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Quick takes on new flicks: ‘First Cow,’ more

by Tyler Wilson
| August 18, 2020 12:28 PM

Writer/director Kelly Reichardt continues to explore the Northwest on film with her latest, the period drama “First Cow,” about two poor outsiders hustling to survive in the Oregon Territory circa 1820.

More lighthearted than her other acclaimed Oregon Trail drama (“Meek’s Cutoff” from 2010), Reichardt’s latest spins a complex morality tale out of the story of two kind-hearted-but-desperate men, Cookie (John Magaro) and King-Lu (Orion Lee), trying to make a living in an Oregon fur-trapping settlement.

Their plan involves making some truly delectable biscuits to sell to the other settlers. However, in order to make such a tasty treat, they must steal milk in the middle of the night from the settlement’s only cow (owned by a wealthy English settler played by Toby Jones).

Reichardt’s films (which include “Certain Women,” “Night Moves” and “Wendy & Lucy”), often take their time and remain laser-focused on its characters, and the same holds true for “First Cow,” which leans into the camaraderie between Cookie and King-Lu. They live in a world that provides them no chance to get ahead honestly, and so a seemingly small act of theft brings them both success and danger.

Aspects of “First Cow” often feel like a low-key heist film told in a unique moment in American history. Cookie and King-Lu grasp at their friendship and integrity even as it becomes apparent that the powers-that-be will always end up victorious.

Reichardt doesn’t linger on its outdoor settings as much as more “showy” directors would, as the film incorporates a boxy frame to emphasize close-ups, but Reichardt understands the soul of her story (based on a novel “The Half Life,” written by Jonathan Raymond, a co-screenwriter on the film) and focuses her images on her two main subjects. These men are obviously too “soft” for the American frontier at the start, but the film posits whether it’s worth what it takes to adapt and survive.

“First Cow” had a limited theatrical run derailed by COVID-19 this past spring. It’s available to rent now on VOD platforms.

New Hulu offerings

“The Assistant,” set in a show business office that resembles that of Harvey Weinstein, takes a unique approach to its depiction of workplace abuse and gender inequality. The film, written and directed by Kitty Green, follows the titular assistant, Jane (Julia Garner) over the course of a single day at work. We never see her boss, though we see the emails, hear his voice over the phone and observe the steady stream of “talent” being paraded into his private office.

The “distant” approach propels the film’s central thesis that such abuse can be so easily masked, ignored and flagrantly justified, and Garner’s magnetic performance sells this concept despite limited dramatic moments.

The movie could benefit from just a bit more direct conflict, as the film’s showcase sequence involves Jane taking her complaints to the company’s HR director (Matthew Macfadyen). It’s an incredible scene that slowly bubbles with all-too-real awkwardness and tension without breaking the movie’s commitment to overdramatization.

Whereas “The Assistant” avoids genre trappings, the fact-based war film, “The Last Full Measure” leans a bit too far into schmaltz in its patriotic retelling of Air Force pararescueman William Pitsenbarger’s heroics during the Vietnam War and the efforts decades later to award him the Medal of Honor.

The majority of the film, directed by Todd Robinson (2006’s “Lonely Hearts”), takes place in “present day,” following a reluctant Pentagon staffer (Sebastian Stan) tasked with investigating Pitsenbarger’s case. The screenplay keeps dumping out emotionally trickly speeches on heroism and the horrors of war, and it’d all be unbearable if not for the efforts of a stellar supporting cast.

“The Last Full Measure” uses its deep bench to power through the schmaltz, as the likes of Christopher Plummer, Samuel L. Jackson, Ed Harris, William Hurt and the late Peter Fonda elevate the material at every turn. It’s a genuinely good story too, so it’s especially frustrating when the film lays on the unnecessary theatrics.

Both “The Assistant” and “The Last Full Measure” are available to stream as part of a subscription to Hulu.

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Tyler Wilson has been writing professionally about movies since 2000. He is the co-host of Old Millennials Remember Movies, available everywhere you get podcasts and at OldMillennialsRemember.com. He can be reached at twilson@cdapress.com.

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John Magaro and Orion Lee in First Cow (2019)

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Julia Garner in The Assistant (2019)