Sincere, Silly ‘Godmothered’ a Refreshingly Original Comedy for Disney+

Godmothered is a gift. Not only is it entertaining for children, who deserve all the good things coming their way this holiday season, but for anyone thinking their Happily Ever After has passed them by. That may sound like classic Disney (and it is) but Jillian Bell as a Fairy-Godmother-in-Training is exactly the kind of silly, sweet film that, much like a fairy godmother herself, appears when we need it most. 

Writers Kari Granlund and Melissa Stack open their story in the Motherland, where all practicing fairy godmothers (including a riotously funny June Squibb) are out of work and on the brink of closing. Enter Eleanor, a young and energetic trainee who finds a letter from a 10-year-old girl longing for her storybook ending. Determined to make little Mackenzie’s dreams come true, Eleanor boldly ventures through a portal to the mortal world – Boston, to be exact – only to find that the little girl is now a 40-year-old single mom (Isla Fisher) tirelessly working at a news station. 

In the same vein as Elf or Enchanted, whimsical Eleanor barges into the dull, downtrodden life of Mackenzie, her daughters (Jillian Shea Spaeder, Willa Skye) and her helpful sister (Mary Elizabeth Ellis). Using the magical spells she remembers from training, she turns dogs into pigs, raccoons into handymen and even brings viral video material into Mackenzie’s workplace. The fish-out-of-water story is suited for Bell, who makes little moments like pronouncing Massachusetts “Massa-ca-hoo-setts” and mistaking pilates for pirates funnier than they ever would be on the page. Older audiences will appreciate an entire sequence of Eleanor playing pool, sipping a lemon drop and marveling at the magical elixir that is light beer. The actress’ natural comedic ability carries the film from beginning to end, a perfect foil for endearing straight man Fisher and brilliant, veteran co-star Jane Curtin (the film’s beehived-hair “villain”). 

Together with director Sharon Maguire (Bridget Jones’ Diary, Bridget Jones’ Baby) Godmothered serves as a reminder that living happily might be just as good as a typical “happily ever after” girls have been taught to aspire to. Not everyone’s true love looks the same – to send that message to the young eyes on Disney+ is why the company remains the best at what they do. Their tried-and-true formula is elevated here with a Christmastime setting, a memorable soundtrack and modern themes of love, grief and courage to keep going. While reminiscent of a bygone 1990s era, the film is refreshingly original – like I said, a gift. 

Godmothered is available December 4 on Disney+. 

Jillian Bell as Eleanor in GODMOTHERED, exclusively on Disney+.
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Hillbilly Elegy is a Family Story, Not a Political Statement

There’s a moment in Hillbilly Elegy where Glenn Close, disguised as elderly, disgruntled Mamaw, tells her grandson that she loves The Terminator, “There are good terminators, bad terminators and neutrals.” The film’s theme proves the opposite: people are typically a mix of all three. Based on J.D. Vance’s best-selling autobiography that follows his tumultuous upbringing in Middletown, Ohio, this Netflix adaptation from writer Vanessa Taylor and director Ron Howard shows the effort and willingness it takes to break a cycle of unhealthy familial behavior. 

Contrary to the criticism Vance’s story has received in a time when the country is so morally divided, one side fighting for lives to be saved, the other side fighting for lower taxes and the demise of democracy, those feelings can be put aside to focus on the central story being told. Hillbilly Elegy is more of a character study than a political statement. Gabriel Basso (Super 8, The Kings of Summer) plays 26-year-old J.D., a Yale law student working three jobs and preparing for a make-or-break interview for an internship. When he receives a call from his sister Lindsay (Haley Bennett) with the news that their mom Bev (Amy Adams) overdosed, he has to drive home, help his family and make it back in time for the meeting. 

The ticking clock creates a framework for J.D.’s story as the film flashes back to his late-90s youth where we get a clearer view into Bev’s erratic mothering style. Unsurprisingly, Adams convincingly embodies a troubled, drug-addicted woman whose demons overshadow any glimpses of perspective and level-headedness. One minute she’s painting Easter eggs with J.D. and the next, she’s slapping him in the face with full-on rage. The immediate flip of the mood switch is unsettling, purposefully so, for viewers, J.D. and Mamaw, whose own parenting regrets bubble to the surface. While the film could have delved deeper into Mamaw’s backstory, it’s merely implied that shockingly terrible parenting is a generational trait. She tries to atone for her past by molding her grandson’s future, taking J.D. into her own custody and reinforcing the importance of education and discipline. 

Amy Adams (“Bev”). Photo Cr. Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX © 2020

His success makes his return home all the more conflicting and relatable for people who have escaped the grip of traumatic childhoods. How do you balance inherent love for your family and respect for yourself? Perhaps the answer to that question and the hero of the story (to this viewer, at least) is Lindsay Vance, a type of woman rarely depicted in mainstream movies – a loving mother who works at a shoe store to make ends meet while raising children and taking care of her needy mess of a mother. She might not have attended an Ivy League school, but those accomplishments are just as admirable – and Bennett’s performance should not go unnoticed.

Screenwriter Taylor, whose credits include the Oscar-nominated The Shape of Water and Emmy-winning Game of Thrones, evokes a project from her early writing career in her script: Everwood, one of the most underrated family dramas of all time. In Hillbilly Elegy, there are shades of that show’s romantic maturity in J.D. and his girlfriend Usha (Freida Pinto). While most of their scenes are phone conversations, their dynamic offers viewers moments to breathe, to pause and to hope for a better future. That’s the message here, despite a cloud of controversy and biting cynicism from critics. This story is about the people who were there for you and the people you’ll be there for, even if it’s yourself.

Glenn Close (“Mamaw”). Photo Cr. Lacey Terrell/NETFLIX © 2020
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‘Dreamland’ released at right time, elevated by Margot Robbie and Finn Cole

Since Margot Robbie and Finn Cole were cast as leads in Dreamland, there’s been a global pandemic, two Oscar nominations and a trip back to post-war Birmingham. But at long last, this coming-of-age Dust Bowl drama from writer Nicolaas Zwart and director Miles Joris-Peyrafitte is brought to the big and small screen – at a time when people need new, escapism content the most.  And escapism is exactly where this Depression-era story starts. 

On the brink of adulthood, 17-year-old Eugene Evans dreams of a life outside the one he’s in – a tension-filled existence with his mother, half-sister and unkind stepfather. If only he had enough money and wherewithal to find his real father, the man that abandoned him long ago for the gulf shores of Mexico. Surprisingly, he finds the answers he’s looking for when he discovers a bloody, beautiful woman hiding in the family barn. With a $10,000 bounty on her, Allison Wells (Robbie) pleads her case to Eugene, tearfully explaining that she’s not a killer. Lucky for her, he listens.

Margot Robbie stars in DREAMLAND

The story unfolds in traditional, noir-like fashion with romance and violence and slow revelations. It’s comforting, almost, to watch a film that you can picture in black and white from the distinct era that was the golden age of cinema. Both actors fit that time, too, physically and in spirit. Though you could never tell from their convincing accents, neither actor is American, yet they easily slip into their all-American roles. Margot Robbie is an actress of her generation, her empathy evident in every role she takes, and while her chemistry with an equally-engaging Finn Cole doesn’t feel quite romantic (and maybe that was intentional) they’re a joy to watch on screen.

However predictable or unpredictable one might view the plot, it’s second to how Dreamland looks and feels. Cinematographer Lyle Vincent creates a work of art, from the way the sunlight touches the characters at just the right moment to the wide shots that capture the vastness of the plains. While I imagine every filmmaker is challenged by this pandemic, knowing the release of their film wouldn’t be “normal,” I think it works in their favor here. Watching this movie will feel a true change of scenery from people’s living rooms, not only in geography but in time. They’ll be reminded that each generation had an overall struggle, whether it’s the Dust Bowl or the Depression or war, nature or sickness and every person that has ever existed has their own dreamland.

In select theaters on November 13 and available on Premium Video-On-Demand and Digital November 17.

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Stunning Fourth Season of ‘The Crown’ Introduces Era of Princess Diana, Margaret Thatcher

As the holiday season approaches, Netflix gifts us Peter Morgan’s stunning fourth season of The Crown, raising the curtain on the 1980s when royal, political and marital turmoil dominated the lives of Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman), Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) and Lady Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin). With an overarching theme of proving oneself in a stifled, male-dominated world, the 10-episode season is another masterpiece in both storytelling and cinematic artistry. 

Queen Elizabeth II (OLIVIA COLMAN) and Prince Charles (JOSH O’CONNOR)

As the returning cast of characters circle the queen’s orbit (Tobias Menzies as the dull Duke of Edinburgh, Helena Bonham Carter as the justifiably bitter Princess Margaret), the plot is anchored by an unmarried Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) in love with a very married Camilla Parker Bowles. With mounting pressures to secure a future queen, he half-heartedly pursues a teenage Diana Spencer whose relatively anonymous life as a teacher’s aid is thrown into a tailspin of fame and flashing cameras. Personifying one of the most iconic figure of her time, 24-year-old Corrin portrays Princess Diana with natural, uncanny precision. From the iconic hair and costumes to the airy dialect and body language (movement director Polly Bennett also coached Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody), her essence of Diana’s fish-out-of-water struggles will garner deserving praise. 

Princess Diana (EMMA CORRIN)

O’Connor, too, is captivating with his embodiment of the curmudgeonly Prince of Wales in spirit and hunched stature. He and Corrin have more chemistry on screen, it seems, than the real-life couple ever did off of it. The Julian Jarrold-directed sixth episode, “Terra Nullius” finds new parents Charles and Diana on a tour of Australia during a rare, cordial time in their marriage. With a choreographed dance number accompanied by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ “I Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” the hour is a highlight, albeit a brief one as mounting isolation, jealousy and societal pressure close in on all sides.

Prince Charles (JOSH O’CONNOR)

Whatever creative liberties Morgan takes to drive Charles and Diana’s internal narratives forward is slightly more external with Margaret Thatcher. Personifying England’s first female prime minister, Gillian Anderson transforms into a strained, raspy-voiced political leader who makes Her Majesty look maternal. Their one-on-one meetings (referred to as “audiences”) cover Thatcher’s 11-year reign as she leads the country into the Falklands War, creating conflict with both the Queen and the Commonwealth. It’s a fascinating examination of leadership, particularly women, particularly these women at this time. 

Margaret Thatcher (GILLIAN ANDERSON)

Elizabeth remains the most compelling part of the story; a person who seems to find more compassion for people outside her inner circle than her next-of-kin. She even remains calm and collected when a troubled man breaks into Buckingham Palace and stands, bloody, at her bedside. It’s jarring but necessary to show how the Queen finally connected to the ignored, unwealthy everyman that Thatcher ignored for the sake of war. Perhaps it’s also Oscar-winner Colman’s inherent warmth coming through, like it did with predecessor Claire Foy, that makes it a bittersweet farewell to another extraordinary cast (the series will conclude with two more shortened seasons covering the turbulent, ultimately tragic nineties).

Until then, viewers have the best that dramatic storytelling has to offer in Season Four: morally ambiguous characters who share a similar, mutually exclusive burden of duty and happiness.

The Crown Season Four streams November 15 on Netflix.

Queen Elizabeth II (OLIVIA COLEMAN)
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‘Dash & Lily’ a delightful dose of holiday cheer

If the fates won’t allow us all to be together this Christmas, at least we get a dose of holiday cheer from Netflix with an eight-episode romantic comedy adaptation of Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s bestseller “Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares.” Starring captivating leads in subtle Austin Abrams and sparkly Midori Frances, Dash and Lily is far from the grim melodrama that has plagued young adult fiction in recent years. Perhaps that’s unsurprising coming from 21 Laps Entertainment where executive producers Shawn Levy and Josh Barry cultivate warm, inviting worlds we never want to leave – even if they’re upside down. 

MIDORI FRANCIS as LILY in DASH AND LILY Cr. ALISON COHEN ROSA/NETFLIX © 2020

Here, they team with showrunner Joe Tracz and singer Nick Jonas to create a joyful binge-watch, one that follows two teenagers around a bustling, pre-pandemic New York City. It’s that stunning backdrop that reminds us of the seemingly simple things we took for granted not so long ago – busy bookstores, crowded markets and chance encounters with strangers. In Nora Ephron-style fashion, joyful Lily and jaded Dash “meet” before they “meet” through a red notebook full of dares on a bookshelf of The Strand. She wants him to sing in public, he wants her to go clubbing – what may sound like superficial fodder for tweens and teenyboppers is actually reminiscent of WB days of old. It has depth to it – a real message about finding people who understand you and understanding yourself. 

AUSTIN ABRAMS as DASH in DASH AND LILY Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX/NETFLIX © 2020

As Dash, Lily and friends venture in and out of the city’s most aesthetically appealing settings like Grand Central Terminal, Bethesda Fountain and Washington Square Park (which Director of Photography Eric Treml captures beautifully), the story holds its own with enough equal amounts of charm and suspense to keep you watching. As they enjoy getting to know each other, we do, too. 

We learn their innermost thoughts through narration and who better to direct an internal monologue than Fred Savage? The answer is nobody. Nobody is better. His long career in acting and directing for comedy is evident here, as it is with the series’ other two talented directors, Brad Silberling and Pamela Romanowsky. They bring out the best in a solid cast of young actors, even the supporting cast in roles that break through the stereotypes of overly-invested sidekicks. Instead, they provide the bulk of the show’s humor – particularly an infectiously funny Dante Brown as Dash’s best friend, Boomer. His onscreen presence and genuine chemistry with Abrams is a highlight.

DANTE BROWN as BOOMER and AUSTIN ABRAMS as DASH in DASH AND LILY Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX/NETFLIX © 2020

And boy, is Abrams the highlight. Looking back on Levy’s career, he’s worked with actors on the cusp of their prolific notoriety (Rami Malek in Night at the Museum, Adam Driver in This Is Where I Leave You and Joe Keery in Stranger Things). Abrams easily joins that list; an actor whose name and face will become more recognizable to the masses in the coming years. Like Driver, mostly, Austin Abrams nails that unique blend of subtle and dry. That is why Midori Frances as energetic Lily is an endearing, compatible match. She plays Lily not as a caricature of an insecure 17-year-old but a realistic one, dealing with painfully awkward and disappointing moments she has to evoke through her eyes. Both actors do it so well.

MIDORI FRANCIS as LILY in DASH AND LILY Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX/NETFLIX © 2020

While the characters’ problems may seem trivial at times through the lens of 2020, it is of no fault to the production itself. “Right now it’s bittersweet for everyone to watch movies and shows set in a pre-Coronavirus world,” Levy said about Dash and Lily. “It feels like a time capsule. And certainly the bustle of New York City is a reminder of a simpler time. And I hope it’s also a reminder of a time that we will someday get back to.” 

Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow … and shows like this help. Dash and Lily is available November 10 on Netflix.

AUSTIN ABRAMS as DASH in DASH AND LILY Cr. ALISON COHEN ROSA/NETFLIX © 2020
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Sofia Coppola’s ‘On the Rocks’ Too Mellow Despite Promising Premise

While high expectations may be the culprit, the trifecta of writer/director Sofia Coppola, subtle and brilliant Bill Murray and equally subtle and brilliant Rashida Jones, On the Rocks, as a whole, is just too subtle for a feature-length film. Or, maybe, viewed through the 2020 lens of a pandemic where constant noise, news and vitriol is the norm, the film’s lack of energy feels  … unnerving, or, at the very least, unfamiliar. 

With a muted and moody aesthetic, the New York-set comedy/drama finds Laura (Jones) struggling in her professional life as a fiction writer, but even more so in her personal life, when the spark in her marriage to her husband (Marlon Wayans) seems nonexistent. While he’s traveling for work, she’s living in the mundane day-to-day of school drop offs, where she has to endure the tales of woe from another school mom (played by the underrated and always-funny Jenny Slate who nails the impression of a dramatic narcissist with masterful precision).  

Marlon Wayans, Rashida Jones, Alexandra Mary Reimer, Liyanna Muscat
Photo Courtesy of Apple

It isn’t until Laura finds another woman’s toiletry bag in her husband’s suitcase that the plot is set into a snails-paced motion. Enter: her womanizing, man-child father Felix (Murray, reteaming with Coppola 17 years after Lost in Translation) who convinces Laura that her husband is cheating on her. In buddy-comedy fashion (without, necessarily, the comedy) the two set out on a quest – to Mexico and back – to uncover said infidelity. 

The premise is promising, as are the lead actors whose extensive backgrounds in film and television have proven their abilities to elevate material with looks, reactions, line readings, etc. Together, they’re believable as father and daughter; a relationship more compelling than the aforementioned marriage on the rocks. But the tropes of a wife being deeply saddened that her husband bought an appliance for her birthday rather than jewelry feels … outdated? Or, again, maybe because the movie was made before the world shut down, it’s unfair to say that Laura’s problems aren’t worthy of our time. They are – but they mean less now.

On the Rocks is an Apple Original Films and A24 Release. 

In select theaters October 2 and on AppleTV+ starting October 23.

Rashida Jones
Photo Courtesy of Apple
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Doc on White House Photographer a Reminder of President Reagan, President Obama and Common Decency

“There’s no substitute for empathy. It is a foundational relationship between human beings.”

Pete Souza

One hundred ninety thousand people have died from Covid-19 in the United States – so far. On September 11, our country will honor and mourn the 2,977 lives lost on that horrific Tuesday in 2001. The coronavirus pandemic is equivalent to 9/11 happening every day for 64 days: 190,000 people are dead. Donald Trump is using the promise of a vaccine for political leverage after last week’s Atlantic article revealed he called Americans who died in war “suckers” and “losers.” Still, many American’s believe it’s fake news and proudly show off their Trump signs on their front lawns: Make America Great Again. 

If you are an empathetic human, a person with a soul and a shred of sanity, Dawn Porter’s documentary The Way I See It will remind you that you’re not wrong in feeling disgusted. We weren’t always this way: polarized, hateful, selfish. We weren’t.

Pete Souza, former photographer for President Barack Obama, at Capitol Theater in Madison, Wis. Oct. 26, 2019. Photo by Lauren Justice

Inspired by the New York Times #1 bestseller, the documentary follows a “historian with a camera,” White House Chief Photographer, Pete Souza. The film is a glimpse into his career as a proverbial fly on the wall of the Oval Office, capturing Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic President Barack Obama in their eight-year terms as Commander-in-Chief. While opposites in their political ideologies, both men had something in common, according to the one person who followed their every move: they were decent. In the visually stunning look-book of two political leaders, The Way I See It captures all the highs and lows, professional and personal, that the top job demands.

2/6/1984 President Reagan and Nancy Reagan in the limousine waving to the crowd in Dixon Illinois

There’s President Reagan, who inherently knew his angles from his career in Hollywood, knew what “looked good,” and took all the steps necessary to maintain the appearance of being in control, whether or not that was actually the case. But it’s the candid moments that Souza captures that show who Ronald Reagan was, and who he was to his beloved wife, First Lady Nancy Reagan. The most endearing and beautiful moments are snapshots of him spraying her with a garden hose, kissing her at the hospital and wrapping his arm around her; and the most heartbreaking, her standing beside his casket. These still images capture not only what it means to be president, but what it means to be human. All the happiness, all the grief and everything in between.

President Barack Obama participates in one in a series of meetings in the Situation Room of the White House discussing the mission against Osama bin Laden, May 1, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Perhaps the most “human” moments of Souza’s career are captured throughout his years photographing President Barack Obama, when he was invited to capture both the marvelous and the mundane; the situation room and the family room. The all-access pass for the respected photojournalist allowed Americans to see through Souza’s lens, an authentic window into a life of their country’s leader.

Images on the day of the Sandy Hook mass shooting are particularly haunting, cemented in time as Barack Obama prepares to address the nation as a president, while processing the news as a parent. It’s striking, more powerful than the moving image and will forever be a part of a dark day in American history. It’s images like these that history needs, however, to show who we were and what we went through, for better or worse.

President Barack Obama holds a meeting in the Oval Office to prep for a Quad Secure Video Teleconference (SVTC) in the Situation Room of the White House, Feb. 23, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

“Be ready for the fleeting moments,” Souza learned, “Both big and small.” His words throughout the documentary are as keenly observant and beautiful as his photographs.

The Way I See It shows the big and small – what it looked like when the President of the United States met with grieving families, hugged people who had lost their homes, conducted themselves with dignity and class while maintaining humor and humility. “That’s the way a president should behave,” Souza says.

While it seems many have forgotten what a president should be, this documentary is a nice reminder of what decency looked like not so long ago. We have proof. We have photographs. Thank you, Pete Souza.

The Way I See It airs October 9 at 10 pm ET / 9 pm CT on MSNBC.

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden talk with senior staff following a bilateral meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany in the Oval Office, Feb. 9, 2015.
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‘The Broken Hearts Gallery’ a Warm Welcome Back to the Movies

Geraldine Viswanathan is who we’ve been waiting for. Starring in writer/director Natalie Krinsky’s new romantic comedy The Broken Hearts Gallery, Viswanathan (Hala, Bad Education) takes a comedic turn as Lucy, a spunky 26-year-old New Yorker and borderline hoarder.

Surrounded by a diverse, comedically in-tune cast of supporting actors (Utkarsh Ambudkar, Phillipa Soo, Molly Gordon), the charming leading lady does Krinsky’s script justice. Although it follows a tried-and-true formula, the characters make this a refreshing modern romance. 

While most people line their bookshelves with photos, knick knacks or ticket stubs from a first date, art gallery assistant Lucy saves everything from every romantic relationship. They’re momentos of what she went through, even when they remind her of heartbreak. It isn’t until she meets Nick (Dacre Montgomery) that she takes these items out of her apartment bedroom and puts them on display as a pop-up art gallery in his soon-to-be-hotel. 

Dacre Montgomery and Geraldine Viswanathan star in TriStar Pictures’ BROKEN HEARTS GALLERY.

The visually rich film full of neon and eclectic art follows Lucy and Nick as they get to know each other and talk about their past, present and future. It’s both self-aware and sincere, a wink to the audience that this is, indeed, following tropes of montages and grand gestures, but there’s enough truth in it to make it seem plausible. 

While the two main leads do not have quite the same chemistry as of their romcom predecessors, Lucy’s friend group more than makes up for it. With Soo and Gordon, the typically one-dimensional side characters are fully formed “friends” who serve just as big of a purpose as the romance. An entire sequence dedicated to a murder-kareoke themed birthday party is a particular highlight; again, both satirical and endearing. 

Amanda (Molly Gordon) and Nadine (Phillipa Soo) try to help Lucy (Geraldine Viswanathan, center) feel better in TriStar Pictures’ THE BROKEN HEARTS GALLERY.

Krinsky’s lighthearted film (with Executive Producer Selena Gomez) feels necessary during these difficult times – not only because it’s new and entertaining, but because it gives young adults something to take their mind off the state of the world and, thankfully, it isn’t bogged down by impending doom or death like most YA films in recent years (See: Five Feet Apart, Chemical Hearts, etc.). The film’s dramatic undercurrent is serious, but it never overshadows the humor. In casting Geraldine Viswanathan and co., that humor is always at the forefront, making The Broken Hearts Gallery a warm welcome back to the movies. 

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A Treasure Untold: ‘Howard’ Doc Details Life of Prolific Disney Songwriter

As a child of the 90s, I can’t recall a time when I didn’t know the words to “Belle” and “Part of Your World” because they were a part of my world. While I don’t begrudge my five-year-old self for not investigating the inner workings of Disney Animation, I regret that it took me three decades to appreciate Howard Ashman, the creative musical mind behind A Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.

Now available on Disney+, Don Hahn’s documentary Howard honors the Oscar-winning songwriter’s life; one tragically cut short, yet eternally present every time someone sings about the baker with his tray, like always. 

Born in 1950, Baltimore-native Ashman grew up with a big imagination and love for musical theater, eventually opening his own off-off-Broadway company in a gritty 1980s New York. With personal struggles of homosexuality and pressure of creating a successful theater, he ultimately found the project that catapulted him into professional stability – an adaptation of Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors. The highs and lows of a career as a songwriter ultimately led him to Los Angeles, Disney Animation and his producing partner, multiple award-winning composer, Alan Menken. 

Howard Ashman and Jodie Benson record “A Part of Your World,” The Little Mermaid (1989)

What separates this film from a linear biopic of a prolific songwriter is the gut-wrenching undertone of the deadly AIDS crisis which, by 1989, had reached 100,000 cases in America. While statistics are easier to gloss over and numbers don’t exude emotion, individual people do. Howard Ashman’s talents and songwriting ability made the world a better, brighter place. His imagination to brought whole new worlds to life and made us care about 2D animated characters as they sang their way through underwater adventures and magic carpet rides. His premature death is a reminder of the gifts he gave the world in the limited time he had. Debuting at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, the now widely available documentary is appropriate to watch in a time when a pandemic ravages the world – another reminder that life is short, so write your song. Howard is now streaming on Disney+.

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken receiving their Oscars for The Little Mermaid.
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Josh and Donna: The One That Could Have Been?

Long before the global pandemic, people have been discovering The West Wing on Netflix or rediscovering their love for the political drama since it first aired on NBC from 1999-2006.

For me, a rewatch of Aaron Sorkin’s beloved series has brought joy, peace, entertainment and a passion for supporting “the good guys” before the November election. While so much has been written about the show (online, in print and in podcast) there is one key element that stands out to me on my rewatch: the (unresolved) love story between Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman and his Senior Assistant Donna Moss.

With the finest writing television has ever and probably will ever produce, combined with superb directing and chemistry between Bradley Whitford and Janel Moloney, the Josh/Donna dynamic was a rare feat in television: a slow burn romance that depended solely on dialogue in a workplace setting. 

Looking back, I would let them have a relationship.

Aaron Sorkin

While often pigeonholed as a Will-They-Or-Won’t-They couple of “best of TV” lists, their storylines are rarely discussed as seriously as the show’s politics – or discussed at all, with The West Wing Weekly podcast co-host Hrishi Hirway finding Sam Seaborn and Ainsley Hayes more interesting (if you can believe it). But as a viewer who relished in the marital-like nuances of Josh and Donna and fully understood how their relationship was a pivotal building block of the show’s success, it’s disappointing to remember the John Wells-era when their story took so sharp a detour that their characters became shells of their former intelligent, lovable, respectable selves.

Any scenes involving Donna Moss, mostly delegated to female writers like Debora Cahn and Lauren Schmidt, ventured out of Sorkin’s “keep it small” rule, sending her to the Gaza in a fiery car crash, dousing her in bitter resentment on a campaign trail and, if there were Josh and Donna scenes together, their verbal repertoire (despite Whiftord and Moloney’s best efforts) had little semblance of what Aaron Sorkin had mastered for 88 episodes. Whatever Josh needed, Donna gave him. Whatever Donna needed, Josh gave her. That’s how it worked. And it worked.

If, at the end of the acclaimed series’ fourth season, Sorkin and the studio had not been in contention over budgetary reasons and he and prolific director Thomas Schlamme had remained with the series – what could have been? Specifically, what would have become of Josh Lyman and Donna Moss? She still would have quit, but it wouldn’t look anything like it did in “Impact Winter.” 

Rather, Donna quitting would have been the turning point, the culmination. In an interview before The West Wing reunion panel at the 2016 ATX Festival, Sorkin says he regrets not putting Josh and Donna in a romantic relationship in the years that he ran the show. 

Today White House Correspondent Hallie Jackson directed her question to Whitford and Moloney, asking, “You had possibly the slowest burn romance. Was there ever a point where you were like, ‘Oh my gosh. Let’s just do this already.’?” To which Sorkin answered:

“That’s entirely my fault. I wrote the show for the first four years. Donna and Josh did not get together in the first four years and that’s my fault and the reason is why that the inspiration for the relationship between Donna and Josh is the relationship I have with my longtime, long-suffering assistant Lauren Lohman. And our relationship, the difference is, theirs is a flirtatious, romantic relationship – mine, with my assistant, is not.

And because of that, that was in the bloodstream of it, even if these guys didn’t know it, even if it wasn’t on the page, if I were to do it, if I were to have Josh and Donna get together, to me, personally, it felt slightly incestuous. But I know now looking back, and if I had it to do over, what I would have done – first of all, I should tell you that I’m very proud of everything that we did together, but there isn’t a single episode that we did that I wouldn’t love to get back and do again. If I had it to do over, some time after the second season, I would have given Donna a promotion, gotten her off of Josh’s desk, so now it wouldn’t have been such an inappropriate kind of thing and I would have let them have a relationship. And really good writers have proven to me that interesting things can happen after that.” 

On May 7, 2003, NBC aired the penultimate episode of The West Wing’s fourth season; “Commencement,” was written by Sorkin (his last two-parter before departing the series) and directed by longtime director Alex Graves, a man who first aided the Josh/Donna love story with the second glance at Donna in “In Excelsis Deo.” While people may remember this episode as the setup to Zoey Bartlet’s kidnapping and the invoking of the 25th Amendment, it also marked Donna frustratingly telling Amy Gardner (Mary-Louise Parker) “ … You have to GET Josh.” You also have to GET Josh and Donna. Because if she was in an accident, he wouldn’t stop for a beer. And if he was in an accident, she wouldn’t stop for red lights. That’s a bigger “I love you” than sliding a hotel key across a table, don’t you think?

Rather than watching the Season Five premiere, I’d suggest re-starting from the series from the beginning. You’ll get her answer.

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