DID YOU READ

Tim Grierson on Will Smith, the Last Movie Star

Will Smith in Men in Black 3

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In film, there are very few sure things. But for a good long time, Will Smith was one of them. Over the span of 12 years, Smith had 12 movies that made over $100 million, and several of them — “Independence Day,” “Men in Black,” “I Am Legend,” and “Hancock” — grossed more than $200 million. In fact, other than 1999’s “Wild Wild West,” it would be hard to say that any of his hits were commercial underperformers. His home runs didn’t barely clearly the fence; when he set his mind to it, his shots would leave the stadium, landing somewhere in the parking lot.

He wasn’t just a consistent box office success, though. I’d argue that from 1996 to 2008, no star of his magnitude was as dependably exciting an onscreen presence. It’s not that he never made a bad film — “Hitch” and the “Bad Boy” movies aren’t exactly world-class cinema — but even his weakest offerings were boosted by his endless charisma and unflagging belief that being a movie star is both a genuine thrill and a responsibility worth taking seriously. Whether it was his cocksure strut in “Independence Day,” his effortless comic riffing in “Men in Black,” or his focused intensity in “I Am Legend,” Smith never seemed to be phoning it in. Quite the contrary, he was alive and energized by the challenge of each new project. And let’s not ignore his more serious roles, in films like “Ali” and “The Pursuit of Happyness,” where he proved up to the task of delivering layered, full-bodied performances without much difficulty. (As opposed to his pal Tom Cruise, Smith could go from blockbuster to artful drama without making too much of how strenuous it was for him. Where Cruise wants to be sure you see every ounce of his exertion, Smith simply glides.)

Smith’s run was remarkable, not unlike watching Michael Jordan in his prime winning championship after championship. And like with Jordan, I would try to savor it as much as I could, knowing that, someday, it had to end.

Amazingly, that run has been over for four years now. If 2008 contained one of his great commercial triumphs, “Hancock,” it also concluded with one of his rare box office misfires, the drama “Seven Pounds.” In retrospect, the film’s $70 million gross was hardly disastrous — it’s not like they were making “I, Robot 2” — but its self-serious tone and what’s-the-big-twist-going-to-be? storyline inspired a deadly backlash from critics who found “Seven Pounds” unforgivably manipulative and phony.

That was the last time we’ve seen Smith on screen, and I have to say we’ve all been poorer for his absence. It’s not that movie stars have disappeared — Robert Downey Jr. is a fine Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes — but none of his peers have that particular sparkle that Smith brought to his roles. Watching one of his movies, you enjoyed seeing him, and there was an almost visceral electricity that came off him. Even back when he was part of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince in the late 1980s, he was something of a charm machine. His songs were hokey, but you couldn’t help it: You just liked the guy. Same with his TV show. Though clearly ambitious, Smith never seemed like just an opportunistic hustler; there was this casual I’m-your-buddy air about him that made you root for Will Smith. And from his likable, underrated performance in 1993’s “Six Degrees of Separation” onward, I’ve been rooting for the guy.

After years away promoting his kids Jaden and Willow like they were human spin-off series, Smith returns this weekend with “Men in Black 3.” The decision to do a sequel for a franchise that hasn’t produced a film in 10 years might seem like a safe choice, but in some ways it also reflects a reality: We’ve entered an era in which stars (though still important) aren’t nearly as crucial as the brand name. At least for now, gone are the days when just about any movie Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks starred in would be a huge hit. As big a name as Johnny Depp is, he won’t guarantee you millions of dollars unless he’s doing a “Pirates of the Caribbean.” (I’d even argue that, while Depp was certainly a factor in its success, “Alice in Wonderland” got a bigger boost from people’s familiarity with the story.) More often than not, it seems these days that we go to movies because it’s a sequel or prequel to something we know, not because it stars so-and-so.

That was never the case with a Will Smith film. Although he made films based on existing properties — “I, Robot,” “I Am Legend,” “Men in Black” — he was their selling point and their stamp of approval. In a way, it’s almost like he transcended the films he was in; he himself was the franchise. Starring in “Men in Black 3” signals that perhaps he realizes that he’s like so many of his fellow A-listers who need to make sure they align with a property people know. For folks like me who were drawn to movies because of the characters and the stars who played them, this is a depressing, dehumanizing turn of events.

Smith will be 44 in the fall, and he’s no longer the young buck anymore. If his 12-year run was Jordanesque, then my fear is that his return will be akin to Jordan’s after he canceled his retirement and took another stab at basketball. It’ll still be good to have him around, but that ineffable magic will be gone. I hope I’m wrong. I’m sure Smith does, too.

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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.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.