Chris Cooper

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood

10/02/20

The main problem with Marielle Henner’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood for UK audiences is one of recognition. TV presenter Mister Rogers was a key part of the formative years of millions of children across America. Imagine if you will, Brian Cant from Play Away and Geoffrey from Rainbow – bundled into one avuncular package – and you’ll have some idea of the kind of person we’re talking about. And who do you get to play one of the nicest guys in history? Well, Tom Hanks, obviously.

But actually this story is mostly about Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a journalist for Esquire magazine and a man with deep family issues – the kind that lead to him having a fist fight with his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper) at his sister’s wedding, for example. He’s clearly not a happy bunny. He’s also a new dad, struggling to come to terms with his baby son’s needs and leaving most of the heavy lifting to his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson).

When Lloyd is dispatched to interview and write a feature on the aforementioned Fred Rogers, he’s initially horrified. He’s more the kind of writer to pen a character assassination than a puff piece. He’s convinced that Rogers must have some dark and nasty secret. (Looking back at many of my childhood heroes, I’m with him on this one.) So imagine his surprise when it turns out that Fred Rogers is every bit as nice as his TV persona. Indeed, according to Rogers, there is no persona. What you see is what you get.

And the more Lloyd spends time with him, the more the hard-bitten journalist begins to heal…

This is a warm hug of a movie, which attempts to walk a perilous tightrope between emotion and corn (if it occasionally strays into the latter, well perhaps that’s just my cynical Brit personality kicking in). There’s actually quite a lot to like here. I particularly enjoy the use of shonky scale models whenever the proceedings venture outside – models like this were an integral ingredient of Mister Roger’s Neighbourhood – and there are nice performances from all concerned.

But, perhaps not surprisingly, it’s Hanks who takes the lion’s share of the attention here, portraying Fred Rogers as an intense, engimatic and (it must be said) faintly creepy guy, who appears to have the wisdom of the ages simmering quietly within him. Check out the moment when Fred and Lloyd enjoy ‘a minute’s silence’ in a cafe. For a very long space of time, Hanks just stares intently into the camera lens and somehow succeeds in giving me chills. Odd then, that his recent Oscar nomination was in the ‘best supporting actor’ category.

This is by no means a perfect film, and better knowledge of its subject matter would help no end, but it’s nonetheless worth catching, even if (like us, on this snowy Edinburgh afternoon) you have to walk through a blizzard to see it. A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood? That’s rich!

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Live By Night

18/01/17

Ben Affleck has already proved his worth as a director – Gone Baby Gone and Argo are just two examples that spring to mind – and adaptations of the novels of Dennis Lehane have already yielded cinematic gold on several occasions, so it’s hard to pin down exactly why Live By Night fails to measure up to expectation. It’s a handsomely mounted production, its 1920s setting lovingly evoked and there’s a stellar cast in evidence, with the likes of Brendan Gleeson, Chris Cooper and Elle Fanning submitting strong performances in what amount to little more than cameo roles. But there’s an overpowering conviction that the film is simply trying to cover too many bases for its own good, that a simpler, more linear narrative  would have exerted a stronger grip on its intended audience.

Affleck plays Irish-American Joe Coughlin, an ‘outlaw’ with his own moral code. As he puts it, he doesn’t mind working for gangsters, he just doesn’t want to be one. Which is, it has to be said,  a fairly nebulous difference. After a violent brush with New York Irish mob boss, Albert White (Robert Glenister), results in a lengthy stay in the chokey, Coughlin goes to work for the Italian mob, run by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) and finds himself relocating to Florida, where he becomes a major player in the burgeoning rum-running business. He also romances and marries Graciela (Zoe Saldana) and it begins to look as though a pleasant future is assured for both of them. But when Pescatore’s plans for a big casino go awry (largely because of Joe’s refusal to be as villainous as he actually needs to be), it soon becomes clear that there will be the inevitable deadly reckoning…

This is by no means a terrible film and, every now and then, events do spark into fitful life. An early car chase featuring vintage automobiles is decent enough and Elle Fanning’s role as a former heroin addict who turns to religion for salvation is briefly diverting, but too often events become bogged down in a lot of talking and not enough action. And the screenplay seems to want to have a bit of everything, involving as it does the Ku Klux Klan, Latin American swing music and whatever else happens to be wandering across the cinematic horizon. Even the film’s climactic shootout is followed by another half hour of loose ends being tied, all of which goes to dilute its appeal.

Which is a shame because it’s evident that much love and care has gone into the making of Live By Night. A stronger hand in the editing booth would probably have delivered a different viewing experience but, as it stands, this is to be filed under M for ‘Meh.’

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney