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Films

Biopics: Blithe and biting 

Prestige productions tell human stories worth your time
Mark Rylance in The Phantom of the Open. Photo credit Nick Wall. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Two 20th-century sons of England, separated by class and circumstance, make for two wildly different new movies. The contrast between the lives of Maurice Flitcroft and Siegfried Sassoon is reflected in the nature and tone of the biopics that tell their respective tales — one warm and comedic, the other dark and tragic. But both men are admirable in their way, trying to be true to themselves in the face of outside pressure, and both movies are prestige productions that deserve to be seen by appreciative audiences.

‘THE PHANTOM OF THE OPEN’

In a refreshing twist on the standard underdog sports story, The Phantom of the Open isn’t an inspiring drama about an athlete who overcomes the odds to emerge a winner in the crucial final scene. Instead, it’s the droll, mostly true account of Maurice Flitcroft, a kind-hearted working-class crane operator from the Northwest of England who is facing unemployment in mid-1970s due to company cutbacks. So he decides, on a whim, to embark upon a new career as a golfer. Through a series of mishaps, he’s permitted to play in the 1976 British Open Golf Championship despite minimal skill on the fairways. In fact, he had never played a full round of golf prior to the Open — and it shows. He’s pretty bad at it and doesn’t seem likely to get any better. Still, he persists.

The Phantom of the Open primarily focuses on how Flitcroft gets to the Open and what transpires afterward, while the heart of it is the man’s relationship to his family and to the friends in his corner. It could have been a lowbrow comedy relying on cheap shots, particularly when it depicts Flitcroft’s interactions with befuddled tournament officials, top-shelf professional golfers, and amateur country club players. But it takes Flitcroft’s passion and good intentions seriously, as does the cast led by the superb Mark Rylance. In the crucial role of the relentlessly cheerful, up-for-anything Flitcroft, Rylance carries much of the load throughout the movie. He’s perfectly matched up with Sally Hawkins, whose adept performance as Flitcroft’s devoted and determined wife, Jean, combines toughness and tenderness in equal measure. These award-winning actors — supported by the likes of Rhys Ifans as Flitcroft’s primary nemesis, a snooty Open administrator — bring depth and nuance to what is more than a simple crowd-pleaser.

Craig Roberts, sure of hand, directed Simon Farnaby’s wry, tidy script, which was based on the biography The Phantom of the Open: Maurice Flitcroft, The World’s Worst Golfer by Farnaby and Scott Murray. If the book’s title seems cruel and may be accurate, the screen adaptation presents Flitcroft as more role model than lovable loser: a caring husband to Jean, and a doting dad to their fun-loving twin boys and her more serious-minded son from a previous relationship. Rather than simply coming off as foolish in his fruitless campaign to be a successful golfer, Flitcroft — with his dogged refusal to give up on his dream despite his lack of athletic skill — ends up inadvertently inspiring people who also struggle with their limitations. And that is something laudable.

The Phantom of the Open opens in select theaters on June 3.

‘BENEDICTION’

A decorated British Army veteran of World War I, Siegfried Sassoon was nearly shattered by the mutilation and death he witnessed on the battlefield. He subsequently embraced a resolute antiwar stance that, in combination with his PTSD, landed him in a sanitarium and effectively ended his career as a soldier. But the poetry he wrote that reflected his wartime experiences and pacifist beliefs earned him respect in aristocratic and literary circles, where he also could also indulge in what was then known as “the love that dare not speak its name.” Heartbreak and the harsh realities of societal condemnation would force him to seek another path.

Sassoon’s harrowing personal journey is depicted in Benediction, the latest narrative from the accomplished Liverpool-born filmmaker Terence Davies, whose period dramas such as his memoir-infused The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives have earned plaudits for their depth and sensitivity. Davies’s expert direction and thoughtful script bring a murky, sometimes suffocating quality to Benediction that is in line with its protagonist’s life, which was not an easy ride. Even if Sassoon was respected for his war poems, spent some time in the rarified upper echelon of British society, and had affairs with a handful of men he fancied, he was tormented by the horrors of his military service and burdened by his homosexuality. Eventually, he buried his feelings, married a woman who admired him, had a son, and embraced religion, desperate to find peace, yet seemingly embittered by his choices.

Jack Lowden, recently one of the leads in the slyly amusing Amazon Prime espionage series Slow Horses, is thoroughly compelling as the noble, tormented young Sassoon. And Peter Capaldi, best known as the Twelfth Doctor on the long-running BBC sci-fi hit Doctor Who, does exemplary work as the elder, brooding Sassoon. Along with Lowden, Capaldi and a coterie of solid supporting players amid vivid settings, Davies mixes in archival footage from the trenches, vintage music and, most crucially, excerpts from Sassoon’s poems in voice-
over. The impact is almost overwhelming. In today’s world, where war rages on and human rights are continually threatened, the words Sassoon wrote decades ago continue to resonate, and Benediction offers them in tragic and memorable context.

Benediction opens in select theaters on June 3.

‘EMERGENCY’

And now for something completely different, contemporary, and definitely not British: Emergency, a canny and potent blend of collegiate high jinks and social commentary that doesn’t flinch when addressing the issue of ongoing racism in modern-day America. To be fair, Emergency is a movie that, like The Phantom of the Open and Benediction, concerns characters accepting who they are, despite the perceptions and expectations of others. That’s where the similarities end. When we join the action in Emergency, a couple of black seniors at a conventional liberal arts college are ready to hit a bunch of campus parties to kick off spring break. The guys are Kunle, a studious grind with grad school aspirations, and Sean, a slacker and stoner. Regardless of their differences and Sean’s tendency to be a questionable influence on Kunle, they are obviously best friends.

Excited at the promise of the night ahead, Kunle and Sean first make a pit stop at the house they share with their nerdy Hispanic gamer pal Carlos. But to their shock, they discover a drunk white young woman in the living room. Even worse, she’s fading in and out of consciousness. They have to do something, but the question instantly becomes how would cops or EMTs react to the sight of three brown males with an unconscious white female?

In a panic-driven frenzy, the trio decides to drag her into their van while they frantically argue how to get her somewhere safe. Kunle suggests the nearest hospital, but Sean, whose inner-city background has made him more — shall we say — cautious, wants to ditch her as soon as possible, like at the party where she probably got hammered. The odyssey that results is funny, nerve-wracking and thought-provoking. Carey Williams directed a savvy script from KD Davila in sharp and nimble fashion, juggling disparate elements that could have crashed and burned in lesser hands. But the heavy lifting was done by Donald Elise Watkins as Kunle, RJ Cyler as Sean, and Sebastian Chacon as Carlos — three up-and-coming actors who really make this trek roll.

Emergency is in theaters and available for streaming on demand.

Michael Snyder is a print and broadcast journalist who covers pop culture on  KGO Radio’s Mark Thompson Show and on Michael Snyder’s Culture Blast, via GABNet.net, Roku, iTunes, and YouTube. You can follow Michael on Twitter: @cultureblaster

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