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

‘Zombieland: Double Tap’ is at Its Best When It Fully Embraces Its Possible Irrelevance

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CREDIT: Sony/Columbia Pictures

Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Zoey Deutch, Rosario Dawson, Luke Wilson, Thomas Middleditch, Avan Jogia

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: R for All the Fluids That Spew Out in the Zombie Apocalypse

Release Date: October 18, 2019

There’s a running gag throughout Zombieland: Double Tap in which Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) attempts to secure the title of “Zombie Kill of the Year.” He can never seem to quite pull it off, as his companion Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg) is on hand to helpfully inform us of some other recent dispatch of the undead that was just a little more impressive. This begs the question, in a post-apocalyptic world in which all mass communication has been decimated, how is word about these kills spreading so quickly and seamlessly? By Columbus providing this info via voiceover narration, there is an implication, perhaps unintentional, that he is somehow omniscient. Or maybe the conceit is that he is telling us this story years later, although that does not appear to be the case, what with the sense of immediacy to his dictation.

This is not the most worrisome concern to have, but it does stand in contrast to the original Zombieland, in which everything clicked into place just so, both comedically and logically. Double Tap has several elements like this that feel important but ultimately aren’t terribly so. The jokes are given greater emphasis, but even more essential is an investigation into a nagging sense of malaise. How do you go on living in a world overrun by zombies when killing zombies has become second nature? In addressing this question, the ten years that have passed since the first Zombieland are actually an advantage.

While people do die and new zombies are turned in this world, we are never worried that the makeshift family of Columbus, Tallahassee, Wichita (Emma Stone), and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) will fall victim to the carnage. And they seem to know it. They’re living it up in the White House, treating every day like it’s Christmas, but that sense of security is only engendering mid-life, or quarter-life, crises. Columbus and Wichita especially are struggling with the realization that they have already accomplished all they need to in life by their thirties. I wish that the script had dug into these neuroses a little more deeply, but this movie works as well as it does because this malaise is the foundational conflict.

Now, to fully enjoy Double Tap, you’ll have to have a pretty big appetite for the same self-aware self-deprecating jokes being told over and over and a full embrace of certain stereotypes that have already been thoroughly deconstructed. But there’s a lot more melancholy than you might expect from a past-it-sell-by-date carnage-filled zom-com. If that’s not quite a Zombie Endorsement of the Year, it’s at least enough to assure us that our undead imaginations haven’t been fully depleted yet.

Zombieland: Double Tap is Recommended If You Like: Staring into the void, while repeating your favorite jokes over and over again

Grade: 3 out of 5 Rules

This Is a Movie Review: Zoey Deutch Shines in the Sweet and Sour ‘Flower’

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CREDIT: The Orchard

This review was originally posted on News Cult in March 2018.

Starring: Zoey Deutch, Adam Scott, Joey Morgan, Kathryn Hahn, Tim Heidecker, Dylan Gelula, Maya Eshet, Eric Edelstein

Director: Max Winkler

Running Time: 93 Minutes

Rating: R for Matter-of-Fact Crude Teen Dialogue, Implications and Discussions of Statutory Relationships, and an Artistically Impressive Penis Drawing

Release Date: March 16, 2018 (Limited)

When Tim Heidecker is playing the relatively normal person, you know that everyone else is stepping a bit outside their comfort zones and/or we have now realized that everybody is at least a little bit crazy. Along with his frequent partner Eric Wareheim, Heidecker has set the demented tone for much of 21st century comedy. But when he acts for other writers and directors, he works effectively as the most grounded presence. In the case of Flower, in which teenagers attempt to expose pedophiles through unsavory means, he comes across as the voice of reason, or at least the one most conscientiously attempting to do the right thing. Meanwhile, folks like Zoey Deutch and Adam Scott, who normally play sweet and wholesome, are afforded plenty of opportunities to tap into their darker impulses.

Heidecker plays Bob, the stepfather-to-be of Deutch’s Erica, who runs a small-time extortion scam with her friends Kala (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Dylan Gelula) and Claudine (Maya Eshet), in which they lure adults into sex acts and then demand money once they reveal that they are underage. They sniff out a major opportunity when her future stepbrother Luke (Joey Morgan), stricken by panic attacks and suicidal tendencies, reveals that he was molested by Will (Scott), a former teacher of his who Erica recognizes as the hot older dude from the local bowling alley. She pronounces that shaking down a child molester is their “moral obligation,” but their sense of right and wrong is not exactly ideal, as they partly justify their actions by noting that they don’t want anyone to get fat after suffering abuse. Erica does seem to be motivated more by justice than cash, but her morals are too distorted to stop her from making things spiral out of control.

Flower is far from a Time’s Up rallying cry against abusers. It is much too complicated to be that. There are holes in Luke’s story, and Will seems too decent to be guilty of what he’s been accused of (and not in the way that abusers are often manipulatively charming), though it is certainly concerning that he allows the teenage Erica to insinuate herself into his life. And Erica and her friends are hardly appropriate symbols for victims reclaiming their dignity, as they are too quick to justify their own criminality as a means to the right end. Director/co-writer Max Winkler does not shy away from this messiness, getting a brazen but enticing performance out of Deutch in the process. But the ending ties everything up a little too neatly, opting for a romantic outlaw angle that ignores much of the film’s moral debris. The whole affair is a tonal ping-pong, for better and worse.

Flower is Recommended If You Like: The Edge of Seventeen, Donnie Darko, The Crush

Grade: 3 out of 5 Shakedowns

This Is a Movie Review: If ‘Groundhog Day’ Wasn’t Emo Enough for You, Try ‘Before I Fall’

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before-i-fall

This review was originally published on News Cult in March 2017.

Starring: Zoey Deutch, Halston Sage, Logan Miller, Diego Bonita, Jennifer Beals

Director: Ry Russo-Young

Running Time: 99 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Teenagers Screaming at Each Other and Fatal Driving Habits

Release Date: March 3, 2017

Before I Fall is basically Groundhog Day for the YA set, which begs the question: what takes the place of “I Got You Babe.” Instead of Bill Murray being eternally roused by Sonny, Cher, and some hacky small town DJ’s, we now have Zoey Deutch (Everybody Wants Some!!Why Him?) staring into space to the strains of Big Data ft. Joywave’s “Dangerous,” which serves as her phone alarm. It’s a great song – a giddy, pounding, kind of sensual dance number (I ranked it the 13th best of 2014), but in the context of the scene, it lacks personality. Presumably Deutch’s Samantha Kingston likes this song, whereas “Babe” was a constant bugaboo reminding Murray’s Phil Connors of his eternal prison. “Dangerous” may signal the same for Sam, but it lacks punch for her to fight against.

This is such a downbeat, unspectacular route for Before to go in, especially compared to its buoyant predecessor. But perhaps that is the point. Sam has a perfectly pleasant high school senior existence, but it could all be masking how dead she is inside. And it is not repeating the same day over and over that makes her so, though she may not realize it at first. The only problem here is that the film fails to signal its purpose until about halfway through. Before that, it’s just a bunch of basic teenagers hanging out, partying, and giving each other roses on “Cupid Day.”

The challenge that Before I Fall presents to its audience boils down to: can Deutch win us over by the end, after a first act in which she participates in a hellish display of mean girlhood? To be real, though, this is not a tall order, as this viciousness is alarmingly unnatural. These girls could not possibly be that terrible to each other, could they? A major message of the movie is how adolescence can lead us profoundly away from our true identities. And Deutch’s true colors, which she generously displays, are quite charming. The movie she is in, however, lacks the small-town specificity that makes Groundhog Day a classic, but it genuinely explores the emotional truth of young adulthood.

Before I Fall is Recommended If You Like: The Groundhog Days scenes where the old man dies, The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Grade: 3 out of 5 Nth Chances

This Is a Movie Review: Why Him?

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why-him-bryan-cranston-james-franco

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2016.

Starring: Bryan Cranston, James Franco, Zoey Deutch, Megan Mullally

Director: John Hamburg

Running Time: 111 Minutes

Rating: R for Getting a Little Loose with the Language

Release Date: December 23, 2016

When I first saw the trailer for Why Him?, I thought, “Well, if there’s anyone who can wring something worthwhile out of this stale premise, it might just be Bryan Cranston and James Franco.” It’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner for the 21st century: instead of a black man marrying a white woman, it’s James Franco. This particular version of Franco is Laird Mayhew, a vulgar and oversharing but very sweet billionaire video game mogul. He butts heads with father of his girlfriend Ned Fleming (Cranston), the high-strung head of a struggling Detroit printing company. A big deal is made about how alike Ned and Laird are, which is a bit of an exaggeration, though they are both honest to a fault. It is also striking how similar these characters are to their stars’ past roles. Ned is a harried dad that is a variation of the same vein as Walter White or Malcolm in the Middle’s Hal. And Franco is as irrepressible as always.

So, the leads are all set to bite into the gags, and they are not timid about exploring the explicit shenanigans the script leads them into. But the marks of assembly-line modern film comedy (i.e., unimaginative editing and cinematography that favors simple coverage of all angles) cramp their style. That lack of directorial personality is a shame, because the film has some fascinating and relatively unique ideas at its core. For example, Laird was raised by a single mother who never let him outside the house much, which renders Why Him? an interesting examination of someone who never had the experience to learn social skills.

Why Him? also aims to go thematically deeper, as Ned’s predicament touches upon the disappearance of traditional Midwest manufacturing jobs – a sort of Office meets Brexit, as it were. This does not play as a huge concern, but it is a hard topic to avoid in 2016. More pressing, and more timeless, are the women-friendly bona fides at play. This may be no fiery treatise, but the underlying message is undeniably feminist. The film is positively aware that the girlfriend/daughter (Zoey Deutch) is no mere MacGuffin, but a legitimate person in her own right.

Why Him? is Recommended If You LikeDaddy’s Home But Wish It Had Been a Good Movie, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner But Wish That James Franco Had Played Sidney Poitier, Breaking Bad But Wish That James Franco Had Played the Methamphetamine

Grade: 3.5 out 5 Bidet-Style Toilets