First Cow is a wonderful, found pleasure, and one of the best movies of the year. And not just because it takes place in Oregon, a place for which, MNB readers know, I have enormous affection.
The Oregon of First Cow is not the place with which I have become familiar over the past decade. The year is 1820, roughly four decades before the Oregon Territory would become the nation's 33rd state, and Cookie Figowitz is the cook for a small group of fur trappers, doing his best to turn whatever he can find into something edible that will keep his customers satisfied; it isn't an easy life, and there is a low level of tension emanating from the possibility that at any moment the trappers could turn on Cookie.
While foraging one day, Cookie bumps into King Lu, a Chinese immigrant on the lam; he recognizes a fellow outsider, and does not turn him in … which turns out to be an advantageous decision.
As the movie ambles along - First Cow is a film that takes its time, preferring to be observational rather than a driving narrative - Cookie and Lu discover that they are kindred spirits, each with their own version of what we now think of as the American dream. Cookie may be one of Oregon's earliest artisan bakers; he dreams of being to open a hotel and bakery, and making some of the biscuits that he used to have when he was a baker's assistant.
The problem is, he needs milk to make the biscuits. The solution is, there is one cow in the territory. It is owned by a Brit who appears to be the wealthiest man in the territory, but as Lu points out, there is something entrepreneurial about sneaking over to the man's property and milking the cow in the middle of the night. Cookie makes the biscuits, and they are an enormous hit with the locals … they want more, which means more milking and more baking, and then more milking. And things then get out of hand, as the film becomes part buddy comedy and part heist film.
The performances are uniformly excellent - John Magaro as Cookie and Orion Lee as Lu. I know nothing about these fellows, but they always seem appropriate to the time and place, as opposed to actors acting. There are only two well-known actors in the cast - Toby Jones as the wealthy Brit, and the wonderful René Auberjonois in a small and largely silent role that captures the pathos of the tim and place.
Director and co-writer Kelly Reichardt does an excellent job is giving us a sense of exactly how tough a place the American west was in the early 19th century, and one of the wonderful things about the film is that it presages the artisan food movement for which the region is known today.
First Cow is a terrific piece of filmmaking - not showy or sophisticated, but nuanced and minimalist. It is available for rent on a variety of streaming platforms.
When the first episode of "Perry Mason" premiered on HBO, I wrote here that I was ambivalent. I liked the production values, writing and acting - especially Matthew Rhys in the title role - but couldn't really figure out what it had to do with what I knew of the character. I've read a couple of the Erle Stanley Gardner novels (a long, long time ago) and was a fan of the Raymond Burr series, and less so of the subsequent TV movies. "Perry Mason," set during the Depression and starting out with Mason has a down-and-out private eye, seemed closer to being a prequel to Chinatown than a "Perry Mason" rethinking.
Eight episodes later, with the first season come to an end, I'm totally sold. As expected, 'Perry Mason" was a redemption story, but a textured one with enormous context and subtext. Using a sensational child kidnapping-and-murder case as the driving narrative, the series managed to give us a sense of a Los Angeles steeped in both corruption and sensationalism. It had style to spare, and managed to keep surprising with a plot turn here and a character revelation there - all of it firmly ensconced in the period but also with an eye to modern audiences.
The cast is terrific - John Lithgow, Juliet Rylance (fantastic as Della Street, no mere secretary here), Chris Chalk (as Paul Drake, given his own compelling backstory), Stephen Root, Shea Wigham, Lili Taylor and Tatiana Maslany.
The good news is that "Perry Mason" has been renewed for a second season. I have no idea when they'll be able to produce it, given the limitations imposed by the pandemic, but when it is on, I'll be there.
Go figure. "Perry Mason" is guilty of being first-rate entertainment.
That's it for this week. Have a good weekend, and I'll see you Monday.
Stay safe … be healthy.