‘Buffaloed’ and the making of a star in Zoey Deutch

'Buffaloed' and the making of a star in Zoey Deutch

Since the beginning of 2016, Zoey Deutch has acting credits in 15 films and TV series. She’s rising like a rocket through the comedy scene, starring in romantic comedies like Set It Up, post-apocalyptic comedies like Zombieland: Double Tap, and TV comedies like The Politician. Deutch’s latest release, Buffaloed, acts as the greatest vehicle for her growing starpower, morphing into a film that only works because of Deutch’s existence.

Buffaloed, which premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Fest, follows Peg (Deutch), a young, fast-talking hustler and recently incarcerated woman. After being released from prison for scamming hoards of Buffalo Bills fans through fake ticket sales, Peg takes a job as a debt collector, working from the scummy and grubby Wizz (Jai Courtney).  Written by Brian Sacca and directed by Tanya Wexler, Buffaloed works better as the film rolls along, as Peg deeper into the world of debt collection.

Soon after realizing Wizz is one of the worst people alive, Peg leaves that debt collection agency and opens her own, recruiting those that “have talent,” or several outcasts, religious fanatics, and ex-cellmates. Deutch, with a heavy amount of debt herself, is working to get rid of her own past mistakes, while also providing a new life for herself, her brother (Noah Reid), a local bar owner, and her mother (Judy Greer), a hairdresser that she lives with. Peg’s new business catches the attention of Wizz, and an all-out turf war follows. Peg (and Deutch) is at her best when she’s chatting with the other debt collectors, when she’s chatting with those on the phone, and when she’s wiggling out of an improbable situation.

'Buffaloed' and the making of a star in Zoey Deutch
source: Magnolia Pictures

Deutch’s performance lives on the line between incredible and off-the-rails crazy. It’s a haywire acting job that more people should see, for Deutch deserves a bigger and better audience. Her manic nature turns into pure comedy, and her likability only increases the more time she’s on screen, despite her awful decision making. It reminded me of Leonardo Dicaprio’s Wolf of Wall Street role or even Adam Sandler’s Uncut Gems performance. It’s closer to that tier of acting than you’d expect from an actor who’s young and largely new to bigger budget films.

The supporting cast fills their roles allowing Deutch to shine, with Courtney, Greer, and lawyer/love interest Jermaine Fowler doing a lot with a little. Courtney in particular dials up the scumminess to absurd levels, making him a formidable villain in the midst of the malicious business of debt collection. The writing gives audiences room and information to breathe, never moving too fast or leaving you in the dark, using The Big Short style of explaining the different elements of debt and all of the major players involved. By the end, it’s hard not to be endeared by the filmmaking, the script, and these characters, despite their flaws, their ulterior motives, and their chosen occupations.

Deutch is in the process of becoming a star. She looks one box office hit away from becoming a household name. Much of the general population will already recognize her from her Netflix appearances and her supporting roles on more expensive films, but her name is one that is on the tips of people’s tongues. Buffaloed shows what Deutch can do when given the chance to put her comedy chops on display, giving a physical acting performance that might blow you away. Seek out this film. She’s that good.

Buffaloed keeps you smiling at the end, with a relatively realistic and positive outcome. Deutch deserves the same. So let’s give her more chances to strut on-screen, more opportunities to lead a film, and more times to be the heroine we never knew we needed. I’m sure we’ll all be much happier with Deutch as the center of attention.

‘Downhill’ and how expectations can ruin a movie

"Downhill" and how expectations can ruin a movie

★★

There are certain movies that floor you. You can’t imagine getting up out of your seat as the final scene fades or cuts to black. The experiences feel ethereal, too good for this world. Downhill is not one of those movies.

The comedy from writer/directing duo Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, and starring a killer pair in Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, starts with a strong premise, likely because it’s adapted from an already successful foreign film, the Swedish Force Majeure. The Swedish film, written and directed by Ruben Östlund, opened to massive critical acclaim, ending up on many critics’ top 10 movies of 2014. This version will not have the same fate, instead dying in people’s mind within 48 hours, if not as soon as a 30 minutes after the film ends.

Though the movie retains much of the fault, part of the blame rests on us. We hear about a movie with Ferrell, Louis-Dreyfus, and written by the duo behind The Way, Way Back and The Descendents, and our eyes widen. Expectations have been raised to insurmountable levels, especially with the success and prominence of Force Majeure. When we go into a film like this with specific ideas of what it will look like, frustrations only grow when expectations are failed to be met.

Looking at Downhill outside of expectations, originals, and past works by the comedians, the film is…fine. It looks good and features fine, if not good, performances by the supporting cast. Ferrell and Louis Dreyfus give admirable performances, with the Veep actor providing us the most amount of acting acting. She deserves more dramatic roles, and more opportunities to show her ability to deftly balance tense moments of dark comedy. A cameo by Kristofer Hivju, father of Force Majeure, might be the second-best scene in the film, behind a brief but hilarious plotline of Dreyful taking a personal day.

The film now has become a box office bomb, disliked by critics and audiences, two group that rarely agree. Its biggest problem is its lack of one, as the film doesn’t make you feel anything either way. There’s no highs or lows, only middling existence. No laugh-out-loud jokes or biting drama to make you cry. A lack of relatability and a lack of originality make Downhill a overwhelmingly average and competent piece of filmmaking, from the minds of two men known for their sharp wit and character development.

It makes me wonder how this film would be perceived outside of expectation, though. If I went in cold, seeing these actors for the first time, with no prior knowledge of Force Majeure or this directorial duo, would the movie still feel so utterly disappointing? This isn’t anything new to criticism, to moviegoing, or even to media consumption, but it felt like a reminder to me to limit my expectations. Sometimes, you don’t need to consume all of the reviews, the ratings, and the scores before you see a film. You don’t need the research.

Without expectations, Downhill still would be a film existing somewhere between good and bad, a purgatory of monotony between hating a film and being transformed by one. But it certainly would have been a more enjoyable experience, and sometimes at the movies, that’s all we’re looking for.

‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ and how love can refocus our attention [Review]

'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' and how love can refocus our attention [Review]

★★★★

I’ve seen countless movies revolving around the concept and execution of love. Far from a foreign concept in film, most of these love stories get recycled over and over again, with different variations cropping up nearly every weekend with new releases. Streaming services come out with these romantic movies and series constantly. All of this makes the love story in Portrait of a Lady on Fire that much more striking and important.

Something incredible happens about midway through Céline Sciamma’s lesbian love story: you find yourself wholly invested in this relationship. It takes up the most important corner of your mind. Cinematographer Claire Mathon and Sciamma work together to create special moments through the use of camera movements and focuses. In each scene of dialogue, of action, or even of pure stillness, the camera keeps each woman as the center of attention.

Their faces fill the dead center of the screen, and instead of using over-the-shoulder shots and other usual devices, Mathon continues to put them front and center. Even when both women are on the screen, she keeps only one of them in view, leading to this absolutely breathtaking couple of seconds.

By doing this, Sciamma and Mathon don’t allow you to think about anything else in the film. You only consider the face on the screen, with the weight of each of their emotions. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel use subtle facial expressions to break your heart, put it back together again, and break it once again. The cinematographer remains utterly fantastic and unmatched, giving you reason to be attentive and hyper-focused. Portrait of a Lady on Fire never loses you, or allows you to leave its world, and for the overwhelming majority of the film, you’re more than happy to sit, walk, and paint with these women.

The love in Sciamma’s film feels real in its forbidden nature. The timing is off. The circumstances are less than ideal, to put it mildly. Her intent to tell a forbidden lesbian romance story deserves an amount of admiration and immense respect. It’s a period piece focusing on those largely ignored in period pieces: women and particularly lesbians. Though there were definite similar themes in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, that film dealt less with love and more with power and status. In Sciamma’s film, the opposite is true, flirting with the notions of status within the world of high art, but focusing on the power of love, not the power of the crown.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire affects you. It takes ahold of you (and your heart) and doesn’t let go for the 121-minute runtime. With outstanding performances and a sharp script, Sciamma’s film becomes a rare piece of cinema in your mind: one that pushes you to refocus your life, and your moviegoing experiences, around love. It plays out like a painting itself, slowly becoming more gorgeous and telling as time goes on.

This film is special. It puts your gaze directly on the beauty, the ugly, the fantasy, and the reality of love, with varying intersection layered beneath. Portrait of a Lady on Fire has power, weight, and importance, and for many, will be one of the best films of the year and an early contender for the best love story of 2020.

 

Top 10 Films of 2019

Top 10 Films of 2019

What a year! After seeing over 100 new releases, some which blew my mind, some which didn’t shake my brain at all, I can say with confidence that I loved in film in 2019. We were given films by the greats including Martin Scorsese and Pedro Almodovar, as well as films from rising stars like Jordan Peele, Greta Gerwig, and the Safdie Brothers. I laughed. I cried. I left the theaters confused several times. A fantastic year for film.

A simple hobby that has transformed into something much more, film criticism is such a messy, enjoyable, frustrating, and passionate way to spend time, and I’m glad several people find my writing good enough to publish. It’s been quite an honor, and quite a year.

My top 10 films of the year is a list that has changed too many times to count. It features movies I loved, I respected, and I found important to me, to others, and to society. Let’s start with some honorable mentions and countdown from 10.

Honorable Mentions

Sword of Trust: a concept that is both hilarious and fascinating, this film written and directed by Lynn Shelton brought me a huge amount of joy. Marc Maron was made to play a pawn shop owner.

The Irishman: undeniable in its acting and ambition, Scorsese’s monster of a film features incredible supporting performances from Joe Pesci and Al Pacino. The final hour left me in a state of provocation and questioning.

Her SmellAlex Ross Perry’s five vignettes on a rocker with a huge ego are some of the tensest minutes I’ve felt this year. Elisabeth Moss gives all of herself, and this film deserves more awards recognition. People will be watching this long after we’re gone.

The Peanut Butter Falcon: one of the most enjoyable times I had in a theater in the last few years. Shia LaBeouf and Zack Gottsagen are both splendid and boy oh boy did I leave with a big smile on my face.

10. Knives Out by Rian Johnson

Top 10 Films of 2019

Funny, quirky, and just plain smart, Rian Johnson’s whodunit gave me and entire audiences a reason to truly laugh at the movies. Incredible set design and fantastic performances abound to make Johnson’s follow-up to The Last Jedi a holiday favorite in 2019. It’s the perfect film to take a date to, to take your grandparents to, and even to take your kids to, making it an accessible murder mystery, three words rarely put together. There’s a reason we haven’t seen a good whodunit in recent years, and why Agatha Christie continues to be the gold standard: it’s difficult to write and and make a sensible one! Most of all, Johnson achieves a sense of realism regardless of its ridiculousness. It makes sense! Featuring a Daniel Craig performance for the ages including a doughnut scene that should be performed in monologue classes, Knives Out only gets better with time.

9. The Farewell by Lulu Wang

Top 10 Films of 2019

When I bought a ticket to see Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, I didn’t know much about it. I knew that Awkwafina was starring, and that someone’s grandma was sick. It became the emotional event of the year, and for those of us that have lost grandmas to cancer, a powerful love letter to these women that help mold us. Solidly acting with an incredible performance from grandma Zhao Shuzhen, Wang’s autobiographical work tears your heart open, filling it with compassion, care, and a family’s desire to make the right choices. The film completely wraps you in the arms of this family, and by the end of it, you feel like this decision is as much yours as theirs. You want to be at their big dinners. You want to be practicing Shuzhen’s yoga techniques. And you certainly want to be invited to every wedding moving forward. Thank you Lulu Wang for reminding me how much I love my my grandmas.

8. The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open by Kathleen Hepburn and Elle-Maija Tailfeathers

Top 10 Films of 2019

In 2019, one of the best pieces of filmmaking that Netflix released, and got lost in the shuffle, was Your Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, written and directed by Canadian women Kathleen Hepburn and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers. Playing out in real time with Tailfeathers starring opposite fellow indigenous Canadian Violet Nelson, the film follows two women in the aftermath of an assault to Nelson. Tailfeathers happened to be walking by, and so the two experience the next 90 minutes together, figuring out the following course of action. Serious, moving, and real, the story works as any coincidental relationship and any situation in life would, with arduous difficulty in making important decisions. It deals with weighty themes like assault and abuse with a tender yet firm sense of reality, deciding to let you sit with these characters instead of rush with them. This film is one of the most important in 2019, and I personally urge you to seek it out. 

7. Little Women by Greta Gerwig

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Breathing fresh air into an adaptation we’ve seen plenty of times, Greta Gerwig continues to make solid films. She is one of our best directors currently working, and in my opinion, one of the best writers in Hollywood. She crafts this oft-told story in a gripping way, and the time you spend with the March sisters is a special treat. The subtlety in the performances sticks into your mind, with Florence Pugh and Timothee Chalamet stealing scenes. I’d watch Chalamet and Saoirse Ronan do any movie together, though. They have the ability to go down with the great pairings in history, and their constant excellence is tremendous. Gerwig toys with several themes in the film, but her intentionality to focus on wealth drives home the film. Ronan as Gerwig’s muse is one of the revelations of the decade.

6. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino

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The warmest of Quentin Tarantino’s nine films, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood features the best stretch of filmmaking in 2019. As Margot Robbie travels through Westwood as Sharon Tate to see herself in a film, Leonardo DiCaprio performs scenes on a TV western set and Brad Pitt continues his “cool guy of 2019” campaign while dealing with the Manson family at Spahn Ranch. A sequence smack in the middle of the movie, these three actors each flash their brilliance in hilarious, sentimental, and enjoyable scenes that show just how far Tarantino has come as a filmmaker. It’s a section of the film that can be rewatched countless times, each time noticing a little bit more of the perfection. This film will be near the top come Oscar season and for good reason. Give Pitt an Oscar!

5. Uncut Gems by the Safdie Brothers

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A couple of times each decade, Adam Sandler rises up from the depths of Netflix vacation to make a film worthy of critical acclaim. For many, Uncut Gems will be the first time they’ve seen Sandler in a serious role, and he sure is impressive in this one. Radiating all sorts of big energy, he gives a mania to this role as New York jeweler and gambler, somehow making this scummy criminal into a likable leading figure. Joining him is Kevin Garnett in the best performance by an NBA star since Ray Allen in He Got GameJulia Fox as a newcomer people can’t stop talking about, and Lakeith Stanfield with an amount of chill that fits into this non-stop film by the Safdie brothers. A film that makes you anxious, excited, and overwhelmed all at once, Uncut Gems creates a world of insanity similar to Good Time with an incredible score to match it. And you learn a bit about gambling and the NBA scene in the early 2010s!

4. Parasite by Bong Joon-Ho

Top 10 Films of 2019

Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite handles themes of poverty, classism, family structures and values, love, murder, and revenge to name a few with a measure of grace only achieved by a filmmaker who has a clear vision. A shoe-in to be South Korea’s first-ever Oscar nomination, the film constantly keeps you guessing, and the best way to see it is with an open mind and a lack of knowledge regarding the plot and characters. Killer performances resonate in every scene and it’s clear-cut the most fascinating movie I saw in 2019. If you haven’t seen it yet, watch it immediately. Put it at the top of your list. The movie will make history, and deservedly so.

3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire by Céline Sciamma

Top 10 Films of 2019

A film bursting with love, Portrait of a Lady on Fire demands an audience. The well-matched leads give life to Sciamma’s simple screenplay and you have a desire to live in this beached world for much longer than the runtime. It truly is a gorgeous film, an ode to forbidden lesbian love and to the restorative power of relationships. The depth in which the film operates brings it to another level, and we should be happy this story exists in our shattered world. Something to note: instead of opting for over-the-shoulder shots in conversation and in focus of its characters, the cinematographer and Sciamma allow these women to fill up the screen. Each woman is the center of the screen in every situation, as though they’re talking directly to you, and this story is the all that we need to focus on, with nothing to distract us. If multiple characters are on screen, they even have them block one another, creating some truly beautiful moments. It’s a specific tactic that pays off big time, and these women fill the screen with poise, beauty, and a whole lot of love.

2. Marriage Story by Noah Baumbach

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The best script of the year, Marriage Story finds Baumbach in top form, taking the snappy writing of Frances Ha and mashing it together with semi-autobiographical experiences. Adam Driver gives the performance of the year and for the most part, Scarlett Johansson matches his step for step. The supporting cast shines with Alan Alda and resident 2019 Monterey queen Laura Dern providing memorable moments. It picks you up only to crush you back down, wrestling with your heart and emotions, giving you time to think about all of the fights you’ve had in your own life. With a score and even some singing as supplement, Baumbach makes another movie that gives more than it takes, and provides us with more relatable characters in film. The best part of the movie, though, is that you relate to both of them.

1. The Last Black Man in San Francisco by Joe Talbot

Top 10 Films of 2019

One of the most gorgeous films I’ve ever witnessed, The Last Black Man in San Francisco gives us all the opportunity to witness what Joe Talbot and friend/collaborator/lead actor Jimmie Fails can accomplish with a bit of capital. The San Francisco natives made a film that breathes beauty and community, shifting within themes of gentrification and belonging and family. The culmination creates an accurate picture of the city on the bay in all of its frustration, wealth, hills, creativity, and glory. Led by a strong yet solemn lead performance by Fails, the film gives supporting actor Jonathan Majors a chance to shine, representing our common need to be accepted and loved by our community, or to even find a community we can call our own. The film should live on in Northern California as one of the best films to show the city of San Francisco as a character worth watching, and firmly establishes Talbot and Fails as two filmmakers with heartfelt intentions and tremendous abilities.