Happiest Season

Hulu
When I interviewed Kristen Stewart last year, she mentioned that she was about to start filming a new film that she was really looking forward to. She didn’t mention what the genre was, she didn’t say the name of the director, she didn’t say anything about the story, her only note on the film was she was working with a friend. Well, as it turns out, now that we’re a year later, we see that the movie she was referencing was Happiest Season, directed by Stewart’s friend Clea Duvall, and all you really need to know about the movie is that it truly feels like a bunch of friends working together, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Filmed last January before the pandemic hit, Happiest Season is everything we need right now, in this different world we live in. It is a Christmas movie, it is loaded with clichés and tropes and worn-out jokes, but it still is something we’ve never seen before. It cannot be emphasized enough how one’s world can be shaped by popular culture, what we see, what we read, what we hear. And when you continue to not see yourself reflected in those places, it makes you start to feel like an outsider, someone who does not belong. In the long run, that makes an impact on your psyche, it drills deep down to the core, changing your basic chemistry. For gay kids, like me, there were no happy endings in television shows or movies for us when we were growing up. There were no light-hearted mainstream comedies for us to relate to and revel in. When you saw a queer character, the entire story was about that, and it always—always—ended painfully.

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Ammonite

The movie industry is starting to heed the call for more stories told from diverse perspectives, by diverse voices. History books were written by white men, so that’s generally the history we’ve been told, and, up until recently, it’s the only history that movies have been telling. The tide is starting to change, though, as we are seeing more movies about the people who have been in the shadows, whose contributions to history were overlooked or flat-out ignored, simply because of their gender or color.

Writer/director Francis Lee found just such a story as he was looking on the internet for a birthday gift for his fossil-loving boyfriend. As he continued to do a deep dive into the history of fossils (pun intended), he came across one of the most acclaimed fossil hunters of the 19th century, a person who was overlooked and underappreciated simply because she was a woman. Her name was Mary Anning, and Lee knew he wanted to tell her story. The result is a new movie called Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet as Anning, and Saoirse Ronan as her friend and lover.

Ammonite is set on the harsh, unforgiving and cold English coastline of Lyme Regis in the 1840s. Anning works alone, walking the beach, searching for small fossils which she can dig up and sell to tourists from her tiny shop in town. Because she’s a woman, she is not taken seriously in her field, even though she has made some substantial discoveries, ones that were claimed and made famous by her male colleagues. So Mary is left to sell trinkets to tourists, while taking care of her mother and nursing some serious resentments toward life.

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Hillbilly Elegy

Ron Howard is one of those directors who is really hard to categorize. He has won an Oscar for directing (A Beautiful Mind in 2002), and has made other well-respected and critically-acclaimed films, such as Apollo 13, but he also is considered one of the most mainstream of the Oscar-caliber directors working today. Howard’s movies tend to be less high-brow than his Academy-friendly counterparts, his movies are for the masses, not for the critics. Beginning with Night Shift, through Splash, Cocoon, Gung Ho, Parenthood, Backdraft, Ransom and Rush all the way to Solo: A Star Wars Story, Howard’s movies have been popular and successful, telling stories of the everyman in a relatable way. His latest, Hillbilly Elegy, is another contemporary look at ordinary people and their struggles in life, and, like every Ron Howard movie, it never gets too dark and it keeps it simple.

Hillbilly Elegy is based on the memoir of the same name written by J.D. Vance. Adapted by Vanessa Taylor, the film tells of a boy from Appalachia and his dysfunctional relationship with the two women who raised him, his mother, played by Amy Adams, and his grandmother, played by Glenn Close. Vance’s mother was a drug addict and his grandmother a tough-as-nails, no-nonsense taskmaster, and Vance found himself caught between them, trying to both save his mother and please his grandmother, even as he grew into adulthood.

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On the Rocks

Apple TV+
Following the #MeToo explosion that rocked Hollywood and shone a bright light on the obstacles and inequities keeping women from getting ahead in the film industry, there has been a massive push to level the playing field, in front of and behind the camera, both for women and for people of color. The new inclusion rules laid out by the Academy and the addition of thousands of new artists to its membership are indications that Hollywood is serious about change. But there still is a lot of work to be done, particularly in positions of power behind the scenes, which are still heavily dominated by white men, most notably in the most central creative and powerful position in all of film, the feature film director.

But that’s not to say the landscape has been completely barren of women in the director’s chair prior to the #MeToo movement. There have been a few notable barrier breakers in the industry, and one of them is Sofia Coppola, a writer/director/producer who is only one of five women to have ever been nominated for the Best Director Oscar. At the time of her nomination, in 2004, for Lost in Translation, she was just the third woman ever to be nominated for Best Director. Since then, there have been two women nominated, Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2010 and Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird in 2018. Bigelow is the only woman to have won Best Director so far.

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The Trial of the Chicago 7

History is doomed to repeat itself. If anyone thinks the ‘60s are behind us, they don’t know what it was about. The revolution that played out in the late ‘60s in this country was mobilized by the war in Vietnam, yes, but the undercurrent was racial, gender and class inequality. It was motivated by a government who abused the people it supposedly represented. And it inspired a movement of the people, by the people, to push the country to become more progressive and equal. Sound familiar?

In writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s newest treatise against tyranny, Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 is a powerful ensemble drama that spotlights one specific moment in this country’s history that just happens to have had ramifications that are still felt today. The 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago was a lightning rod for every anti-war and anti-government group that existed at the time. This included The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Youth International Party (“Yippies.”) The leaders of these groups, Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, were iconic representations of American rebellion and unified together to assemble one massive protest at the convention. The resulting violence that erupted in Chicago that August was an inevitable result of the Chicago mayor’s insistence that the protests not interfere with the convention, so he mobilized an army of police and National Guardsmen to keep the protesters at bay. As a result, Hayden, Hoffman and Rubin, along with five others, including Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, who wasn’t even there, were put on trial, a trial that was clearly politically motivated and intended to re-assert the government’s control over the people.

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What To Watch Now

I know it’s hard, not being able to go to the movie theatres, but don’t despair! There are still many great movies available to watch at home, via your favorite streaming sites.

Here’s my helpful list of some of the movies worth your while, in case you’re looking for something to watch tonight:

DRAMAS:

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (coming October 16) (Netflix)—Based on real events and people, this is an excellent ensemble drama from Aaron Sorkin about the controversial trial of the men accused of inciting the riots outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. Stars Sasha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, Eddie Redmayne, Joseph Gordon Levitt and Frank Langella. If you care about the Oscars, watch this one early.

Da 5 Bloods (Netflix)—Director Spike Lee’s biting and emotional drama about four Vietnam vets who return to the country to collect treasure they hid when they were fighting there. The acting is phenomenal, especially Delroy Lindo, who will be remembered at Oscar time. As for Spike Lee, I didn’t love it as much as BlacKkKlansman, but Da 5 Bloods is really, really good.

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My Top 10 Movie Scores by Rock Stars

The 2020 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony was supposed to have taken place on May 2 in Cleveland but was postponed due to the pandemic. The ceremony will now be taking place virtually on November 7 and will air on HBO. One of this year’s inductees, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, is now a member of an exclusive club: musicians who are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who have also won an Oscar. Reznor won his for writing the original score for The Social Network, which he wrote with Atticus Ross. Reznor might need to make even more room on his mantle after this year’s Oscars, considering he and Ross have also provided the music for two potential contenders, Pixar’s Soul and David Fincher’s Mank. Reznor might be the only person on the planet who’s actually having a good 2020.

In honor of Reznor’s achievements and well-deserved honor, I thought it might be fun to take a look at all the rock stars who have, like Reznor, turned their talents to movies after having first established themselves as musicians.

To narrow them down and make it totally subjective, here are my top 10 favorite movie scores that were composed by people who were or still are rock stars.

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Isolation Double Features

9 Movies to Remind You: It Could Be Worse

At the start of COVID, we thought it would be fun to keep track of how many days we’ve been locked down here in Los Angeles. Well, now that we’re on day 189, it’s not so fun anymore. In fact, it’s starting to feel a little like prison. 189 days is a long time to be physically cut off from the world. My mother just turned 80 and I couldn’t even hug her. So yes, I’ve needed the escape of movies as much as anyone, and films like Palm Springs and The Old Guard have helped a LOT. But even I have to admit that, sometimes, there’s something cathartic in watching a movie that taps into exactly what I’m feeling and brings my anxieties out into the open.

So, if watching all those movies with people doing old-fashioned things like hugging each other, eating in restaurants, walking in a crowd or taking a vacation has gotten you down, here are some suggestions for movie pairings that just might take the edge off your own stresses as you meet characters who have it so much worse than you. As Rita Coolidge sang, “we’re all alone,” and these movies revel in it.

LIFE OF PI (2012) & CAST AWAY (2000)

Two Oscar-winning directors are at the top of their game in these films that are as much about the awesome power of nature and an individual’s place in it than they are about survival. Life of Pi, for which Ang Lee won his second Oscar for directing (following his 2005 win for Brokeback Mountain), is a visual feast of a film, relying heavily on incredible CGI to help create this masterpiece of imagination and adventure. After Pi (Suraj Sharma) is caught in a storm while crossing the ocean with his family’s zoo, he ends up in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, with whom he embarks on a fantastical survival story. That’s pretty much the story of Life of Pi: how a boy and a tiger survive together on the open ocean. But the experience of Life of Pi is how this simple tale becomes a visual extravaganza, courtesy of Lee’s adventurous filmmaking, that fantastic CGI team, and Claudio Miranda’s gorgeous cinematography. It is a feast for the senses, a ballet of special effects against a canvas of sky and water, a dreamlike kaleidoscope of nature and fantasy. But nature isn’t always pretty and there is a lot of suffering in this film, as there would be. But trust Lee to never wallow in it, instead he revels in nature’s beauty and amazing capacity for transformation, inspiration and connection. This movie is so rich with interpretive possibilities—the definition of a parable, which it is—but the part that is undeniable is the outsized and emotionally riveting cinematic achievement that it is.

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Kajillionaire

Focus Features

A friend of mine loves movies about dysfunctional families. It seemed strange to me at first to have such a niche obsession, but the more I thought about it, it made sense. Messed up families are dramatic, entertaining, and even more relatable than romance. We don’t all have a passionate love affair, but most every one of us has some sort of family drama. From Ordinary People to The Royal Tenenbaums to Hereditary, a cinematic dysfunctional family has long been a staple in Hollywood, in every genre. But just when you think you may have seen them all, along comes Kajillionaire.

Written and directed by Miranda July, Kajillionaire is about a mother, father and their 26-year old daughter who are struggling to get by in Los Angeles. With barely a place to live and always desperate for cash, they spend all day every day coming up with schemes for making money, most of them elaborate and hard-to-trace, often not even illegal, but always at least unethical. The daughter, Old Dolio, played by Evan Rachel Wood, is the designated operative to carry out the schemes, but she doesn’t enjoy it.

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Enola Holmes

Netflix
If the success of the Harry Potter franchise taught us anything, it’s that there is an audience for well-made films aimed at young audiences. Historically speaking, films for young adults and families were mostly relegated to Sunday night TV, but Harry Potter’s success reminded Hollywood that there is an audience out there that falls somewhere between Pixar and Marvel. The tweens need love, too!

Netflix’s new family-friendly adventure, Enola Holmes, directed by Harry Bradbeer, launches itself headlong into the young adult fray, blending sophisticated style, classic literary references and a thoroughly modernist sensibility into an enjoyable confection for the whole family. Based on the series of books by Nancy Springer, Enola Holmes stars Millie Bobby Brown as Sherlock Holmes’s younger sister, Enola, a character invented by Springer. As the movie explains, Enola, 20 years younger than her brothers Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin), grew up with her forward-thinking and independent mother (Helena Bonham Carter) in their large house in the English countryside. Enola is raised to be a smart, strong and independent woman, with a range of interests and skills. She and her mother are extremely close, but when Enola wakes up on the morning of her 16th birthday and finds her mother has disappeared, she is both heartbroken and confused. But by the time her two older brothers arrive to accept their responsibility for their younger sister, who is now in their care, Enola has figured out that her mother didn’t just leave without a trace. She instead left clues for Enola to decipher, clues to where her mother has gone and why.

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