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Movie review: 'Reel Paradise'

By Michael Phillips
Tribune arts critic

3½ stars (out of four)

The highly engaging documentary "Reel Paradise," edited and directed by Steve James of "Hoop Dreams" fame, begins as a diary of an American movie geek who decided to take on the role of sole movie theater programmer and raging imperialist eccentric on the Fijian island of Taveuni, regaling the Fiji islanders and Indo-Fijians with everything from "The Hot Chick" to "Steamboat Bill Jr." to "Jackass: The Movie."

That's the premise. Then James starts digging deeper, exploring the geek's familial dynamics under duress. And the movie grows more and more involving.

The subject is John Pierson, a string-beany fellow with horn-rims and a quick, adolescent temper. Pierson, a longtime independent film promoter and author of the book "Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes," spent a year on Taveuni running a tumble-down 1954 movie theater, the 180 Meridian. Out of his familiar confines in suburban New York, Pierson pulled with him to Fiji his charmingly skeptical wife, Janet, who confesses to not liking her husband-to-be much when they first met; their 16-year-old daughter, Georgia, blasˇ brat one minute, eloquent and mature young woman the next; and their even-keeled 13-year-old son, Wyatt.

The Piersons spent a year there, and James filmed the last month of that year. "Reel Paradise" is both an ode to a hopeless cinemaniac, and a sweet, sharp tale of parents and children. Pierson acts the ugly-American clown much of the time, and the movie doesn't try to hide it: He squares off with the local Roman Catholic officials who disapprove of things like "Jackass," as well as Pierson's policy of showing movies for free. (Janet doesn't like the desperate edge to the locals' laughter heard during the screening of "Jackass," and I'm with Janet on that one.)

Georgia's friendship with a Taveuni girl named Miriama comes to a bittersweet parting. At one point Miriama observes that the Pierson family indulges in the luxury of hashing out conflicts verbally, until the last word dies a natural death. In her own home, she acknowledges, the arguments are more brutal, and brutally physical.

Pierson's self-made, self-promotional persona comes at a price: Watching "Reel Paradise" you wonder if he's the least interesting member of his family. No matter. Scott Foundas in the L.A. Weekly called it "a movie that restores your faith in movies, and in people." Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly thought it "a righteous colonial stunt of nonstop hubris." They're both right. Since "Reel Paradise" doesn't make the mistake of lionizing Pierson while it keeps up with him and his family, the results stay with you, like memories of an unexpected and surprising vacation.


"Reel Paradise"

Directed and edited by Steve James; cinematography by P.H. O'Brien; music by Norman Arnold; produced by James and Scott Mosier. Featuring John Pierson, Janet Pierson, Georgia Pierson, Wyatt Pierson. A Wellspring release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:50. MPAA rating: R (language, including sexual references, and brief crude humor).

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