Palm Springs and First Cow
Up late after finishing a paper, I decided to engage in one of my favorite pastimes: binge-watching trailers on YouTube. Yet that night, clicking endlessly through the recommended tab proved a sobering experience. French Dispatch? Release delayed. Dune? Delayed. No Time to Die? Delayed. Tenet? Not worth dying in a theatre for. Big release after big release slipped through my fingers, pushed ever farther into 2021. Even the theater chains I might have watched the releases at were floundering (R.I.P. Regal). Scrolling through Twitter, my feed was bombarded by critics yearning for the warm embrace of those big reclining chairs, already drafting think pieces on the death of the theatrical experience.
On January 22nd, before most states had considered COVID-19 a threat, the Chinese Blockbuster Lost in Russia cancelled theatrical release and moved to streaming. It would be a sign of things to come. On March 4th, when the CDC was still flip-flopping on whether Americans should wear masks, No Time to Die’s release was pushed back from April to November—The sign now was much clearer. Over half a year into the devastating global pandemic, COVID-19’s effect on the film industry is undeniable and potentially irreversible.
Disheartened by the state of things, I logged onto Netflix and treated myself to the first new release I could think of: Sandler’s latest, Hubie Halloween. It was… well… not very good.
For those craving entertainment, what remains? Does 2020 have any good movies in store, or will Hubie Halloween sweep the Oscars? Will a year of no new in-theater releases give us time to catch up on the “classics” that our parents are always shocked we have yet to see?
I come to deliver a somewhat optimistic — or rather, slightly less pessimistic — message.The movie landscape may be changed, but it isn’t dead. By some estimates, the streaming library is more robust than ever, churning out its usual fare while also picking up some releases intended to be in theaters but forced online by studios strapped for cash (see: Soul, and, if you’re willing to pay $30 for a subpar live-action remake, Mulan). As much as we all miss the theater experience, there are still a ton of options that you can find from the safety of your own home. Even Nolan stans can probably find a copy of Tenet, if it isn’t sacreligious to watch it on the small, grimy screen of your college computer. So then, for those with memberships, for those with free trials, or for those intrepid enough to venture onto virus-filled sites and find content in less savory ways, what can an online 2020 provide?
Answering that is the goal of this series. On today’s menu: time-loop romance and frontier bromance.
Dir: Max Barbakow
Starring: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, J.K. Simmons
Length: 90 mins
“Well, we kind of have no choice but to live. So I think your best bet is just to learn how to suffer existence” – Andy Samberg as Nyles
Though written and filmed before shit hit the fan, Palm Springs is likely the perfect pandemic rom-com.ts story is based on a premise that sounds eerily familiar to those slogging through quarantine: What if every day was like the next and you found yourself stuck in a never-ending cycle of mundanity? Granted, the time loop formula is neither new nor COVID-specific, but Barbakow’s excellent Palm Springs has a few things going for it. First and fittingly for these trying times, it changes its core question from “what is eternity like” to “what is eternity like with others”—a shift Russian Doll pulled off with similar success on the TV front.
Second and most importantly, it’s just really damn delightful. Barbakow’s direction is visually sharp, the writing is filled with heart and plenty of humor, the pacing is perfect, and the cast are all on top form. Rom-coms live or die by the chemistry of their leads, so the core to Palm Springs’ success is undoubtedly the outstanding pairing of Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti, two insanely-likeable actors who prove hilarious on their own and adorable together. The supporting cast certainly doesn’t hurt either: J.K. Simmons is characteristically excellent, Meredith Hagner does a great valley girl, and Connor O’Malley finally gains some recognition.
So does this mean we need more time loop movies? Probably not, some of them are subpar (looking at you ARQ). Still, Palm Springs is a testament to the rock-solid formula of making rom-coms with slightly unique premises and solid leads (I’m a sucker for 50 First Dates, which relies on repetition in its own way). It’s also a film that proves not only a good thematic match for COVID, but an economic match for the COVID movie-market. After screening at Sundance in January, it broke the record for the festival’s biggest sale by 69 cents. Hulu and distributor Neon made a good investment: the movie was short, likeable, rewatchable, and released during a drought of other content. No wonder it broke Hulu records for hours watched and social media interest in its opening weekend. It even encouraged yours truly to get a free trial.
Dir: Kelly Reichardt
Starring: John Magaro, Orion Lee
Length: 122 mins
Available to Rent: Amazon, iTunes, Google Play
Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy, Old Joy) has yet to make a bad film, and her winning streak continues with the A24 produced First Cow. Set primarily in the Oregon Territory of the 1820s, First Cow follows the bond that develops between a skilled cook (Cookie) and a Chinese immigrant (King-Lu) as they seek fortune using milk stolen from the titular cow. In a sense the film—which begins with the modern day discovery of Cookie and King-Lu’s skeletons buried side-by-side—is a tragedy, a cinematic rendering of the American Dream’s failed promise. Yet, First Cow still proves almost supernaturally comforting, thanks to the warm, humanist simplicity in storytelling that characterizes much of Reichardt’s work. Other strengths of Reichardt’s are on full display, namely her immaculate sense of visuals. The Oregon Territory has rarely looked better, displayed with a realistic beauty that makes it a character of its own. Another Reichardt trademark is layered subtlety in her portrayal of human relationships – here, a bovine-inspired bromance. With its quiet surface and slow pace, First Cow may not be for everyone, but those who take a chance are guaranteed to find one of the most soulful movies this hellish year has to offer.
Though it’d be a stretch to claim First Cow has any deep link to the pandemic, it certainly provides top-tier escapism. It slots interestingly into the COVID movie-market: screened at festivals in late 2019, premiered in four theatres early March, immediately pulled from theatres the following week, released on VOD in July, and scheduled for an uncertain, nationwide theatrical release later this year. Unlike Palm Springs’s release, First Cow’s release is the tale of a physical movie pushed to the web. It’s no blockbuster ($96,059 was a career-high for Reichardt), but it carries award ambitions and visuals that deserve a wider display. Reichardt herself has been described as a “big-screen purist” who believes her films benefit from the theatrical experience. With VOD sales numbers unknown and awards season still to come, the impact of COVID on films like First Cow is uncertain. A boon for accessibility? A tragic undermining of their intended theatrical experience? Fans of independent cinema can flock to VOD and offer support, but only time will tell.
Available to Stream: Hulu (w/ subscription)