David’s Watch Diary: July 2020

Mega post! Thoughts on Palm Springs, First Cow, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga, the final season of Dark, Hamilton, and much much more.

Palm Springs (Hulu)

There are films that meet the moment, and then there are films that have the moment thrust upon them. Palm Springs is one of the latter. In the Before Times (i.e. January), the raunchy, high-concept comedy was snapped up by Neon and Hulu for a Sundance record of $17.5 million and 69 cents (noice), destined to become the multiplex crowd-pleaser of the summer before retiring in comfort to the streaming service. We all know what happened next, of course. We’re still living it. Many of us have spent the spring and early summer trapped in a loop of daily isolation and boredom, laced with a near-crippling existential dread. We can barely remember our previous lives. We wake up, we check social media, we re-check social media, we watch The Office again, we re-re-check social media, we see if the grocery list is long enough to justify a trip to the store, we talk to our parents on Zoom, and then, with no end in sight, we wake up and do it again.

Much like Nyles (Andy Samberg), who is well and truly trapped — at a wedding he doesn’t want to attend, with a girlfriend who’s cheating on him, and in an “infinite time loop situation” of undetermined origin that is causing him to relieve the same Saturday, over and over again, for eternity. If he dies, he just wakes up again at the beginning; if he gets as far away as possible, eventually he has to sleep, and wakes up again at the beginning. For Nyles, nothing matters. Relationships are meaningless. This is hell, or something close to it. And so things would remain if a fling with Sarah, the sister of the bride (Cristin Milioti, so winning), didn’t accidentally get her caught in the same loop. Now they’re both stuck. Together.

After Russian Doll, Edge of Tomorrow, and of course the original Groundhog Day, it’s quite difficult to find a fresh take on this kind of story. Yet somehow screenwriter Andy Siara (with guidance from Samberg’s Lonely Island crew) has done it: Palm Springs is genuinely clever, a bit mad, and the best comedy of the year to date. Max Barbakow’s direction (his feature debut!) is quick on its feet; the editing from Andrew Dickler & Matt Friedman is laser-sharp. Samberg and the energetic Milioti are delightful together, and J.K. Simmons — without spoiling his role — provides poignancy where you least expect it. (The film also has quite the satisfying mid-credit scene, so don’t click out early.) Even if it didn’t accidentally speak to our Pandemic Age, it would be an infectiously goofy story about finding meaning in our lives and long-term relationships. But with that resonance Palm Springs is so much more, and even better for it.

First Cow

Kelly Reichardt’s transcendent new feature (now available On Demand) operates on several elegiac levels: First Cow is a buddy movie, a frontier fable, a slow-motion heist, a uniquely American Dream, and a reminder of the countless stories that lie undiscovered beneath our feet. Adapted from Jonathan Raymond’s 2004 novel The Half-Life, the film begins slowly. So slowly, in fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking you weren’t watching a film but through a window in time, where realism and formalism connect on the Möbius strip like Andy Warhol’s Empire. It draws you in with its eerie verisimilitude and exacting authenticity, assisted by a nostalgic aspect ratio and William Tyler’s simplistic score.

Reichardt, who co-wrote the screenplay with Raymond and also edits her own films, takes the entire first hour to put you in the right mental space for the plot to (eventually) unfold. We are introduced early to an odd handful of characters, most of whose stories are only hinted at as richness beyond the frame: an old man with a crow; a tough-looking father of a newborn; a mediocre fiddler; indigenous peoples in the midst of a cultural transition. But two in particular hold Christopher Blauvelt’s camera, and our attention. The first is Cookie (John Magaro), a talented but restless baker who came to the Oregon Territory with a group of fur trappers. The second is King-Lu (Orion Lee) a Chinese immigrant with a mind for business.

After Cookie helps King-Lu escape from a group of Russians who want him dead, the soft-spoken pair realize they have found a kindred spirit in the other, and together they hatch a plan to pilfer in the dead of night the milk belonging to the titular first cow in the territory (a handsome creature, filmed like a Vermeer subject), and sell enriched cakes to local frontiersmen desperate for a taste of home. The cow belongs to a wealthy man called the “Chief Factor” (Toby Jones), who “can’t imagine being stolen from,” as King-Lu wryly puts it. The biscuits themselves look delicious. The two partners, despite their means of production, are fundamentally decent. The land around them is uniquely beautiful, full of possibility, simultaneously ancient and brand-new. But humans are going to do what humans do; the forces of capitalism, even in infancy, stand in brutal contrast to the unvarnished and decidedly finite bounty around these settlers.

Long after its foreshadowed, grimly poetic conclusion, First Cow haunts like a Biblical parable. And like in the film’s opening moments, its soil horizons patiently await further excavation. Even in a “normal” cinema year, it would be expected to be at or near the top of many best-of lists. I have no qualms about putting it in pole position now.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (Netflix)

On paper, this is not my thing. Not because I only have a passing familiarity with Eurovision, but because I feel like I outgrew broad Will Ferrell vehicles at least a decade ago. (So did he, to look at him playing yet another man-child, yet here we are.) Nevertheless, I enjoyed the eccentrically-titled Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga immensely, and for reasons I myself still find baffling.

It’s dumb, to be sure, and not just for parody purposes; the actual Eurovision event, judging from the YouTube rabbit hole I fell into afterwards, is beyond parody already. But the giant hamster wheels and silly accents belie a warm center. I’m not going give the film greater thematic weight than it deserves — it’s very much about giant hamster wheels and silly accents — but Eurovision is a clever and sweet confection, repeatedly elevated by everyone who Ferrell picked to collaborate with him on his longtime passion project. In particular Rachel McAdams, Dan Stevens, and the primarily Scandinavian songwriting team led by Savan Kotecha.

The story? Who cares; like Blades of Glory or Semi-Pro, it’s a concept in search of a plot. But okay: childhood friends Lars (Ferrell) and Sigrit (McAdams) are Fire Saga, whose dreams of one day representing Iceland at Eurovision are routinely squashed by Lars’s judgmental father (Pierce Brosnan) and locals demanding repeated covers of diabolically catchy folk tune “Jaja Ding Dong.” But when a freak accident leaves the pair as the country’s entry by default, they are haplessly catapulted into Edinburgh to face the judgement of the world. In that way, it’s still basically a sports movie, and the script (from Ferrell and Andrew Steele) gets no less predictable from there.

Director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers), when not artlessly flying a drone across Iceland’s distinctive terrain, saves his energy for the elaborate musical setpieces that make up the bulk of the film’s second half. But oh, what setpieces! Stevens (as a flamboyant Russian frenemy) is delightful throughout, but never less than when prancing around shirtless in front of a savannah video backdrop. The film belongs, however, to McAdams, who should really be doing more comedy; her guilelessly joyful performance provides some of the film’s funniest moments (“The elves went too far!”) as well as its most touching. Sigrit’s original ballad, “Husavik,” is actually a darn good song. It won me over, just like the film. Even if it’s not “Jaja Ding Dong.”

Dark, Season 3 (Netflix)

About halfway through this final season of Dark, I gave up. I stopped trying to follow it. Too many faces, too many timelines, and I had lost most sense of who was on what side and how everyone was secretly related. So after the umpteenth scene of poor Jonas (Louis Hoffman, et al) being told that so-and-so was lying to you in the future, you should actually trust me, who was also lying to you in your past, but my future, except for when I was the Earth 2 version of myself in the present, whom you must now lie to, I let go of the rope and just blindly hoped that Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese had something waiting for me at the bottom — something that didn’t only make sense, but felt emotionally satisfying after 26 episodes of slowly crushing my mind grapes.

Fortunately, dear Reader, they did. Whew. While it certainly helps to have a notebook and a family tree handy while watching this twisted sci-fi series, by the time the finale “The Paradise” rolls around, the show has played its last card and set our remaining heroes(?) on a single, clear track that pays off most of what came before whether you had kept up or not. Considering how many Big Brain shows end up crawling up their own butts with their mythologies murky beyond repair, I’m actually a little in awe of how bo Odar and Friese pulled it off. Here, the murkiness was actually the point.

As always, enormous credit goes to casting director Simone Bär, who never failed to find uncanny resemblances as we lept across decades and generations; it would have been an entirely hopeless enterprise if we couldn’t watch a new actor walk into the room and know immediately who they were. If Hoffman, Lisa Vicari, and the rest of the Winden Paradoxes (support the local soccer team!) didn’t know what was going any better than I did, that didn’t show in their dedicated, passionate performances. By virtue of sacrificing characterization for tripling-down on the headaches, this season wasn’t as strong or as thrilling overall as the second. (Even that awesome cliffhanger fizzled by the end of the premiere.) But Dark got there in the end, and I’m happy to say I can still wholeheartedly recommend the show to anyone brave enough to take it on.

Hamilton (Disney+)

Hamilton hasn’t changed, but the world has, and the release of the official filmed performance of the Broadway juggernaut has spawned its own cottage industry of thinkpieces. Even people like me, who love the show to pieces (I wrote about the album here in 2015), have had to grapple anew with the intentional contradictions in its celebration-by-reclamation of objectively important men whose views on a number of subjects — in particular, race — have not stood the test of time. Yet the show has also served as a point of inspiration for many Black Lives Matter activists; signs reading “History has its eyes on you” or “This is not a moment, it’s the movement” are not uncommon. In a way, Hamilton and the beloved government sitcom Parks and Recreation form the twin suns of Obama-era earnestness: self-aware civic fantasies that needle at people who learned over eight years that good intentions are not enough. As jokingly referenced in Knives Out, appreciating Hamilton has even become shorthand for white liberals doing the bare minimum. A backlash was inevitable.

Nevertheless, as art — as music, performance, and stagecraft —Hamilton remains a masterpiece, and its emotional power is undeniable whether it’s your first listen or your hundredth. “Yorktown,” “The Room Where It Happens,” “Satisfied,” and the swirling slow-motion of “Hurricane,” to name just a few, are exhilarating to witness, and as captured with nine different cameras by director Thomas Kail, this Hamilton is also the most polished document of live theater ever produced. Renée Elise Goldsberry and Jonathan Groff, in particular, shine even brighter when their efforts are finally viewed in closeup (though I could fairly say that about anyone in the cast). I still ride for the show and know almost every lyric by heart, but if great art will always speak to the time in which it’s experienced, I can’t help but wonder with fascination how it will resonate decades from now.

Quick hits:

  • The Assistant, which has been available on demand since January, is not about Harvey Weinstein — at least in the sense that the character clearly based on him is neither named or actually seen on screen, only as a husky, often threatening voice on the telephone. Kitty Green’s searing drama is tightly focused on Jane (a brilliant Julia Garner), a studio employee who realizes over the course of a single day just how much of a monster her boss is, and struggles in vain to find the courage to actually do something about it. The film’s visual style is minimalist, the dialogue is more about what goes unspoken, and no one is spared culpability for the systems they maintain — through daily humiliations — to protect the powerful. Succession’s Matthew Macfadyen is chilling in his single scene as a HR man dissuading Jane from “throwing away her career” with the gentleness of a bottom-feeding shark. As a portrait of soul-death by a thousand cuts, The Assistant is a vital film, and one of the year’s very best.
  • I also rented Driveways, which is a low-key gem. Directed by Andrew Ahn, it’s a simple story refreshingly free of melodrama and cliché: While his mother (Hong Chau, of Watchmen and Homecoming) cleans out his late aunt’s house, a young boy (Lucas Jaye) bonds with the lonely retiree next door (Brian Dennehy, lovely in one of his final performances). By avoiding obvious, tired conflicts, the film instead focuses on the inner lives of its characters and is all the more rewarding for it.
  • There’s a lot that I appreciate about HBO’s Perry Mason, starring reigning King of Sadness Matthew Rhys. The production value is impeccable, and the cast (which includes Tatiana Maslany, John Lithgow, Shea Whigham, and Gayle Rankin) is top-notch. It’s just so dang grim, seemingly for grimness sake. Needlessly grim. That, plus a plot that’s fairly boilerplate on its own, doesn’t make it essential viewing. But we’re only halfway through; maybe I’ll feel better about it next month.
  • In happier news, and at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, Avatar: The Last Airbender might be as perfect a series as there has ever been. We watched the whole thing on Netflix with the kids for the first time, and were regularly blown away by the thematic richness and stunning beauty of this “Nickelodeon cartoon.” (And it’s funny. Gods, it’s funny.) The finale was the grandest of epics, intensely rewarding in every moment because of all the work that had gone into building up the world and its multifaceted characters, who had grown and changed and learned how to fight fascism together. Over a decade later, it’s a timeless triumph for all ages. (Favorite episodes: “Sokka’s Master,” “The Beach,” “Zuko Alone,” “The Ember Island Players,” “The Drill.” Water Tribe out.)
  • We have also now watched the first three seasons of Schitt’s Creek, the Canadian cult hit currently accessible on Netflix. It’s a lot of fun. Major Parks vibes. Catherine O’Hara’s line readings are next-level. It also says something about the dearth of quality Davids on television that a new one (played by Dan Levy, son of co-creator/star Eugene) can ascend to the throne so quickly.
  • My summertime filling of blindspots continued this month with Studio Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and The Secret World of Arrietty (all great); Spike Lee’s 25th Hour and Inside Man; the brilliant James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro; Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Red; Paul Greengrass’s astonishing docudrama Bloody Sunday, which isn’t at all relevant right now, no sirree.

Looking ahead to… Tenet (8/12) and Mulan (8/21) have been shuffled again, but we can’t expect those dates to hold either; Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams bring Lovecraft Country to HBO (8/16); Benedict Cumberbatch faces the Cuban Missile Crisis in The Courier (8/28). The content wasteland stretches into the horizon.

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