It’s Time to Get ‘Buffaloed’ and Learn About Debt Collection!

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CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures

Starring: Zoey Deutch, Judy Greer, Jermaine Fowler, Noah Reid, Jai Courtney

Director: Tanya Wexler

Running Time: 95 Minutes

Rating: Unrated, But It Would Probably Be R for Everyone Acting Like a Bunch of Jagoffs

Release Date: February 14, 2020 (Limited)

Hey Buffaloed Zoey, what did you kill, Buffaloed Zoey?

Please, dear readers, tell me that you are familiar with the Beatles song “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” for otherwise that opening line will sound the ramblings of a madman. (Though even if you get the reference, you might still find me a madman.)

Is Peg Dahl, Zoey Deutch’s character in the Tanya Wexler-directed Buffaloed, indeed in the mood for killing? You could certainly say so. She’s grown up lower-middle class in Buffalo, New York, and her ambitions are a little too ravenous to be contained by a city with a small-town midwestern sensibility. She’d like an Ivy League education very much, please, but that doesn’t seem too likely without crushing student debt. So she turns to hustling, which lands her in prison when she’s barely old enough to be tried as an adult. Ergo, no college loans, but plenty of legal fees. Debt collectors soon get on her back, but she flips the script, realizing that she’s pretty good at convincing people to do things that are not necessarily in their best interest and thus starts working for the collection agency with an eye towards fast-tracking the clearing of her debt.

Peg’s a bit of a wide-eyed idealist, or at least as wide-eyed idealist as you can be when working in an industry built upon preying on people at their most vulnerable. But soon enough she learns about the more unscrupulous practices, like collecting on the same debt multiple times from people who have forgotten they are already in the clear. Collectors get away with this baloney since the industry is nowhere near as regulated as it needs to be. But Peg sets upon forming her own agency, vowing to do it all aboveboard, to the incredulity of everyone around her. Ultimately, naturally enough, she realizes that you cannot ever really clean up something that is dirty to its core. This is activist, occasionally fourth wall-breaking, cinema, delivered with a jagoff spirit. In that way it’s a sort of Big Short Jr. If it somehow, some way, leads to more robust protections for the indebted, then it ought to be considered a positive force for humanity. (And if instead it just makes you cackle for an hour and a half, then that’s okay, too.)

Buffaloed is Recommended If You Like: The Big Short, My Cousin Vinny, Judges who eat while on the bench

Grade: 3 out of 5 Buffalo Wings

‘The Lodge’ Might Be Too Twisty for Its Own Good, But It’s Still a Chilling New Vision of Cabin Fever

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CREDIT: Thimios Bakatakis/A24/Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Starring: Riley Keough, Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh, Richard Armitage, Alicia Silverstone

Directors: Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: R for Some Shocking Gunshots, Disturbing Tableaux, and a Little Post-Shower Nudity

Release Date: February 7, 2020

In The Lodge, a couple of kids (Jaeden Martell, Lia McHugh) head to a cabin during Christmas break with their dad Richard (Richard Armitage) and his new fiance Grace (Riley Keough). Work duties force Richard to head back home for a few days, which leaves Grace and the kids snowed in due to some, shall we say, inclement weather. And that’s when things start getting weird. The youngsters have resented Grace for as long as they’ve known her, and the tight quarters only amplify those feelings at first. They eventually start to approach a bit of a detente, but then everything suddenly breaks down. The power shuts off, the backup generator won’t work, and everyone’s cell phone is fully uncharged. And on top of all that, the refrigerator and all the cabinets and dresser drawers have been mysteriously cleared out.

Suddenly being cut off from the rest of the world in inhospitable weather is (and has been plenty of times) enough of a premise to introduce extreme physical and psychological danger. But the thorough disappearance of all those provisions adds an immense layer of mystery. Have the kids pulled an elaborate prank on Grace, or vice versa? None of them seem inclined to take their ill will that far, and there doesn’t appear to be enough room for them to hide everything anyway. And nothing about this situation makes any sense as a break-in.

The possibility of a more supernatural explanation butts its way in soon enough. It’s been lingering around there for a while, long before this predicament ever began. Grace, it should very much be noted, is the sole survivor of a religious cult that committed mass suicide when she was twelve years old. She remains haunted by the experience in her dreams and is given to frequent sleepwalking. Maybe that trauma has somehow made its way out of her subconscious and started tangibly affecting those around her. Furthermore, weird items start appearing that make Grace and the kids seriously wonder if they are now in fact dead and are stuck in some sort of purgatory. They then grapple with a fascinating conundrum that much of The Lodge is concerned with: since none of us really know what comes after death, how do we recognize it when we experience it?

Eventually, The Lodge decides that it must end, and in so doing, it moves away from the supernatural and back towards the corporeal. This leads to a whole host of paradoxes that I don’t think I, or any viewer, or anyone involved in this film can provide a full satisfying explanation for. The prosaic and the more out-there elements really do not sit well together. It’s twist upon twist upon twist, though it’s never clear (perhaps purposely) which twist is the truest. The fallout from trying to make sense of it all is a little too disturbing to handle. That said, much of the staging and thematics of the film itself are disturbing in all the right ways.

The Lodge is Recommended If You Like: It Comes at Night, Hereditary

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Gas Heaters

‘Birds of Prey’ Just Lets Harley Quinn Do Whatever the Hell She Wants

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Starring: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Ella Jay Basco, Ewan McGregor, Chris Messina, Ali Wong

Director: Cathy Yan

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: R for So Many Broken Bones and Direct Bullet Hits

Release Date: February 7, 2020

The full title of Birds of Prey is Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), but a better moniker would have been Harley Queen (and also the Birds of Prey [Sort Of] Form by the End). I’ve never really known the titular psychologist to be a member of any of the former iterations of this female superteam, though to all you DC devotees out there, feel free to let me know if I’ve been missing out on anything important in the comics. But regardless of how the source material goes, Margot Robbie’s version of Harley is never fully committed to being a Bird of Prey. But while the emphasis in the title may be misplaced, that doesn’t necessarily mean the movie is bad. What it does mean is that director Cathy Yan and her ensemble are willing to do whatever the hell they want, for better and worse.

It starts out promisingly and invigoratingly enough, as Harley tells us her story in John Kricfalusi-style animated form from nun-run orphanage to PhD to the Clown Prince of Crime’s arm candy to unpredictable free agent. This is dynamite context-establishing in the vein of Into the Spider-Verse, but the pace of the rest of the film can’t quite keep up. The plot is simple enough to keep track of, as a diverse crew of vigilantes, detectives, and criminals start swarming around a teenage pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco) who has swallowed a diamond that’s worth millions. Time frequently gets rewound to fill us in on backstory and to keep us on our toes, but in the end, it’s all just Gotham’s most relatively mentally well-adjusted criminals getting annoyed at each other.

The violence is shocking and gleeful, but also discordant against the neon-bubblegum aesthetic. It would be a mistake to think that Harley is so sweet that she wouldn’t hurt a fly, but it is never clear how she learned to readily break so many legs with such elan. That technique sums up Birds of Prey as a whole. It keeps hitting you in so many directions while simultaneously blowing up everything in sight and cackling like a hyena (much like the one Harley keeps as a pet). Harley is chaotic good, chaotic neutral, and/or chaotic evil – whatever the situation calls for. She may not be anything more than an adjunct Bird of Prey, but the full-time Birds are happy to join her gig for however long she’ll have them. I’m glad these ladies are having fun, though I would have appreciated some more discipline in the storytelling momentum.

Birds of Prey is Recommended If You Like: The DCEU’s recent one-off vibe and you give a lot of leeway for uniqueness

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Perfect Egg Sandwiches

What’s Our Appetite for ‘Gretel & Hansel’?

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CREDIT: Patrick Redmond/Orion Pictures

Starring: Sophia Lillis, Sam Leakey, Alice Krige, Charles Babalola

Director: Oz Perkins

Running Time: 87 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Stylized Pools of Blood

Release Date: January 31, 2020

Once upon a time there was a critic who was skeptical about the prospect of a randomly arriving adaptation of a classic piece of folklore, but he was open to the possibility of being surprised. So he headed into the woods, or rather, a multiplex in the middle of Times Square where he was greeted by The Hunter – the Orion Pictures logo. There was much rejoicing, for this symbolized a legacy of memorable genre cinema.

“I am an independent woman, but I also love my little brother,” said this version of Gretel over and over, or at least she might as well have.

“I loved The VVitch, and I think it’s a good idea to emulate it,” said cinematographer Galo Olivares.

Then The Witch (not The VVitch) appeared, and she lured the children in, as we all knew she would. As she won over her charges with promises of great feasts, she gradually revealed her true nature. She offered Gretel allyship, but at what cost? Was this to be a woke retelling of an evergreen tale?

Not really, but neither is it anti-woke. Sometimes, purely evil forces lurk about to prey on the desperate, and sometimes, satisfying cinematic visions come from the unlikeliest and humblest of places. With decadent set dressing and lavish production design, those hungry for fulfilling fantasy returned home mostly pleased.

Gretel & Hansel is Recommended If You Like: A fantastical feast for the eyes

Grade: 3 out of 5 Ovens

‘The Rhythm Section’ Abandons All Clarity in the Name of Single-Minded Revenge

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures

Starring: Blake Lively, Jude Law, Sterling K. Brown, Raza Jaffrey, Max Casella

Director: Reed Morano

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: R for Guns Mainly, Plus a Few Needles, and By-the-Book Sex Appeal

Release Date: January 31, 2020

In The Rhythm Section, Blake Lively goes by the name Stephanie Patrick, but while she is on her revenge mission, she assumes the identity of a woman named Petra, an assassin who recently disappeared and presumably died. Also, heading back to early in the film, she’s making ends meet as a prostitute who goes by whatever name her clients want her to have. That lack of identity is telling. We know what motivates her (avenging the death of her family in a plane crash), but we never really learn who she is on a more fundamental level. That elemental minimalism can work in an action flick, but I get the sense that The Rhythm Section wants us to understand the context surrounding Stephanie’s mission, but explanation thereof never fully arrives.

That identity crisis extends into just about every facet. For example, the title is a supremely non-obvious one for a movie that doesn’t have anything to do with music. Its meaning is provided when an even bigger question mark of a person, as played by Jude Law, tells Stephanie in the course of training her to become a killer that she must keep her internal rhythm section steady. Her heart is the drums, and her breathing is the bass. This fairly fascinating idea is never referenced again at any other point. I suppose that Stephanie certainly breathes hard and her heart pounds when she gets into some deadly situations, but that is not emphasized in a way that it is calling out to be.

So much of The Rhythm Section is an enigma. Stephanie looks like a pretty well-off young adult before her family dies, so why she must turn to prostitution is anyone’s guess. (Maybe, maybe, it’s her path into the underworld of assassin-ry.) And her entire physicality is plainly bizarre. During the main training montage, she seems completely incapable of running like a normal human being, with her arms flailing and torso bent at a nearly ninety degree angle. It’s certainly a bold acting choice on Lively’s part. Maybe it’s a physical manifestation of the agony of trauma. Anyway, this all leads into a cat-and-mouse game between Lively and Sterling K. Brown, which should be dynamite, but it’s built upon the barest bones of a structure.

The Rhythm Section is Recommended If You Like: Vaguely high-profile cinematic oddities

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Reluctant Kills

‘Just Mercy’ One Month After It Came Out Review

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

There is a moment late in Just Mercy when death row inmate Walter McMillan’s (Jamie Foxx) conviction is suddenly overturned because the prosecuting representatives of Alabama suddenly decide to agree with the defense. It sounds pretty unbelievable, considering how the state has hitherto stubbornly refused to acknowledge the total lack of evidence against him, but apparently that’s how it actually went down. And that’s Just Mercy in a nutshell: agonizingly frustrating miscarriage of justice that keeps persisting, and then from out of nowhere sudden satisfaction in the form of a full exoneration. In simple terms, that makes this true life story successful, but in deeper terms, I would’ve liked it to explore what motivated that reversal a little more. That element is a big deal and quite unique compared to other stories of the wrongfully convicted. But while Just Mercy could have been a little more risk-taking, it’s still a net good to see the work of the Equal Justice Initiative on screen.

I give Just Mercy 3 Testimonies out of 5 Phony Deals.

‘The Assistant’ Presents the Banality That Goes Hand-in-Hand with Toxic Abuse

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CREDIT: Ty Johnson/Bleecker Street

Starring: Julia Garner, Noah Robbins, Jon Orsini, Kristine Froseth, Matthew Macfadyen

Director: Kitty Green

Running Time: 85 Minutes

Rating: R for Some Profanity and Implications of So Much Worse

Release Date: January 31, 2020 (Limited)

The Assistant is five minutes short of an hour and a half, and yet is still somehow the most patience-testing movie I have seen in quite some time. I am not sure if I mean that as a criticism or an acknowledgement of a challenge. Every last frame features the drudgery of office work at a film production company. The subtext of a major scandal rotting within is ever-present to the point that it is practically text, but it never comes to the fore. There is one sequence when titular assistant Jane (Julia Garner) attempts to uncover the truth (or some piece of it) by speaking to an HR representative (Matthew Macfadyen), who grinds away at her spirit and convinces her to not throw away the supposedly wonderful opportunity she’s been given by blabbing about something she knows nothing about. But otherwise, she experiences rather mundane workday stressors: a paper jam here, a paper cut there, a botched lunch order here, a missing note in a finance report there. All that is anywhere enjoyable to watch, even if you support the larger social purpose that this movie can (hopefully) serve.

And yet, as frustrated as I was while watching The Assistant and immediately after, in the days since, my default feelings have become more uniformly positive. Those little details that in the moment felt so pointless now seem like an important part of creating a full picture for generating empathy. The head of the company is never seen, barely heard, and only ever referred to as “he,” but to anyone who has been paying attention to the headlines the past few years, it is clear that he is based on Harvey Weinstein. With that in mind, The Assistant is like an anthropological presentation on what it is like to work day in and day out for a boss who’s a serial abuser. (And in fact, writer-director Kitty Green spent a year researching the subject to create as fully accurate a picture as possible.) To understand how such a dehumanizing culture can flourish, you need to get inside it, and The Assistant places us right in the middle.

The Assistant is Recommended: Even if it sounds like a painful experience

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Stressors

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