A burned-out town struggles to return to life

A firefighter faces the deadly Camp Fire in an early scene from Rebuilding Paradise.

By Richard Ades

The first 10 minutes of Rebuilding Paradise are harrowing.

Ron Howard’s documentary is mostly about the aftermath of the November 2018 “Camp Fire” in Paradise, California, but first it shows us the fire itself. With the help of cellphone and dashcam footage, it recreates people’s terror as they attempt to escape a wildfire that engulfed their town only minutes after originating on a nearby hillside.

In one particularly hair-raising moment, we find ourselves inside a vehicle barreling along a road that has turned into a fiery obstacle course. Meanwhile, the air is so filled with smoke that the day appears to have turned to night.

The danger is real, we learn. By the time the fire is brought under control, 85 residents of Paradise are dead. Of those who survive, most have lost their homes, along with schools, municipal buildings and services.

Following this terror-stricken beginning, Howard’s documentary evolves into a month-by-month account of attempts by residents and officials to revive a community that has been largely destroyed. The result is a film that’s sincere and warmhearted.

And, it must be said, just a little dull.

Part of the problem is Howard’s focus on what a close-knit and beautiful community Paradise was, which made its loss so tragic. Though it undoubtedly was beautiful, being located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, it’s hard for those of us who never lived there to share the residents’ nostalgia.

Then again, let’s face it: A big part of the film’s problem is its timing. Much as we want to be sympathetic to the day-to-day challenges faced by the survivors, we can’t help being reminded of our own day-to-day challenges due to a health disaster that shows no signs of winding down.

This is particularly difficult when the film focuses on the tireless efforts of school superintendent Michelle John to keep local classes in session and to give the 2019 seniors a bona fide graduation ceremony. With the benefit of hindsight, we can’t help thinking that it’s all for naught because the following school year will be 10 times as difficult in Paradise and everywhere else.

Howard also tries a bit too hard to show individuals’ community spirit and even heroism. Or maybe it just seems that way because of our own, mid-2020 perspective. Having witnessed some of our own fellow citizens refusing to even slap on a mask to promote the general good, we know all too well that not everyone reacts to disaster in a selfless way.

Is the film looking at the Camp Fire aftermath with rose-colored glasses? The question comes up in relation to one of its most heroic figures, Matt Gates, a police officer who works to raise spirits through efforts such as organizing a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. Then, late in the film, we suddenly learn that Gates and his wife have separated. Why? We’re never told, maybe because Howard doesn’t want to tinge his warm portrait of the town with a hint of negativism.

In a break from the general positivity, Rebuilding Paradise points out that there are culprits here as well as victims. The main culprit is Pacific Gas & Electric, whose failure to maintain its power lines caused the spark that set off the deadly fire. More generally, the culprit is poor forest management, which makes the area vulnerable to wildfires due to young growth that burns quickly.

More generally still, as the film notes briefly, the culprit is climate change. Yet no fingers are pointed at those who’ve ignored the problem and have even gone out of their way to deny it exists.

To pick out the most obvious example: Donald Trump is shown talking about his post-fire visit to the town—which he accidentally calls “Pleasure”—but the film doesn’t report his odd theory that wildfires like this could be prevented if California just raked out the forest floors once in a while. Nor does it mention the administration’s ongoing attempts to undermine environmental regulations.

Perhaps the film’s sponsor, National Geographic, is afraid of unnecessarily aggravating the Trump administration. Or perhaps director Howard is more interested in the personal rather than the political. Whatever the reason, the result is a portrait of loss, courage and perseverance that—due to reasons both in and beyond the filmmaker’s control—comes off as needlessly bland.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Rebuilding Paradise (PG-13) is available beginning July 31 through VOD outlets or Columbus’s Gateway Film Center (gatewayfilmcenter.org).

Love, loss and friendship in the shadow of war

Summerland Alice
Gemma Arterton as reclusive writer Alice Lamb in Summerland (Photo by Michael Wharley/Flying Castles Ltd.)

By Richard Ades

Alice Lamb doesn’t care much for people, and she especially has it in for children. So when she’s asked to take in an adolescent boy who’s fled German bombing raids, she agrees only because she’s given no other choice.

That’s the setup of Summerland, a drama set on the cliff-strewn coast of England during World War II. Written and directed by Jessica Swale, it spins its tale of friendship and lost love in a way that’s pleasant and beautiful but a bit too contrived to ring true.

Partial spoiler alert! Viewers may find some of the film’s contrivances easier to accept after a last-minute revelation places them in context. But until then, our sense of reality is challenged.

For starters, we simply don’t believe that Alice (Gemma Arterton) is as misanthropic as she seems. True, the writer lives alone in a seaside home and rails against anyone who dares to interrupt her work, but her angry words seem like mere affectations when spoken by this young woman with the pretty, unlined face. Thus, when a London evacuee named Frank (Lucas Bond) finds refuge under her roof, we have no doubt she’ll eventually warm up to him. The only question is when and how.

A series of flashbacks explain Alice’s lonely and bitter existence. At some time in the past, she found a soulmate in the form of warmhearted Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), but their relationship apparently hit a snag. Back in the “present,” she eventually confides this loss to the inquisitive Frank, who reacts in a way that’s surprisingly mature for both his age and his era. She’s moved, while we’re given one more reason to doubt the tale’s authenticity.

More convincing than the friendship between Alice and Frank is the one Frank develops with his stubbornly individualistic classmate, Edie. That’s partly because Edie is wonderfully portrayed by Dixie Egerickx (star of an upcoming remake of The Secret Garden), but mostly because the two aren’t forced to mold their characters to suit the movie’s plot points.

Speaking of which, Alice and Frank soon begin discussing bits of the folklore that Alice studies and writes about, including “floating islands” and “Summerland,” a kind of pagan paradise. These inevitably make their way into the story, as do developments that are rather too convenient to be believed. (Second spoiler alert! But then, maybe they shouldn’t be, according to the aforementioned revelation.)

With a soaring score by Volker Bertelman and gorgeous seaside cinematography by Laurie Rose, Summerland is a lovely way to spend an hour and 40 minutes. Just don’t expect to see anything that bears much resemblance to real life.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Summertime (PG) is available from VOD outlets beginning July 31.


Former ‘Moonie’ struggles to move on

Blessed Child Cara Jones 1
Cara Jones (center) is married in one of the Unification Church’s typical mass weddings. Her marriage later ended in divorce.

By Richard Ades

In the 1970s, the country was struggling to recover from the dual tragedies of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal that toppled the Nixon presidency. That helps to explain why so many Americans were attracted to the “Moonies,” a Korean-born cult that promised to unite and heal the world.

Blessed Child is a documentary by and about a woman who was raised in a Moonie family and found the religion a comfort and an inspiration—until it wasn’t. Then it became an impediment to her happiness and threatened to drive a wedge between her and her devout parents.

Directed by Cara Jones and filmed by her brother Bow, the doc is a gentle yet wrenching portrait of a family that was at first united and later divided by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.

An early voice-over explains the church’s unique ideology. Moon believed in the power of marriage to help the world overcome sin and prejudice. Accordingly, he regularly organized mass weddings of couples he’d personally “matched,” often with the express purpose of combining people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. He also discouraged premarital relations, being convinced that sex was the “original sin” that had driven Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden.

Moon’s belief system appealed to idealistic young people like Cara’s future father, Farley Jones, who converted in the ’60s. Farley then persuaded a Catholic girl named Betsy to join up, and the two married (after being matched by Moon) and proceeded to raise four sons and a daughter in the Unification Church.

Contemporary interviews and home movies reveal that the family became something akin to Moonie celebrities after Farley was named president of the faith’s American branch. So prominent were they that young Cara began to hope she eventually would be matched with one of Moon’s own sons. It’s probably not a coincidence that her faith began to wane when she wasn’t, instead being paired with a man who felt more like a younger brother than a husband. But by the time her marriage ended in divorce, it also had become clear that Moon wasn’t quite as pure and angelic as he’d seemed.

While it spends sufficient time explaining the eccentricities and shortcomings of the Unification Church, Blessed Child’s main theme is the lasting effect it’s had on former members like Cara. Long after leaving the church, many still struggle with feelings of failure and regret that make it difficult to get on with their lives. And it’s all the harder for people like Cara whose parents remain true believers.

If the documentary has one weakness, it’s that Cara’s central tale is almost overshadowed by that of her brother Bow. As a boy who realized early on that he was gay, Bow couldn’t feel at home in a faith devoted to heterosexual marriage. And yet he was—and apparently still is—as susceptible as anyone to its idealistic vision of a world united by love and acceptance.

Blessed Child takes us on an engrossing journey as it relates Cara’s efforts to heal old wounds and come to terms with her past. Even so, the closing credits may leave viewers with a nagging question: But what about Bow?

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Blessed Child (no MPAA rating) is available beginning July 17 on iTunes, Google and Amazon.

Love in the time of coronavirus


By Richard Ades

In a recent “Dilbert” cartoon, the hapless title employee talks about his hope of hooking up with a woman he’d met through virtual contract negotiations—even though, as it turns out, he’s seen only the part of her face that wasn’t hidden by a mask, a shower cap and an eye patch.

For those who lack a regular partner, a pandemic-induced quarantine is hardly the ideal environment for romance. And yet, people can’t turn off their libido simply because it’s not convenient. Recently, the New York City health department acknowledged this fact by releasing guidelines for how to deal with intimacy while minimizing the risk of contracting COVID-19.

One suggestion it missed: Have a romantic encounter while separated by a thick window several stories above the street. That’s the situation described in Squeegee, an 11-minute film written and directed by Morgan Krantz.

It begins as Lori (Amy Rutherford), a well-dressed executive, is rushing to her downtown office building. Once she’s inside, an assistant (Emily Jane King) tries to corral her for a meeting with waiting guests, but Lori tells her to stall them. She then locks herself in her office and, oddly, uses a spray bottle and tissues to wipe off the window.

In a moment, we see why. A young window washer (played by Blair McKenzie, who actually cleans windows in real life) lowers himself into view outside her office. After efficiently doing his job with water and a squeegee, he waits expectantly. Soon the two are carrying on what apparently is an ongoing relationship involving playful flirting and even a bit more.

Though clearly made in pre-quarantine times, Squeegee could not be timelier. Its depiction of romance under the constraints of social distancing—“social” possibly having more than one meaning here—results in a film that’s funny, sexy, sad and even a bit profound.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Squeegee (recommended for mature audiences) is available on Vimeo.

My mom, the cinematic legend

The Truth
Movie star Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve, center) is visited by daughter Lumir (Juliette Binoche) and son-in-law Hank (Ethan Hawke) in The Truth.

By Richard Ades

The Truth is a startling change of pace for Japanese writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda (2018’s Shoplifters), being a French film with two very French leading ladies. In a different sense, though, it’s not startling at all.

Though the plot hinges on the prickly relationship between aging movie star Fabienne Dangeville (Catherine Deneuve) and her screenwriter/daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche), the implicit subject is the world of movies. And moviemakers love to make movies about moviemaking, as Quentin Tarantino did just last year with Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.

The Truth takes its title from Fabienne’s new memoir, whose upcoming debut has prompted a visit from New York-based Lumir and her actor/husband, Hank (Ethan Hawke), and young daughter, Charlotte (Clementine Grenier). But the book hardly lives up to its name, Lumir finds, as it describes a warm mother-daughter relationship that never actually existed. Asked about this, Fabienne huffily replies that, being an actor, she feels no obligation to be shackled by reality.

We soon learn that Fabienne actually feels little obligation to anything but her craft. She routinely ignores or insults those around her, including her past and current lovers (played by Christian Crahay, Alain Libolt and Roger Van Hool). Frankly, she’s a monster, as she proved long ago during an incident that still haunts Lumir and may even haunt Fabienne herself.

Even so, most people let Fabienne get away with such behavior because she’s a living legend. And so do we, the viewers, if only because she’s played by a beloved living legend.

Fabienne (Catherine Deneuve) and Lumir (Juliette Binoche) share a rare moment of mother-daughter ease.

As Fabienne, Deneuve is as cool and self-possessed as ever, though not quite as enigmatic as she was in some of her classic roles. The script isn’t subtle about the fact that she behaves the way she does because nothing matters to her except acting.

That makes it hard to get involved in the mother-daughter relationship that’s at the center of the film. It’s clear that Lumir wishes Fabienne had been as warm a mother to her as she is to her own daughter. But it’s also clear that, for Fabienne, duty to her daughter and others will always be outranked by her duty to cinema.

One gets the feeling that, for writer/director Koreeda, that’s as it should be. Maybe that’s why, despite being a handsome work with a great cast, The Truth is likely to appeal more to hardcore cinephiles than to the general public.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

The Truth (PG) is available from VOD outlets beginning July 3.

Oscar winners’ latest doc focuses on office revolt


By Richard Ades

Most Americans don’t know that “9 to 5” was a labor movement years before it was the name of a hit movie starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton. In their first documentary since the Oscar-winning American Factory, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar try to remedy that situation.

9to5: The Story of a Movement talks to the movement’s co-founders, Karen Nusbaum and Ellen Cassedy, along with dozens of others who joined forces to fight for the rights of America’s secretaries.

The flick’s fast-paced beginning uses an amusingly dated promotional film to illustrate the conditions the women worked under. Interviews with former office workers further clarify their predicament: Since there were no formal job descriptions, they were expected to make coffee, run personal errands and generally do whatever their bosses ordered them to do—all the while putting up with sexist comments and frequent sexual harassment.

It was in the early ’70s that Nusbaum and Cassedy took the skills they’d learned from antiwar and civil rights protests and began addressing the problems faced by secretaries. Working out of an office at Harvard, they and others published and distributed a newsletter on the topic. This generated so much interest that they soon became involved in nationwide organizing efforts.

These eventually came to the attention of Fonda, who had time to tackle a new issue after the end of the Vietnam War. As the doc shows, she set up focus groups to gauge just how angry secretaries were at their bosses. The results helped to shape the 1980 revenge comedy 9 to 5.

The documentary makes it clear that the “9 to 5” movement found early success by helping office workers across the country publicize and combat the frustrations they faced in their dead-end jobs. However, things were not so easy when its leaders tried to take the next step by forming a union.

Coincidentally, Reichert and Bognar’s film also loses steam when it begins recounting this difficult period. As they often do, the filmmakers concentrate mainly on activists in their home state of Ohio—specifically, Cleveland and Cincinnati—but they do it in a way that forces viewers to fill in multiple blanks.

What is the “west campus” Cleveland organizers are talking about? Was the Cincinnati walkout strictly a local affair or part of a nationwide strike? A few explanatory comments or title cards would make this section more understandable.

During an interview earlier this year for a profile in Columbus Monthly magazine, Reichert told me they were working to finish the film in time to debut at South by Southwest and the Cleveland International Film Festival (both of which ended up being canceled due to Covid-19). It’s possible the rushed schedule left a few loose ends untied—which is a shame.

Though 9to5 can’t match the “you are there” immediacy of American Factory, the first half or even two-thirds of the running time is both entertaining and informative. Let’s hope the rest of the film can be tweaked before it’s released to the general public, as it offers an important history lesson about a brave battle for the rights of women and workers.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

9to5: The Story of a Movement had a virtual debut at the AFI Docs 2020 film festival. It is not currently available for viewing.

Profiles in struggle: ‘Runner’ and ‘My Darling Vivian’

Guor Mading Maker, a refugee who became an Olympic athlete, in Runner

By Richard Ades

Two very different kinds of heroism are on display in documentaries coming out this weekend. One centers on a refugee-turned-Olympic athlete, the other on a celebrity wife and mother-turned-forgotten woman.

First up is Runner, the story of Guor Mading Maker, who was born in Sudan during a decades-long struggle between the Arabic/Muslim northern region and his own African/Christian south.

Director Bill Gallagher uses somber animation to depict Guor’s early years, when his parents reluctantly sent him away for his own safety. But “safety” is a relative term in the midst of a civil war, as he was captured by the enemy and, after escaping, spent four years of his boyhood totally on his own.

Guor’s fortunes finally changed due to a chance encounter with an aunt and uncle, who took him to the U.S. and settled in New Hampshire. There—as the documentary relates via interviews with former high school classmates and coaches—he discovered that running was not merely a survival tool but a sport and even the possible key to a college education and a promising future.

The bulk of the documentary deals with Guor’s Olympic aspirations, which were spread out over several years and were inextricably linked to the political situation in his homeland. He first opted to compete under an international banner, having no desire to run on behalf of the country that destroyed much of his family and nearly killed him. However, when a peace deal opened the possibility that southern Sudan would gain its independence, he had hopes of joining the new country’s first Olympic team.

Most sports fiction eventually leads to a rousing scene of hard-won triumph. Confined by reality, Gallagher’s film can’t do that, but it does deliver stark glimpses of the pain and frustration of competition, mixed with moving depictions of cultural pride and long-delayed reunions. Most of all, it introduces us to a man who has maintained his determination and integrity despite obstacles most of us can’t even imagine.

My Darling Vivian
Vivian Liberto and Johnny Cash during the early, happy years of their marriage

This weekend’s other new documentary, My Darling Vivian, pays homage to the Catholic schoolgirl who became Johnny Cash’s first wife and bore most of his children. Directed by Matt Riddlehoover, it serves as a counterpoint to the 2005 Cash biopic Walk the Line, which some feel was a misrepresentation of who Vivian Liberto really was.

Riddlehoover’s main witnesses are Vivian’s four daughters: singer Rosanne Cash and younger sisters Kathy, Cindy and Tara. Interviewed separately and only occasionally disagreeing on minor details, they present a comprehensive picture of the difficult life their mother led as Cash’s wife, and of the nearly invisible existence she led as his ex-wife. Family photos and archival footage help bring the story to life.

Obviously, the film will appeal most to Cash fans, particularly early scenes that detail how the couple met, fell in love and engaged in a long-distance courtship while Johnny finished his military service. But the account of their difficult marriage, during which Vivian was left to watch over the girls and assorted animals while her husband was away on tour for months at a time, should awaken even non-fans’ empathy. And few will fail to see the injustice of what happened to Vivian after their divorce, when the public forgot her as Johnny and new wife June Carter Cash became the music scene’s new darlings.

The doc makes two things clear: (1) Johnny Cash was an impossible man to live with; and (2) Vivian loved him anyway and always would. It’s also clear that Vivian’s daughters loved her and were eager to undo the damage they felt Walk the Line and time itself had done to her reputation. My Darling Vivian gives them the chance to do just that.

Runner: 4½ stars (out of 5)
My Darling Vivian: 4 stars

My Darling Vivian is available from VOD outlets beginning June 19. For information on how to watch Runner, visit runnerdoc.com.


Woman’s selfless act leads to painful complications

The Surrogate
Jess (Jasmine Batchelor) agrees to give married friends Aaron (Sullivan Jones, left) and Josh (Chris Perfetti) a baby in The Surrogate.

By Richard Ades

The Surrogate is about a woman who is merely, as she puts it, a “vessel” for her best friend’s baby. When her pregnancy develops a complication, however, she finds herself becoming much more.

Writer/director Jeremy Hersh’s drama stars Jasmine Batchelor (The Good Fight) as the complicated New Yorker named Jess. Just why Jess does the things she does is not always easy to understand, but it helps if you pay close attention to the flick’s early moments.

In the first scene, Jess tries to sell would-be fiancé Nate (Brandon Micheal Hall) on a just-friends relationship, telling him she can’t commit because she has no idea what she’ll be doing in a year. She might even join the Peace Corps, she says.

Later, she’s seen trying to find donors to help expand the services of the nonprofit where she works as a web designer. She reluctantly stops only when her boss instructs her to stick to the agency’s core mission.

Jess, it seems, is a relentless do-gooder. Maybe that’s why we don’t see her being truly happy until she finds herself pregnant with the baby she’s agreed to have on behalf of best friend Josh (Chris Perfetti) and his husband, Aaron (Sullivan Jones). This leaves her so delirious that she’s puzzled when another pregnant woman says she can’t imagine giving up her own baby. To Jess, it seems the most natural thing in the world.

Then things take a startling turn when a prenatal test reveals the baby likely will have Down syndrome. For a while, Jess remains upbeat, cheerfully inviting Josh and Aaron to read up on the condition and to meet the parents of Down children. What she almost willfully fails to notice is that her two friends are going along with her only out of awkward politeness. Only later does she realize that the baby’s prognosis has changed everything.

Hersh’s movie is partly a character study of everyone involved in this gut-wrenching situation, but especially of Jess, who behaves in ways that are both admirable and unadmirable, predictable and unpredictable. Batchelor’s all-in portrayal helps us sympathize with her, whether or not we agree with her actions.

As it goes on, though, the film begins morphing into a debate on a question with no easy answers, in the process bringing up issues of race, class and sexuality. Before it’s over, various characters play the black card, the gay card, even the Jewish card. The effect is that they sometimes seem more like symbols than actual personalities.

This—plus an ending that is abrupt and almost capricious—make this a film that fails to move us quite as much as it enlightens us.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

The Surrogate (no MPAA rating) is available from VOD outlets beginning June 12.

Teenage nerd reinvents herself in spirited British comedy

“How to Build a Girl” publicity still
Dolly Wilde, aka Joanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein), shares a musical moment with rock star John Kite (Alfie Allen) in How to Build a Girl. (Photo by Sven Arnstein/IFC Films)

By Richard Ades

Reading is usually an entertaining pastime, but for English teen Johanna Morrigan it’s a road map to dissatisfaction. That’s because she suspects her life will never live up to those of her literary heroines. For one thing, no Prince Charming ever shows up to save her from her humdrum existence.

“I do not think my adventure starts with a boy,” Johanna (Booksmart’s Beanie Feldstein) concludes early on. “I think it starts with me.”

This establishes the theme for How to Build a Girl, a comedy based on Caitlin Moran’s semiautobiographical novel about a girl bent on reinventing herself. Set in the early ’90s, it follows 16-year-old Johanna as she seeks to turn her writing talent into a fulfilling career. The quest eventually leads her to a dark corner of journalism in which she savages struggling bands as a poison-pen rock critic.

(Personal note: This portion of her saga struck a few autobiographical chords for me, as I long ago turned my love of writing into a career in journalism. And though I never became a rock critic, I worked with one who became famous for his devilishly nasty putdowns. Back to the movie.)

Directed by Coky Giedroyc from a script by Moran and John Niven, How to Build a Girl mixes witty invention with infectious exuberance. It quickly introduces us to Johanna’s large family, which includes her musically frustrated dad (Paddy Considine), her worn-out mom (Sarah Solemani) and her supportive gay brother (Laurie Kynaston)—as well as a dozen or so portraits of historic and fictional figures that regularly come to life to serve as her confidants and cheerleaders.

Johanna’s big break comes when she interviews for work with a London-based pop-culture magazine and lands a freelance gig thanks to sheer pluck and determination. Remaking herself with the help of a new name (Dolly Wilde), an eccentric wardrobe and red hair dye, she’s soon having the time of her life raving about the rock scene she’s never known before. She even has her first crush after meeting soulful singer John Kite (Alfie Allen). But then she makes a fangirl misstep and is able to salvage her career only by skewering the music scene she once praised.

Heading up the strong cast, Feldstein gives Johanna an indomitable spirit and a generally convincing Midlands accent. Behind the scenes, Oli Julian plays an indispensable role as composer of the flick’s original music.

Despite its inventiveness, the script eventually leads its heroine into a clichéd predicament, while the finale leaves us with a saccharine aftertaste. For the most part, though, Johanna’s makeover journey is a delightful and inspiring ride.

Rating: 4 starts (out of 5)

How to Build a Girl (rated R) opens May 8 at VOD outlets.