I’m Still Standing!

Rocketman soars as high as a kite. Since Elton John is one of the greatest living musicians, it was only a matter of time before someone gave him a biopic. Turns out the singer had been wanting a movie based on his life story since the 2000’s. The timing couldn’t have been better for it to happen in 2019. Dexter Fletcher directed Rocketman a year after his uncredited work on Bohemian Rhapsody. Both musical biopics center around gay singers who dealt with a lot of personal struggles. Music manager John Reid also plays a part in both stories. Even more ironic is the fact that Taron Egerton was practically born to play Elton John. Though singers and/or actors like Justin Timberlake and Tom Hardy were considered, Egerton had a lot of bizarre connections to the singer.

Egerton already sang “I’m Still Standing” in Sing and John himself had a featured role in The Golden Circle. He also happened to work with Fletcher before on Eddie the Eagle. Kingsman director Matthew Vaughn encouraged the casting by becoming a co-producer. Edgerton pulls off the bespectacled look and every flamboyant outfit. Although I saw Bohemian Rhapsody in theaters, I chose not to do the same with Rocketman. Though I am a big fan of John’s songs, the R rating spoke for itself. Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman doesn’t hold back on the singer’s homosexuality or various addictions. The film explores his younger days as a piano prodigy and the strained relationship with his parents that led to him changing his name from Reginald Dwight to Elton John.

Bryce Dallas Howard is practically unrecognizable as his mother. As his star rises, John forms his longest lasting platonic relationship with songwriter Bernie Taupin played by Jamie Bell. His troubled love life includes abusive manager Reid played by Richard Madden, but his relationships with women are significantly downplayed. Rocketman is more of a fantasy with purposeful historic inaccuracies and stylish musical numbers for all his songs. Every performance is fun to watch, but Elton’s rehab visits and struggle to love himself are the heart of his life’s story. Which is why “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” won Best Original Song. And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time ’til anything tops Rocketman.

Rocketman

Elton John dressed up

Una Poca de Gracia

La Bamba brings music to life. Ritchie Valens was one of the most promising young singers who ever lived. His tragic death at 17 on “The Day the Music Died” left a lasting impact on the music industry. Though I never knew too much about his personal life. I only knew that my parents were big fans of the movie La Bamba. Lou Diamond Phillips shines as the Mexican American Richard Valenzuela. The film covers his entire rags to riches story as he moves to California with his family. Ritchie has big dreams to one day become a successful musician.

La Bamba does an excellent job balancing his career with the relationships he forms along the way. His mother is very supportive, but his troubled half-brother Bob is always in his shadow. Esai Morales steals many scenes with his alcoholism, drug abuse, mistreatment of girlfriend Rosie, and failed dream to become a cartoonist. Ritchie’s relationship with high school sweetheart Donna Ludwig inspires his hit song “Donna.” Together they deal with her racist father, but the late 50’s are surprisingly kind to their romance.

Joe Pantoliano is Ritchie Valens’ manager who gives him his stage name and makes him a star. Though I recognize songs like “Come On, Let’s Go” and “Donna,” “La Bamba” will always be his biggest hit. Los Lobos perform Valens’ songs per the families request. Of course I knew the fateful flight with Buddy Holly and “The Big Bopper” was coming since Ritchie is haunted by recurring nightmares of a plane crash. The music may have died February 3, 1959, but La Bamba made sure Ritchie Valens’ legacy would live on.

La Bamba

Ritchie Valens performs on American Bandstand

Formula 1

Rush is a 2 hour long adrenaline rush. I’m not a racing expert, but I stand by my philosophy that a good movie can make anything interesting. Though I’ll admit I primarily watched Rush because I assumed it would be a top Oscar contender. You have Academy Award winning director Ron Howard, the biographical angle, and strong reviews from critics. Yet Rush wasn’t nominated for a single Oscar. Just 2 Golden Globe nominations for Best Motion Picture – Drama and Supporting Actor.

I’ll further admit that Chris Hemsworth was another major draw for me. It doesn’t help that he looks exactly like Thor without a beard. I guess he was kind of typecast with long hair for awhile. Rush explores the Hunt-Lauda sports rivalry of the 1970’s. James Hunt is a British Formula 1 racer who drives a McLaren. Niki Lauda is an Austrian Formula 1 racer who drives a Ferrari. Though the film doesn’t stray away from their mutual admiration for one another, a heated rivalry makes better conflict. Chris Hemsworth gives his all to a more dramatic performance and Daniel Brühl made his presence known.

Imagine Thor racing against Baron Zemo. Both racers are driven to outclass each other and they couldn’t be more different. Hunt is a partying playboy who indulges in drugs and sex (including a very naked confrontation with Natalie Dormer). Lauda is more levelheaded, though he does make a mistake that leads to severe burns. Olivia Wilde and Alexandra Maria Lara have a front row seat as their respective wives. Howard makes every race dramatic with fast cuts, slow motion, and moody lighting. Rush is an underrated slice of racing history.

Rush

James Hunt and Niki Lauda

Can You Say… Hero?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood keeps the message of Mr. Rogers alive. Although Won’t You Be My Neighbor? seemed like enough, the documentary was quickly followed by a biopic. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood was just as welcomed and touching in an entirely different way. Rather than follow his life story, Mr. Rogers is more of a supporting character to the man who wrote an Esquire article about him in 1998. “Can You Say… Hero?” was written by Tom Junod, but the movie is framed more like an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Right down to a classic PBS filming style and Neighborhood of Make-Believe props standing in for the city. Despite playing so many real life individuals already, Tom Hanks seamlessly pulls off the iconic red sweater. He still sounds like himself, but his soft speech pattern is pure Fred Rogers. Earning him another Best Supporting Actor nomination. Matthew Rhys plays the fictional Lloyd Vogel. A cynical writer loosely based on Junod who questions whether Mr. Rogers is genuine or not.

Lloyd himself deals with becoming a new father and coming to terms with the father who abandoned him. So Mr. Rogers uses his puppets, philosophy, and teachings in order to help him. Susan Kelechi Watson is Vogel’s wife whose more optimistic as a childhood fan of Mr. Rogers. Chris Cooper is Vogel’s father trying his best to connect with his son. Mr. Rogers manages to get through to Lloyd and teach a message of forgiveness along the way. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a beautiful film for these trying times.

Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Mr. Rogers changes his shoes

Unlock Your Imagination

Finding Neverland brings out the kid in all of us. Although I’ve always connected with Peter Pan, I never knew the story behind Neverland. I also never realized J. M. Barrie was a Scottish playwright living in London before creating Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. Although Finding Neverland was intended for release before the 2003 Peter Pan, it was pushed back to 2004 to avoid competition. Peter Pan (2003) unfortunately bombed, while Finding Neverland ended up with 7 Oscar nominations and 1 win for Best Original Score.

Nominations included Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction, Costume Design, Film Editing, and Best Actor for Johnny Depp. Though a conventional biopic performance, Depp nevertheless captures Barrie’s childlike imagination. Finding Neverland is very whimsical and heartfelt. It’s PG, but it can get a little heavy at times. Barrie gained most of his inspiration from the Llewelyn Davies boys. Kate Winslet plays Sylvia, the mother of four sons (original five) including George, Jack, Michael, and Peter.

Though society assumes the worst, all Barrie wants is to bring a little fun into their lives. Most of his attention is placed on the stubborn, unimaginative Peter who would inspire Pan. A young Freddie Highmore is so good in the part that Depp personally recommended him to Tim Burton a year before Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In case you wondered where that meme came from. Dustin Hoffman is ironically part of the cast, but no joke is made of him as Captain Hook. Seeing the unconventional play come to life feels like being a kid again. Finding Neverland brings a little magic into the world around us.

3. Finding Neverland

J. M. Barrie speaks with Peter

The Turing Machine

The Imitation Game highlights an often overlooked part of history. The 2015 Academy Awards is the first show where I watched every film nominated for Best Picture. The Imitation Game was last on my list, because I thought it would be boring. Little did I know how fascinating cryptography would be. Alan Turing was an English mathematician turned cryptanalyst who asked the important question “Can machines think?” His theory led to the invention of one of the earliest computers. Though Turing faced great difficulty as a homosexual in the middle of World War II.

The Imitation Game is a suitably thrilling war movie fought behind the scenes. Some complain that Turing’s sexuality is underplayed, but that’s not the key focus of the story. Any romantic feelings are hinted at during Turing’s school boy days. Benedict Cumberbatch proved himself as a serious Oscar contender. Although the film may not be 100% factual, Cumberbatch captures Turing as a socially awkward loner. He and other cryptographers are hired to break the Nazi Enigma machine. Which sends coded messages that could be vital in winning the war. So Turing built a machine capable of outthinking Enigma.

Equally important is Turing’s non-romantic relationship with Joan Clarke. Frequent historical actress Kiera Knightly was also nominated for her effort. Clarke faces her own share of adversity as the sole female cryptanalyst, but she forms a bound with Turing that helps complete his work. Of course the truth comes out and it is distressing to see Turing endure chemical castration. Although it cost him a great deal, Turing’s machine was a major victory for all involved. Making The Imitation Game a story worth telling.

The Imitation Game

Alan Turing and his machine

Ring of Fire

Walk the Line falls head first into the burning ring of fire that was Johnny Cash’s life. Like most great biopics, it walks a fine line between historical accuracy and cinematic flourish. I was never the biggest Johnny Cash expert, but I do love his classics like “Ring of Fire” and “I Walk the Line.” As well as his later more melancholy hits like “Hurt” or “The Man Comes Around.” The latter songs I only know thanks to Logan. Walk the Line is where director James Mangold first explored his appreciation for Johnny Cash. I learned so much about his often somber ups & downs that I was never aware of.

How he dealt with the tragic loss of his brother, fought for his father’s approval, and experienced substance abuse. Joaquin Phoenix nails a more subtle country accent, but sings with the exact brass-baritone of Cash. Just as authentic is Cash’s persistence at becoming a successful singer. He goes from gospel to country, becomes “The Man in Black” by pure happenstance, and does it all in Memphis, Tennessee. Since Cash became something of an outlaw, it only made sense to start the movie at the Folsom prison where he performed.

Just as important is the love story between Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter. Depicting a romance between a married man is tricky, but Ginnifer Goodwin is given just as much attention as Cash’s first wife Vivian. As their marriage falls apart, Johnny and June slowly grow closer. I didn’t know much about fellow country singer June Carter, but Reese Witherspoon absolutely deserved her Best Actress Oscar win. Phoenix should’ve won too, but there’s just something about June’s comedy hiding her inner struggles. Walk the Line honors multiple one-of-a-kind talents.

Walk the Line

Johnny Cash performs with June Carter

If I Were a Boy

Boys Don’t Cry is the most transformative film of Hilary Swank’s career. Although I would’ve prefered seeing American Beauty win all five major Oscars, I completely understand Swank winning Best Actress. The Academy loves major transformations. No matter how controversial the subject matter is. Boys Don’t Cry is centered on real life transgender individual Brandon Teena. Although I rarely gravitate towards movies like this, I can still appreciate the performances, direction, and handling of tragic events. Transgender movies were almost unheard of in 1999.

Until director Kimberly Pierce learned about the story in college. Swank lost weight, cut her hair, and wore male clothing to effectively pass for Teena. The movie tries to focus on a love story and coming-of-age themes before the brutality comes in. Pierce uses several artistic techniques to represent confinement and longing. The Nebraska trailer park setting only emphasizes 1999’s fascination with escaping a mundane lifestyle. Teena tries to live like a boy, but several reckless decisions with rough male friends make things worse.

Eventually Teena falls in love with burnt out singer Lana Tisdel. Chloë Sevigny gives the second best performance that also deserved an Oscar nomination. There’s plenty of intense passion even if it isn’t entirely factually accurate. As I saw in the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, Boys Don’t Cry nearly received an NC-17 for its graphic sex scenes and inevitable assault. The latter is particularly hard to watch. Teena was later murdered by the same “friends” who committed the assault. Leading to a change in hate crime law. Boys Don’t Cry leaves a lasting impact.

Boys Don't Cry

Brandon Teena in a skate park

Horizontal, Vertical (水平垂直)

The Grandmaster is the more stylized approach to the Ip Man story. Although it’s a bit confusing, two seperate Ip Man movies were in production around 2008. A 2008 franchise starting one starring Donnie Yen and a 2013 standalone one starring Tony Leung Chiu-wai. I’ll always prefer Ip Man, but The Grandmaster did make me curious. I remember when it was nominated for 2 Oscars. Best Cinematography for Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai’s beautiful, mostly slow motion backdrops. Best Costume Design for its decades long period setting.

Unlike Ip Man, The Grandmaster severely condenses his life. To the point that many events are explained in narration and/or text. There’s not too much focus on his wife or children, the Second Sino-Japanese War is quick, Ip Man’s Wing Chun martial arts school is in the background, and Bruce Lee is just a boy who appears close to the end. So the movie’s biggest strength is action. Most of it focused on Grandmaster Ip Man teaching the importance of martial arts. There are fights in the rain, in the snow, and by a train.

A conflict between the South and the North leads to him facing many grandmasters. Those fights are much more close quarters. Tony Leung is fine as Ip Man, but we don’t really get to know him. He’s more distinguishable by his white fedora. A lot of the focus actually switches to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon actress Zhang Ziyi as Gong Er. She’s a Northern rival and possible mistress with a journey that takes up most of the film’s climax. The Grandmaster is artful, but not my preferred way to experience Ip Man.

The Grandmaster

Ip Man vs. Gong Er

The Student Becomes the Master (学生成为主人)

Ip Man 4: The Finale gave Grandmaster Ip Man a dignified send off. It was only a matter of time before this mostly biographical martial arts franchise came to an end. Donnie Yen returned one final time and gave it his all. After losing his wife, Ip Man is diagnosed with cancer in 1964. He fights through the pain and deliverers some of his fiercest Wing Chun. Danny Chan is a lot more prominent as Bruce Lee, but the movie still isn’t about him. Though he does have an awesome fight scene complete with nunchucks.

Lee invites Ip Man to San Francisco where most of the film takes place. So expect way more English than you’d expect from a Chinese production. The central theme is “father’s and their children.” Ip Man has a strained relationship with his son, but he still goes to America to find him a school. Tai Chi master Mr. Wan of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association appears to be the villain, but this franchise always leads me astray. The real enemy is discrimination. Something Wan’s daughter Yonah faces from an annoying rival cheerleader.

Ip Man takes her under his wing and defends their way of life. He fights Chinese masters, school bullies, and a racist drill instructor. Lee’s student Hartman is a US Marine who’s Chinese kung fu is mocked by the karate proficient Barton Geddes played by martial artist Scott Atkins. Ip Man defeats his brash sensi when he comes to Chinatown, then teaches Geddes a brutal lesson. Ip Man 4 never loses sight of what’s important with a genuinely heartfelt tribute to Ip Man’s finest moments. Ending with world famous Bruce Lee at his grandmaster’s funeral. Ip Man 4: The Finale is an honorable end.

5. Ip Man 4

Ip Man prepares to fight

Preceded by: Ip Man 3