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Tim Grierson on the Unlikely Smash Success of “The Expendables”


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Because so many movies make over $100 million these days — usually around 30 a year — it’s easy to be blasé when a film hits that once-impressive amount of box office. (This is even truer when a film like “The Green Lantern” can gross over $110 million and still, because of its huge budget, be labeled a commercial failure.) Nonetheless, you still get those sleeper surprises, those unexpected hits that strike a chord with audiences. Two years ago, one of those was “The Expendables,” which won two consecutive weekends at the box office in August. With a sequel coming next Friday, I’ve been thinking a bit about the first film. In retrospect, its success seems even more surprising than it was at the time — but, really, maybe it shouldn’t.

Opening August 13, 2010, “The Expendables” starred Sylvester Stallone, who also directed and co-wrote the film about a group of bad-boy mercenaries hired to take out the dictator of a fictitious South American country. Things get more complicated from there, but nobody who paid money for “The Expendables” went to see it for the plot twists. Instead, it was the chance to catch Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, and others shoot lots of guns, blow lots of stuff up, and kick a lot of ass. (Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger were in it, too, but only for one scene, and all they did was talk.) At that time, Stallone had been enjoying a bit of a career revitalization thanks to minor hits with “Rocky Balboa” and “Rambo,” but still, “The Expendables” looked sight-unseen like the sort of movie that would cater mostly to people who wanted to enjoy the fading, 60-something star play action hero one last time.

Turns out there were many, many people who wanted that experience. In its opening weekend, “The Expendables” bested the other new release, “Eat Pray Love,” in part because, improbably, a large percentage of women went to the testosterone-heavy Stallone vehicle. Ultimately grossing $103 million, “The Expendables” was the first movie to star Stallone to gross that much (or be the weekend box-office champ) since 2003’s “Spy Kids 3D: Game Over.” And while the movie was something of an “Ocean’s Eleven”-like roundup of venerable action stars, it wasn’t as if many of them individually had had such a huge hit in a while. (Putting aside Schwarzenegger and Willis for a moment, Statham had hit triple digits as part of 2003’s “The Italian Job,” and Li was the villain in 2008’s “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.”) When box office prognosticators were making their summer predictions that year, few thought “The Expendables” would be one of the season’s biggest smashes — in part because it was distributed by an independent company, Lionsgate, as opposed to a major studio — but the movie found an audience, out-grossing seemingly surefire hits like “The A-Team” and “Knight & Day,” and surprising a lot of folks in the process.

Watching “The Expendables” recently, Stallone’s commercial accomplishment is all the more impressive because, honestly, it’s not that great of a movie. In a summer with big-budget spectacles like “Iron Man 2” and innovative thrillers such as “Inception,” “The Expendables” was a modestly conceived action flick without much story to it. There are a few attempts to pay lip service to the ways in which warfare strips soldiers of their souls, and Stallone clumsily tries to give his hardened hero a shot at redemption by returning to the South American country to rescue an imperiled woman (Giselle Itié) who helped him. But those moments of nuance are quickly overshadowed by an aggressively macho attitude in which the action sequences are punctuated by rampant brute force and bloody deaths. (While most action films tone things down a bit to earn a PG-13 rating that ensures a wider audience, “The Expendables” was unapologetically a hard R.) There aren’t great characters, there isn’t much good acting — “The Expendables” is carnage run amuck.

And, yet, those seeming liabilities are all part of the movie’s charm. With its aging stars and unsophisticated storytelling, “The Expendables” felt lovably old-fashioned. It wasn’t just that it featured actors who were big in the 1980s — in addition, “The Expendables” recalled an earlier era of action filmmaking in which the violence was unabashedly bloody and intense. Plus, there was an emphasis on using practical effects as much as possible. Wes Caefer, the film’s visual effects supervisor, wanted everything to look real, but even the movie’s cheesier effects — the budget was a relatively tiny $80 million — have an innocence to them. (Caefer, by the way, summarized the movie’s philosophy as well as anyone has: “The good guys should be badass and the bad guys should be badass and the weapons should be badass. Whatever was in the film had to be badass.”) Featuring lots of hand-to-hand combat and actual explosions, “The Expendables” exuded a grittiness that’s mostly gone out of slick, sleek action movies. (Without the success of “The Expendables,” it’s hard to imagine “Act of Valor” ever being made.) And while “The Expendables” would never be described as a very original piece of moviemaking, it was one of the few summer hits that wasn’t a sequel or based on a comic book — it has a distinctive, handmade quality that made it stand out in a season of high-tech sameness.

Two years later, we’re getting an inevitable “Expendables 2.” Critics weren’t kind to the first film, and I can’t imagine they’re going to be any nicer to the new movie — it’s not that type of film. But what’s amazing is that, when you think about it, this series isn’t really about stars or excitingly cool concepts. The “Expendables” franchise has been about enjoying an era that’s not around anymore, celebrating a brawny, old-school style of action filmmaking that went out of favor around the time that Stallone first stopped being a major box office draw. Those who dismiss this series will insist that Stallone and his B-list costars are hopelessly out of step with the times. The films’ fans will argue that that’s exactly the point.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



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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GIFs via Giphy

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.”


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. 


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.