In the 2017 movie Columbus, Gabriel is a young librarian (played by Rory Culkin) who develops a preoccupation with reading marginalia in the books he’s supposed to be re-shelving.

And before long, he’s inspired by some particularly intriguing scribblings that address what is largely believed to be a “crisis of attention” in our culture. Gabriel, paraphrasing the scribbler, argues that what is perceived as a decline in attention spans might not be about attention at all — that young people might not be losing their ability to pay attention, but rather that they might just be demonstrating different interests. What if, he suggests, we’re experiencing a “crisis of interest”?

This is only a subplot in the film, and might be easily dismissed as incidental. But I think it’s crucial to understanding the whole film.

The main character, Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), is a young woman who is training to become a tour guide for her hometown of Columbus, Indiana, a hot spot for fans of modernist American architecture. But as she practices her informational speeches about important buildings, we realize these speeches don’t scratch the surface of why these buildings are meaningful to her. We get what is really important about these buildings by listening in on her personal conversations, where she talks about the beauty and mystery that attracts her to such designs, and why they seem to unlock reservoirs of emotion within her. We learn what actually interests her… and why.

I’m trying something new here at Cinemarginalia.

If all goes according to plan, it will be like a newsletter in which I share something more than my usual reviews and essays. It’ll be a sort of journal full of bits and pieces and notes from my week in moviegoing… along with scattered, miscellaneous bits about listening and reading as well. And it just might be that, in sharing the “marginalia” of my ongoing conversations and social media adventures, I might end up sharing things you find useful or interesting.

Some of what I post here will be drawn from things I’ve shared earlier with the Looking Closer Specialists, the friends who support this site with donations, in the private Facebook group I’ve set aside for them.

This week? I’ll ramble on about Blue Jay, Gemini, Luce, Moulin Rouge, The Peanut Butter Falcon, and more.

Blue Jay

I watched this film with a good friend at the SPU Faculty Writing Retreat, after a long day of writing. We had just spend the day investing our time and attention in several long sessions of work on new writing projects. And, well, I’m tempted to say we should have just kept writing, but, as it turns out, our suspension of disbelief was quickly spoiled by this film and we ended up commenting on it, MST3K-style.

Movies written by actors, in my moviegoing experience, tend to be big on emotions and low on sense. You can always spot the moments that drove the screenwriting: actors contriving scenes that will give other actors (or, worse, themselves) big moments to astound us with nuance, complexity, and intensity.

Moreover, movies written by the Duplass brothers are increasingly spoiling my suspension of disbelief for that very reason. They are designed to present incredibly complex and emotional relationships. Hashtag: Layers. Watching actors emote is one thing; being drawn into a movie to experience those emotions and empathize with those emotions is something else altogether. I don’t feel for characters in Duplass brothers films: instead, I just sit back and watch deeply messed-up characters in preposterous scenarios march flamboyantly towards the inevitable disasters they’re designing for themselves.

Last year’s Outside In, directed by Lynne Shelton and co-written by her and Jay Duplass, lost me right away. It’s about a 30-something dude with the emotional maturity of a 16-year-old who, released from prison, runs, like an injured child to his mother, back into the arms of the former high school teacher and counselor who helped him through his years of incarceration. She (played by Edie Falco) is older, supposedly wiser, and married with a teenage daughter. For the first half of the movie, I thought we were seeing an intimate portrait of a lost soul making a terrible mistake, mixing up his desire for a mother and his still-very-adolescent desire for a lover. For the second half, I watched in dread as the movie strove to make me want to see them get together. It made very little sense, I didn’t believe in the characters, their choices seemed consistently alarming, and the whole thing made me frustrated and a little sick. And yet the film insisted on being a lament over the world that would keep these two destined lovebirds apart. It was kind of astonishing.

Blue Jay, by comparison, makes Outside In seem like the wonderful love story it thinks it is.

Sarah Paulson is an extraordinary actress, and Mark Duplass is… well, Mark Duplass. Together, they work their way through prolonged and rambling conversations that feel like Actors’ Workshop Improv, zigzagging from one scene of Complicated and Layered Emotions to another. The emotional dynamics are complex, that’s for sure, and it’s almost entirely to Paulson’s credit that some of these scenes are watchable.

But oh, what a mess of a movie.

After the initial awkwardness of opening scene, when two former lovers meet for the first time in many years and awkwardly fumble through small talk and into the predictable “Do we still have the Feelings?” situations, Amanda — after revealing that she is very much married with kids — follows Jim home, seemingly determined to stir up as much angst and old-flame chemistry as possible.

Sure enough, they plunge into nostalgic paraphernalia (photos, old letters, favorite early ’90s music, cassette tapes of the two of them goofing around and rapping badly). and then they settle in for a long night of — and this is where things go from awkward and meandering into the wildly implausible —  improv play-acting. Apparently, as very young lovers, Jim and Amanda used to engage in impressively sustained fantasies of domestic drama and flirtation as an imaginary husband and wife with children. And they recorded them on cassettes. I’ll give this movie credit for staging scenarios I’ve certainly never seen in movies before, but the novelty of watching characters sit and listen to long stretches of tape-recorded silliness tested my patience. Watching their middle-aged selves pick up where those crazy kids left off and dive into new charades… that brought down a sledgehammer on what remained of my hopes for some plausibility.

Some have found these scenes to be romantic. I worry about those viewers. Amanda is kindling a very destructive fire by flirting with Jim, who is clearly suffering from a deep depression. (The revelation, later, that she is taking heavy medication for depression of her own doesn’t excuse this behavior.) And for the sake of, what? Does she just enjoy his attention? He clearly adores her, and she clearly intends to remain faithful to her husband and family — so why offer a drug to a man who has clearly been wrecked by that drug and say “Just pretend to take this drug”?

You can tell that big revelations are coming, and when they arrive… well, there they are: not particularly surprising, but also not at all convincing. People who had lived through Jim and Amanda’s personal history could never have shared the evening that these two just acted out. It was hard enough to believe as I watched it, and it makes zero sense in retrospect, in view of the film’s climactic confrontation. I would have to believe that both of them live a profound state of PTSD, and that we’re watching a sort of mutual madness. And when those emotional-breakdown scenes finally come, they ask things of Duplass that he cannot deliver.

Strangely, I felt very much the same way about this film as I felt about Paddleton. Both are movies about high-stakes, high-drama situations, played out by a great actor and Mark Duplass, in a sequence of complicated and emotional scenes that culminate in one or both of them having spectacular meltdowns. I’m supposed to be moved, but I’m just frustrated and exhausted.

I’ve seen Blue Jay compared favorably with the Linklater Before movies, and… no. Just… no. Not even close.


For about 30 minutes, the graceful and nuanced performances of Kirke and Kravitz — bathed in a kinder, gentler Michael Mann gloss — make this something really special and exciting. Chemistry like that deserves a movie that is good all the way through.

But then, a gun appears. It isn’t fired right away, but it might as well have been, because the film’s absorbing human drama shatters and it becomes a clumsy and unsatisfying mystery that wants to be some kind of profound Mulholland Drive commentary on celebrity or something. Kirke spends the rest of the movie dashing around in the most preposterous wig like one of those spunky TV detectives who, discovering she’s a suspect, will set out like an idiot to solve a crime on her own while the cops fumble about. And it wasn’t long before I realized that I couldn’t care less what kind of surprise was waiting for me. (And when it comes, it’s shrug-worthy.)

No movie should have John Cho in it and give him so little to do. The fact that the film wastes not one but two of the cast members from the Columbus ensemble (Michelle Forbes is in this, too) within months of that film’s release only adds to the sense that this could have been really spectacular.

Still, the spell cast in that first act, and some of the exquisite cinematography — particularly the “chase” scene involving a motorcycle and a police car — made this worthwhile. I might even watch it again someday just for that.

P.S. Surprising to discover that one of the paparazzi stalking Kravitz’s Heather is played by Chad Hartigan, director of This is Martin Bonner and Morris from America.


Wow, this thing is vanishing from theaters almost before I noticed it was there. I saw it in an almost-empty theater today — well, it was empty if you disregard the three people in front of me who were scrolling through Instagram (THIS IS HAPPENING FAR TOO OFTEN) — and it’s one of the most provocative, unpredictable, and talk-aboutable films I’ve seen all year. A couple of turns in the last 30 minutes strained my suspension of disbelief, but it’s braver and more complicated than the recent hit that wrestles with some of the same questions: Get Out

Moviegoers are missing out.

The cast are all strong. I wonder what’s missing here that might have made it catch on. If Nicole Kidman and Michael Shannon had been cast instead of Tim Roth and Naomi Watts, would that have worked? Are we experiencing Octavia Spencer fatigue?

Whatever the case, I’m so glad I saw it.

Museum Hours

First time I’ve seen this on blu-ray, and — Holy Halls of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Batman! — this is unspeakably gorgeous. Bumping it up to five stars.

2013 is looking better and better in retrospect, as I’m still uncertain how to list my top 6 of 2013: Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner, Chung’s Lucky Life, Linklater’s Before Midnight, Carruth’s Upstream Color and Castaing-Taylor’s and Paraveland’s Leviathan are all so, so good every single time I revisit them. (And then there’s Frances HaThe PastThe Wolf of Wall Street… what a year!)

Anyway, this is aging very, very well.

I’ve noted before how Museum Hours is the the non-identical twin of Kogonada’s Columbus — Columbus is the more complicated and absorbing character-focused narrative, and this is the deeper meditation on the nature of art. I can’t think of one without thinking of the other. I would love to interview Cohen and Kogonada together — that would be fascinating, especially since Cohen is listed in the credits for Columbus. Both Bobby Somner and Mary Margaret O’Hara sculpt singular human beings before our eyes with the subtlest of gestures, the quietest tangential conversations, and long pauses that allow Vienna to come alive the way Berlin does in Wings of Desire. There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment when Somner contemplates how a path through an urban scene in a short film emerges as, perhaps, the primary subject of that film… and I take that as a prompt to entertain the same idea about this film, which is so constantly interested in paths crisscrossing through the Bruegel-esque pageantry of Vienna.

It is constantly enlivened by a sense that the filmmaker is trying to keep up with the inspirations occurring to him through his camera, as if he’s receiving a signal instead of strategizing a show. This stands next to Cameraperson and Hale County This Morning, This Evening as a strong representation of what seems to me to be cinema’s purest and highest art: it juxtaposes images in motion and discovers what they have to say, rather than merely illustrating a text or heavy-handedly forcing a particular reading.

As the great Sam Shakusky would say, “That sounds like poetry.”

Moulin Rouge!

This weekend, I revisited Moulin Rouge! for the first time in more than a decade, curious to know if it could still kindle the kind of enthusiasm it once did. Flamboyant colors firework off the screen just as I remembered.

Nicole Kidman — what a career. This seemed like the biggest superstar moment of her performances so far, one calibrated to make her an icon. And it worked. She has become a role model for any great actress, aging gracefully from one kind of role to another, and still giving luminous and challenging performances I can’t imagine her improving upon. She got my attention in Flirting in 1991, and she’s made me believe in every single character she’s played since then. Has she ever given a disappointing performance? The only thing I find unsettling in this film is that she and Ewan McGregor look like fresh-faced college kids, younger than they seemed to me back then. (I guess that means I’m getting old.) Kidman was 33, but looks 21 here, and strikes just the right balance of drama and comedy. McGregor, four years younger than Kidman, keeps up admirably, but I can imagine a number of young actors who might have done just as well.

But this time around, for me, it’s Jim Broadbent who steals the show. When we talk about the greatest screen actors of all time, keep in mind that Broadbent has given 100% to everything: high art, popular franchises, and kids’ television. He won an Oscar for Iris; ruled in Mike Leigh’s Another Year, Topsy-Turvy and Vera Drake; and then, Paddington and Paddington 2; Game of Thrones; Brooklyn; Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; some Harry Potter movies; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; Bridget Jones movies; Gangs of New York; Cloud Atlas; Hot Fuzz; Bullets Over Broadway; Enchanted April; Brazil; Blackadder; Time Bandits; and even Teletubbies. I first saw him in The Crying Game, where he made a strong impression in only a few moments. And he was so, so good in Longford, which I wish more people would see.

And here, in Moulin Rouge!, he dances like a mad fool and sings “Like a Virgin”!

Top that… anybody.

So, yeah — I still love Moulin Rouge! I saw it at least three times in the theater when it opened. I wasn’t expecting subtlety or complexity from Luhrmann. Rather, based on the crowdpleasing magic of Strictly Ballroom, I was hoping for a similar mix of absurd grandiosity, hilarity, and passion, and he surpassed my expectations. It’s a pop opera that acknowledges and celebrates the all-caps obviousness of pop music and how it unites audiences in a liturgy of dreaming and longing. It looks fantastic, it sounds even better, and pop-music classics from Elton John to Madonna to Bowie are sewn together into medleys that honor the artists that first sang them. I’m glad it’s out there, and I wish we saw more big swings like this on the big screen.

War of the Worlds

Not sure what compelled me to revisit this a midnight movie 14 years later, as it underwhelmed me the first time. Have Marvel movies made large-scale action so routine and unsurprising that movies I used to find mediocre suddenly seem much more impressive? I found this much more absorbing on DVD on a crappy hotel-room TV than I remember it being in the theater!

Tom Cruise remains Problem #1 for me here: He’s basically your Costco Movie Star here: Push button for Jerk, Push button for violent rage, Push button for crisis of conscience about being a bad dad, Push button for I’ve Got a Bad Feeling About This, Push button for Run Like Hell. I could go through a long list of movie stars who might have done wonders with this. Imagine 2005 Mark Ruffalo in the role, for instance.

Problem #2 is that the aliens, when we finally see them out and about, aren’t particularly interesting.

Their vehicles, on the other hand, a brilliant fusion of the original Tripod concept, The Matrix‘s Sentinels, and the T-Rex: simply awe-inspiring terror machines.

Problem #3: Okay, Dakota Fanning can scream. But less is more, Spielberg. Come on. After a while, the screaming becomes a distraction, not an enhancement of the terror.

Having said that, Fanning is so, so good in the quieter moments. Her face is so much more eloquent with fear and trauma than other Scared Girls in Spielberg Movies.

But the greatest strength of this movie is Spielberg’s gift for staging the movement of crowds under the influence of fear, and that particular tipping point when order turns to chaos. Normally, action on a grand scale like this is the forgettable stuff and the intimate stuff is more arresting. But here, the close-quarters suspense scenes are too reminiscent of Jurassic Park Velociraptor Stalking Scenes and Minority Report probe scenes, and Tim Robbins’ Panic Man is played too broadly to be very believable. No, it’s the Initial Emergence of Tripods stuff that sticks with me, and the virtuosic effects and hysteria of the ferryboat scene — those sequences command attention like few things he has ever staged.

When the film was released, I found the final moments anticlimactic, and the Morgan Freeman Intro and Outro just infuriatingly bad. This time, the Freeman stuff plays like a nostalgic gesture to the original radio broadcast, and the Family Is Everything finale is… oh, I don’t know, fine, I guess. Maybe it plays better in this living hell of Trump’s family-separation cruelty. Maybe I’m more tolerant of obvious themes spelled in in large capital letters.

Elbow’s “Empires”

Thanks to Specialist Ken Priebe for sharing the new video from Elbow!

Just Mercy trailer

Thanks to Specialist Jared Malament for sharing the trailer to Just Mercy, the much-anticipated feature film adaptation of Bryan Stevenson’s inspiring book. I’m a little worried about this: the trailer makes the film look heavy-handed and overly earnest. It’s always tricky to turn inspirational non-fiction into artful cinema, and I’d recommend that you check out the book rather than settling for the film. We’ll see — maybe the film is stronger than the trailer indicates. (Early word out of Toronto, where the film just premiered, suggests that my intuition is well-founded.)

The Peanut Butter Falcon

What a strange, uneven film.

As a challenge to audience expectations by building a narrative around an unconventional protagonist (a la The Station Agent), it works, for the most part. Zak, a young man born with Down Syndrome, is a convincing and compelling character. He is treated with respect and some degree of realism. He’s complicated and funny, and he inspires empathy.

However, I couldn’t quite shake the kind of feeling I had when I saw the movie Radio, a movie about a mentally challenged protagonist in which the film asks us to shrug off, to some extent, the value of specialized treatment and the goodness of professionals who provide meaningful care, opting instead for a sort of wishful-thinkingness: If he just finds a good-hearted man and woman to serve as surrogate parents, why… he’ll have all he needs! This may not be disrespectful for those with Down Syndrome, but it seems quite disrespectful to those who dedicate their lives to providing specialized care. It tells us what we want to hear, rather than acknowledging the complexity of the situation truthfully. (“Sure, Eleanor’s a lovely woman, but she’s so focused on monitoring Zak, she hasn’t realized that what he really needs is… Love and a Good Friend!” Come on.)

As a fairy tale — or, better, as a work of magical realism — it achieves some of the whimsy and personality of films like The Kings of Summer and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. But those flourishes of fantasy are so rare here that they occasionally seem jarring, particularly in the climactic moments, when Zak gets a chance to fulfill his dream. (Frankly, the ways in which everything Zak needs is conveniently provided along the course of the narrative disrupted much of a sense of suspense or conflict, so I didn’t feel the celebratory rush I think I’m meant to feel at the end.)

As a “gritty” Southern tale, it didn’t work as well for me as Mud did, and far less than Shotgun Stories did. (I’ve read a lot of comparisons to Mud and Undertow.) That’s partly because the characters all seem rather simple, almost like characters in a children’s story that a writer has tried to make “authentic” by adding all kinds of superficial roughness. Shia LaBeouf’s Tyler, for example, peppers his speech with expletives and profanity, and even in casual moments — like making an incidental comment at the wheel of a car — he’s likely to pick his nose or something. These often felt like a strain to avoid sentimentality, but they were as distracting as often as they were, well, human. And the opening scenes work hard to show Tyler as an irresponsible and reckless man who needs a significant redemption arc, but that reformation seems to occur too quickly, too easily.

The cast, though, are uniformly charming. It’s a delight to see Bruce Dern commit to this even more than he seemed to commit to his recent Tarantino appearances. Dakota Johnson is sweet, even if her character feel a little too much like The Potential Love Interest. Shia LaBeouf is remarkably charismatic and likable here, making me think of what a younger Christian Bale might have done with this role. Thomas Haden Church does a lot with a little here, playing a character who is a little too convenient, a little too hard to believe.

Overall, it’s a sweet, strange little film that feels just a couple of drafts away from being something really special.