The Booksellers


There is no joy quite like exploring an independent bookstore.

(2019) Documentary (GreenwichParker Posey (narrator), Fran Lebowitz, Gay Talese, David Bergman, Jim Cummins, Glenn Horowitz, Bibi Mohamed, Rebecca Romney, Saul Roll, Adam Weinberger, Henry Wessells, Michael Zinman, Cara Schlesinger, Caroline Schimmel, Susan Orlean, Beth Young, Adina Cohen, Arthur Fournier, Syreeta Gates, Heather O’Donnell. Directed by D.W. Young

 

As a boy and young man, I took a lot of joy in wandering around the dusty bookshelves of a used book store. It was the ultimate recycling center; a recycling of knowledge, of imagination and of possibility. I have always loved books and I love to read. I love to be transported to other places, other times, other points of view.

Many people no longer read books. When they do, they are on electronic devices. Some don’t have the time to peruse more than a paragraph or two. This is how and why knowledge gets lost; we’ve stopped taking the time to grow and expand…other than expanding our bellies and our butts, mind you. The joy of sitting down with a good book, a glass of wine and a roaring fire is being lost.

If you are the sort of person who thrills at the discovery of a new book, this is your movie and these are your people. As the title implies, the movie concerns itself with those who sell antique and used books. It is a bit New York-centric (although there are a couple of outliers from London) which is as it should be – New York has always been the world headquarters for books. We see Book Fairs, and rare book auctions and dusty old caverns with crusty old owners.

If you think that all booksellers are middle-aged or older white (a large percentage of whom are Jewish) gents in tweed jackets with magnificent moustaches, well, some of them fit that description. Others, however, are young, African-American and/or women. The face of selling books is changing and the movie confronts that, often lamenting it. However, there are those like popular Pawn Stars contributor Rebecca Romney who aren’t so sure that bookselling is as endangered as people think. Younger people have taken up reading and there is some evidence that the people who are using Kindles and similar devices are largely right around 40 years old.

We also get a gander at collectors; people who collect science fiction, hip-hop culture stories, Beat generation writers, women authors and first editions. I’ve always wondered about those who collect first editions. Because of the expense (a notebook of Leonardo da Vinci went at auction for $30 million to an anonymous bidder who turned out to be Bill Gates) this is the province of the very rich and I’m sure that they regard these books as objects of investment. One wonders if they ever actually read their books; I would hazard a guess not, since damaging them could “ruin their investment” but it seems to me that defeats the purpose of the book to begin with. Books are meant to be read.

Some of the material is absolutely dry as a dusty bookshelf at the Argosy bookstore, the last remaining store on the fabled “Book Row” of 4th street in Manhattan. Once the home to more than 80 book stores, only one remains and it only survived because the owner had the foresight to buy the building it is housed in. Some might find their attention wandering midway through.

This is clearly made with a great deal of love, however, and there is always value in that. It is also a movie that celebrates the intellectual – those who seek to expand their horizons, not the party-killing know-it-all bores that the name has come to symbolize. In an era in which knowledge and learning have come increasingly under fire, there is value in that as well.

The movie is currently available as part of Greenwich’s Virtual Cinema Initiative, benefiting art houses nationwide in which a portion of the rental is given to various independent theaters who have been forced to shut their doors due to the pandemic. Although currently available only in Los Angeles and a few other areas, check with your local art house to see when the film will be playing for their benefit. You can also check at their website by clicking on the photo above.

REASONS TO SEE: Reminded me of the wonderful hours spent perusing used book stores back in the day before Kindle spoiled it all.
REASONS TO AVOID: Can get dusty-dry in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly suitable for all family members.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Yonas is portrayed in the movie as a male toddler, the baby playing him is actually female.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic:  73/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Separation
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
They Shall Not Grow Old

Robot & Frank


Robot & Frank

Never argue with a robot; it’s utterly unsatisfying.

(2012) Science Fiction (Goldwyn) Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Peter Sarsgaard (voice) Jeremy Sisto, Jeremy Strong, Ana Gasteyer, Bonnie Bentley, Rachel Ma, Dario Barosso, Joshua Ormond, Katherine Waterston. Directed by Jake Schreier

 

As we get older, it is inevitable that our bodies start to lose function. We are no longer as strong as we once were; our skin sags, our eyes grow dim, our hearing not so keen. And our brains, that most wondrous organ also can lose function; we can’t think as quickly, we have difficulty understanding and accepting new things – and worst of all, it becomes difficult for us to remember.

In the near future of, say, 20 years from now, Frank (Langella) lives on his own in an isolated house in upstate New York. His grown kids worry about him; he is suffering from some memory loss. He seems to have difficulty getting that his favorite diner closed years ago to be replaced by a bath store with a bitchy owner (Gasteyer). His flighty daughter Madison (Tyler) embraces new age causes which he thinks are goofy but he still loves her in the tolerant way parents do.

His son Hunter (Marsden), a family man and a successful lawyer, lives five hours away by car and dutifully drives up to see his dad once a week but this is proving to be a strain on his family. His solution is to by his dad a robot (Ma, voiced by Sarsgaard) which dad clearly doesn’t want. Nonetheless he’s stuck with the caretaker whom he disdainfully refuses to name.

At first Frank is wary and mistrustful; he doesn’t want help, he doesn’t need help. He just wants to be left alone to eat his breakfast cereal, walk into town where he can go to the library where the comely librarian Jennifer (Sarandon) helps him find books he hasn’t read yet.

But the library is soon going to change as a snooty software tycoon (Strong) who wants to get rid of all the books and create a library “experience” for surfing the internet – a concept that would have been good for a laugh if the reality of it weren’t so inevitable. Frank doesn’t handle change well.

There was a time when he was a cat burglar, a “second story guy” who specialized in figuring ways in. As he discovers that his robot is useful for picking locks much quicker than Frank ever could, suddenly Frank is given a project to focus on.

Of course when a certain house gets robbed, Frank becomes a suspect mainly because he’s always a suspect. He’s matching wits with a local sheriff (Sisto) who isn’t used to this kind of high end crime in his jurisdiction and shows it. Unfortunately, Frank’s mental facilities are beginning to crumble; can he pull this last job off?

There is a bittersweet quality to the movie that I like very much. This isn’t a saccharine unicorns and rainbows look at old age where our elderly sail off with dignity into a gorgeous Hollywood sunset. This is about the realities of old age; the walking outside in the bathrobe, the forgetting that that the milk has long gone sour, the difficulty of recalling the names of one’s own children. The indignities that come with a brain that is no longer at peak performance.

Langella in recent years has become as reliable a character actor as there is out there. He’s done some fine work in films as disparate as Starting Out in the Evening and Frost/Nixon. He can be a force of nature or a cynical whisper. It doesn’t seem that long ago when he lit up the New York stage as the ultra-sexy Dracula, but it has been almost 40 years. He makes Frank cantankerous but vulnerable; a man who deals with his oncoming dementia by denying it. It’s a beautiful, layered performance that should in a just world get Oscar consideration but may not have the backing to take on the big studio juggernauts like Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln or Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock.  That’s a pity – it’s a performance worthy of recognition.

Marsden and Sarandon have some good moments in their roles as well; Tyler’s is less memorable which is surprising since she’s usually so good. Still, she has three Oscar nominees to compete with and it’s understandable she might get lost in the mix, particularly when the role is so feather-light. Sarsgaard’s vocal performance as Robot reminded me as a cross between Kevin Spacey and HAL9000. If the good folks at Apple decide to retire Siri at any point, they should give Mr. Sarsgaard a call.

There are some moments that are gently funny, even laugh-out-loud. There are also at least two sure sniffle-inducing scenes guaranteed to tear you up if you are as sensitive as Da Queen and I both tend to be. While not everything works here, this is a very fine indie film that captures the indignities of aging with humor, dignity and grace.

REASONS TO GO: Nice dry sense of humor. Langella shines. Marsden and Sarandon are nifty as always.

REASONS TO STAY: Cops are a bit too cartoon-ish. Drags a bit through the middle.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some mildly bad words here and there but not many.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The design of the caretaker Robot is based on the Honda ASIMO, a robot in use in Japan.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100. The reviews are solidly positive..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Away From Her

ROBOT LOVERS: Not only is a robot one of the main characters and several other robots appear throughout the film, the end credits roll over video of actual robots in use today.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Trouble With the Curve