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Why is Denzel Washington playing it “Safe”?

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Everybody likes Denzel Washington. A steady film presence for 25 years, he’s won two Oscars, been nominated for three others, and been a consistently reliable box office performer. Perhaps even more importantly, he’s never jumped up and down on Oprah’s couch, never been indicted for tax evasion, and never been caught by TMZ making drunken, racist comments. Sure, he’s not always the warmest of interview subjects and Bronson Pinchot definitely doesn’t like the guy, but stacked up against most other Hollywood mega-stars, those sorts of quibbles are rather small potatoes. But at this stage of his career, Denzel’s likeability is, weirdly enough, starting to become his greatest liability. There used to be a time when we loved him. But it’s hard to love a career that seems to be stuck on autopilot.

That sense of dull inertia is very apparent in his latest film, “Safe House,” and like too many of his recent offerings it’s a solidly-crafted action-thriller that’s kinda forgettable but mostly works because of how effortlessly cool Denzel Washington is in it. While it’s true that most stars eventually just start playing themselves, the Washington who shows up as the rogue C.I.A. agent in “Safe House” isn’t all that different than the one who played the veteran train engineer in “Unstoppable” or the ruthless crime boss in “American Gangster.” Whether he’s the good guy or the bad guy, Washington is always the coolest guy on the screen — the man with the lethal charm, the man with the quickest wit.

This is hardly the worst thing in the world. Unlike a lot of action stars, Washington can actually act — as if to prove that point, he snagged a Tony in 2010 for his performance in the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s “Fences” — and his ability to lock into a dependable onscreen persona guarantees that anything he’s in will be elevated simply because of his presence.

But that’s part of Washington’s problem of late. The decent-enough “Safe House” is symptomatic of a lot of his recent work. Sure, he’s not slumming in dreck like “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” but when’s the last time Washington’s career choices really surprised anyone? 2007’s “American Gangster” was his last serious drama, although it wasn’t particularly inspired, and his last really great hit was 2006’s “Inside Man.” Instead, what you usually get from him these days are so-so Tony Scott vehicles or blandly inspirational dramas that he directs. It’s gotten to the point that he’s almost become a charismatic self-parody, which explains why Jay Pharoah’s dead-on spoofs of him on “Saturday Night Live” have been so funny. They’re not particularly mean — Washington is too likeable to really rip — but the send-ups nicely tear apart the actor’s overly familiar acting tics: the casually menacing glare, the off-kilter cadences, the hair-trigger laugh.

I don’t want to be too harsh. In “Safe House,” Washington’s as magnetic as always, and unlike a lot of A-listers, his movies don’t seem as if they’re designed simply as vanity projects. (In both “Safe House” and “Unstoppable,” he’s actually quite generous to his younger co-stars — Ryan Reynolds and Chris Pine, respectively — allowing them to shine in their own right.) And give Washington credit: because he’s never been obsessed with being the world’s biggest action star, he’s focused on sturdy, stylish, respectable thrillers that don’t seem ludicrous for someone his age to be in. (He turned 57 at the end of last year.) He’s only had two $100-million-plus films in the last 12 years, but he turns out consistent doubles commercially, which have allowed him to age gracefully — a rare feat.

But, ultimately, what have all those sensible career decisions brought him? The grittiness of “Devil in a Blue Dress” is now 17 years ago. The stunning embodiment of Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s brilliant biopic is now two decades old. The genuinely daring turns — such as in “He Got Game” and “Training Day” — are starting to feel more like aberrations in his catalogue. Instead of pushing himself, Denzel Washington seems to have settled into a comfortable groove that does well enough with audiences and impresses enough critics that nobody really minds.

Still, watching “Safe House,” I felt like I had already seen this Washington enough. It’s an intense performance, but there’s oddly no sense of stakes to it. Washington has never been beset by scandal — he’s been married to the same woman for almost 29 years — and he’s also never really suffered from a downturn in his commercial clout. If you wanted to show a young actor how to conduct his career (and life), you’d point him in the direction of Washington. But, oddly enough, while an erratic star like Tom Cruise has had his shares of up and downs, at least he has a certain urgency that gives his movies a jolt. (Part of the fun of the most recent “Mission: Impossible” was Cruise’s all-in commitment to the terrific action sequences.) Washington is steady as a rock professionally, but I do worry that it’s neutered his sense of adventure in choosing roles. One of his generation’s best screen actors, he has too long being content to simply coast. Even worse, too many of us have gotten so used to this fact that we don’t even seem to care.

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Hat in the Ring

Marc Maron Will Wrestle With Alison Brie in New Netflix Series

Catch up on the final season of Maron now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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With barely enough time to catch an exasperated sigh since the series finale of Maron, star and creator Marc Maron is heading back in front of the camera for a new Netflix series focused on the heavily hairsprayed world of female wrestling in the ’80s.

Penned by Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan, G.L.O.W. will star Alison Brie as a struggling actress who chases the spotlight into a weekly series about women’s wrestling. Maron will play Sam Sylvia, a has-been Hollywood director who winds up coaching 14 women in the art of lady-grappling. Much like the Marc we know and love from Maron, his character on G.L.O.W. (which stands for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) has a “very complicated history with women.”

And as we wait for Marc to dislodge himself from a turnbuckle, catch up on episodes of Maron on IFC.com and the IFC app.

The Matrix Revolutions Cast

Wooden Spoons

10 Rotten Moments From the Matrix Sequels

Strap in for The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions Friday, September 2nd starting at 5P.

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Photo Credit: Warner Bros./Everett Collection

A stylish mix of action, philosophy and cutting-edge special effects, 1999’s The Matrix represents the rare feat of a Hollywood movie getting everything right. But while the original film dazzled the eye and sparked imagination, the follow-ups, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, generated colossal disappointment by delivering wasted opportunities, forgettable characters and lifeless action sequences.

This Friday, September 2nd, at 8P, IFC is airing The Matrix Revolutions  (36% on Rotten Tomatoes!) as part of our “too rotten to miss” movies. (The less rotten installment The Matrix Reloaded kicks things off at 5P.)  Why are the Matrix sequels so “rotten”? These moments could be part of the problem…

1. Every moment spent in Zion

Detractors of Reloaded and Revolutions are quick to point to the infamous Rave Scene as the de facto reason why the sequels are sub par. But we’ll do you one further: Every scene in Zion is a drag. On paper, a subterranean stronghold of humanity’s last survivors pitted against the surface-level machines sounds like a pretty darn interesting place. It isn’t. It’s drab and charmless, filled with dull characters, and yes, that Rave Scene is interminable.


2. Neo the Almighty

The original film ended with a perfect bow: After seeing the Matrix for what it is, Neo vows to save humanity and takes flight, effectively making him as powerful and invincible as Superman. From there, where can you go? Apparently, watching this invulnerable character battle foes who have no hope in defeating him — unless he’s in flesh-and-blood form in Zion, and we all know how fun that is. That leaves the only interesting setting in the franchise (the actual Matrix) as a place without peril for Neo. So to keep viewers invested, the risk has to fall on mortal characters who aren’t The One, and even that’s taken away when…


3. Neo resurrects Trinity with the greatest of ease

As if becoming a bulletproof superhero wasn’t enough, Neo swoops in and saves Trinity’s life like an all-powerful deity. What was first foreshadowed as a free fall to certain doom, Trinity’s double-Glock header out of a high rise is revealed to be all in the day’s work for Neo. He casually sweeps a bullet out of her heart, restarts it like a defibrillating Miyagi, and they embrace as if nothing had happened. And in terms of risk or consequence, truly nothing did.


4. The Burly Brawl: CGI Gets Lapped

In 1999, The Matrix set the bar for how innovative CGI could be and how well it could supplement, rather than supplant, a story. And in the four years between then and Reloaded, movies like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter expanded on those principles and left the bar higher than the sequels could clear. In a post-Gollum 2003, Reloaded’s special effects packed less of a punch, didn’t heighten what was already visually possible, and certainly couldn’t drive or substantiate the plot. So a fight between Neo and a hundred Agent Smiths meant absolutely zilch if it’s shoddy in both drama and technical specs.


5. Diabolical laughter and cake orgasms

The first Matrix had its lighthearted moments (the Wile E. Coyote fall and “I know kung fu” come to mind), but they fit tonally and didn’t verge into “goofy” territory. (We’ll do our best to forget the “Kansas is going bye-bye” line.) Then came the sequels. Between Hugo Weaving’s over-the-top villain (“Me, me, me.” “Me, too.”), Commander Lock’s Rambo scream and cake orgasms, the sequels were silly in all the wrong ways.


6. Muddied philosophies

Whereas the original movie deftly moved between different schools of thought and theology, the sequels threw a bunch of unconnected and uncoordinated philosophies together like a toppled rack of CliffsNotes. Causality gets an awkward demonstration by the Merovingian (the aforementioned cake orgasm), the Architect stumbles through Buddhist reincarnation without substance, and Revolutions practically foregoes all philosophical subtext (save martyrdom) in favor of a live-action Mechwarrior game. Speaking of which…


7. Rock ’em Sock ’em Robots

It all comes down to this. This is what the whole franchise was leading up to: The battle for Zion and the future of humanity. And for the grandest set piece in the entire trilogy, giant mechs shooting at whirring sentinels isn’t enough to generate a shred of interest, concern, or suspense. In the real-world, real-stakes counterpart to the Neo vs. Smithland Fight, the Wachowskis sacrificed story for spectacle and intimacy for scope, leaving the audience unfazed when Lock is killed and a teen opens a gate.


8. Trinity dies in an afterthought

Even in the first Matrix, the Neo-Trinity romance never does feel right. But the relationship completely falls flat in the second and third movies by failing to justify itself at all in terms of character and chemistry. And that’s no better illustrated than the dry and halfhearted send-off Trinity is given midway through Revolutions. Without a meaningful sense of loss, there’s more emotional resonance when the Keymaker is killed.


9. The Final Fight

Increase the Burly Brawl by thousands and yet somehow reduce the feeling of conflict, and you have the recipe for the final battle between Neo and Agent Smith(s). Hundreds of millions of dollars and countless man hours were devoted to spinning wheels before reaching an inevitable conclusion — one which could’ve happened at any point for equally arbitrary reasons. Neo is defeated and absorbed because that’s the only way Smith can be defeated. Why? Doesn’t matter. Now watch this slow-motion punch!


10. The Wachowskis can’t match our imaginations

At the very moment a sequel to the first Matrix was greenlit, our collective imagination ran wild. From multi-leveled Matrixes to time paradoxes to a complete upending of reality, fan theories pushed the boundaries of The Matrix universe to endless possibilities. Too bad the Wachowskis chose lackluster paths on the way to a wholly unsatisfying finishing line. The first movie told us to free our minds. If only the creators behind Reloaded and Revolutions took their own advice.

Kick back with The Matrix Revolutions this Friday at 8P on IFC!

Janet Varney -Photo Credit: Kim Simms/IFC

Jan Against Evil

10 Things You Need to Know About Janet Varney

Catch Janet Varney on Stan Against Evil premiering November 2nd at 10P with back-to-back episodes.

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Janet Varney is about to go big time. She’s been on our radar for years, always popping up on that show, Web series or podcast we couldn’t get enough of. Now, Janet’s about to star on Stan Against Evil, the new IFC horror comedy series from the folks behind The Simpsons and The Walking Dead. As a little homework, we thought we’d dig into this talented performer’s past, and see what’s helped make her such a star on the rise.

Bone up on all things Janet Varney below, and be sure to stay tuned to IFC.com for more Stan Against Evil news before the big premiere on November 2nd at 10P.

10. She’s an Animation Voice Acting Superstar.

Korra
Nickelodeon Animation Studio

While Janet might be a new face to some folks, animation fans know she’s been the voice behind some beloved animated characters. Probably best known for bringing the heroic Korra to life on The Legend of Korra, she’s also provided her talents to shows and movies like Norm of the North, Sanjay and Craig and Dante’s Inferno.


9. The San Francisco Sketchfest? She co-founded it.

SF Sketchfest
SF Sketchfest

Now entering its 15th year, the SF Sketchfest started as an excuse by Varney, and friends David Owen and Cole Stratton, to give Bay Area comedians a place to perform. Over the years it has transformed into a comedy hotbed, with everyone from Zach Galifianakis to the original cast members of SNL taking part.


8. She’s Been Known to Perform Old Time Radio Plays.

Shawn Robinson / The Daily Quirk

Shawn Robinson / The Daily Quirk

The Thrilling Adventure Hour is a stage show and podcast that performs in the style of the radio plays of yore. Varney began as a guest, popping up in numerous productions, until she finally just went ahead and joined the troupe. Some of the show’s more notable regulars include Nathan Fillion, Comedy Bang! Bang! favorite Paul F. Tompkins and Linda Cardellini.


7. She Nailed a Classic Key & Peele Sketch.

Key & Peele was always at its best when deconstructing race in America. In this classic sketch, Janet Varney and comedian Natasha Leggero starred as two women who vacillated between the good and the bad of having preconceived notions about black people. Are stereotypes always racist? Can you use people’s ignorance to your own advantage? Is it wrong to have sex with a racist girl? No, seriously, is it? Because Key and Peele would like to know.


6. She’s Riffed Movies with the MST3K gang.

Footloose Rifftrax
ColeStratton.com/Rifftrax

From the warped minds behind Mystery Science Theater 3000RiffTrax Presents is a series where comedians are set loose on lousy movies, taking them down one sarcastic comment at a time. Varney, along with longtime collaborator Cole Stratton, are frequent guests on the show.


5. She claims June Diane Raphael is an Amazing Kisser.

Burning Love
Yahoo! Studios

While doing an AMA on Reddit, Janet coughed up some juicy gossip. Varney was one of the stars of the Yahoo! series Burning Love, making it all the way to the end of the parody dating series. At one point, she was fortunate to lock lips with Mrs. Raphael, and gives the experience a big thumbs up.


4. Her Podcast The JV Club Perfectly Captures Our Awkward Years.

The JV Club
Nerdist

A renaissance woman if there ever was one, Varney curates her own art exhibition called Fleeting Immersion, writes music, and hosts her own podcast, The JV Club, on the Nerdist Network. A weekly look back at all of our awkward years, the show is consistently featured in The Onion’s AV Club “Best Podcasts” lists. Guests from all areas of entertainment have stopped by to dish about their formative years, including Portlandia‘s own Carrie Brownstein.


3. She Had Puppet Dreams with Neil Patrick Harris.

Neil's Puppet Dreams
Nerdist

Varney helped bring Neil and his partner David Burtka’s puppet fantasies to life with the Web series Neil’s Puppet Dreams. She raved about working on the Jim Henson Company series, telling Nerdist that “[Neil’s Puppet Dreams is] my baby. I had a baby with two gay men and that’s what came out.”


2. Remember Dinner and a Movie? She Cohosted it!

Dinner and a Movie
TBS

What better way to enjoy a movie than with a delicious dinner inspired by a pun? From “Snow Coens” to “The Hippocratic Loaf” to “The Beets Go On,” if there was an adorably corny food-related joke to mine, the good people behind Dinner and a Movie found it. Thankfully, that was far from the only reason to tune in. From 2005 to 2011, Janet got to stuff her face and flaunt her film knowledge as the host of the late night dinner party. Unfortunately, the show was canceled, but Varney says she’s still extremely close with cohosts Paul Gilmartin and Claud Mann.


1. She Plays Becca on You’re The Worst.

Janet Varney You're the Worst
FX

Prior to signing on to fight demons in Stan Against Evil, Janet was channeling inner demons on the FX dysfunction-com You’re the Worst. Her role as Becca, sister to Lindsay and Jimmy’s ex, is both integral to the show (her wedding is where Jimmy meets Gretchen) and earned Varney rave reviews.

Check out Janet in a clip from Stan Against Evil below.

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