If Beale Street Could Talk

Tish and Fonny, a young couple living in New York in the 1970s, decide to get married and have a baby, not necessarily in that order.  Things seem to be moving forward until Fonny is arrested for a crime he did not commit.   The political subtext of this movie — getting justice for a young black man is not so easy, especially when the star witness is a white policeman — kind of sneaks up on you.  By the time you realize what the story is really about, you have identified with the characters, and see things through their eyes – a significant achievement.

Stealing Beauty

After the death of her mother, 19-year old Lucy travels to an Italian country house  to have her picture painted by an old friend of her mother.  Her real goals are (1) to lose her virginity and (2) to discover the identity of her biological father.  A pool is involved.  Comparisons to A Bigger Splash are irresistible.

The story here is much more interesting. It soon becomes apparent that many people in the area have memories of her mother, although not necessarily the one she is looking for.  Like most films by Bertolucci, this one is beautifully filmed, and the characters are varied and interesting.  One scene involves a party at a nearby villa which is Fellini-esque in it weirdness.  And the scene where Lucy finally loses her virginity is honestly and sensitively done — never mind that that the director was a middle-aged man.

The supporting cast is very strong — Jeremy Irons as a wise old gay guy, Sinead Cusack (Irons’ real-life wife) here playing the wife of someone else, and a bunch of veteran British and Italian actors. The problem is that Liv Tyler, who plays Lucy, really isn’t that good an actress — her attempts to communicate emotional depth are limited to vacant stares,  You almost want to airlift Dakota Johnson in from my previously reviewed movie (A Bigger Splash).

If you like looking at Italian scenery (with pools!) this one is worth seeing. Otherwise, not so much.

The Night Of (HBO)

Naz Khan, a Pakistani-American college student in NY, “borrows” his father’s cab to go to a party in Manhattan.  On the way, he sees a pretty lady looking for a ride, and he decides to pick up a “fare.”  One thing leads to another, and he winds up going to her apartment, doing way too much booze and drugs.  He wakes up, in the middle of the night, and finds out that pretty lady has been viciously stabbed in her bed.   Panicking, he runs, gets back in the cab, makes an illegal left turn, and gets stopped by the police.  Pretty soon, he’s the prime suspect in the girl’s murder.

Although the mini-series appears to be a routine murder mystery, it is more of an examination of the American judicial system, particularly as it plays out with respect to poor or unsophisticated defendants.  The police don’t bother to do a competent investigation, since the case appears open and shut.  Lacking good representation, Naz is denied bail and sent to Rikers Island, where is is mixed in with career criminals.  The big-firm lawyer who takes his case on a pro bono basis loses interest when Naz refuses a plea deal.

Steve Zaillian, the screenwriter, also wrote Schindler’s List, and the series benefits from a number of complex, very well drawn characters.  The prison scenes are particularly good and, I’m afraid, all too realistic.  The trial scenes are marred by what appear to be a lot of very basic errors — has no one heard of the hearsay rule?  For all I know, though, the low quality of the proceedings on both sides may be the norm for these kinds of cases, which may be part of the point.

This was originally a passion project for James Gandolfini, TV’s Tony Soprano.   After he died, the role of the jailhouse lawyer who eventually defends Naz was taken by John Turturro, a pretty good actor who lacks the emotional intensity Gandolfini might have brought to the role (a silly subplot involving panic-induced eczema doesn’t really substitute).  Riz Ahmed, a British actor, is very good as Naz.  And the supporting characters are generally excellent as well, particularly Michael Kenneth Williams (Omar in The Wire) who plays the Big Dog prisoner at Riker’s Island.

Worth seeing, but I’m not sure where (or when) it will be available if you don’t have HBO.

Bridge of Spies

The story of a negotiated exchange of a Russian spy for a captured US fighter pilot doesn’t sound like a promising topic for a movie, but this is an excellent film.  Spielberg at his best is an outstanding storyteller, and he’s found a good one here.

When Rudolf Abel was arrested for espionage in Brooklyn in 1957, the local Bar Association decided to assign him a lawyer (not a given, pre-Gideon) to demonstrate the moral superiority of The American Way.  They pick a local insurance defense lawyer, James Donovan, whose only criminal experience was at the Nuremberg trials.  Of course, this is all a bit disingenuous — the Bar wants the appearance of a defense, not a real one.  But Donovan doesn’t see it that way — he takes the case all the way to the Supreme Court.  And doing so doesn’t make him very popular, with the public or his law firm.

He loses, of course.  But along the way, he convinces the judge to give Abel a long prison sentence instead of the death penalty.  What if, suggests Donovan, they capture one of out guys — wouldn’t we like to have one of theirs “on the shelf” to trade?

Four years later, Francis Gary Powers is shot down in a U-2 spying over Russia, and the Russians do indeed seek a trade.  Donovan is tapped for the job of negotiating the exchange, on an “unofficial” basis.  Donovan decides to negotiate not just for Powers, but also for an American grad student, Frederick Pryor, who had recently been picked up by the East Germans.  The CIA is apopleptic — they don’t care about Pryor– but Donovan, a sort of genius negotiator, understands that his lack of official status actually gives him a lot of bargaining power.

The exchange on the bridge, shot on the actual bridge where the real-life exchange took place, is unexpectedly moving.

James Donovan is a stand-up guy, and nobody does stand-up guy better than Tom Hanks.  But the truly outstanding performance, in my mind, is that of Mark Rylance as Abel.  Most actors are larger-than-life individuals, and are at their best portraying larger-than-life characters.  But to be a successful spy like Abel, you have to be the kind of individual who totally blends into the scenery, whom nobody notices.  How Rylance accomplishes that feat I don’t know, but there are moments when he seems to totally disappear from the screen — even in courtroom scenes where you know he has to be there.  When he is part of a scene, of course, you can’t take your eyes off him.

The Coen Brothers wrote the screenplay — their slice of wry is a good balance to Spielberg’s sometimes schmaltzy tendencies.  And the movie-makers are alert to the ways certain parts of this story resonate with modern concerns, without hitting you over the head with them.

Historical note 1:  The movie begins with the dread “inspired by true events” tagline, which sometimes means they’ve made a total FUBAR out of the facts.  Not here though — after a little research, it appears that the movie sticks pretty close to the facts, and most of the changes (like the circumstances of Pryor’s capture) are peripheral to the main story. But many of the movie’s most surprising facts, like the comically inept FBI search of Abel’s apartment, and the fact the Donovan later negotiated a prisoner exchange following the Bay of Pigs debacle, are absolutely true.

The historical inaccuracies, such as they are, tend to be those are of omission.  Donovan was at Nuremberg in part because of the 3 years he spent at the OSS (the predecessor of the CIA) during WWII — he wasn’t a total newcomer to the spy business.  And the historically accurate hollowed-out nickels that the Russians used to transmit messages, shown at the beginning of the film, actually contributed to Abel’s capture.  One of Abel’s associates, less careful, accidentally used one of these hollow nickels to buy a newspaper, which led to his arrest; he ultimately ratted out Abel.

Historical note 2:  After Donovan wrote a book about the incident, in 1965, there was some thought about making it into a movie, with Gregory Peck (a previous generation’s stand-up guy) in the lead role.  The studios deemed it not commercially viable, however — Cold War tensions still ran too high.

Fun fact:  The rock band U2 was named after the high-altitude spy plane that figures in this movie.  Bono’s daughter, Eve Hewson, has a small part in this movie as Donovan’s daughter.


A young boy, orphaned by circumstance, lives in the secret passages of a large train station in 1920’s Paris. His story becomes entwined with that of George Melies, an early French filmmaker.

Hugo is fictional, but Melies is real, and many of the details about his life, even the strange story about some of his films being melted down for shoe heels, are historically accurate. Melies, who started as a magician, was apparently one of the first film-makers to appreciate the uses of special effects in movie-making, which makes him a particularly appropriate subject for this FX-driven film.

The visual imagery of this film, even in 2-D, is stunning.  Both the Escher-like maze of the train station, and the dreamscape Paris-that-never-was, are outstanding feats of creative imagination. The snippets of early films, primitive though they are, are as enchanting to us as they clearly were to Scorsese.  From the visual standpoint, Hugo is a triumph of modern movie-making, by a master at the top of his game.

The more traditional part of the movie — the story — is less successful.  Many of the smaller characters — the book-seller, the flower-seller, the old couple in the cafe with the dog — are well-drawn and quite charming, even with only a few minutes on screen.  Sacha Baron Cohen (better known as Borat), gives a surprisingy restrained performance as the stationmaster, broken in more ways than one.  And he gets some of the best lines — “I don’t like the cut of your jib, little man.”


Ben Kingsley, normally an outstanding actor, is little more than a cipher here.  His part is poorly written, but he doesn’t seem to have bothered to try and flesh it out. And the child actors playing Hugo and the young girl who befriends him are overly precious — they’re the Harry Potter kids, without the slice of wry. I cringed every time they were on screen.  As a result, there’s a hole where the emotional center of this movie should be.

Hugo is  a good film, worth seeing, and suitable for all but the youngest children (who might be creeped out by some of the chase scenes).  But it could have been a much better one.

The Borgias

Only two episodes, and already I hate it. There is a good story to be told here — the late 15th / early 16th C Popes invented modern Rome by getting its water supply under control, and patronized some of the greatest artists the world has ever seen (Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo) to boot. And Cesare Borgia (son of Pope Alexander VI) was the model for Machiavelli’s The Prince.  But the people responsible for this program couldn’t resist the soft-core porn — sex! poison! Sultans!  Lucrezia!  — which is a shame.

Jeremy Irons is good, and there are some fine actors in smaller roles (Derek Jacobi, Colm Feore).  But the real story would have been far more interesting.

The producers either couldn’t afford or couldn’t get permission to shoot in the Vatican (which wouldn’t be surprising), so much of the show is shot in Hungary — very disconcerting if you’ve been to Rome and know what these places are supposed to look like,