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Salting Stars’ Wounded Power

Salting Stars’ Wounded Power (photo)

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In his review of the new Angeline Jolie thriller “Salt” in the New York Times, A. O. Scott describes the film’s star as its “prime special effect and a reminder that even in an era of technological overkill, movie stars matter.”

Do stars still matter? It’s an issue we’ve been mulling over for months on IFC.com. Last December, we focused an episode of our weekly podcast on this very issue. Inspired by Lionsgate’s release of the Russell Crowe movie “Tenderness” to just a single screen in Manhattan, we wondered whether stars have the same power and pull as they used to (our conclusion at the time: no). A few weeks ago, Stephen Saito put together a list of movies with major talent like Julia Roberts, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jim Carrey that aren’t coming to movies any time soon.

Now, when Scott says movie stars matter, he’s referring to their work inside a film, the way they elevate material with their charisma and their talent. On that point, I don’t disagree. But just as — if not more — important to Hollywood is the question of whether movie stars still matter at the box office. Someone who brings a spark to written material onscreen isn’t necessarily a star unless they put butts in the seats while they do it.

We’ll have to wait and see how “Salt” does in theaters to know where Jolie’s star stands, but in the meantime, let’s look at the top grossing movies of the year at the domestic box office. According to Box Office Mojo:

1) Toy Story 3 – $366.9 million
2) Alice in Wonderland $334.1 million
3) Iron Man 2 – $310.2 million
4) The Twilight Saga: Eclipse $268.9 million
5) Shrek Forever After $234.5

That’s four sequels and one live-action-remake-slash-classic-literary adaptation. There are definitely movie stars in all five films, but I’m not sure how much of these films success we want to attribute to them. One the one hand, something like “Alice in Wonderland” was absolutely sold as a star vehicle; the marketing focused primarily on Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter even though he was a supporting character in the film. On the other hand, if “Tom Hanks hadn’t returned for “Toy Story 3,” or Mike Myers decided he didn’t want to voice Shrek for a fourth time, would either film have made less money?

07222010_stars3.jpgPerhaps. But both of those movies had many other elements they were selling as well: established and popular franchises, the first opportunity to see the characters in 3D, and so on. In other words, no matter how effective their stars, these movies — the most successful ones of the year — are also very much home to Scott’s “technological overkill.”

Robert Downey Jr. is terrific in the role of Tony Stark, but when he puts on his suit of Iron Man armor he’s replaced by a far less charismatic special effect (director Jon Favreau compensated for the loss of his star in action scenes by using a device that puts a camera inside Iron Man’s helmet and lets us watch him control it). And that special effect is the guy on all the T-shirts and action figures.

We wouldn’t call “Toy Story 3” a star vehicle in the way something like “Salt” absolutely is. And if we go down the list of box office grosses looking for the true star vehicles — movies sold to audiences as opportunities to come watch stars act like stars, particularly in instances that don’t involve well-known source material — we won’t find them until we get much lower.

“Knight and Day” with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz has made just $70.0 million in almost a month of release. “The Bounty Hunter” with Jennifer Aniston is right behind it with $67.0 million. You could claim these movies’ quality had a bigger impact on their success or failure than the presence of their stars. But terrible reviews hasn’t stopped “The Last Airbender,” a movie with no stars, a lot of special effects, and a popular property, from outgrossing both of them by a wide margin.

07222010_stars2.jpgThe most interesting test case on the subject of stars in recent years has been the “Twilight” franchise. Though these films definitely have their share of other salable elements — CGI, sci-fi and horror themes, the wildly popular Stephenie Meyer novels — there’s no debate that people are also coming to the theater to see their stars, Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, and Taylor Lautner.

At least Summit Entertainment, the company the releases the “Twilight” films, thinks so; that’s why they just renegotiated their contracts for the series’ final installment to the tune of $25 million against 7.5% of the theatrical gross each, according to Vulture.com. But “StewPattnNer”‘s appeal hasn’t translated to other projects yet: the Pattinson star vehicle “Remember Me” made about 6% of what “New Moon” grossed; Stewart’s Runaways biopic (with fellow Twilighter Dakota Fanning) earned just $3.5 million, not bad for a indie film, not great for a rising star branching out from her the role that made her. Audiences definitely want to see these actors in this franchise. But a true movie star is a draw regardless of role.

As I write this, thousands of fans are crowded into a room in the San Diego Convention Center to see the stars of the coming year’s genre movies. Folks line up for hours (sometimes days) for the opportunity to ogle and interact with movie stars at Comic-Con; it’s a big reason a comic book convention has mutated into one of Hollywood’s biggest promotional events of the year. Angelina Jolie’s even there today, promoting “Salt.” But will her presence, at Comic-Con and in the film, matter? As one person at her panel tweeted “Angelina Jolie on stage. SALT look better than thought. I might see it.” Not exactly proof, but it’s a start.

[Additional photos: “Alice in Wonderland,” Disney, 2010; “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” Summit, 2010]

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

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

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.