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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘Leo Grande,’ ‘Phantom of the Open,’ and ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth’

Emma Thompson, Mark Rylance, Dakota Johnson and some fresh faces shine in a trio of movies for grownups.

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Daryl McCormack and Emma Thompson in “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.”

IT’S NOT ALL DOOM and gloom and body horror and dinosaurs and fighter jets out there in movieland. Believe it or not, they still make movies for grownups that don’t make you want to stick your head in the sand. They’re not all masterpieces, but these days they’re enough of a novelty to merit notice.

Of course, these films can’t all be seen in theaters, which seem to have largely given up on luring anyone over the age of 30. Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, for instance, is debuting exclusively on Hulu, even though it’s a Searchlight Pictures production. (See also: the entertaining queer romcom Fire Island, which bowed on the same platform last week.)

The Leo Grande of the title is a young man who has been hired by widowed schoolteacher Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson) to provide her with some of the sexual fulfillment she missed out on during her 31-year, mandatory-missionary marriage. Over the course of four meetings in the same hotel room, Nancy and Leo (Daryl McCormack) gradually reveal themselves to each other, physically and otherwise, resulting in a film that treats with refreshing respect a pair of populations: women on the other side of middle age and sex workers.

It’s essentially a two-handed, one-location tale, so the focus falls hard on both Thompson, a legend, and McCormack, a movie newcomer previously best known for a role on Peaky Blinders. Thompson, for her part, performs a fascinating figurative striptease, starting off as a recognizable iteration of a character she’s played many times and ending up as something much rawer and braver. McCormack, impressively enough, matches her, as Leo initially appears to be an idealized, even angelic example of his profession until some of the cracks in his façade begin to show as well.

Which is not to say the movie treats their perspectives equally. Leo Grande is the first produced screenplay written by British comic actor Katy Brand, and is the third feature directed by Australian filmmaker Sophie Hyde, both of whom are women. Despite its title, this is Nancy’s story, and it’s one that almost never gets told in commercial films. She’s an utterly mainstream figure at first blush, having taught religious studies and raised two apparently successful children. But she’s empty inside, and what Leo Grande makes more explicit than other similar stories is that this emptiness is intimately connected to the fact that she’s never had an orgasm.

There’s been a fair amount of conversation recently about why Hollywood films have shied away from depicting sex on screen in recent years. One theory is that this stems from (a) the ready availability of online pornography, which makes mainstream sex scenes almost vestigial for purposes of titillation and (b) the abandonment by film studios of Serious Adult Dramas. Leo Grande may not address that first issue, but, even at home, helps to make up for the second. (Good Luck to You, Leo Grande premieres on Hulu on June 17.)

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ANOTHER OSCAR-WINNING 62-year-old, Mark Rylance, gets a chance to shine in Phantom of the Open, a goofy, heartwarming, fact-based comedy that, thanks to its star, is much more painless to watch than it had any right to be.

This is the previously unknown (at least to me) story of Maurice Flitcroft, a chain-smoking crane operator from Northwest England who decided to take up golf and ended up garnering the worst score ever (121) in a qualifying round for the British Open in 1976. Undeterred, he continued to thumb his nose at the sport’s elitist gatekeepers and humorless officials by returning, often in disguise, to future tournaments.

Rylance’s winning performance is somewhat reminiscent of his more malignant recent turn as a childlike tech lord in Don’t Look Up. Maurice is blissfully unaware of the odds against a man who innocently scams his way into a major tournament despite literally never having played an actual round of golf. It’s his guilelessness and, eventually, gentle persistence that endear him to us.

Maurice’s motto is “practice is the road to perfection,” and even though he never really (at least in the film) puts in much of the former, we’re still on his side against the stuffy powers that be who fail to appreciate the human qualities he embodies. Of course, no quixotic male would be complete without an endlessly supportive wife, and the terminally underused Sally Hawkins takes that job here.

Adding to the quirk factor is the fact that Maurice’s twin sons are competitive disco dancers (this is the ’70s, after all) whom he inspired and encourages to follow their dreams as he follows his. Maurice’s older stepson, on the other hand, is the closest thing to a true antagonist, an aspiring white-collar twerp who’s furious that his father’s antics might spoil his reputation.

In short, there’s nothing remotely challenging or revolutionary here, just your typical slobs-versus-snobs sports story (remember Wolverine and Elton John in Eddie the Eagle?) done with legitimate heart and a solid performance at its core. It’s no masterpiece, but only a true curmudgeon could hate it. (Opens Friday, June 17 at Living Room Theaters)

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THE DEMOGRAPHIC FOR Cha Cha Real Smooth is younger, but the movie falls in the same middlebrow ravine that threatens to doom movies like Leo Grande and Phantom of the Open to unwarranted obscurity. The second feature from actor-writer-director Cooper Raiff is an above-average example of the post-Graduate delayed-adulthood genre that spawned Sundance sensations such as Garden State and Beautiful Girls. Recent college grad Andrew (Raiff), having failed to launch, is living at home with his mom (Leslie Mann), stepdad (Brad Garrett), and younger brother David (Evan Assante). His college girlfriend is in Barcelona, and Andrew is relegated to sleeping on a mattress on the floor in his 13-year-old sibling’s room.

What could bring our sad sack protagonist out of his malaise? While attending the bar mitzvah of one of his brother’s friends, Andrew intercedes on behalf of the event’s lame deejay and succeeds in getting the shy, awkward teens out on the dance floor. Soon, he’s been recruited by all the Jewish moms in town as their new party-prompter, a gig that definitely beats his current gig working at the local shopping mall’s version of Hot Dog on a Stick.

An even more enticing distraction from Andrew’s tedium comes in the form of Domino (Dakota Johnson), a stunning but melancholy young mother, and her autistic daughter, Lola (Vanessa Berghardt). Impressed by Andrew’s ability to get Lola out of her shell, Domino hires him to be her babysitter. Turns out Domino’s married, but her lawyer husband is usually in Chicago. You can see where this might be heading.

Reiff’s screenplay and on-screen persona are reminiscent of another actor/writer/director with a pair of f’s at the end of his name, but he’s equipped with more self-awareness and empathy than Zach Braff generally exhibits on screen. It’s Johnson, though, who makes Cha Cha Real Smooth more than the sum of its parts. Her nuanced, beguiling, sometimes rueful performance is another indication that, after achieving stardom in Fifty Shades of Gray, Tippi Hedren’s granddaughter (!) has leveraged that recognition into a very promising career. (Opens Friday, June 17, at Cinema 21; also streaming via Apple TV+)

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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