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The Naughts: The Actor of the ’00s

The Naughts: The Actor of the ’00s (photo)

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Quietly and unexpectedly, Matt Damon has become the premier Hollywood actor of the past decade. He’s lent his minutely constructed, surprisingly athletic performances to the films of directors Steven Soderbergh, Gus Van Sant, Paul Greengrass, Martin Scorsese and Clint Eastwood, a roster that’s not coincidentally produced some of the most vital and successful films of the past ten years.

His remarkable career isn’t simply a matter of a good agent. It’s all in the manner in which he so carefully adapts his particular skills to the roles.

Damon’s commitment is displayed on his body, which he relentlessly crafts to the specifications of each character — he’s almost the anti-movie star in his physical malleability. Take a look at how he changes from “The Bourne Identity” in 2002 to the Farrelly Brothers’ “Stuck On You,” a year later. In the former, he carved himself down to muscle and bone, a tightly packed bundle of paranoia and frightening physicality. For the latter, he packed on a paunch, with his granite Bourne-head turned into a model of doughy affability. He managed a similar weight gain more recently between 2007’s “The Bourne Ultimatum” and this year’s “The Informant!”, and as the latter film’s Mark Whitacre, he achieves his most finely modulated performance underneath layers of fat and a fake nose.

These types represent the two poles of Damon’s preferred personas: withdrawn nebbishes or moody muscular specimens. The first group would include the “Ocean’s” franchise, “Stuck On You,” “The Good Shepherd,” and “The Informant!”. The second contains “All the Pretty Horses,” the “Bourne” franchise, “The Departed” and the forthcoming “Invictus.” “Gerry” lies somewhere in between. But each extreme utilizes his physicality, with his literally weighty roles emphasizing the slapstick and satire of uncooperative bodies instead of the precise control of his action work. Even in “The Good Shepherd,” Damon buries himself in a trenchcoat and wire-rimmed glasses, eschewing parody but emphasizing his CIA analyst’s passivity and hyper-intellectualism.

The effectiveness of Damon’s portrayals isn’t simply achieved by his physicality, however, but by the subtle variations and tics he works into them. In taking on Bob Tenor, the conjoined twin in “Stuck On You,” he ably pulls off a number of ridiculous pratfalls, like being caught in a bus door, but incorporates a number of quiet gestures to convey the inner life of the character. Bob is the blue-collar nice guy to his rakish twin Walt (Greg Kinnear), and Damon lifts Bob out of cliché with a series of small moves. First is his posture, which is pitched forward as he holds his arms limp at his sides — a look of constant un-readiness, of a guy just waiting to be punched. He adds a backing-in, scuttling crab walk, a pinched sing-song delivery and a penchant for shutting his eyes before speaking to complete the vision of a man simply wanting to disappear.

Damon takes a similarly detailed approach to his signature role, Jason Bourne. It’s a streamlined take that only begins with the weight trainer. He deadens his voice and clips his delivery into staccato bursts, the mark of a man only concerned with how to stay alive for the next five minutes. He stands ramrod straight, and bores holes into people’s eyes, rarely blinking. It’s a coiled readiness that’s the inverse of Bob’s closed-off vulnerability. In fight or flight scenes, he pistons his arms and legs down with mechanical regularity, bulldozing through crowds with the same speed as director Paul Greengrass’ edits. His entire character is defined by forward motion — if he stops, he dies, so regardless of bullet wounds or broken bones, he wills himself ahead. His is an action hero that bleeds. This kind of blunt physicality and relentless pacing set the tone for the entire decade’s worth of action films, lifted most successfully for the new Daniel Craig cycle of James Bond movies.

11302009_gerry.jpgThere’s always the presence of fleshly mortality in Damon’s work, from Bourne’s elusive brushes with death to the decadent decay of Mark Whitacre’s middle-aged body. It’s present most explicitly in “Gerry,” Gus Van Sant’s artistic throat-clearer after he hit bottom with “Finding Forrester.” Retrenching in Bela Tarr mode with long takes and oblique storytelling, it paved the way for the layered triumphs of “Elephant,” “Last Days” and “Paranoid Park.” That Damon was at the center of the blockbusting “Bourne” and “Ocean’s” franchises as well as Van Sant’s revival speaks to his wide-ranging tastes and apparent dismissal of highbrow/lowbrow distinctions.

He and Casey Affleck play wandering fools both named Gerry, who drift around Utah’s national parks after their car breaks down. They exchange opaque bits of improvised dialogue as they slowly dehydrate and collapse in the salt flats. Damon lopes through the movie with a self-confidence verging on psychosis, as the pair’s attempts at re-orienting themselves devolve into childish game playing. Their faith in play, re-shaping words and actions into little blackout sketches, is unerring until the last desperate shot of the duo, caked with dust and dying by the side of the road. As drama, it’s thin, but it works as a laid-back comedy with a commentary on how performance can generate (and annihilate) identity. It’s also an eccentric forebearer to what A.O. Scott has termed American neo-neo-realism, the long-take, location-shot dramas of Kelly Reichardt, Ramin Bahrani, Lance Hammer and So Yong Kim.

Damon’s work in “The Informant!” extends his interest in performance and self-delusion, but in the withdrawn nebbish mode. Mark Whitacre’s body is a walking punchline, a marvel of ill-fitting suits, manicured mustaches and rapidly expanding waistlines. He’s literally coming apart at the seams physically before he does it psychologically. The whistleblower who brought down a price-fixing scheme at Archer Daniels Midland, Whitacre is also a classic American overachiever, raking in millions from an embezzlement scheme that he kept a secret from everyone, including himself. He proliferated so many lies he began to believe some of them, almost willing himself into bipolar disorder. Director Steven Soderbergh emphasizes the man’s duality through his use of voiceover, which features Whitacre’s perplexing digressions, constantly veering away from personal revelations to ponder the weather, food prices and polar bears.

11302009_theinformant.jpgDamon’s voice is slightly nasal, flat and disarmingly vulnerable. He’s at pains to make everyone love him, but his anxiety seeps in at the edges through his constant fidgeting with his glasses, his slightly stooped walk and the furtive tugs at his delicately poofy wig. It’s a finely wrought performance, which slowly reveals Whitacre’s duplicity while never abandoning the character’s pathos. He’s an eminently likable pathological liar, a seemingly transparent dope who hides his pain in nervous twitches and brief explosions of self-doubt. His hesitation when an FBI agent uncovers his letter forgery is quietly devastating. You can see Damon’s eyes scan back and forth, looking to construct another rhetorical defense, but he’s finally pushed past his breaking point, and even his voiceover collapses and tells the truth: he didn’t have any answers.

Yet up until this point in his career, Matt Damon seemed to have all of them. Off the success of the “Bourne” franchise, he’s been able to write his own ticket, working only with the directors he wants. This has led to an improbable string of smart, multifaceted turns that reveal an actor of precise physical control and dense emotional shading, whose action heroes are given the same detailed treatment as his indie film grotesques, all of which are at the center of the most influential films of the decade. He’s a subtle miniaturist who also happens to be a gigantic star, a rare and wonderful thing.

This feature is part of the Naughts Project. Check out our other picks so far, for the emblematic TV show, buddy pairing and film critics of the decade.

[Additional photos: “Gerry,” THINKFilm, 2003; “The Informant!,” Warner Bros., 2009]

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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