The Phantom of the Open

Posted on June 9, 2022 at 5:45 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some strong language and smoking
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: Class issues are a theme in the movie
Date Released to Theaters: June 3, 2022
Date Released to DVD: August 30, 2022

Copyright Entertainment One 2022
I’m going to appropriate a term used for the mystery novels set in England where everyone sits down for tea with the vicar to discuss the latest clues — “cozies” — and use it for the Britain-set stories of irresistibly pixie-ish charm. And within that genre is a sub-genre that, to an American, seems quintessentially British. We all love our heroes, our risk-takers who succeed. But the understated British also love the goofy ones who pursue silly goals and sometimes fail spectacularly and do not seem to be bothered by it. Take “Eddie the Eagle,” for example, the Taron Edgerton film about the Olympic athlete who came in last in his event in the 1988 Olympics. Or those like Tim FitzHigham who rowed a bathtub across the English Channel. “The Phantom of the Open” is about a crane operator who decided to compete in the world’s oldest and most prestigious golfing competition, the British Open despite, among other drawbacks, never having actually played a round of golf. It is based on the real-life story of Maurice Flitcroft.

Mark Rylance, who also co-produced, pays Maurice, who was born in a small town where everyone works in the shipyard. During WWII he was evacuated to Scotland, where for the first time he saw other possibilities and was encouraged to discover and pursue his own dreams. He ended up back home and working at the shipyard, though. And he fell in love with a secretary there (Sally Hawkins as Jean), a single mother. They had twins and then everything pretty much stayed the same as the three boys grew up.

And then the political and economic changes led to “redundancies” (lay-offs) and for the first time Maurice had a chance to think about what dreams he might have. That was so far from his experience he first had to ask Jean to think of some. But then, one night, watching his first-ever television, he saw a golf match and a dream was born.

The British Open, as its name suggests, did not require any particular level of achievement or qualification, but the people who ran it just assumed that only world-class golfers would try to participate. Maurice avoided having to disclose his handicap (he had no idea what that was) by self-certifying as a professional, and that was all it took. And so, he found himself competing as the astonished onlookers, including the other golfers and the television audience, saw him, well, let’s just say the record he set was not for the lowest score.

This is a part made for Rylance, who is ideally suited to a character who may not be as naive as he appears. Director Craig Roberts gives the story a fairy tale quality, seeing Maurice as an innocent wandering through the big bad world and outsmarting those who live by traditional notions of class, power, and achievement, all to the bright and bouncy soundtrack of 70’s hits. Maurice is deferential and courteous but he is also unstoppable. Some people call his Quixotic efforts to play in the Open pranks or hoaxes. This movie comes down on the side of considering him a lovable eccentric. And it delivers with a heartwarming conclusion that — especially if you don’t follow the movie with a further investigation into the facts — might inspire you to dream a little bigger yourself.

Parents should know that this movie has some strong language, smoking and drinking.

Family discussion: Why do some people think of Maurice as a “legend?” Why was that his dream?

If you like this, try: “Eddie the Eagle” and clips of the real Maurice on YouTube

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Celebrate Lincoln’s Birthday with Great Family Films

Posted on February 12, 2022 at 6:00 am

Happy birthday, Abraham Lincoln!

lincoln photograph

Celebrate the birthday of our 16th President with some of the classic movies about his life. Reportedly, he has been portrayed more on screen than any other real-life character.  I was honored to be invited to participate in the 272-word project from the Abraham Lincoln Library in Springfield, Illinois.  Each of us was asked to contribute an essay that was, like the Gettysburg Address, just 272 words.  Here’s mine:

Two score and six years after the death of Abraham Lincoln, he was first portrayed in the brand-new medium of film. 102 years and over 300 films later, Lincoln has appeared on screen more than any other historical figure and more than any other character except for Sherlock Holmes. In 2013 alone there were three feature films about Abraham Lincoln, one with an Oscar-winning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, directed by Steven Spielberg. In another one, he was a vampire slayer. He has been portrayed by Henry Fonda (John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln,” Raymond Massey (“Abe Lincoln in Illinois”), Walter Huston (D.W. Griffith’s “Abraham Lincoln”), and Bing Crosby – in blackface (“Holiday Inn”). The movies have shown us Lincoln defending clients, mourning Ann Rutledge, courting Mary Todd, and serving as President. We have also seen him traveling through time with a couple of California teenagers in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and granting amnesty to Shirley Temple’s Confederate family in “The Littlest Rebel.”

Lincoln is appealingly iconic as a movie character, instantly recognizable as a symbol of America’s most cherished notion of ourselves: unpretentious but aspiring for a better world and able to find both the humor and integrity in troubled times. In every film appearance, even the silliest and most outlandish, he reminds us, as he did in The Gettysburg Address, of what is most essential in the American character: the search for justice.

PS My husband and I waited for two hours outdoors on a frozen January 1 to view the Emancipation Proclamation on its 150th anniversary. When I saw it, I wept. A security guard whispered, “I know how you feel.”

The Steven Spielberg epic, Lincoln is based on Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, with Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis.

Young Mr. Lincoln Directed by John Ford and starring Henry Fonda, this is an appealing look at Lincoln’s early law practice and his tragic romance with Ann Rutledge. Particularly exciting and moving are the scenes in the courtroom as Lincoln defends two brothers charged with murder. Both have refused to talk about what happened, each thinking he is protecting the other, and Lincoln has to find a way to prove their innocence.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois Raymond Massey in his signature role plays Lincoln from his days as a rail-splitter to his law practice and his debates with Stephen Douglas. Ruth Gordon plays his wife, Mary.

Gore Vidal’s Lincoln Sam Waterston and Mary Tyler Moore star in this miniseries that focuses on Lincoln’s political strategies and personal struggles.

Young_Mr_Lincoln_Henry_Fonda

Sandburg’s Lincoln Hal Holbrook plays Lincoln in this miniseries based on the biography by poet Carl Sandberg.

The History Channel has both a documentary and a miniseries about Lincoln.

I’m a huge fan of the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois. So is Conan O’Brien.

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American Underdog

Posted on December 18, 2021 at 12:00 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some language and thematic elements
Profanity: None
Violence/ Scariness: References to child abuse and injury, tragic death of parents, family conflicts
Diversity Issues: Disabled character
Date Released to Theaters: December 17, 2021

Anna Paquin as Brenda Warner and Zachary Levi as Kurt Warner in American Underdog: The Kurt Warner Story. Photo Credit: Michael Kubeisy
Kurt Warner dreamed big. He tells us that from the time he was a young boy watching Joe Montana on television, he wanted to be an MVP quarterback in a team that won the Super Bowl. Perhaps as much of a long shot, when he was in college he fell in love with Brenda, a divorced mother of two children, one disabled, and decided he was going to make a life and a family with her. Sometimes life is even cornier than the movies, and then they go ahead and make a movie about it anyway.

If there was ever a story to show that the difference between winners and quitters is that winners keep going just one day longer, it is the story of NFL Hall of Famer Kurt Warner, who was not even drafted into the NFL after college. Even after the only job he could get was stocking the shelves of a big box store, he did not give up on his dream. He did become a Super Bowl MVP quarterback, and he did make a life with Brenda. And now he and Brenda have produced this movie about what happens when you don’t give up.

Okay, so it is corny, but sometimes corny is fine. So, yes, there will be a rousing locker-room pep talk (though perhaps not from the person you might guess), and yes, people will say things like, “If this is your dream, you have to fight for it,” and “By all accounts, my dream, my story, is impossible,” and “It doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have someone to share it with.” Of course they will, because those things are true. It helps a lot when the talents in front of the camera are MVPs, too, “Shazam’s” Zachary Levi as Kurt and Oscar-winner Anna Paquin as Brenda, with a fourth quarter appearance by Dennis Quaid as Dick Vermeil, who had his own roundabout career path and thus was especially understanding. Levi is an immediately likable presence and he makes Kurt’s dream aspirational, not arrogant or selfish. Paquin brings strength and vulnerability to Brenda, showing us her fear of opening up her heart after a painful divorce and the essential support she gets from her faith in God. They keep us rooting for Kurt because it is clear his dream is based on giving the best of what he has. With any luck, this movie will do for some in the audience what Joe Montana did for Kurt, and inspire another generation to dream big and refuse to quit.

Parents should know that this movie includes some mild language, references to child abuse, and tragic deaths of parents.

Family discussion: What makes sports stories so inspiring? Why did Kurt join the Arena league and what did he learn there? What did Brenda learn from Kurt’s response to Zach? What is your most impossible dream?

If you like this, try: “The Engine” and “Rudy”

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The Tender Bar

Posted on December 16, 2021 at 3:21 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout and some sexual content
Profanity: Very strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: A lot of alcohol, scenes in a bar, drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Tense family confrontations, scuffles
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 17, 2021
Copyright Amazon Studios 2021

JR Moehringer’s bittersweet memoir has been turned into a tender movie by director George Clooney. Moehringer wrote about growing up with his single mother in a ramshackle house with a mostly loving but dysfunctional extended family, learning his most important lessons about life and manhood from his bartender uncle Charlie and the regulars at the Long Island bar, improbably named after Charles Dickens.

Ben Affleck reminds us of how good he can be with a subtle, understated performance as Uncle Charlie that conveys a great deal about the character with honestly and understanding. JR (played as a child by Daniel Ranieri) and his mother (a terrific Lily Rabe) drive up to her parents home with a sense of resignation, if not defeat. She and her siblings cannot seem to get away from the house where they grew up. JR’s dad is a radio announcer and disc jockey. He has no contact with his former wife and son and JR thinks of him as just a voice.

JR’s grandfather is grumpy and often harsh. Uncle Charlie has his own issues, but he is there for JR, encouraging in their conversations and giving him an example of a man who can be relied on. His scenes are by far the highlight of the film, which goes astray after JR achieves his mother’s most important goal and is admitted to Yale. The movie spends too much time on his first romance, which like many first heartbreaks, is not as life-defining as JR (both the character and the writer) think it is.

Affleck shines here, perhaps because he does not have to be a leading man who carries the film or his comfort in being directed by his friend George Clooney, perhaps because his best scenes are with a child, and, like his character, we can see how much of what he does is in support of his young scene partner. Clooney skillfully creates JR’s world so that we can see it as adults and also understand how the young JR sees it as well. Like the bar of the title, the film is an oasis of honesty and kindness.

Parents should know that this movie has very strong language and some crude sexual references and a sexual situation.

Family discussion: What were the most important lessons JR learned from his uncle? Who are your biggest influences outside your immediate family?

If you like this, try: the book and Mary Carr’s The Liar’s Club and the Diane Keaton-directed “Unstrung Heroes.”

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Being the Ricardos

Posted on December 9, 2021 at 5:36 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional confrontations
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: December 10, 2021

Copyright Amazon Studios 2021
Writer/director Aaron Sorkin takes three real-life potentially cataclysmic events in the life of America’s most famous celebrity couple and packs them into one high-intensity week for “Being the Ricardos,” with Oscar-winners Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball and Javier Bardem as Desi Arnaz. As title cards take us through each day of the week of production for an episode of “I Love Lucy,” from the table read on Monday, through the rehearsals, to the taping at the end of the week.

We get to see what an intense, challenging, and serious business producing 22 minutes of comedy is. Lucy, who explains to a director she thinks is third-rate that she is not like Danny Thomas, whose “Make Room for Daddy” show he had been working on. “He tells jokes,” she says with palpable irritation, “I am a physical comedian.” All around her are people who seem to be getting in the way of her vision for the show, whether it is grumpy William Frawley (J.K. Simmons), who plays Fred, Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), who feels neglected, or the television network and sponsors, who seem to think they can tell her what to do. But nothing oppresses her more than her own perfectionism. She just knows that there is some key to a dinner scene that will take it from cute to hilarious, and she just has to keep thinking about it until she can lock it in. “She’s working through beats all the time,” a character says. It is clear she will sacrifice almost anything including damaging her professional and personal relationships if that is what it takes to get every minute of the show exactly where it needs to be. We see in flashbacks her struggles as a starlet, with studios who did not know what to do with her so her roles were limited to “sticking my head in a frame, saying something biting, and going home.”

That is more than enough to occupy her full attention, but she is also facing three terrible threats, one to her show, one to her career, and one to her marriage.

It is the height of the “Red Scare,” and even the child actor on “Make Room for Danny” has had to sign a loyalty oath. Walter Winchell, the most powerful journalist in the country, has accused Lucille Ball of being a communist. In this era, even an whispered, unsubstantiated accusation of communism could mean being blacklisted, so that no jobs in movies, television, or radio would ever be offered again. “I Love Lucy” might be the most popular show on television, but it could be canceled overnight.

Another possible reason for canceling the show — Lucille Ball was pregnant. It is hard too understand for today’s audiences, but in those days not only did even real-life married couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz have separate twin beds on the show (as did every other married couple on television). For the purposes of television, sex did not exist, and the idea that a pregnancy might make audiences consider how it came about was unthinkable for the television network and the cigarette company sponsor. They tell Lucy that she can just stand behind things and go on as usual, pretending that the pregnancy did not exist. But she rightly believed that the audiences would be thrilled to experience the real-life and television pregnancy. (They did decide that the show would never include the actual word “pregnant,” however, using the euphemistic but not fooling anyone term “expecting.” by the way, they were also not allowed to use the word “lucky,” because it was the name of a rival brand of cigarettes.)

And then there is the most painful of all. A gossip magazine has published photos of what they say is Desi fooling around with other women. That puts at risk not only Lucy’s career but her marriage to the father of the child she already has and the one she is expecting.

I would love a world where Aaron Sorkin wrote everyone’s dialogue. Every sentence is perfectly composed. But the British have an expression “too clever by half” which I think of when he is both writer and director with no intermediary. The script is dazzling. The brilliance of the lines tips over into a quippiness that distracts us from the real conflicts and emotions that are going on. And there’s always an uncanny valley risk when even the best actors play real-life people whose faces and gestures and voices we know almost as well as we know our own family. The issues presented are engaging in their own terms and as reflections of our time but because of the impenetrable glossiness of the script it never does what Lucille Ball was so good at — making us love her.

Note: It is interesting that three of the biggest end-of-year films were made by adults about their parents: “Belfast,” “King Richard,” and this film, produced by Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz, Jr.

Parents should know that this movie includes very strong language, frank sexual references, including adultery, and a sexual situation.

Family discussion: Which problem was the most difficult? Which relationship was the most functional?

If you like this, try: “I Love Lucy” and the TCM podcast about Lucille Ball, “The Plot Thickens,” season three. This is the episode about the accusations of communism. Watch “The Big Street,” the tragic drama where she plays a showgirl loved by a busboy played by Henry Fonda. My favorite of her movie performances is in the Tracy-Hepburn film “Without Love,” where she plays a whip-smart Washington liaison.

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