Movies to watch in quarantine: ‘Palm Springs,’ ‘Rango,’ ‘Spotlight’

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Intro: Hi! We’re Mark and Nitish, and we (like most of you, we hope) are practicing social distancing to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. We recognize that it’s a super stressful time for a lot of people, and that many of you are being harmed by the virus in one way or another. So, we thought we’d do something that would hopefully lighten the mood. We are going to be watching and reviewing movies available on streaming platforms. Our column will be published (roughly) every week on Wednesdays. We hope that you can watch along, send us your thoughts, and recommend movies that you like or want us to watch. Best of luck to all of you in these trying times!

(Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“Palm Springs” (Released in 2020; watched by us on August 10, 2020)

A supernatural romantic comedy by Max Barbakow and Andy Siara. We watched it on Hulu!

Mark:

Dear reader, I have a hot take: Hulu is a bad streaming service. And this week, I have officially canceled my account.

I could rant for an article’s length about its clunky interface, its dated early 2010s aesthetic, the fact that I am paying more for it than my Netflix account and I still have to sit through ads, its complete drought of notable exclusive content (other than “Futurama” and “Brooklyn 99”). The vast majority of its content is hidden behind paywalls — like a shady mobile game. I mean, I guess there are some things to watch. Hulu really wants you to watch “Dave,” and though I know nothing about the show itself, its poster of Lil’ Dicky sticking his head out of a pair of giant undergarments — in a not-so-subtly phallic way — perfectly captures the general vibe of the service. And I have to look at it every time I log on.

Well, there is also “Palm Springs.” 

I watched this film literally an hour before my subscription timed out — and all right, I’ll give them this: “Palm Springs” is pretty good. This movie followed Nyles, a cynical man caught in a time-loop taking place over a wedding ceremony. One night, amid a one-night stand, he accidentally trapped the older sister of the bride, Sarah Wilder, in the loop as well. She was not the only one, though: an old man also got trapped in the loop, and dedicated his eternity to hunting Nyles down with a crossbow. Our duo then got to know each other as they killed their endless supply of time, and Sarah tried to figure out how to break free.

Nitish and I reviewed “Groundhog Day” a few months ago, which is arguably the original time-loop movie, and with every passing day I grow more impressed with it. I praised its brilliant use of such a clever premise, how the film seems dedicated to exploring every nook and cranny of its concept. I would struggle to put “Palm Springs” in the same tier, but it proves one thing: there is more to be done with the time-loop.

If the original “Groundhog Day” was a more emotionally driven story, focusing on the long, drawn-out development of its lead, Phil (and the emotional toll repeating the same day has on him), “Palm Springs” appears more plot-driven. While Phil was pushed to gradually become a better person through the loop, Sarah instead had to figure out a logical way around it. The movie practically made this comparison on its own — one of the first things Sarah tried was the “become-a-better-person” route, spilling her deepest darkest secret on one of the first days — but nothing happened. No, the solution instead lay in quantum physics and scientific experimentation. Also unlike “Groundhog Day,” in which Phil goes through a complete personality 180, our two leads in “Palm Springs” didn’t change all that much, or not as much as I initially expected; they remained arguably just as cynical as they did when the movie started — just now, they are now in love with each other.

In many ways, this shift in storytelling works, and it certainly sets this movie apart from its obvious predecessor. There were numerous twists and turns throughout the movie that kept me interested. “Palm Springs” played with how the audience saw these repeating events, only later revealing many of the true motivations behind notable actions. For instance, we did not even see Nyles at the beginning of his supernatural journey — the whole premise was, instead, delivered to us in the form of a twist, but his odd and seemingly staged actions throughout the first 15 minutes made sense in hindsight. “Palm Springs” also played around with who we assumed were just passive “NPC”s unaware of the loop, and who were actively experiencing it — the equivalent of revealing that the cameraman in “Groundhog Day” was aware of Phil’s entire journey. This is such a fresh take on the idea, and I really wanted to see more of it.

I fear I make “Palm Springs” sound heartless, however. There were significantly resonant twists and emotional beats, specifically regarding Sarah’s character — though I also think we have lost a lot by our re-emphasis on twists and de-emphasis on emotion. I did not grow very attached to our leads, despite the intimacy time-loop stories naturally lend to its characters (and I am not convinced they would genuinely make a good couple). I also feel that, at points, “Palm Springs” floundered to find an arc for Nyles and Sarah. For example, toward the third-act when Sarah discovered a way out of the time-loop, Nyles suddenly revealed that he is afraid of leaving the time-loop — it was intimidating, suddenly leaving a world without consequences. It made sense, and it was very interesting — but it also came without warning, and was not explored at all to its full potential, as it only came up for five minutes. These pitfalls could have been avoided if “Palm Springs” paid as much attention to its characters as it did its plot.

Yet, as it currently exists, “Palm Springs” is a great, fresh take on one of my favorite tropes. The plot alone is worth sticking around for, and its existence might justify trying out Hulu after all.

Ok, scratch that — do a free trial instead. Hulu is really bad, guys.

Nitish:

So “Palm Springs” is a discount “Groundhog Day.” “Groundhog Day” used its story of a meteorologist who could be charitably described as an asshole trying to break out of a time-loop to talk about the importance of ethics and personal virtue. “Palm Springs” tried to use the same trope to discuss love, but due to less success with the characterizations of the leads I think it ended up floundering. 

I’ll start off with the good, because I think there’s a decent amount of good here. Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti both did a good job as our lead couple, Nyles and Sarah, respectively. JK Simmons played Roy, an angry old man who wanted to repeatedly kill Nyles for dragging him into the time-loop. I’ve found that Simmons doesn’t really have what you would call range as an actor. He ended up pretty much always playing the same violently furious geriatric: J Jonah Jameson from “Spiderman,” Commissioner Gordon from the recent (as a diehard DC fan I feel the need to add the disclaimer that this movie was a bad one, not representative of a good Justice League story) “Justice League,” and Terence Fletcher from “Whiplash.” But he’s perhaps cinema’s most effective, reasonably fit but always-angry sexagenarian, and he pulled off the role well here.

The movie, tonally, did most of its work in the realm of dark humor. The sort of darkness that was gestured at obliquely in “Groundhog Day” took front and center here, with frequent references to botched attempts at drug abuse and suicide. But the extra blood and gore didn’t really do much for the movie. Don’t get me wrong — I love dark films. With my unrivaled ability to wrest control of the TV remote from my peers, I forced Mark and the rest of our friends from our freshman-year dorm (shoutout to Cardenal 2017-2018) through some really harrowing cinema. But aside from shock value and some sort of funny slapstick moments, I didn’t think the extra heapings of darkness added a whole lot. At some point, I was sort of disinterestedly rolling my eyes at the screen, saying, “I get it already — they’re cynical, bad people.” And, as Mark explains, it didn’t feel like any of the characters actually progressed past that point.

And therein lay the fundamental issue with “Palm Springs.” The lack of character progression obviated any kind of useful thematic work. Director Barbakow and screenwriter Siara seemed to be trying to say something interesting about love, but sitting here after the end of the movie, it seemed as though all they managed to do was put the characters in a unique situation where they got to know each other, had them slowly fall in love, threw in a few roadblocks along the way where it seemed they were not going to end up together and then stuck them back together again before the credits rolled. For all of the quantum mechanical time-loop nonsense, the actual thematic and emotional work done here is pretty standard fare for romcoms. The time-loop didn’t really reveal anything particularly interesting about the nature of love or allow their love to progress to a higher level; it was just a very particular way to get them to meet each other.

And as Mark explained, there are a lot of threads here that could be really interesting. What does it mean to love someone in a world without consequence? How does reintegration into the real world work after living so long in a world without consequence? What is the use of anger, of fear? But these threads are pretty much all dropped in service of the romance between the mains. It’s not an uninteresting story, but just not as interesting as I would have liked.

So it’s an intriguing enough romantic comedy, with a nice helping of dark humor as opposed to the relatively milquetoast standard fare that I’m used to. But that’s all this movie is. Whereas “Groundhog Day,” as I argued before, used the time-loop to give us an excellent moral fable about virtue, this movie just gave us a pretty standard romance. I still think “Palm Springs” is worth a watch, but it certainly didn’t live up to the work that inspired it.

So I would definitely recommend “Groundhog Day” over “Palm Springs,” but if you’re looking for more time-loop shenanigans, “Edge of Tomorrow” is actually a pretty fun sci-fi action time-loop flick.

(Photo: Paramount Pictures)

“Rango” (Released in 2011; watched by us on August 12, 2020)

An animated, western movie by Gore Verbinski and John Logan. We watched it on Hulu!

Mark:

If there were one thing I wish I could do with my articles — you know, other than somehow cure the coronavirus, though I’m not that good of a writer — it would be to establish animation as a medium, not a genre.

I believe I have touched on this topic before. Still, it bugs me that we have a medium with so much potential, and so few limitations, yet we in the west seem to use it only to tell the same kinds of stories. When we hear the word “animated,” we tend to think of Disney or Pixar — both masters of their craft, sure, but their movies are united by style, not genre. I want to encourage new kinds of movies for this artform. So, whenever we get movies like “Rango,” I feel a need to spread the word.

“Rango” follows an initially nameless chameleon who struggled to find an identity. When he was separated from his owners and wound up in the desert town of Dirt — a humble, ramshackle civilization that uses water as currency — he claimed the role of their sheriff. Then, our newly christened Rango went on a journey to solve the mystery behind who had robbed their bank and stolen their water supply, as the shadow of the fearsome bandit, Rattlesnake Jake, loomed over him.

This film uses its unique and unconventional animation style to tell a fun, quirky western film through a darker and arguably more mature lens than the medium typically allows. “Rango” is decidedly not a Disney film, and that is what makes it so special to me.

But first, I want to quickly get over the things I didn’t like about this movie. While I am a fan of the overall darker tone of the film (I’ll go over this in more detail later), I admit that “Rango” struggles to find the right balance between disturbing and quirky within its first 30 minutes. Things started a bit too slow, and some of its darker jokes felt a bit too out-of-place. For instance, we saw an armadillo that talks with our title character, despite its entire midriff having been flattened by a car — I just found it kind of weird. I will also admit that the plot itself was far from unpredictable, especially for a western. While I might argue that this movie was never trying to surprise the audience with its villain, I do think the screenplay could have done more to switch up some tropes, especially when there are other plot beats that in my opinion do not make sense. The Spirit of the West, for example, was built up for a good bit of the movie, and once he is unveiled the movie — uh, kind of gets really dumb for about two minutes. Though, trust me dear reader — trust me: despite its flaws, “Rango” is a great movie.

This movie was not afraid to spend time simply being itself. I enjoyed the moments in which we explored how the water shortage affected the townspeople. I enjoyed watching the identity crisis of Rango, a thespian at heart who played the hero as though it were a part of a play. The various character designs and the contraptions that made these animal worlds work were consistently interesting. And the story itself, dedicated to telling an action-packed, compelling western film, worked in providing these set pieces a chance to shine while being enthralling in their own right.

“Rango” also did not pull punches — which we typically expect of animated movies. When a villain entered the room, they were portrayed as real and genuinely dangerous threats, talking and acting very much like I’d expected an actual, crazed criminal to act in a western setting. Our characters also dealt with grittier backstories and crises. Supporting lady (or, lizard) Beans struggled throughout the movie to maintain the legacy of her father, standing up to murderous bandits and refusing water amid a drought to make her point. The movie made it clear, however, that her father was not a saint — they mention outright that he was a drunk who unceremoniously fell down a mine shaft. Yet, even if not the focus of the movie, it was compelling to watch her fight tooth and nail for her father’s farm despite his flaws. It was not Shakespeare, but there was something visceral here that I had not expected. Even the simpler characters worked, in my opinion. Rattlesnake Jake is a stand-out, despite being in only four minutes of the film, due to intimidation alone.

The movie is told through a grainier lens that I am not used to seeing in this medium. Though I will not pretend “Rango” is perfect, I am in awe of what it has been used to do — telling a genuinely fun and interesting cowboy film, unlike both the western genre and the animation medium has seen before. I think there should be more movies like “Rango,” or at the very least equally unlike the rest of its peers.

Nitish:

“Rango” is a loose collection of western movie tropes thrown into an animated film about a lizard voice acted by Johnny Depp. It is a very predictable hero’s journey that is cut with some meta-humor and dirty jokes targeted at adults. “Rango” is quite obviously a variation on a fairly simple, frequently used pattern. Even if you haven’t seen “Rango,” you have seen a movie that has the same “unlikely hero arises, fakes it ’til he makes it, doesn’t really make it, figures out a way to make it” shtick. It’s “Kung Fu Panda.” Or “Mulan.” Or basically any other children’s movie from the past 30 years.

So for “Rango” to succeed, it either had to be impeccable in its execution, or it had to push the envelope in interesting, subversive ways. “Rango,” in my opinion, does neither.

I’ll start with the nonexistent pushing of the envelope. “Rango” is just so, so standard. I felt less confident in predicting the sun would rise than I did in guessing the villain of Rango, or the various twists and turns. Mark pointed out that this movie has a dark edge to it, with some grittier lines. But I would counter, echoing my criticism of “Palm Springs” — darkness for what purpose? I didn’t think that Beans’s father’s alcohol and tobacco addiction was anything other than a series of throwaway lines by writers trying to sneak some edgy humor into a children’s movie. “Song of the Sea” had some dark undertones as well, such as references to the grandmother’s use of (what are implied to be) antidepressants. But in that movie, such “adult” themes gave more mature viewers emotional context to what was occurring on-screen. There was genuine value in it. Here, such adult themes seemed to be not much more than winks at the parents in the room who are otherwise forced to watch an uninteresting movie.

For the other criteria: execution. On this point, I’m a lot more mixed. “Rango” decided to elevate its otherwise formulaic story by very consciously poking fun at itself. It tried to simultaneously be a western and a satire of the western genre. And at that, I don’t think it was a very incisive satire. It never made me question westerns as a genre, or interrogate the hero’s journey. The satire again seemed to be just a way for the writers to give something for the adults to laugh at while their children were awed by the bats flying everywhere. The tongue-in-cheek attitude isn’t for a broader artistic purpose, but to try and make people laugh.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. One of my favorite comedies, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” is not exactly Machiavelli’s “The Mandrake” in its measured and subtle approach to criticizing religion. It’s just an hour and a half of a series of hilariously conceived jokes, none of which are particularly intelligent. As I have said in the past, the primary metric of the success of a comedy should be whether or not it made you laugh.

And here’s the problem. Not only did I not laugh a single time when I watched “Rango” — I also did not laugh a single time when my family rented this movie back in 2012. Nor did my younger brother who was four years younger than me. Mark said that he hopes his column helps establish animation as a medium instead of a genre. Unfortunately, a 12-year-old me and my eight-year-old brother found “Rango” so profoundly uninteresting that we stopped watching animated movies for years. That isn’t a joke. I hated “Rango” so much as a child that I vowed I would stop watching children’s movies and instead devoted my attention to “adult” movies. I got deep into Hong Kong action and serial-killer movies, and I didn’t touch anything that looked like it was for kids with a ten-foot pole. “Rango” was actually the movie that kicked off my cinephilia because it convinced me I could do better. To any of my friends who found me bleak and uninteresting in my teen years, don’t blame me — blame “Rango” for forcing me into the arms of a bunch of black and white documentaries and artsy foreign films. Even now when I think of animated movies or children’s movies, I think of exasperatedly locking eyes with my younger brother as a rattlesnake with a chain gun shot at a bunch of bats. So I can’t say that I think “Rango” is successful as a movie for children because it essentially turned me into a critical villain.

I was sort of excited to watch “Rango,” because in a meaningful way my hatred of this movie as a child made it possible for me to love movies as much as I do now. But returning to it as an adult instead brought nothing of value. I got the adult jokes that I didn’t get the first time and stared at the screen in a sort of disinterested horror because I finally realized that 12-year-old me had it right: there is nothing worthwhile in this useless film. So if I found it deeply unfunny as a child, and also found it deeply unfunny as an adult, I’m inclined to say that its humor really isn’t for me. 

(Photo: Open Roads Films)

“Spotlight” (Released in 2015; watched by us on August 14, 2020)

A drama by Tom McCarthy. We watched it on Netflix!

Note: “Spotlight” is a movie about the child sex abuse scandal within the Boston archdiocese. We discuss this in the text of the review. 

Mark:

I think it is neither surprising nor difficult of me to assert that “Spotlight” is easily the best movie we watched this week. I knew it coming in, and I was proven absolutely right. Sometimes my job is a little too easy.

“Spotlight” is based on a real story about The Boston Globe and their efforts to uncover the child sex abuse scandal of Boston’s local priests. The Spotlight investigative team works against a corrupt legal system, the societal taboo of criticizing the church, the stigma placed on sexual assault victims and even their own higher-ups scared of alienating their readerbase. This movie not only serves to immortalize an earth-shattering series of news stories, but emphasizes the responsibilities of the journalism industry to fight for the truth. It showcases an increasingly relevant topic that I find very interesting — given I am a communication student, and have often taken classes about and researched the news industry (as though I needed another reason to be interested in this movie).

This movie, despite being relatively new, has already been adopted into the likes of cinema’s best. “Spotlight” is the film all other journalism-related movies (like “The Post”) are compared to. It also earned an Oscar for best picture, but whatever. This movie deserves this recognition: it is phenomenal, it is incredibly important and I love it. Yet, “Spotlight” is so polished and so well-done that I struggle to talk about it.

It reminded me quite a bit of “The Social Network,” in that the filmmaking and writing served primarily to depict its already interesting topic clearly and realistically: substance was put over style. The story, more often than not, is allowed to speak for itself — and it works for “Spotlight”; it just doesn’t give me, the reviewer, a lot to work with. 

Yet, I should be clear that the directors did not simply settle for putting the project on autopilot. While I cannot point to any shot so extravagantly aesthetic or dialogue so lyrical as, say, Scorsese’s work, there is tremendous — and I argue, equal — skill put into mastering realism in film.

I get a migraine simply thinking about the balancing act McCarthy and team had to pull off to give these real events proper justice, while keeping the audience engaged. I can only imagine the numerous drafts — and long hours on the writing desk — attempting to figure out which plots to leave in or leave out, which characters to emphasize or de-emphasize, when to give proper praise and when to give honest criticism toward its subjects. Fascinatingly, though it could have been easy to completely glorify the journalist (and I stubbornly maintain they deserve the praise), “Spotlight” did not stray from addressing the shortcomings and complacency of The Boston Globe. As a result, this movie could have easily become messy (or, worse yet, they could have undermined their message) — but “Spotlight” excelled, and it made this story all the more impactful.

“Spotlight” stands out among modern cinema due to its arguable restraint in filmmaking and boldness in storytelling. This story is not flashy — the filmmaker does not intend to distract you. It sounds like a recipe for boredom, but “Spotlight” found a way to thrive regardless. It is a complicated magic trick with so many moving parts that I, as an aspiring writer, can hardly begin to dissect (without feeling at least a little bit nauseous). All I can say is that it works.

Maybe I should leave it at that.

Nitish:

“Spotlight” by Tom McCarthy is a film about a team of intrepid reporters unearthing the horrifying child molestation scandal within the Catholic Church. It’s an important story, and McCarthy handled it with the gravity that it deserved. As Mark noted, “Spotlight” has few frills and tricks and relies on good old-fashioned direction that is almost reminiscent of a documentary. Despite its toned-down style, “Spotlight” manages to weave an interesting narrative about institutions and faith while never losing sight of the core of its story.

“Spotlight” starts as a detective story. Our team of reporters at the Boston Globe’s investigative team (which the movie is named after) engaged in a hunt for letters, documents and interviews to try to uncover the depths of the scandal within the Church. This part of the story is interesting enough, and McCarthy managed to make even the most mundane parts of investigative journalism — like the construction of massive spreadsheets and the toiling in courtrooms to unseal records — seem intriguing. 

But when our team started to interview survivors of the abuse by the clergy, “Spotlight” elevates from a well-constructed if restrained mystery into something far more vital. One by one, we are shown stories of the sexual assault of young children. The lasting effects that the abuse has on the survivors were palpably conveyed by a talented supporting cast. McCarthy’s camera and script were both empathetic — neither sparing the viewer discomfort nor playing up the events for shock value. It was a delicate balancing act, one that he pulled off well through the whole film. McCarthy’s sensitivity and deep empathy for the survivors made “Spotlight” a high watermark of moviemaking artistry but also a testament to art’s capacity to tell us the stories that often go unheard.

And “Spotlight” managed to go a step further. McCarthy turned his almost journalistic eye to the systems that enabled this abuse. At one point in the movie, Mitch Garabedian (a lawyer for a group of survivors) said, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” McCarthy dissects Boston, parsing it into a series of interlocking institutions. There was obviously the church, which had almost adopted a special language to hide abusive clergymen, playing a shell game sending them from parish to parish. But there were policemen who didn’t ask questions when a man of the cloth came in, DAs who refused to prosecute the person who baptized them or gave them the eucharist on Sundays. There were lawyers who represented the victims but handled everything in private arbitration, preventing anyone from actually getting booked in a court of law. 

And indeed, there were journalists who moved on to more explosive stories. It’s easy to think that “Spotlight” is cheerleading for the press, but the film leveled some of its most damning criticisms at the institution it was supposedly lionizing. At one point in the film, a lawyer who had been participating in some of the aforementioned arbitration sessions was confronted by two members of the Spotlight investigative team. They ask him whether or not he’d like to be on the right side of history, whether or not he’d be willing to break the law to help stop the wanton abuse of children by identifying the priests that he had settled suits against. He looked at them in askance and said that he sent The Boston Globe a list of 20 priests years ago. The persistence of the abuse was not a failure of a few bad apples or even of a single institution. It was the failure of a city, of a society at large, to care for its most vulnerable.

Ultimately, I think that’s what gives McCarthy’s “Spotlight” staying power — it is not just a well-told story about a horrific crime, but a powerful and cunning investigation of the forces that made the crime possible. “Spotlight” isn’t principally a story about a few key villains. It is a story about decent people like you and me that look the other way. “Spotlight” is a necessary cinema masterpiece that deserves your attention.

Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu and Nitish Vaidyanathan at nitishv ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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