The Booksellers directed by D. W. Young, 2019.

The Booksellers (2019)

Every documentary has a built in audience based on its subject.   I have always loved books.  Sitting in the theater with me as I watched The Booksellers were many others, including, I would guess, some who, like the people shown in the movie, make their living buying and selling books.  The movie profiles sellers, scouts, writers, archivists, and auctioneers.  The action begins with the Antiquarian Book Fair which takes place in the New York Armory every March.  Book scouts and dealers explain how their profession depends on those who still value the printed word as an object with a beautiful binding. In some cases, a book jacket can exponentially increase the value of a book.  Sadly, the internet has rendered many scouts jobless. The search engine has replaced the human on the hunt.

But just as pessimists seem convinced that their way of life has ended, young optimists crop up, opening shops like Honey and Wax in Brooklyn.  Fran Lebowitz declares that the only people she sees reading books on the subway are in their twenties.  Others proclaim the importance of diversity in the book trade and show collections of hip hop magazines and artifacts.  Kevin Young, director of The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, demonstrates the value of books and artifacts as a kind of discovery.

Headshot of Kevin Young. Young, with short hair and a beard, smiles at the camera; he wears a blue shirt and round glasses.

Kevin Young

Louis Cohen founded Argosy Books, which continues with his three daughters;  Ben Bass’ Strand Bookstore lives on under the direction of his granddaughter Nancy.  These two examples of family run book stores are not uncommon.

The Booksellers (2019)

Adina Cohen, Judith Lowry, Naomi Hample of Argosy

Rebecca Romney, a frequent guest on Pawn Stars, continues the tradition with her business, Type Punch Matrix.  There is nothing old school about what she does.  Feminists are taking the business on as well, and Caroline Schimmel has donated her collection of books and artifacts about American women in the wilderness to University of Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately, the movie does not identify who is speaking on screen.  I recognized Gay Talese as he appeared briefly at the beginning of the movie, but it would have been very courteous to us older folk, who probably comprise the main audience, if the filmmakers had dispensed with the new way of identifying everyone by first name only, and actually let us know who William Reese was before we saw the movie’s dedication to him (in a flash!) at the very end of the picture.  Thankfully, there is a website for the movie where you can find out the first and last names of all those featured, and locate their businesses and specialties.

The Booksellers (2019)

Fran Lebovitz is always worth listening to.

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Emma. Directed by Autumn de Wilde. 2020.

With Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy.

 

It is hard to mess up Jane Austen’s good will toward her characters.  They mean well, and have back bone, and a support system that consists of either a loving sister or father, a close knit community of busy bodies, and at least one over reaching snobbish clergyman.

Emma is not nearly as charming as Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. She has a domineering side that wants to control people’s behavior.  But her neighbor, Knightley ( so well named, as a chivalrous truth teller), sets her straight when she becomes meddlesome or vain.  The story of Emma, as she adjusts to life after her confidant/ governess/friend moves out of her household to get married, is one of of several matches, despite Emma’s misguided attempts, made without her interference.  Love reigns supreme.

Johnny Flynn plays Knightley

Mr. and Mrs. Elton, world class hypocrites

The settings are glorious, complete with manor houses in full regalia, including specialty cakes that are a foot high, several ball room dances, with many tables set for a six course meal, and exteriors with gorgeous trees set down in green landscapes.  One chestnut tree in particular seemed to deserve  its own cast credit.

The casting and acting are very good and so is the music. Knightley (Johnny Flynn) and Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson) sing a touching duet together that moves the story along.  It turns out that Johnny Flynn is primarily a musician, so his turn at the violin is fairly convincing.  Music is carefully selected for maximum effect.

Bill Nighy is superb as the doddering father character, Mr. Woodhouse, a reliable comic foil.   Choreography perfectly captures the romance that begins to brew between the two principal characters.

The most affecting scenes occur without words, for instance, when the characters are dancing.  Even when Knightley lashes out at Emma for a terrible mistake she makes, it is her behavior afterward, silently, just when she is sitting on a window sill, and her father joins her, without saying anything, that speaks the volumes perhaps written by Austen on the page.

The ringlets adorning the women’s hair seem excessively fussy, and the high collars worn by the men threaten to choke them but these are both historically correct.  It makes me glad to live in a more easygoing time, fashion wise.  Still,  the costumes are absolutely exquisite.

very high collar, don’t you think?

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Portrait of a lady on fire (Portrait d’une jeune fille en feu) directed by Celine Sciamma, 2019.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire.jpg

With Adele Haenel, Luana Bajrami, and Noemie Merlant.

In 18th century France, Marianne is hired by Valeria, an aristocratic woman, to paint her daughter Heloise’s portrait.  Heloise has just returned from the convent, and her sister has just died.  Her mother seems eager to marry Heloise off to an Italian nobleman, and the painting will show the man what he is bargaining for.

Noémie Merlant in Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (2019)Marianne, first seen teaching a group of young women how to draw, has self confidence and poise as she instructs them.  As she is rowed to the island off the Atlantic coast of France,  her canvases fall in the water, but she has the strength and persistence to retrieve the box by jumping in herself, and swimming it back.  As the men exit and leave her on shore, she asks them where she is supposed to go, a rare bit of dialogue.  Marianne, hungry when she arrives, finds something to eat on her own without a word being spoken. Is a minimalism of dialogue taking hold of cinema?  Is it part of the post-literate age I associate with emojis and a lack of attention to detail in writing?

The movie is beautifully shot and costumes are not just there for effect, they speak volumes about the people who wear them.  When Marianne arrives at the mansion where she is to paint the portrait, she has only one dress, so sits naked, waiting for it to dry from her swim to retrieve her canvases.  The subject of Marianne’s commission — Heloise — had at one time worn a green gown, but refused to let the previous painter see her face.  So Marianne has to find the expressions by stealth, by posing as her companion.

The wild beach off the coast of Brittany has a character all its own, and breathes real life into all the scenes that take place there.  Heloise would like to swim and join in the beautiful motion of the waves, but the question of whether she actually can is fraught.

Since we are seeing everything through the painter’s eyes, it makes you observe very closely.  The cinematographer shoots many striking profiles of each woman’s face, how their ears attached to their chins, as Marianne had instructed her students.  A third major character, Sophie, is a friendly servant.  Sophie’s dilemma of needing to end an unwanted pregnancy dominates the middle of the film, and shows the women’s solidarity.

Noémie Merlant and Luàna Bajrami in Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (2019)

The movie focuses on indelible images formed in intimacy as the women fall in love with each other. The lighting is often fire-lit, by candles, and fires in the fireplaces that occupy every room of the house.  Music plays an essential role as well.  It expresses dramatically through Vivaldi’s “Summer” violin concerto the feelings of the protagonists.  Sophie seeks a solution to her problem during a wildly emotional recital of a capella voices at night, around a bonfire. It is at the bonfire that the title image occurs, when Heloise’s dress catches fire, an ambiguous moment.  Did it actually happen, or was it the culmination of a passionate feeling?

Adèle Haenel in Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (2019)

The image that haunts Marianne is of Heloise in her wedding dress

Movies are so often shot from men’s point of view, the male gaze.  It is refreshing to have a movie completely about the female gaze.  There isn’t a man in sight, but when I saw the movie, it was with a man, and he enjoyed it as much as I did, perhaps more, because as an artist, he appreciated the other thing the movie does very well: show the process of painting a portrait.

Valeria Golino and Adèle Haenel in Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (2019)

Heloise says good bye to her mother in gestures

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The Assistant directed by Kitty Green, 2019.

with Julia Garner, Matthew Macfadyen.

There are so many good things about this movie:  its clean narrative structure following a day in the life of a newly hatched college graduate starting a servant-like job in the film industry; the need for the audience to fill in the blanks when doors are closed and we have to decide what is going on on the other side; the attention to detail of an office in lower Manhattan with its kitchen brewing coffee, and male workers seeming to have automatic advantages over the female help.

Best of all is the casting of Julia Garner as Jane, her face betraying just enough of what is going on with her sleazy boss.  The camera dwells on how she has learned not to change expression,  her barely made up lips twisting just a bit as she is drafting apology notes about her behavior which clearly does not warrant apology, yet is necessary for her to keep her job.  The males in the office egg her on in the groveling tone of the notes, standing over her as she leans into her desktop computer in yet another self abnegating act.

Jane is dressed like a novitiate in a convent more than like an office worker, her virginal pink blouse showing the outline of her undergarment in the most discreet way.  She wraps her scarf around her neck as if to ward off sin.  After a while, we wonder if she really does need to be so self effacing, if her efforts to get along in the office really work.  She does the dishes people leave in the office sink, when  in plain view is a dishwasher, unopened.

All through the movie I wanted Jane to explode with righteous indignation at the menial labor she was doing: not just picking up the earring left behind by the latest casting couch victim, but cleaning the actual couch where the assignation took place.  That couch comes in for a laugh by the exclusively male producers who are allowed into the inner chamber of the directing executive to do something besides satisfy the sexual whims of the executive who occupies it.

The movie demonstrates  the injustice young women face in the  sexist enterprise of film making.  How little power this peon has as she tries to serve the industry.  The filmmaker stresses her careful behavior by showing how she keeps out of everyone’s way, especially while getting on and off elevators.  Jane always lets everyone else go first.

But overall, the experience of watching the movie, with its pathetic fallacy of demonstrating boring office life by making us suffer through so much tedium, did not make use of film’s great tools.  The  photography, editing, and overall treatment of this young woman’s day made me wonder when I could go home and have dinner.

When Jane actually is given something to say, the movie picks up momentum.  Concerned about a newly hired assistant — who quickly is tucked away into a high end hotel room– presumably with the never seen boss, who goes missing in action–  Jane visits Human Resources.  Here she hints at the suspected sexual abuse of the green newbie.  This scene has dramatic tension unlike anything else, partly through the excellent sparring with Matthew Macfadyen.

But soon Jane is back at her desk,  suffering through her day.  So too do we suffer by sitting through a dull and dutiful duplicate copy.  Her phone conversations with her parents in some distant place are pathetic.  Living in Astoria and taking an Uber to her job are not enough back story for us to learn anything about this young woman making the supreme sacrifice of self-respect to break into the business.  The movie made me reflect about what it was trying to say, and is worthy, and effective, and even ground breaking, but I did not enjoy it.

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Jojo Rabbit, directed by Taika Waititi, 2019.

With Roman Griffin Davis, Scarlett Johansson, Taika Waititi, Thomasin McKenzie, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson

A mash up of farce, coming of age story, historical Holocaust fiction, love story, the movie made me feel so many things I was spent and exhilarated at the same time when I came out of the theater.

Waititi presents a Wes Anderson palate of picture book tableaux in the beginning as we get to know the protagonist– JoJo — a ten year old German boy who idolizes Adolf Hitler in 1945, just as Germany is about to lose the war.

JoJo narrates the story, whose passion for his hero is so intense, the infamous dictator appears next to him as an imaginary friend and speaks to him in broad comic tones that remind me a little of Dick Shawn’s over the top performance as an aggrieved Hitler in Mel Brooks’ The Producers. Waititi’s acting is not like anything I’ve seen before.  It reflects the dreams of a ten year old boy’s imagination, or is it just the brilliant creation of the man who wrote and directed the movie?

It holds the comic threads together, that and the burst of energy erupting from the peerless Rebel Wilson, whose every appearance is most welcome, as is the slyness of Sam Rockwell’s performance.

The story centers on JoJo’s joining Hitler Youth.  As soon as he begins training, he is injured in his attempt to throw a grenade, so he is relegated to posting signs and collecting metal for the war effort.  JoJo lives with his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), who urges him to have courage.   Rosie marches through the streets of her German town, head erect, “looking the tiger in the eye,” something she urges her timid son to do.  The screenplay has wonderful lines like that, as well as visual images that recur throughout the movie, — coming back to haunt you with an ironic sadness.

Each relationship JoJo has is beautifully drawn: the boy and his mother, JoJo and his best friend, Yorki, JoJo and Hitler.  Sam Rockwell plays Captain Klenzendorf, trainer of the Hitler Youth group, who has a tender relationship with his underling, Finkel,  and lends JoJo assistance when he most needs it.

Sam Rockwell plays a secondary but important role in the movie

A plot twist has a Jewish girl hiding in the attic, who lends JoJo a hand in making a book about the evils of the Jews.  She draws the pictures to illustrate things like the horned devils, the satanic creatures writhing, etc.  JoJo’s relationship with Elsa builds his character, and adds an element of pathos not existent in any of the others.

Echoes of Anne Frank, hiding in the attic

When the reality of the war finally arrives, beginning with the menacing Gestapo who snoop around the boy and his mother’s house, we know things will not end happily.  The farce switches gears, and the boy’s terror looms front and center.

The lead Gestapo is over 6 feet tall, and dressed more like a Baptist minister than a regulation Nazi

From the opening scenes that blur Beatlemania with Hitler- mania, to the conclusion when JoJo gets up the courage to leave the safety of his own house, all of the photography, music, casting, dialogue, pull together at the end to land the audience in a thoughtful mood.  JoJo can finally replace his imaginary friends with a living breathing one.  JoJo has looked the tiger in the eye, and gathered the strength to cast out demons less imaginary than the ones invented by Nazis.  Special praise goes to the young actor, Roman Griffin Davis, who is in practically every scene, and carries the picture.

 

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Bombshell directed by Jay Roach, 2019.

With Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, Kate MacKinnon, John Lithgow.

The poster demonstrates what the movie is about. Fox News hires blonds based on their looks, intelligence a bonus, but shapely legs required.  Charlize Theron plays Megyn Kelly, one of the trio in the poster, and the movie begins as she addresses the audience directly, guiding us through the newsroom, introducing us to the men and women who make up the staff, what the staff do, and how the power is or is not shared.

Women are called into see Roger Ailes,  the executive in charge of the Fox News Network, and are asked to give a spin.  TV is a visual medium he explains.  You have to look good to be on the air.  The woman we see this happen to is Kayla, played by Margo Robbie, and is a composite of other young women (are any not blonde? I saw a few lesser stars in there with dark hair) in her place, showing off her gams for the boss.

The story takes us through the three women’s professional lives being upended by sexism and the threat of losing status if one did not tolerate the harassment.  Megyn Kelly has the most power, since she has the most firmly entrenched show, and is relied on by Ailes to provide the Fox point of view in politics.  Gretchen Carlson is humiliated by being delegated to a non-prime time slot, a demotion she is acutely aware of caused by her calling out the company for sexism.

Kelly’s assistant is pregnant when the movie begins, and works hard throughout those days before and after giving birth

Carlson eventually sues Ailes  and indirectly asks her colleagues  to bolster her position, and call out the man who debases women.  Eventually more women come to her aid, and the settlement of the lawsuit has a nondisclosure clause which gets Carlson to shut up, for a time.

Nicole Kidman wears her blond wig gingerly, almost daring it to fall off it hangs so loosely.  All the appearances are extreme, especially the false eyelashes, which lend a note of grotesque exaggeration to the very organs that enable the women to do their job as reporters.

It is hard to feel completely sympathetic for these women.  I can’t tell if it is because the movie is directed by a man, who is not at fault for making the movie, or if it is because the women portrayed are largely responsible for selling the Fox brand, which is toxic.  I just wonder what it would have been like if a woman had directed it.  Would there be quite so much attention to the physical appearance, the costumes, as there is here?  There are some good contextual scenes with Kelly’s assistant, a woman who begins the movie pregnant, continues to work up until she goes into labor, and then is shown returning just a few weeks after giving birth.  The role of being a working mother is not easy, and this movie gets that.

It is hard to deny the acting chops of these three women.  Theron can just give a side-eye new meaning, Kidman knows how to show duplicity at all times.  And Robbie’s job of having an affair with another woman is most subtle in what is really at stake when you work in a paternalistic environment such as Fox News.  There is little freedom.  Just a company line.  Kate MacKinnon’s explanation of why her character continues to work at Fox is very touching.  Once other networks learn that she works for Fox, they don’t want to hire her.

That will not be the case with these actresses, including MacKinnon.  They are all excellent.

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Little Women directed by Greta Gerwig, 2019.

with Saiorse Ronan, Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Florence Pugh, Timothee Chalamet.

A feminist version of the classic 19th century story of four sisters growing up during the American Civil War.

It’s not as if Louisa May Alcott was not a bit of a feminist herself, but this adaptation declines to have a straightforward romantic ending for all four girls, instead reserving the happy ending for the writer by having her book published and retaining her copyright for what proved to be a very lucrative property.

Of the many Hollywood adaptations of the book,  Katherine Hepburn captured the spirit of the heroine, and Winona Ryder the moodiness, but Saiorse Ronan embodies the nature of the writer.

Katherine Hepburn and Joan Bennett

Winona Ryder and Christian Bale

Saiorse Ronan with Timothee Chalamet

Greta Gerwig has chosen a picture perfect cast: Laura Dern looks like the mother of these four beauties.  Meryl Streep sneers at just the right moments to indicate her disdain for the spendthrift March family.  She also looks related to Laura Dern.  Amy (Florence Pugh) is especially adept at coveting the older sisters’ privileges and wanting to succeed in a more society-oriented (shallow?) way than her writer sister, though she does have ambitions to be a great artist.

The beginning of the movie is hyper-kinetic with people bounding across sets, dancing, jumping, hurling themselves around.  It takes a bit for the rhythm to settle down, but the energy of the girls matches any boys’.

Once we are introduced to a few of the male characters, including the Lawrence family, especially the grandfather played by Chris Cooper and his grandson, Laurie (Timothee Chalamet), dialogue and character development enrich each scene.  Chris Cooper should get a lifetime achievement award for adding depth and emotional resonance to every movie he performs in.  His tender discretion in bestowing the piano that once belonged to his daughter who has since died breaks your heart.  I dare you not to cry over the relationship between old man Lawrence and young Beth.

The movie is of the moment, with a meta ending, the story of the story coming through.  The final scenes capture the magic of a book transformed from a bunch of ideas in someone’s head to words engraved on plates, which are inked, and printed, and collected in signatures, and sewn into bindings.  It is a marvelous thing, a book, and this one has launched another fine movie.

Little Women in the 1990s was directed by an underrated director, Gillian Armstrong, with a strong cast.  Cukor’s effort in the 1930s was no slouch.  But somehow this movie right now is especially welcome, and Saiorse Ronan is positively radiant in every scene.

The fictional character of Jo March inspires young women to not be belittled as little women, but to keep on writing exactly what they want, with ambition as big as the sky.  Long live Jo March!

 

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