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.


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…


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. 


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 ’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?”


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).



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.


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


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

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.


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.


Forget Public Wifi

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



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.


Self Defense

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


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