of while at the same time exploring the seeds of a growing relationship. In the past, Honnold has kept girlfriends and family at a distance because it’s easier to go into these high-stakes situations with as few emotional attachments as possible but this one seems different. With this romantic development comes new distractions that weren’t there before, playing tricks with Honnold’s focus that ultimately proves dangerous. And then there’s the question of being filmed in the first place. Is he making this milestone trek for himself or because there are cameras present? What responsibility do the filmmakers have in this situation where they could be filming Honnold’s final climb?

With a filmmaking crew made up of experienced climbers and utilizing skilled technology that allowed them to capture incredible moments without getting in Honnold’s way, the directors have made a documentary that almost feels like a feature film. I could easily see this being translated to a narrative feature with it’s emotional arc, false starts, tragedies, and triumphs. Yet it always feels immediate and honest. Constantly checking in by reminding us how far up he’s climbing, Chin and Vasarhelyi give us stunning views in the midst of incredible tension. If your palms don’t sweat and your heart doesn’t beat faster during the final 20 minutes of the film then you’re made up of stronger stuff than I am.