FilmSpace at London Film Festival: A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood; Uncut Gems; The Irishman

Film critic Calum Cooper concludes his reviews for the 63rd London Film Festival. Wrapping up his reviews are Marielle Heller’s newest film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood, a new dramatic turn for Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems, and the latest from Martin Scorsese in The Irishman.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood – ★★★★☆

Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is so sweet, I felt like I needed an insulin shot afterwards. That sounds negative out of context, but then again I’ve always had a sweet tooth. I haven’t felt this warm and fuzzy during a film since Paddington 2. This could’ve easily fallen into the realms of sappiness, like so many do. But Marielle Heller’s touch is so genuine that it becomes a sheer pleasure to watch, and proof that Heller is one of the most exciting directors of her generation.

One could see this as a nice companion piece to the excellent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbour, given the subject matter. It is, but do not be mistaken, for the films are very different from each other. Matthew Rhys plays Lloyd Vogel, a journalist in for Esquire Magazine who, as the film puts it, is having a hard time forgiving. Although he loves his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) and their new son Gavin, he remains bitter towards his father Jerry (Chris Cooper), after a past occurrence severed their relationship. This has made Lloyd a hard-working, but cynical individual, earning the ire of those he writes about.

His boss calls him in to write an article on heroes. But the only person who agrees to be interviewed by Lloyd is the Children’s TV presenter Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks). Lloyd sees Rogers as corny and lame, but as he’s the only person who’s agreed, Lloyd doesn’t have a choice. Yet when he meets Rogers, the overwhelming kindness and understanding he is exposed to from Rogers and his world forces Lloyd to confront his own cynicism.

If a film could be made into a hug, then A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood would be the ideal candidate. What made Mr Rogers such a beloved figure was his ability to see the inherent potential in all people, young and old alike. Particularly with children however, he had a way of being able to talk to them on their level rather than down to them. Morgan Neville’s aforementioned documentary features someone who says that Rogers ‘never forgot how scary it is to be a child’.

Chances are you will come out of A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood either abundantly cheery or in a puddle of tears. But you will certainly come out feeling a little wiser and kinder of heart.

What Heller’s film recognises is that the fears we have as children don’t disappear, but galvanise as we get older. We get bigger and we seemingly become better at navigating emotion. But the world also gets bigger and with that comes pressure, expectation, and a critical self-awareness. The innocence and optimism we once had as children disappears, and in a world that’s more exposed to toxic masculinity and inherent cynicism, the kind Lloyd is exposed to and must move past.

Assisting Heller in deliverance of this message are terrific performances, and an even-handed and empathetic script from Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, as well as Heller’s own warmth and affection for Rogers. This is shown through the film’s cinematography and set design, which mimic the sets and style of Mr Roger’s Neighbourhood immaculately. The script, much like Rogers and his show, is compassionate and treats its characters, however negative their actions may be, as human beings with flaws but not beyond redemption or forgiveness. Like Rogers himself, it sees the inner goodness of the ordinary person, and Hanks giving a spot-on performance as the man himself elevates the exuberant charm and warm optimism of the film by tenfold.

Chances are you will come out of A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood either abundantly cheery or in a puddle of tears. But you will certainly come out feeling a little wiser and kinder of heart. I know I did. The film is living proof that sharing just an ounce of kindness goes a million miles, and in a world that’s more divided than ever, it’s precisely the sort of message we need. Yet, upon a re-watch in a more tranquil time, it will still serve as a stellar new addition to Marielle Heller’s already impressive filmography. I would not object to having her direct everything from now on.

Uncut Gems – ★★★★☆

I know it’s easily done when he makes rubbish like Jack & Jill and Grown Ups, but people forget that Adam Sandler is a very capable actor. You only have to look at films like Funny People, and especially Punch-Drunk Love to see him in top form. Uncut Gems allows Sandler to be dramatic once again, in an intense and absorbingly stressful new flick from the brothers behind Good Time.

Sandler plays Howard Ratner. He is a jewellery store owner who could tell you the precise worth of a diamond that’s fresh out of the ground, which he does when he comes across an Ethiopian uncut gem. But he’s deeply driven by money rather than passion, something which seems to have driven a wedge between him and his family. He is constantly scheming to make the most money, while also desperately dodging and making excuses to those he owes. When local gangsters come to collect, Ratner takes a colossal gamble on the uncut gem, a choice he cannot come back from.

Akin to their previous film Good Time, the Safdie Brothers have constructed an intricate narrative that’s designed to specifically challenge the lead character. It’s a clashing of numerous plotlines, with Ratner serving as the magnetic field that draws them all into the collision course. His family life falling apart, his extreme debts, an affair he has with his secretary, and his run-ins with local gangsters. Those ideas would make films on their own, but instead the Safdie Brothers compile them all together, all of which are a direct result of Ratner’s avarice, and the ridiculous lengths he’ll go to obtain wealth.

It’s not a pleasant film to watch. In fact it’s a deeply unpleasant film. But what keeps it thoroughly interesting all throughout the excessive nastiness the Safdie Brothers show off is the persistent level of tension that the Safdie Brothers wove into the narrative. Ratner is a despicable character, and yet we can’t help but watch him. We’re aware that so much of what happens to him is entirely his own fault, but his wit and quick-thinking nature, even when a gun is pointed at his face makes him unusually engaging.

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He’s a well-crafted character with huge flaws, and now must bear the brunt of his own greed. And because he now must suddenly deal with a colossal amount in a short space of time, he is forced to think more on his feet than he ever has done. It provides the audience with a constant stream of anxiety, as we’re left on the edge of our seats by a whirlwind of drastic actions and potentially devastating outcomes, never quite knowing whether or not we want to see Ratner win in the end.

So much of that comes down to Sandler and how utterly transformative he is in the role. Sandler bears the brunt of both the greed and bizarre charm that makes Ratner so fascinating to watch. He carries the dramatic weight of the role and story superbly, demonstrating his uncanny ability for the art of performing when placed under the right direction. Melancholic and slimy, but also as snappy and quick-witted as many other Sandler characters, this is Sandler’s best work since Punch-Drunk Love.

I don’t think Uncut Gems is quite as eloquently made as Good Time is, but it serves as a worthy companion piece. It’s juggling of different narrative threads does occasionally dizzy the audience and meander the focus. There’s also the poorly underwritten quality to many of the film’s female characters, with Idina Manzel in particular given criminally little to do as Ratner’s ex-wife.

Nevertheless, the film is a good example of how one performance can create as much investment in a story as the intelligent construction that goes into melding it. It’s stressful and intense in tone, but Sandler’s performance and the confident, stylish direction from the Safdie Brothers keep the film a compelling, if not necessarily easy, viewing experience. In the process it cements my wish to see Sandler do more dramatic work in the future.

The Irishman – ★★★★☆

As much as I enjoy Indie dramas and the occasional blockbuster, there’s truly something magical to getting a new Martin Scorsese film. The man really is one of the greatest, not just of his generation, but in the history of film. As such it is a thrill to have his latest movie close out another London Film Festival. It’s even more exhilarating to announce it as yet another triumph to add to Scorsese’s already extensive list.

Reuniting a golden trio of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci, the film is a biopic on mobster Frank Sheeran, aka ‘The Irishman’. De Niro plays Sheeran, an ex-WWII veteran who goes on to become a hitman, his past war experiences becoming especially useful in his new line of work. As the film opens, Sheeran is being questioned by police about his career as a hitman. With everyone else he knows now dead, Sheeran has no choice but to open up. Thus the film becomes a narrative told mostly through flashback, as we are taken through Sheeran’s life, and particularly his friendship with fellow mobster Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

You read a premise like that and it already has Scorsese’s fingerprints all over it. Mob stories with complex and engrossing lead characters, and a colossal runtime that makes sure to utilise every minute. You can tell it’s from the same mind as Goodfellas, even if you somehow don’t know who Scorsese is. However, it also feels like a much more reflective piece. The way the film embodies a sombre and self-aware tone is something that’s both fresh and exciting for Scorsese.

The Irishman is a terrific and bold piece of storytelling. A colossal melding pot of ambiguous morality and cold as ice tension, all expressed with the cleverness and drive of a filmmaker in their prime.

De Niro, Pacino and Pesci is anybody’s idea of a dream team, and Scorsese directs them all with natural precision. These legends have impeccable chemistry filled with humour, comradeship and tension. Pesci is in a surprisingly restrained role as the head of the Bufalino family, of whom Sheeran has ties to. Normally he’s the most threatening character in the film, but here he seems like someone who’d at least treat you to a drink before killing you. Pacino takes on the role of the sinister Hoffa, a man who takes all sorts of pride in the killings his minions make. Meanwhile, De Niro’s controlled lack of emotion reveals so much more about his character than explosive moments would. Here is a man who has killed in cold blood, and whose experiences have desensitised him to gruesome acts and ethics. He’s a fascinating individual, and by embodying him De Niro gives one of his best performances in years.

However, Scorsese did not achieve the street cred he has purely from gleaning good performances. It is also in the way he presents his story. The editing is top form, allowing for smooth transistions between past, present, and future – keeping the story linear and easy to follow in spite of its span across several decades. And Scorsese’s ability to draw both humour and intensity from a mere conversation remains as fresh as it did when he first wrote Mean Streets almost fifty years ago, with a key conversation about fish two thirds into the film serving as both a hilarious tangent and a frightening case of foreboding.

At its core, The Irishman is a tale on betrayal, violence, and the sacrificing of moral principles, with slithers of regret traced into it all. It contains the same energy that so many of Scorsese’s other mob films possess, although from the sombre tone the film adopts, it is clearly made by someone with more life experience. It runs for a long time at 210 minutes, and although I feel it could’ve lost some of this runtime, I would be lying if I said it felt its length. Music, cinematography, direction, writing and acting all come together to create what feels like an ode to Scorsese and his career – although, if reports are right, then this is thankfully far from the last we’ve seen of him.

In other words, The Irishman is a terrific and bold piece of storytelling. A colossal melding pot of ambiguous morality and cold as ice tension, all expressed with the cleverness and drive of a filmmaker in their prime. Many have used the word epic to describe the film, and I do not argue against it. A three and a half hour behemoth The Irishman may be, but it also encompasses the very essence of why Scorsese is the filmmaker he is. A thrilling end to another tremendous film festival.

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