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Indie Focus: The lessons of 'Rebuilding Paradise'

Email sent: Jul 31, 2020 4:00pm

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Another edition of your regular field guide to the world of movies in your living room and beyond.
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Los Angeles Times

Indie Focus

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

Olivia de Havilland died last weekend at the age of 104, severing perhaps the last remaining direct tie to a certain era of golden Hollywood history. A two-time Oscar winner, for “To Each His Own” and “The Heiress,” De Havilland also appeared in such films as “Captain Blood,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte.” She also waged a landmark legal battle against the film studios, freeing herself from a long-term contract and revolutionizing actor-studio relationships.

In his appreciation of De Havilland, Justin Chang wrote of her “Gone With the Wind” performance, “Beneath that warmly forgiving smile and that soothing embrace of a voice, De Havilland imparted to this woman and so many others a spine of steel and offered a subliminal reminder that she was never to be underestimated, in life or in art.”

The fall festival season is still taking shape, and Sonaiya Kelley wrote about the Toronto International Film Festival’s 50-film slate for this year’s event, which will be vastly different from last year's. Among the most notable titles were Regina King’s “One Night in Miami,” J Blakeson’s “I Care a Lot” and Mira Nair’s “A Suitable Boy.”

The winner of this week’s Ultimate Summer Movie showdown was 1995’s “Clueless,” written and directed by Amy Heckerling and starring Alicia Silverstone as a Beverly Hills teenager named Cher, and Justin Chang and Yvonne Villarreal wrote about how it’s aged. “I totally consider it my teen movie,” Yvonne said. “I was drawn to the excess and the stylish wardrobe (even Cher’s motorized closet!). But the wonder and awe over all that only worked because of Cher’s ebullient personality. For all her shallowness and privilege and meddling tendencies, she is someone who desires to be better — even while sideswiping a car. The clever way Heckerling critiques the lack of perspective is something I only came to fully admire later.”

Then Justin was also joined by Heckerling for an extended chat.

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‘Rebuilding Paradise’

Directed by Ron Howard, “Rebuilding Paradise” is a documentary look at the town of Paradise, Calif., and its struggle to recover from the devastating Camp fire of November 2018. The film focuses on both the personal stories of a few individual people and also larger systemic and infrastructure challenges. Released by National Geographic, the film is in virtual cinemas and limited theatrical engagements nationwide.

For The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “’Rebuilding Paradise’ is about redemption as well as destruction, which you might guess from both the title and Howard’s well-known affinity for uplift. But while the filmmaker keeps his eyes peeled for every possible shred of good news in the wake of disaster, he has little interest in peddling easy inspiration; the stakes are too colossal, the devastation too raw.”

Ryan Faughnder and I wrote about the unusual release the film is receiving — a mix of virtual cinemas, actual theaters where possible and a drive-in. The film’s meaning has changed somewhat since it premiered earlier this year, given all that has happened since.

“To me, it broadens itself as a kind of case study in coping with these drastic, shocking changes,” said Howard. “Everything is so fluid and shifting right now. And I think that what the documentary offers is insight into what people undergoing that kind of really acute, cruel test — what that looks like. And it’s not just about the hours of trying to save your life or save the lives of your loved ones. It’s this long tale of struggle and upheaval.”

For the New York Times, Ben Kenigsberg wrote, “A film like ‘Rebuilding Paradise’ could be made about other climate-change-driven catastrophes — a notion that the closing montage makes explicit. But this particular movie has a special timeliness: Watching Paradise’s high schoolers graduate at their athletic field — something initially thought to be improbable — inevitably raises the question of how the district will fare through the pandemic. Though it might seem generic in some respects, ‘Rebuilding Paradise’ resonates with the moment.”

For the Hollywood Reporter, Leslie Felperin wrote, “It’s to the film’s credit, in fact, that it’s not afraid to get into the weeds as it observes town hall meetings with class action lawyers — Erin Brockovich herself shows up to help the townsfolk sue for damages — and shamefaced PG&E spokespeople. You can’t help admire the latter’s willingness to at least face the ire of the crowds and take the abuse for the company’s negligence, which ultimately was the cause of the fire. At times, the movie almost feels like a pop version of a Frederick Wiseman documentary as it steeps itself in the dialectic arguments and logistic challenges facing various interested parties as the town strives to rebuild.”

Lincoln Else, the "Rebuilding Paradise" director of photography, films debris-strewn property in Paradise, Calif.
Lincoln Else, the “Rebuilding Paradise” director of photography, films debris-strewn property in Paradise, Calif. (Elizabeth Morhaim/National Geographic/Elizabeth Mo)
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‘Summerland’

Noted British playwright and director Jessica Swale’s film debut as writer-director, “Summerland” stars Gemma Arterton as a writer in a small English village during World War II who takes in a young boy (Lucas Bond) evacuated from London. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Tom Courtenay also star. Released by IFC Films, the movie is available on digital and VOD and is playing at the Vineland Drive-In in City of Industry.

For The Times, Katie Walsh wrote, “There are a few twists and turns along the way, many of them easy to guess but nevertheless well-earned and emotionally articulated. Arterton’s intensely felt performance, as well as the performance of the incredibly talented Bond, creates the emotional compass for the audience’s journey. The place where ‘Summerland’ eventually arrives is as surprising and satisfying as the title promised.”

For the New York Times, Jeannette Catsoulis wrote, “A thumb to suck in troubled times, ‘Summerland’ offers a digit of nostalgia that many viewers will latch onto with something approaching relief … Warm and soft and benignly manipulative — the movie’s sole death is scandalously opportune — ‘Summerland’ brims with genteel sentiment and British briskness. Arterton is a wonderful actor, when not constrained by picture-book settings and prickly-spinster clichés. And an ending so contrived it will blow your mind.”

For the AP, Lindsey Bahr wrote that the film “even felt a little resonant in the current moment. Quarantine doesn’t compare to wartime sacrifices in the least, of course, and yet there is something undeniably moving about watching a hopeful and kind film like ‘Summerland’ right now.”

Gemma Arterton, left, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the movie "Summerland."
Gemma Arterton, left, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the movie “Summerland.” (Michael Wharley/IFC Films)

‘The Fight’

Directed by Eli Despres, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, “The Fight” is a documentary portrait of lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union as they wage legal battles with the Trump administration over its migrant family separation policy, its transgender military ban and more. With Kerry Washington as a producer, the movie is being released by Magnolia Pictures and is available on digital and VOD.

For The Times, Katie Walsh wrote, “In this film, and in life, it often feels like the lawyers of the organization are the only ones standing in the way of the Trump administration’s policies, many capriciously intended not only to strip human rights but to bully and intimidate the American public. They are the real heroes of this era, battling in court after court, armed with tote bags of documents, caffeine and a deeply unwavering and humanitarian sense of justice. But as [ACLU voting rights project director Dale] Ho put it so frankly, lawyers and courts aren’t going to change the world; people are. And it’s up to us to do it.”

For the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday called the film “an artfully crafted and improbably entertaining documentary about the American Civil Liberties Union. Viewers expecting a plodding and self-righteous tutorial on American jurisprudence are instead invited to witness, firsthand, the litigation of four hallmark cases … Most impressively, Steinberg, Kriegman and Despres follow just the right people to give the audience a candid and often amusing glimpse of the workaday life of an ACLU attorney ... In this engrossing and ultimately inspiring examination of ideals in action, the team behind ‘The Fight’ wind up illustrating a cardinal rule of nonfiction filmmaking: When it comes to humanizing even the loftiest principles, a documentary lives or dies by its principals.”

For the Hollywood Reporter, Beandrea July wrote that “Steinberg, Kriegman and Despres get the balance right between the legal heroes and their collaborators, the marginalized groups they are fighting to protect. Sharp and unobtrusive frames successfully capture the intense emotion of the moment: the protesters ever rallying, the disturbing footage of children traumatized by family separations at the border, the weeping Muslim families reunited at the airport. These are the images that encapsulate what fighting to uphold the Constitution really means, and are necessary to hold on to in these times.”

Brigitte Amiri and Dale Ho in "The Fight."
Brigitte Amiri and Dale Ho in “The Fight.” (Sabrina Lantos / Magnolia Pictures)
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