First Cow: the lengths some people will go to have milk with their morning tea.
In ancient times, they might have called First Cow, an allegorical tale of two culturally discordant cowpokes who join forces to carve out a culinary slice of the American dream, “Figowitz and the Chinaman” and played it for laughs. Never one to shy away from solemnity, Kelly Reichardt is the last director you would expect to devote even a moment of screen time to playful self-reference, but, billed as the “Woman With the Dog,” Alia Shawkat and her hound uncover a pair of skeletal remains while on a morning hike. Even with the ending behind me, the underlying rationale behind opening a western set in the early 1800s as a modern-day continuation of Wendy and Lucy escaped me.
Hired as cook for a company of Oregon fur trappers, Otis “Cookie” Figowitz fizzles when it comes to keeping the angry huntsmen fed. Frying fish is easy; it’s catching one that presents a problem. His is a childly soul: in addition to aiding a baby lizard floundering as it tries to right itself, Cookie gives shelter to King-Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant wanted for killing the man who murdered his best friend. Together with the help of a cow — the first one in the territory, imported from San Luis Obispo so that moneyed Brit Chief Factor (Toby Jones) might have milk with his morning tea — our duo of entrepreneurial neophytes are about to become the first Mrs. Fields outlet on the Oregon Trail.
The idea for baking was gently blended into the narrative. It’s the little girl with the milk pail who first catches Cookie’s eye. Tired of the flavorless “flour and water bread” that passed for scones, he steals onto Factor’s property to siphon a cup of dairy. And with King-Lu’s brains and Cookie’s gastronomic brawn, the two are certain to have a hit on their hands.
There are no doubt those who will find the film’s pacing relentlessly slow. Perhaps karate and/or a few dozen CG spaceships whizzing overhead might have brought the kick in the ass needed to mollify the easily amused. But in addition to directing and co-writing, Reichardt also edited the picture, leaving one to believe the cut is presented exactly as she wanted it. She did not, however, compose the music — still, William Tyler’s score accurately recreates the field recordings of the era — and blessings to those whose idea it was to quickly jettison that authentically annoying old west staple, the Jew’s harp.
A DVD screener of Wendy and Lucy was placed in my care almost two months before it played town, but only a theatrical presentation would do. Several of the evening scenes were so darkly lit that all I could discern was occasional glimpses of the pup’s floating teeth. With the luxury of a theatrical visit no longer a viable option, be advised that unless your screening room is fitted with a 100-inch Jumbotron and blackout shades, there’s a good chance that a chunk of First Cow may be lost to the night. In addition, I highly suggest using the Closed Captioning feature on your remote, as some of the dialogue (and dialects) have a tendency to garble.
Don’t look for Shawkat to appear in a wraparound sement to close the picture; formula is not a term in Reichardt’s lexicography. Without once calling him out by name, Wendy and Lucy captured the hopelessness and despair of George W. Bush’s America better than any film of that period. This is nowhere near as ambitious as that, but the director arrives at a major personal awakening: a lead character who has finally come to trust a two-legged friend. ★★★★
Video on Demand New Release Roundup
The Cuban — Luis Garcia (Lou Gossett), a once influential and now unresponsive Cuban musician living out his days in a dementia-induced fog, is afforded one last whirl at life when his nursing home places him in the care of callow, well-intentioned pre-med student Mina (Ana Golja). She replenishes his dietary regimen with home-cooked Cuban meals and restores music to his life — the needle hits the wax and the rainbow of cognizance that momentarily surges through Luis’ every fiber is a special effect that defies CGI. Luis is far from the stock curmudgeon often tied to the genre: he was a mean drunk, and a negligent father who abandoned his family when his son was eight. But the supporting cast houses a veritable who’s who of stock characters: the former love whom Luis now mistakes for his caretaker, Mina’s Muslim mother (Shohreh Aghdashloo) who refuses to let her daughter date outside the faith, a Nurse Ratchet-lite supervisor (Lauren Holly) who looks down on her new hire’s methodology, etc. Still, Gossett is nothing short of electrifying, and Golja is so convincingly naive that they alone kept it afloat for as long as possible before sentimentality and the candy colored flashbacks that line the film logjammed at the intersection of Artifice and Sap. 2019 —S.M. ★★
Day 13 — A pinch of The ‘Burbs and a smidgen of Rosemary’s Baby combined with a generous helping of Rear Window — the bad guy is named “Thorvald” — aren’t enough to reap much in the way of thrills amid director Jax Medel’s pedestrian plotting. Actions are justified simply on the basis of past forms and gut instinct. Colton (Alex MacNicoll) arrives home one night, and for no reason other than the fact that many horror-thrillers begin this way, he begins stalking the halls of his mother’s home, fireplace poker in hand. (Her new lover notwithstanding, wouldn’t Colton recognize the sound of his mother’s voice?) With mom off on a much-needed vacation, Colton has ample time to explore the neighborhood. It’s been two decades since the house across the way was occupied; surely Colton can’t be the only one on the block to notice the figures of the 70-year-old single dad (Martin Kove) and his recently adopted teenage daughter (Genevieve Hannelius) passing before the flickering lights? And what with the front porch rigged with more surveillance equipment than the Pentagon, wouldn’t the neighbors complain about the bright lights Colton uses to film at night? Alas, just when it starts to get good, the picture ends. It was dopey fun while it lasted, 2020. —S.M. ★
End of the Century — Lucio Castro makes a favorable first impression weaving a dream tapestry that, while not always 100% lucid in terms of narrative, nevertheless leaves a hypnotic, stylish imprint on the viewer throughout. Ocho (Juan Barberini) is a poet who makes a living writing ad copy for an airline. For 13 dialogue-free minutes we follow him through the day-to-day course of his vacation — eating, looking for love from his balcony, drinking, spontaneously masturbating — at the German Airbnb he temporarily calls home. Summoning the nerve to invite passerby Javi (Ramon Pujol) to come up and see him, the two realize that they hooked up 20 years in the past. Castro then proceeds to take us in and out of time frames, with both actors assuming their characters throughout. Don’t try to make sense of it all; that task is reserved for Castro’s psychiatrist. And in light of all the silent desperation on display, the inclusion of two softcore sex scenes felt redundant. If more of the same is not your bag, here’s a puzzling experiment worthy of your support. 2020 —S.M. ★★★